Friday, 11 December 2009

A god walks among us

We just had a rather entertaining seminar from Paul Falkowski [*]. Extremely wide-ranging, from molecular biology to global biogeochemical cycles to human evolution to the anthropocene. And pretty entertaining too. He knows how to have an audience eating out of his hand.

Anyway, among other interesting points that he mentioned...
  • Most biological diversity in the world is in function not form, since most organisms are single celled and bacterial.
  • From examining the distribution of processes between evolutionarily disparate lineages, it's clear that "quantum evolution", via horizontal gene transfer, is an important process.
  • The main elements involved in life on Earth are (the usual suspects ...) H, C, N, O, P and S; of which all bar P are linked together through electron exchange processes.
  • The whole world is run off the back of about 1500 genes, all else is just embellishment.
  • The evolution of language and complex memory in humans has allowed the dissemination and collation of vast amounts of information, which in turn has given us the ability to vastly alter and control our environment.
  • Some point I now can't clearly remember about how the accelerating accumulation of wealth in technological societies that somehow means that they're predisposed to plundering the Earth's resources (i.e. co-opting more and more of the planet's infrastructure).
Anyway, all good stuff, and presented with an impressive zeal. What I liked most was the scale covered, from cellular machinery through biogeochemical cycles to the grand sweep of Earth's history and our (probably deleterious) role in its future. I was a little bit less impressed by the occasional name-dropping (though he's earned it), but overall a great seminar. But having seen him in action in Florida last year, I wasn't surprised.

Knowing of my editorial predilections, my officemate asked if there was an article on Falkowski on Wikipedia. I checked and there wasn't. One lunch hour's activity later, and now there is. He totally merits it, but I've probably grossly oversimplified his interests.

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