Erica’s Blog

For 2020, connections we need.

In February 2019 I began this blog thanking Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann quantum chemist, poet and playwright for all his work. Now, he suggests this book.

The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, published  by Vintage 2019. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019. Its focus on trees and our connections with them challenges mind and heart. We need it in the face of climate change. We need to be thinking again.

Why is it special for me? He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Lovelock and Bill Neidjie. An Aboriginal Elder, he is Gagudju Man: Bill Neidjie’ and his book, ‘The environmental and spiritual philosophy of a senior traditional owner, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, published by JB Books, Australia, 2002.

Gagadju Man: Keeping his legacy alive is a film made, with permission, by AIATSIS . “Big Bill Neidjie was the keeper of ancient knowledge and the last speaker of the Gagudju language from northern Kakadu. He was instrumental in the establishment of Kakadu National Park and was deeply committed to sharing his love for his country and his culture,” Professor Dodson said. “He was a truly great Australian and we are honoured that his family has chosen AIATSIS to hold this very special film and help continue his journey – to share his culture with all Australians.” I’m glad to see his approach to life acknowledged by Richard Powers in this book that Tim Winton calls ‘a masterpiece’.

Richard Powers quotes part of his poem about ‘tree’. He ends at this point. ‘Tree and grass same thing’. Big Bill Neidjie goes on. ‘They grow with your body/with your feeling.’

For 2020, I offer trees, despite our devastating bushfires. As well as Richard Powers’ ‘Overstory’, in the ‘The Songs of Trees’ by David George Haskell, visit the olive tree.

Carlo Rovelli – Enhancing our understanding of nature.

We are now moving from Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz’s geological research to the origins of scientific thinking and its connection with democracy in Ancient Greece. [I thank Adriana for the gift she gave me when she introduced me to Carlo Rovelli.]

First of all, go to YouTube. Listen to Carlo Rovelli speaking about Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. This book has been translated into so many languages for its clarity and beauty and sold in millions. It offers us knowledge on which to build our capacity to approach the future. He makes clear to us that ‘nature is our home and we are at home in nature’. Published by Penguin 2016, this translation into English by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is a delight to read. Take time to pause. Absorb the connections he makes before going on. Take it slowly. Like a good wine it is to be savoured. You will find so much here our curriculum reviewers in Australia had no understanding of in 2015. There should be none of this debate about climate change. Carlo Rovelli makes clear just how and why, for example, the separation of STEM from HASS by Australian reviewers, is ‘pernicious’. Subtle. Insidious. Damaging. Denying thinking. Dangerous.

Then come to Anaximander, by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Westholme Publishing, English translation 2011. First published in 2009. In its introduction he makes clear how pernicious is this modern separation of the sciences from the humanities. All students of the humanities denied connection with the sciences need to read his work. He is bringing us knowledge in such a way that we learn.

In his introduction, Carlo Rovelli speaks of ‘the pernicious modern separation between the sciences and the humanities.’ And he goes into the past with such depth of knowledge and understanding of humanity to show just how significant have been the attitudes developed before this significant scientific revolution. Note. IT IS MODERN. Thank you C.P. Snow and his ‘two cultures’. Thank the Cold War mentality. He makes clear the immense value now of scientific thinking. For those still subjecting students to that pernicious separation his historical analysis is important. He shows how scientific thinking, always respecting the past but being willing to challenge it, as Kepler respected but questioned Copernicus and as Einstein respected but questioned Newton, helps us to approach the future we all share.

Going into the past for the future

Academics recognised as future research leaders

The University of Sydney will receive more than $1.7m from the Australian Research Council for new research into melting Antarctic ice sheets and how deep-sea carbon reservoirs affect climate change.

Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz pointing to the ‘golden spike’ in the Flinders Ranges marking the base of the Ediacaran system, a geological period that started 635 million years ago.

Federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan has this week announced the Australian Research Council Future Fellowships, which fund future leaders of Australian research to tackle challenges of national importance.

Geologist Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz from the School of Geosciences in the Faculty of Science, was awarded more than $861,000 to delve into the evolution of deep-sea carbon reservoirs over the past 150 million years. By examining Earth’s geological past, we will be better able to predict the rate and implications of climate change.

“Carbon is constantly cycled between the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and the solid Earth. This cycle regulates the Earth’s surface temperature and drives its climate, affecting all life and ecosystems on our planet,” Dr Dutkiewicz said.

“The accumulation of deep-sea carbonate sediments on the ocean floor is the main mechanism by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and the ocean. This carbon reservoir is the least well-understood component of the long-term carbon cycle,” she said.

“This project will involve working with vast amounts of existing ocean drilling data, collected over many decades, and analysing these global data sets to discover new information. Working with existing data also means that I won’t get sea-sick. I am looking forward to forging international collaborations and working on a global, planetary-scale problem that is important for the future of this planet.”

Oceanographer Dr Paul Spence will conduct a series of ocean and ice experiments in a $871,0000 project to better understand Antarctica’s melting ice sheets, which are responsible for 28 percent of global sea level rise in recent decades, and could contribute a staggering 15 metres by 2500.

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Laurent Rivory congratulated Dr Dutkiewicz and Dr Spence on the successful funding of these important projects.

‘Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time and will soon affect every aspect of our lives, from where we can live and how our food is grown, to the jobs we will hold in the future.’

How marine snow cools the planet

Read about Dr Dutkiewicz’s research

World heritage and ‘that wall’.

Why, when science gets it right, do our leaders for political reasons get it wrong?

In democracies we choose our leaders. Our attitudes are revealed by our choices.

World heritage sites are established because there is something amazing, remarkable, irreplaceable that stirs our capacity to wonder. We can study and learn from them. A case in point. In Australia, is the Great Barrier Reef. A coal ship corridor for 50 kilometres is being established from Abbot Point on the Queensland coast. Our reef can be seen from space! Global warming is having its impact but political decisions like this intensify the problem. David Attenborough has made clear how destructive our political actions have been. We need to be custodians of these extraordinary sites. Slowly or swiftly, we take from the world a living wonder.

In America, the following is an example of swift destructive decision making.

This example comes from Mark Sumner of the Daily Kos staff, Sunday, October 6th 2019 – 3:27 AM Australian Central Daylight Time.

Trump is destroying an irreplaceable world treasure in an effort to speed up building his ‘wall’

Portions of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument were already crossed by a border fence in 2017 – but now they are destroyed. RSS

“Since 1976, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has also been the Organ Pipe Cactus Biosphere Reserve, a world heritage site sanctioned by UNESCO as the most pristine examples of intact Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The otherworldly beauty of the monument brings visitors who come to gawk at the towering forms and hike the gravel-strewn trails. It also attracts scientists from around the globe who study the inhabitants of the desert and their adaptation to this incredible environment.

Mark Sumner calls this decision “one of the greatest acts of ecological vandalism in a century—carried out in an effort to hurry construction of the President’s border fence.”

The author makes clear why he thinks the President of the United States has chosen to move into sites of national, and international significance. It appears to be, this way, he can avoid “potential lawsuits from private landowners that could tie up progress for months.” The President, it also appears, is expecting “the EPA and Interior Department to ignore every law and regulation concerning construction, environmental impact studies, and protection of archaeological artifacts.” It is important to realise that some of the areas targeted already had an existing barrier. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument had such a barrier set up between 2012 and 2017. Mark Sumner reminds his readers.

“Even after miles of border fence were erected in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument between 2012 and 2017, the striking beauty of this Sonoran Desert jewel was preserved. There is no question that original fence was destructive. Following the border as closely as possible meant that not only were saguaro and other cactus that had grown over a space of centuries removed to provide highly questionable ‘security,’ but the ranges of rare and endangered desert animals were permanently altered. Disturbing as it was at the time, that initial fence was placed with some care, often without disturbing ancient, towering examples of cactus within just a few feet of the fence. Images from 2017 show a relatively low fence that, while it certainly doesn’t vanish into the landscape, is also not a jarring disruption of the otherwise gorgeous scenery.”

“Now those ranges, and cactus older than the nation, are simply being bulldozed aside as [he] carves a scar across the desert. That original fence was in no sense attractive, and the damage it caused to the site was real. But compared to what [he] is doing in an effort to claim miles for his ‘wall,’ it’s a paper cut.”

The image shows a section of the border fence as it existed in 2017.

Now, in 2019, this.
Saguaro cactus being bulldozed in advance of building his border ‘wall’.

“In video shot by Kevin Dahl, senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, bulldozers can be seen cutting through the Saguaro and heaping them like rubbish.

These cactus can obtain a weight of tons, and an age of centuries. Even the more modest-sized examples being bulldozed in these images likely have an age of over 100 years, as growth comes slowly in the water-starved desert. 

In September, the defense department claimed that saguaro in the path of the barrier construction would be ‘relocated’ to other sections of the monument. But Dahl’s video reveals that this is a flat-out lie. The rare and iconic cactus are instead shown being pushed along by bulldozer and piled into heaps with other ripped-up plants. 

These areas of desert will not be repaired in the lifetime of anyone now looking at their events. Or their children’s lifetime. Or their children’s. Even if [his] pointless, useless, ugly barrier were ripped down tomorrow, it wouldn’t begin to repair the damage that’s underway — damage that is expected to stretch 78 miles across the ecological fragile park.”

“Sorry, world.”  This is the way Mark Sumner finishes his article.

In Australia, Judith Wright, one of our finest poets, warned us about the dangers to the Reef in the 1970s. Rachel Carson tried to alert America to the terrible impact of thoughtless or deliberate political decisions. Aided by global warming, in Australia, despite the efforts of those who work tirelessly to conserve this world heritage site we are allowing this to go on. Its condition now is considered ‘very poor’. The decision to establish that coal ship corridor was made in 2017.

I thought this example of how swiftly the damage can be done worth sharing. Democracies do not have the excuse of those living under totalitarian regimes. We can find out. But how often is it – when such extraordinary natural and often equally important cultural world heritage sites are not close to us – that we, the citizens of our democratic nations, wake up too late? What is getting in the way? We need to be thinking about that.

Add Writing to the Warwick story.

Robyn Williams and the ABC’s Radio National  Science Show are at the University of Warwick near Coventry for the British Festival of the British Science Association [BSA]. He is exploring the range of scientific work at Warwick Go to these links.


UK’s Warwick University – collaborative projects and filling skills gaps

Robyn takes us to its gene banks, preserving specific vegetable seeds for future diversity. He rides in an automated ‘pod’ able to avoid anything coming ahead. That ‘pod’ takes blind people to the beach at Brighton. There is reference to the collaboration with Monash. There is reference to the Flinders University’s Tonsley site in Adelaide where an automated vehicle is being developed. There is confirmation through a machine seeing inside, beyond the X ray capacity, of the discovery of cultural material of the First Nations in the Northern Territory and the fact that it is 65,000 years old. We learn how babies are encouraged to speak. Wake them to the world around them.

President of the British Science Festival, Professor Alice Roberts, in charge of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, considers the future.

Alice Roberts – how to approach humanity’s huge challenges

But add this to your understanding of the work of the University of Warwick.

The University of Warwick has had, for a long time, commitment to writing.

They quote this poet, called the ‘Mozart of Poetry . . but with something of the fury of Beethoven’ by those who awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature.

See the http://www.szymborska.org.pl/aid-found.html  the Szymborska Foundation.

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from

a continuous “I don’t know.”

Wislawa Szymborska

The Warwick Writing  Program was established by Professor David Morley. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as ‘A National Teaching Fellow, Professor Morley teaches on Warwick’s Writing Programme, and is a recent winner of The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for his collection The Invisible Gift, and The Cholmondeley Award for achievement in poetry from The Society of Authors.

‘This Warwick University module is an option solely for Year Two students taking English Literature and Creative Writing. The module offers a practical, imaginative and robust progression to the Year 3 Personal Writing Project in which you work one-to-one with a tutor. It is vital that applicants have read and written poetry and possess experience of writing workshops. Workshops are two hours long. Former students of this module have gone on to establish significant reputations as poets, performers, film-makers, spoken word artists, editors, conceptual artists, and publishers.’ The capacity to connect with sciences needs the humanities.

Where’s the third ‘f’? We have flora and fauna. How about fungi!

Thank you. Australia’s national public broadcaster, through ABC RN’s Science Show, Saturday September 14th 2019 is bringing us the information we need to develop the knowledge we must have to make connections for the future.

A panel of mycologists, experts in the study of fungi, were in Adelaide at WOMADelaide in 2019, in our stunning Botanic Park that has celebrated the best of the World of Music, the Arts and Dance for decades. Here we had the vital connections in STEAM, not the, divisive STEM separated from HASS. With it came recognition of Aboriginal science. See my blog ‘Deadly Science and Dark Emu’*

I listened to Alison Pouliot of the ANU, author of The Allure of Fungi, published by the CSIRO. She posed the question that has become the title of this blog. The panellists are scientists sharing their knowledge with all at WOMADelaide. Here’s its title. You, too, can listen to their informative, engaging story now on  The Science Show.

Image: Is it time to look a little more closely at fungi for solutions to some of the world’s problems? (Pixabay: adege) Link to the larger image.

Magic Mushrooms: Can their mycelia give us safer plastic replacements? “Flora, fauna… and fungi! Our expert panellists, from Australia, USA and the UK, made clear at WOMADelaide they believe it is time for more attention to be paid to that third ‘F’, especially given fungi is a kingdom of species just like plants and animals. Fungi’s uses are staggering, from life-saving drugs to new building materials, greener plastics to helping grow new ears or organs.” Many farmers, we heard, are interested. They want to move away from industrialized agriculture.

In Tasmania, mycelia are being connected with architecture. Bio- bricks! Mycelia are the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments. (hyphae). [The role of fungi in trees is in Judi Dench’s documentary.]

Interconnections are needed all the time. Why are we so slow in making changes? Many corporations make billions from fossil fuels. How many keep their profits in tax havens? They lobby governments. They keep us in the dark. America’s President has just provided $100 million to the Brazilian government. The US Secretary of State says it’s to fund private approaches in their Amazon Forest.

Trees need fungi: fungi need trees. We need the bio diversity they foster.

The Many Ways of Diversity: the Same and Not the Same, is the title of the address given by Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann when he received the Inaugural Primo Levi Prize in Germany for his work connecting the sciences, particularly chemistry, with the humanities in 2017. See my first blog. Thank you Roald Hoffmann* Roald Hoffmann contributed poetry and prose to Challenging the Divide: Approaches to Science and Poetry, launched by Robyn Williams at the South Australian State Library in 2010.

This soaring story.

Excitement at the World Science Festival in Brisbane – Australia in Space.

This important story about the past, present and the future is brought to listeners across this continent by our wonderful public ABC Radio National Science Show.

First comes the history from Kerrie Dougherty, author of Australia in Space: A History of a Nation’s Involvement, published by ATF Press, August 2017. “The exploration of space was seen as the greatest adventure of the Twentieth Century, while in the Twenty First Century space-based services have become an integral part of our daily lives. Although it is not often recognised, Australia has had its part to play in setting the world on the road to the stars and was one of the earliest nations to launch its own satellite. Today, the country is one of the largest users of space-based services.”

Is it Anthony Murfett, Deputy Head of the Australian Space Agency, with its headquarters in Adelaide, who recognises the 65,000 years of the study of the stars by the first astronomers? That recognition is a sign of how far Australia has come. He does not name Dark Sparklers, by Hugh Cairns and Bill Yidumduma Harney published by Hugh Cairns, reprinted 2004. However, the story of the First Songline of the Wardaman clan, west of Katherine, for example in its New Year connection with ‘the brightest and loveliest star blaze from the northerly horizon’, brings to us the significance of the galaxy in their calendar. See their sky maps [pp 78-95].

Design and presentation Tiffany Meek and Hugh Cairns.

In Brisbane the panel of our astronomers and space scientists, interviewed by Robyn Williams, moves beyond the military and defence roles of space and satellites. Some see us able to deal with the debris in space, recycling space material. Others see us being able to show from space where the flooding waters are flowing to help those below to respond more effectively as they face the movement and speed of the water. They see its role for a continent of this size in dealing with the impact of climate change. Others see all the commercial possibilities. I listen with awe. Not an ounce of short-term thinking here.

They bring in the work of Professor Veena Sahajwallah of UNSW. In my previous blog ‘Imagination has no boundaries’* her innovative work is described. They value her ‘micro lab’ and ‘micro factory’ for what she is doing with waste material. Possibilities for young astronauts appear in the story of eager young Sophie.

Professor Christine Charles, Head of the Space Plasma, Power and Propulsion Laboratory at the Australian National University in Canberra, ACT, wants us to remember we must have a planet on which to build our propulsion systems to send our probes into outer space, or our plans to put people on the Moon and have more than the current six living in space – or wherever else our imagination can take us.

At the same time, she wants us to have the guts to take risks.

The Federal government has set up the Australian Space Agency in Adelaide which has all its history of connections through Woomera, including the WRESAT launch in 1967. Now with this Agency, Australia joins all the other national space agencies.

Once more, thank you to our public Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Image: Is Australia ready to play a significant role in the emerging global space industry, or will it fall behind? (Pixabay:PIRO4D)

Australia in Space: Our Story in the Stars – World Science Festival Brisbane