the anthropocentrocene

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk — well, really an extended sound-bite — on the idea of the Anthropocene. It was part of Penn’s School of Arts and Science’s 60-Second Lecture series, a somewhat ridiculous, slightly nerve-wracking, potentially embarrassing, but mostly fun way of sharing ideas and research in very small bites in an open, public setting.

Here’s the “lecture” in its entirety, delivered from 11:55am to 11:56am, April 9, to an ambulatory audience on Penn’s Locust Walk:

Recently the idea of the Anthropocene has been sweeping through environmental thought, raising new questions about humanity’s place in nature. The idea is that our environmental impact has grown so huge that we’ve entered a new geological era, the ‘age of man’, of Anthropos. Our CO2 emissions, for example, are warming the planet and acidifying the oceans. The idea of the Anthropocene encourages us to take responsibility for these kinds of world-changing effects.

But it also risks feeding our narcissism. By taking our planetary dominance at face value, we may be entering not just a new geological era but also a new cultural era, the Anthropocentrocene, where we forget how dependent we are on the forces of nature. Like the butterfly that sets off a hurricane, our local interventions have global effects precisely because they’re embedded in powerful systems beyond our control or even prediction. If we lose sight of this interdependence, these limits to our power, we may be forced to embrace another uncomfortable term: Anthropsolescence.

new media, new publics, and polar bears

Further thoughts on using new media to make regulatory matters visible, accessible, and “public” in new ways: my “New Media and New Publics: An Example with Polar Bears” has just been posted to Ant Spider Bee, a blog about the digital environmental humanities co-edited by Kim Coulter (Rachel Carson Center, Munich), Wilko von Hardenburg (UW Madison), and Finn Arne Jørgensen (Umeå).

coding SIMPLOT

I think there are two reasons that I didn’t become a programmer or computer scientist despite some enthusiasm in that direction at one point. One reason is that I wasn’t particularly good at programming. The other is that, despite not being very good at it, I found it addictive. Once I had a problem and a goal in mind — a little machine of code I wanted to build within the bigger machine of the computer — it was difficult to let go until I was able to watch all its little gears and cogs whirling around. When I’m building one of these machines, time seems to vanish. Suddenly it’s 3 a.m., I have bags under my eyes, and I haven’t eaten for hours. Somehow that never happens to me when I’m trying to finish writing an article.

My recent attempt to recreate the logic and aesthetic of a computer simulation of animal movements written in the mid-1960s sucked me into one of those time-holes. At each step of the way, I realized there was some language or tool I needed to learn how to use or some new feature I had to add, and what was initially intended to be a modest experiment ended by chewing up an amount of hours that I am too embarrassed to estimate. I’ll just say that I didn’t get out much for a couple of weeks. If you want to take a look at the code that eventually resulted, it’s available for perusal via Github. The following is a partial reconstruction of how it was produced.

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SIMPLOT: an antique animal movement simulator

sample output from Donald Siniff's 1967 program SIMPLOT

sample output from Donald Siniff’s 1967 program SIMPLOT

The application below is a re-implementation — a sort of digital re-enactment — of an animal movement simulator originally developed by biologist and statistician Donald Siniff in the mid-1960s. This may have been the first computer-generated simulation of the movements of an individual animal ever created; it was certainly one of the earliest.

SIMPLOT — a portmanteau of “simulation” and “plot” — was meant to produce patterns matching those observed by Siniff and his colleagues in animals radiotracked at the Cedar Creek Natural History Area in central Minnesota. The path drawn on the map represents the movement of a single animal over time. At each step of the simulation, a turning angle and distance of movement are randomly selected from pre-specified probability distributions.

The distributions were intended to reflect the behavioral characteristics and ecological conditions of different animals — so that, for instance, the movement patterns of a fox could be rigorously compared to those of a rabbit, or those of an adult fox could be compared to those of a juvenile fox, or those of a fox in winter could be compared to those of a fox in summer.

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‘a microscope in the field is worth two in the lab’

From the archives … though unfortunately I can’t remember which, and the photocopy I have of this ad for the Nikon H “hand or field microscope” only indicates the date of publication: April 1968.

The man’s clothing seems more appropriate to the office than to the field (or the lab, for that matter), but I suppose the rolled sleeves indicate that he is “at work.”

I don’t think you could find a clearer illustration of the twentieth-century effort to bring lab-like instrumentation and rigor to field biology. Of course, most biologists didn’t approach the “lab in the field” with such literal-mindedness.

According to this account by Bill Amos, the Nikon H, which was only on the market for a few years, was based on a field-microscope design from the 1930s.

Click the image for a larger version with legible text.

science under scrutiny

Reposting below an overview of some of my work on endangered species, regulation, and ethics, which I wrote in December 2012 for the web site of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Original version is here.

Science under Scrutiny: How Endangered Species Protection Reshaped Twentieth-Century Field Biology

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists played a central role in the emergence of a movement to protect endangered species from extinction in the twentieth century. This movement, in turn, reshaped scientific practices, communities, and personas and reoriented research toward new goals. Among other things, vast databases of species were constructed that both reflected the state of the art in biological knowledge and helped to determine the future paths of, and legal constraints on, biological research. Endangered species became objects simultaneously of intense epistemological interest and of special ethical care. This entanglement of ethics and epistemology, social movements and scientific knowledge, is the subject of ongoing research affiliated with the Sciences of the Archive project in Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
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the significance of the unimportant

I just came across, randomly, through one of those serendipitous and unexpected JSTOR journeys, a 1966 article by ornithologist Herbert Friedmann on “The Significance of the Unimportant in Studies of Nature and of Art,” which seems to anticipate a core theme of Carlo Ginzburg’s famous essay on “Clues,” including its reliance on Morelli, although Friedmann compares art-historical methods to natural-history taxonomy rather than to medical diagnosis. A quick web search suggests that these two authors are not often cited together, but when they are it is where you might suspect: in works on biosemiotics, like this one by Thomas Sebeok.

roundtable on wired wilderness

Thanks to the efforts of Jake Hamblin and three very generous and perceptive reviewers, a series of reviews of Wired Wilderness, with my response, is now available via H-Environment Roundtable Reviews. (Or go straight to the PDF.) Very grateful to all for the chance to think again and to clarify some of the goals of the book!