Earth Matters

Recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about soil. When you’ve spent over three years thinking about ants, thinking about soil is a natural, very small, step. Most northern ants live in the ground. They tunnel and dig. In many places they can be as important for soil as earthworms. Once you’ve crouched down to the ground to get up close and personal with the ants (or in my case, sprawled on your stomach), the soil is hard to ignore. But like many people, I’ve always taken it for granted. I hadn’t thought much about soil, besides when I dragged 50 liters of soil into my apartment to fill my increasing collection of plant pots.

But soil matters. Earth matters, as Richard D. Bardgett’s book has taught me. As a scientist, I sometimes feel guilty for reading the popular science books and not the scientific papers in journals. But honestly, after a long day at the office, picking up another scientific paper is harder than cracking open a book.

Bardgett first sent me down memory lane of digging holes in the ground during my first year of biology (2008) to characterise soil profiles. My first ‘wow’ moment came when I learnt the rate of soil formation is around 0.1 millimeters a year. So if you dig a 1 meter hole, you might be going back 10,000 years. In hindsight, this explains why stone age tools are often discovered when fields are ploughed, they really aren’t buried that deep.

The most exciting parts of the book were on the relationship between soil and biodiversity and between soil and humans. In a handful of soil, you might find billions of organisms among thousands of species. It’s even estimated that soil contains 25 % of the living diversity on earth. It’s therefore to then read that, in Europe, 500 square kilometers of land are sealed by impermeable material (like concrete) every year. That’s an area almost six times as large as Copenhagen, 2.5 times Stockholm, approximately the same size as Oslo. You get my point.

Besides containing a wealth of, often overlooked, biodiversity, soil delivers a number of ecosystem services benefiting humans. The most obvious is food, both for us and for the animals we later consume, but also all the other things we get from plants: lumber, paper and textiles, to name a few. Soil also plays a key role in regulating nutrient and water availability. It is the third largest carbon store and, depending on how we treat it, may act as both a source and sink of greenhouse gasses. As his chapter on soil and war (if not the entire book) makes painfully obvious, we have not treated soil well. But I found the second world war “Dig for Victory” campaign truly inspiring. Lawns, flowerbeds and sports pitches were converted into allotments. 1.4 million people in Britain dug up their lawns to grow food. A small miracle, considering how much brits love their gardens. Perhaps a future campaign could focus on how to best optimize soil conditions for biodiversity and climate. One can dream.

Entire civilizations have risen and collapsed through the management of soil. Yet I agree with Bardgett, soil is an underappreciated subject. Hopefully the tides are turning. 4.5 stars. A few repetitions here and there (and not enough about ants), but a great awakening to the importance of soil.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Soil and the city: View across the ground in Frederiksberg Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark. 09.10.2020

Book review: The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One good thing about finishing your PhD and then going into COVID-19 lockdown is that you suddenly find a lot of time to read. This meant I finally finished the Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Like many others who have finished this tome, I feel I deserve a fanfare.

This book has been on my to-read list since 2016. I have picked it up multiple times, and I have put it back down again, forgetting about it for ages. Starting over. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I’m not sure why it took me so long. Yes, it’s a long book. 625 pages, if you don’t count the glossary, author’s notes, acknowledgements etc., which bring it to 702. But it’s full of interesting content, even if it does get a little length at times.

I was first asked to read it for a biogeography class and if you’re interested in biogeography, especially island biogeography, this is probably the best book you will ever read.

Perhaps one of my favourite things about this book, not counting the easy introduction to concepts such as species-area relationships, viable populations and the SLOSS (single large or several small) debate, is that Quammen gives a unique insight into the lives of scientists. The passion that makes a scientist chase after monkeys to catch their poo. The hurt a scientist can feel when their study area is destroyed in the name of progress. The politics they can be faced with, and sometimes the drama that can arise when scientists disagree.

The book contains a lot of information. You may not find all of it equally interesting, but I couldn’t tell you any parts that you might consider skipping. When Quammen talks about his personal travels in the footsteps of naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace, you feel closer to the story. Do we need the part where Quammen relates his experience of being mugged? It doesn’t tell us much about island biogeography, but it tells us something about situations scientists, explorers and journalists can get themselves into when pursuing their passions.

This book could easily be a textbook, but it’s way more enjoyable. It makes you want to explore and travel, see these wonderful places and animals before they are gone. I will probably not read the entire thing again, but I will most likely return to some of my favourite sections.

If I loved it so much, why don’t I give it five stars? Because of the length. During normal times, I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to finish it. This may not be Quammen’s fault, but my own. I am too easily distracted and usually read multiple books at the same time.

The error of experts

On March 13th I came back from vacationing in Costa Rica to a Denmark in lockdown. The virus SARS-CoV-2 was spreading across the world. On June 15th I was among the last in Denmark to be allowed to return to the office after three months of working from home. Three months of intently following the development. How many dead today? How many hospitalized? How many on ventilators? How is Denmark doing compared to other countries? Is R0 less than 1? Is it more? Are we over the worst of it yet? When will it end? Will there be a vaccine?

I am not the only one to have asked myself these questions. We probably all have. Upon returning to the office, I read “How Contagion Works” (DK: I smittens tid. It: Nel contagion) by Paolo Giordano. He puts in writing many of the emotions and thoughts we all have shared. Why must we self-isolate? Why must we suffer deprivation? I recommend this little book if you want a catalyst to reflect upon the pandemic and remember some of the answers to these why-questions.

Paolo Giordano’s book has a chapter on the role of experts and the expectations we have of them. “The most sacred part of science is the truth” he quotes Simone Weil (who I now add to my reading list). In the time of contagion, science has disappointed us, he says. We wanted certainty, but all we got were opinions. We forgot that this is how it always works. That this is the only way it works. That for science doubt is more important than truth. I quote Hugh Walpole: “In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.” But when we are amid a pandemic, when lives are at stakes, are scientists allowed the luxury of errors?

“In all science, error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.”

Hugh Walpole

Throughout the history of science, errors have been made. Errors are an important part of science when they are made in good faith. When they are not, they are labelled scientific misconduct. See for example 20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years. When talking about scientific misconduct in Denmark, Milena Penkowa is usually the first person that comes to mind. When talking about scientific misconduct in the time of contagion, the debate about the effects of hydroxychloroquine comes to mind. Scientific papers have been retracted from both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine due to suspicions of misconduct. These suspicions were based on an investigation by the Guardian and the failure of an independent follow-up peer review. The retracted Lancet paper halted global trials of hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19. These trials have now been restarted. But have we lost valuable time?

With these thoughts in mind, I have a new-found appreciation for the peer-review process and the open data movement. I have the deepest respect for the scientists that are working on developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. And I am happy that at least the lives of humans, do not critically depend on my research.

Book review: The Invention of Nature

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Book cover

I’ve decided to write up small reviews of the books I read, that a I believe are of possible interest to ecologists. Maybe one day it will turn into a list of 10 must read books for ecologists. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt, I, like so many others, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. Despite being in the final stages of finishing my PhD, I have to admit I devoured this book. It may be because I also had a broken foot for five weeks, and couldn’t do much except sit around and read. But it was captivating.

Andrea Wulf’s description of Alexander von Humboldt and the many famous people he interacted with, is sure to have you wishing to be transported back in time where the world was still largely unexplored, where salons appear to have been a daily occurrence and the line between science and art was practically nonexistent. Of course you tend to forget about the dysentery, the inapropriate clothing for scaling mountains and the lack of modern comforts, such as flushing toilets. These could perhaps easily be tolerated for the opportunity to be in the company of famous personas like Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who all read and were influenced by Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) acchieved many things in his life, the least of which was living to age 90. He has multiple geographic places (including mountains, towns, counties, lakes and rivers) and species (including the humboldt penguin and the humboldt squid) named after him. It probably also isn’t far fetched to call him the founder of what we today call macroecology. Through his many travels he noticed similarities between continents, predicted the devastating effects that humans have on nature. The following quote is from a book review published on goodreads by William2, which I think captures mostly everything about the book:

“But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.”

William2 on Goodreads

Most importantly in this quote, is the realisation that, although many say science should be free of emotion, reporting only the facts, scientists may capture scores of new readers (and nature lovers) by expressing their own personal emotional responses to nature. If you need motivation to fall in love with nature (again), read this book. If you are a PhD student in ecology and you’re starting to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, read this book.

Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, I by William Keith. Uploaded to fineartamerica on January 25th, 2016.