Friday, October 28, 2011

Uncertainty and the Great Snowball Fight

I am a field botanist currently working in a field of uncertainty -- vegetation characterization, mapping and conservation.  What vegetation type am I standing in?  Is it within the natural range of variation?  How resilient is it to human use?
Al agonizes over what name to put on the form.
After years of experience I know that when I use a vegetation map I may not find on the ground what is promised by the map, for I'm looking at an attempt to find discrete units in a continuous landscape, driven by the requirements of a contract.  I know that an assessment of human impacts on vegetation may be based mainly on the author's biases, sources of funding and need to publish.  But in addition to these more mundane factors, there is the intense irresistible human craving for pattern, explanation and predictability in an unknown world.  Messy and secretive Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate.
Hollis hopes no one will ask her any more questions.
Geology must have such fields of uncertainty, especially with regards to things far in the past or far below the surface.  This always crosses my mind when reading articles and blogs with high wow-values ... the Himalayas stacking up when India pushes against Asia, like the wedges of snow ahead of my shovel on the sidewalk; or the pieces of ancient continents that were stuck onto the Wyoming craton almost two billion years ago (right here under my house!); or plate tectonics leading to magnetic reversals and even Great Extinctions; or a totally frozen earth before the Cambrian.  "Wow!  How do they know these things?!" I ask.  So when The Great Snowball Fight popped up on my blog list last night I went there immediately, motivated also by the pleasure I always find in reading earth-literally’s posts, wonderful examples of the beautiful mystical thoughts that geology inspires by looking deep into the unknown.

After an ethereal account of field work in the wilds of the Sultanate of Oman, laced with something of a Rubáiyát flavor (surely the field crew shared bread and wine under the date palms those evenings in the Wilderness), e-l returns to the real world and the Great Snowball Fight.  Was the earth completely frozen for millions of years prior to the Cambrian?  Is that what the evidence tells us?  That is what some people hear it say.  Others are sure that conditions cycled through cold and warm during that period, as they have more recently.

How many scientists working in fields of uncertainty add “but we don’t really know ... ", “but we’re assuming that ....” to their descriptions and discussions?  I found myself saying this repeatedly to my field crew last summer, to the agency staff overseeing the project, to myself.  It seems critical to acknowledge limits of what we can perceive and say, even as we suggest what might be the case.  Interestingly, maybe not surprisingly, these admonitions did not seem to sink in.  We prefer explanations, answers.

Uncertainty is not such a bad thing.  In fact, it may be appealing if we use words such as “puzzling”, “enigmatic”, “mysterious”.  Even my cynical whining about our addiction to explanations and patterns is softened with the right words:
Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand.  (Neil Armstrong)
And I’m not immune.  I look at rocks at 11,000 feet above sea level in the Snowy Range "knowing” that they are from beaches and reefs that were here over a billion years ago ... that this was a nice warm place on the ocean a really long time ago.  It’s irresistible.  The time scale of this story pushes it into a world of mystical and fantastic things, a wonderful state of mind that I can’t resist.
Sparky sun-bathing on the remains of a Precambrian beach.

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