Date: December 1st, 2017
Other Title: My Interview With The Amazing Peter Brannen
Peter Brannen is kind of an amazing man. Tis true, tis true. He is the author of The Ends Of The World, a book you must read now if you haven’t already. Here’s a link to buy it: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062364807/the-ends-of-the-world
The Ends Of The World is about the five major extinctions our planet has endured. It is highly scientific, but for me at least, it reads like a novel – rightly emotional, fun, sweet, dark at times, and uplifting in the end. I loved the book so much that I annotated it. For fun. I got a pen and sat wherever I was reading it at any given time and expressed my feelings about the book, in the book. No teacher told me to. Peter sure didn’t.
The man’s Twitter feed is miraculous (some are missing their pictures or context, click each for full tweet):
Did an interview w/ a Dutch magazine that just went up, I translated it back to English to see what I said. Some real nuggets of wisdom here pic.twitter.com/hZJkyU51fZ
— Peter Brannen (@PeterBrannen1) October 30, 2017
I’m late to this, am I doing it right? pic.twitter.com/RPOelF7aMc
— Peter Brannen (@PeterBrannen1) October 10, 2017
— Peter Brannen (@PeterBrannen1) August 1, 2017
I had the great honor of interviewing him, and here it is for your reading pleasure:
1. On Twitter, in reposting this post (https://twitter.com/Paleocreations/status/928695855439376384), you said “Earth has been many different planets over its lifetime.” This is sort of a two parter…Of all the “planets” Earth has been, which one is your favorite? And where is your favorite place to be on Current Earth?
This is a very difficult question for me to answer, because it tends to change based on which period I’m researching at that moment. Some worlds, like the Cambrian world (illustrated in that link), I just love because of how alien they are. It’s difficult to believe that that world and our own both shared this same little plot of real estate in the solar system, even if we are separated by hundreds of millions of years. Of the periods I highlight in the book, there is the same sort of alien appeal for me in the Ordovician: the continents were nearly as desolate as Mars, but underwater, in places like tropical Ohio, it was just this explosion of sea life, and almost all of it was invertebrate–bug, squid, starfish-like etc.—and our ancestors, the fish, we’re all but irrelevant. It’s just a totally bizarre planet. And although it’s more recent, the Permian-Triassic planet is similarly alien to me. I’m fascinated by this version of planet earth in a sort of macabre way. It just gets so unbelievably hot and desolate. In fact, in these huge lifeless expanses of Pangaea there’s evidence that at one point earlier in the Permian it got as hot as 163 degrees Fahrenheit!
My favorite place to be on earth today is in front of any new rock outcrop with a geologist who can tell me what I’m looking at, and there’s good rocks everywhere. Geology has made the whole world more interesting to me.
2. What is your favorite fictional kingdom?
I was struggling with this question, when I suddenly remembered a series of books I had when I was younger called Dinotopia. I just google image searched it and the illustrations are as incredible as I remembered. That is a fictional kingdom I would like to visit.
3. Who was the kindest scientist you met on your journey of writing The Ends Of The World? And who was the most eccentric? (I think I might be able to guess your answer for most eccentric, but I’m gonna let you say it.)
All of the scientists were exceptionally kind in letting me barge into their offices and accompany them on trips to the field, and for not rolling their eyes when I asked a dumb question, so I’m going to be diplomatic and not single anyone out. “Eccentric” might have a slightly negative connotation in this context so I’ll just say that Gerta Keller certainly has the most interesting back story. As you know from the book, she basically ran away from home as a child, traveled the world, was later shot in a bank robbery, and today is easily the most divisive figure in the mass extinction community because of her iconoclastic interpretation of what killed all the non-bird dinosaurs 66 million years ago (not an asteroid, she says). As a group of people who spend their lives traveling to extremely locations to piece together answers to the big questions about the history of the planet, geologists and paleontologists are, as a rule, interesting people. But even among them Keller stands out.
4. What is your favorite element on the periodic table? Why?
I was tempted to say something crazy like astatine because of this xkcd piece https://englishatlc.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/randall-munroe-periodic-wall-of-elements.pdf. But I will be less exciting and say carbon. We’ve all heard before that we’re carbon-based life forms, and that carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas, but I think we fail to appreciate just how central this element is to the whole crazy project of life on this strangely habitable planet. Through volcanoes it moves from the rocks to the air, from there it gets incorporated into our bodies, and, if we’re shell-building organisms, or we get turned into oil or something, it goes back into the rocks again. It keeps the planet warm enough to survive, and when it gets too warm it naturally subsides in the atmosphere. Only in extremely strange and rare episodes, like during the continental flood basalt eruptions associated with ancient mass extinctions, and in our own current effort to liberate as much of carbon from old rocks as possible by burning coal, oil and gas in power plants does it get wildly out of balance and threaten the stability of our biosphere.
5. What (who?) is your favorite prehistoric animal?
Another impossible question. But I think I tend to gravitate towards either creatures that are underratedly terrifying, like Dunkleosteus which, as you know from the book, is this heavily-armored sea monster with a guillotine for a mouth, or animals that are truly bizarre. In this second category the Tully Monster comes to mind. I invite you to google it—the artists’ impressions of it are too strange to even describe. Others in the extremely strange camp that I love (to name just a few) are: Anomalocaris, one of the bewildering creatures that shows up at the dawn of animal life, and Tanystropheus, a marine reptile with a neck so incredibly long that it seems like the reconstructions must be wrong (they’re not). And like most people who enjoy visiting natural history museums I’m also drawn towards the extreme outliers in size, whether it’s Indricotherium, a hornless rhinoceros that was several stories tall, Leedsicthys, just this impossibly large, dumb-looking fish that lived in the Jurassic, or Quetzacoatlus, a pterosaur the size of a giraffe with a wingspan that rivals some small aircraft. Sorry to be so long-winded with these answers, there’s just too much from earth history to choose from.
6. During the researching and writing of the book, did you learn about something that particularly excited or scared you?
I’m both excited and scared, in this perfect mix, by the vastness of deep time. I don’t think I fully appreciated it before. I think astronomy gets a lot of credit for being mind-blowing but I think geology does the trick just as well. For instance, I’m on the east coast (in Maine at the moment) and if I went for a walk with each step representing a century, I would be done with the history of human civilization by the end of the driveway. But I could walk across the entire country to Los Angeles without even getting back to the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. And even then I would have covered less than 10% of earth’s history! Now that I’ve fallen in love with geology I am constantly having that same mind-blowing experience every time I look at a rock.
7. In The Ends Of The World, on page 130, you say: “Though climate science was long an esoteric field, today a familiarity with the basics should constitute a core part of any responsible civic education for citizens of planet Earth.” Yes. Absolutely. Who or what inspired you to become so interested in climate science and extinctions?
I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and I think my interest in climate science grew out of that. Like a lot of people my age I read Jurassic Park as a kid and was obsessed with dinosaurs. And then when I grew up I was a reporter writing about the ocean and all the modern changes we’re seeing to its temperature and chemistry. When I found out there was this deep connection between the subjects of earth history and climate change, that our experiment today with the climate has analogs throughout the history of life that we can look to for a glimpse of our possible future, it felt like a subject tailor-made to my interests.
8. In your opinion, is the problem with humans and global warming that we are capable of stopping it but generally apathetic, or that we are not capable of stopping it at all?
I think we are physically capable of stopping human-caused climate change but I have strong doubts about the political will to do so. The most realistic path to reaching the Paris Agreement goal of limiting ourselves to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100 requires the entire planet to completely stop using fossil fuels well before 2050, and then to somehow start sucking an incredible amount of CO2 out of the air every year after that with technology that (for all practical purposes) doesn’t exist yet. That is quite the tall order. At this point I think it’s a question of what degree of climate change we are willing to live with. At the lesser extreme we could get our act together and live in a slightly warmer world that—though it certainly will have more extreme storms, and droughts, and heat waves, and things like that—might be manageable for us to adapt to as a civilization (though there will still be losers, especially in tropical, poorer countries). And at the other extreme is the unthinkable: that we just keep burning carbon buried by ancient life, like coal and oil, and catapult ourselves into an alien greenhouse climate from tens of millions of years ago.
I don’t have the words to describe how catastrophic the second option would be, but I don’t think there’s any reason we would ever have to get to that point. It would require another century or two of burning everything we can find in the ground, and even in the current toxic political environment there are reasons to be encouraged, especially by younger people, that voters are beginning to take the need to transform our energy system seriously. That said, in the very long run, over thousands of years, even the small changes we make to the climate will have dramatic effects. A recent study showed that the entire ice sheet of Greenland could melt with as little as 0.8 degrees of warming. We’ve already warmed the planet 0.8 degrees and will likely warm it by much more. The good thing is that to completely melt the whole thing takes thousands to tens of thousands of years (the bad thing is you don’t have to melt all of Greenland to raise sea level a lot). As for ocean acidification (what happens when CO2 reacts with seawater) it will take something like 150,000 years for nature to restore the changes we’re causing to ocean chemistry today.
9. Do you think we, citizens of the U.S, will ever have a “scientist President”? Or even a “historian President?” Someone who understands and is interested in science and history and enjoys learning? Someone who is kind but who also tries to be somewhat logical? (If you think you could ever run for President, you would definitely have my vote.)
Haha, that’s very kind of you. I sincerely hope we have a scientist president, and soon. So many of the problems we face today, and in the decades to come, will be scientific ones. And given the polling on questions like “How old is the earth?”, and an obvious dearth of critical thinking skills in the country in the age of “fake news”, it’s obvious that we’re massively underinvested in education. If I were president I would invest (probably to a slightly psychotic degree) on education and basic research. The National Science Foundation and NASA would do quite well in my administration. That said–and this is something of a digression–not all policy questions can be decided by science. There will always be a role for philosophy and ethics to play, along with a whole bunch of other subjects that I think too many scientists are too quick to sneer at as squishy.
For instance, Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently proposed a utopian society where every policy question is decided by data and scientific research alone https://www.facebook.com/notes/neil-degrasse-tyson/reflections-on-rationalia/10154399608556613/. I think there’s a lot to recommend this vision of society, especially when you compare it to our current scientifically illiterate one. But there would be major limitations to it as well, some of which would quickly become ghastly. Take Tyson’s example on how we should decide whether to have the death penalty, which he says should depend on the data on whether it’s effective at deterring crime. But this data is useless without some prior system of ethics. For instance, there would likely be a strong deterrent effect on the crime of shoplifting if we made it punishable by death, but I don’t think that this would inform us whatsoever on whether it’s the wise or just path for a society to take. There will always be these moral questions for us to decide.
10. In your opinion, what was the worst mass extinction so far?
The End-Permian mass extinction is the worst mass extinction in the history of life and there’s not really a close second. Enough lava erupted in Siberia 252 million years ago to cover the lower 48 United States a kilometer deep, and the volcanoes injected so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere it caused temperatures to spike something like 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Up to 96% of life in the oceans died. Trees all but disappear in the fossil record for 10 million years after the mass extinction. Coral reefs are replaced with piles of bacterial slime. The planet basically had to reboot after the catastrophe, and it took millions of painful years to do so. It was the worst moment in the history of the earth. And yet, the earth recovered. And it did more than just recover. From the ashes of the End-Permian mass extinction blossomed the age of dinosaurs and, after that, the age of mammals, and everything we see living in our world today. Life is incredibly resilient and even after the worst disaster in its history the earth enjoyed its greatest flourishing. I think there are some lessons we can learn from our wonderful planet.
. . .
Peter Brannen is a huge nerd and a problem solver (and he referenced two of my other favorite people, Randall and Neil!). Like he says on page 130, I believe it is important to see the planet not as your world or my world, but as a planet. Operating on geological time, functioning as a whole. Seems obvious. Isn’t. I guess I love Peter so much because he is rare. He sees the planet as the whole that it is. He is both kind and smart, something you don’t often see. He recognizes the importance of the ocean, penis worms, and you and I.
I ended up searching Dinotopia on Google Images. My favorite fictional kingdom is Britain as it appears in the Harry Potter series, but Dinotopia looks very cool. I might like to visit there if I could.