Peter Brannen Is Kind Of An Amazing Man

Date: December 1st, 2017

Other Title: My Interview With The Amazing Peter Brannen

Look how adorable he is!

Book cover: 

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):

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.

And this is to remind you what he looks like.

 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.

 

Clean Energy In Relation To Global Warming AKA I’m Tired Of Waiting

Date: October 8th, 2016

Clean energy will save us from many oncoming threats – I don’t mean to sound macabre, but we are slowly destroying our planet in a multitude of ways – and we are being given a second chance by Mother Nature. The point isn’t that humanity doesn’t have its virtues, don’t feel offended when I say we’re slowly destroying our planet, the point is that none of our other virtues will do us any good if we don’t fix this.

We should be grateful for this second chance. According to the good people at the “climate change” department at Nasa (http://climate.nasa.gov/effects/), the effects of continued climate change will be too overwhelming for us. Sea levels will rise by 1-4 feet by 2100. “Sea level rise will not stop in 2100 because the oceans take a very long time to respond to warmer conditions at the Earth’s surface. Ocean waters will therefore continue to warm and sea level will continue to rise for many centuries at rates equal to or higher than that of the current century.” Coastal cities in the Southwest United States will experience flooding and erosion. Species are already dying off. From National Geographic, “The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola) seems to have disappeared from its home in the eastern Torres Strait of the Great Barrier Reef, the scientists say. The animal was last seen by a fisherman in 2009, but failed attempts to trap any in late 2014 have prompted scientists to say it is likely extinct.” (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/06/first-mammal-extinct-climate-change-bramble-cay-melomys/) Lee Hannah, a senior climate change biology scientist for Conservation International, says, “This species could have been saved.” And yet…more are on their way out, including, quite sad, the world’s smallest penguin. Let me make something clear. We are running out of time. No amount of “hope” will change our fate, but action will. You can be hopeful. Hope keeps us sane, but please, be hopeful because you know you’ve done all you can do and are encouraging others to do the same.

This is what you can do with the second chance you’ve been given: use it. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is simpler than they make it sound. This is all: stop negative emissions, such as excess carbon dioxide or methane. That’s it. It seems so overwhelming because there are so many ways to do it, so many ways you can do your part. It’s a broad category, I’ll give you that. So many ways to fix the problem that it seems like you need to do ‘em all. But just because a lot needs to be done doesn’t mean we can’t do it. You know what? I’m gonna be helpful: I’m gonna give you a big list, right here, right now, of what you can to be part of the biggest solutions:

Plain Old Energy Efficiency: When you turn things off, really turn them off. Standby mode can use up to 40% of an appliances power, and leeches like TVs still use power even when you’re not using them. Unplug your TVs power when you want to turn it off. And this a “Well, of course” one – switch your current lights to hyper-efficient LED, CFL, or “halogen incandescent” lights, turn the lights off when you’re not using them, and only use them when the sunlight cannot reach your particular workspace or library – in other words, only turn lights on when you need to. Use the sun. In addition, there are many other energy efficient products and appliances you can buy if you’re looking for that sort of thing – which you should be. Just go to your preferred search engine and type in “energy efficient _____” and something will come up. Or – go to http://energy.gov – that might be easier.

Solar Power: It’s so obvious, you could guess – go solar. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies willing to take your money – which is a given – and do something good with it – which is sadly rare. And these companies charge you slightly more in the beginning, more than average, but after that, you’re not paying – you don’t have to. In many ways, solar is cheaper than no solar. “Ah,” you might say, “but what if I don’t own my house?” (You can’t go solar without asking your landlord if you don’t own your house, because if you don’t own your house, you can’t make any exterior/invasive changes to your house by yourself.) You might consider finding a method to have a completely external set of solar panels, capable of powering your house, sitting somewhere in your backyard, connected by a set of wires and tubes and such, that way you don’t have to make any changes to your actual building.

Wind Power: Turns out you can actually install a wind turbine on your property. It depends on where you live of course, but according to the Wind Energy Foundation (http://windenergyfoundation.org), the steps for installing are: “1. Determine whether the wind resource in your area makes a small wind system economical. 2. Determine your household electricity needs by checking your monthly or yearly electricity usage. 3. Find out whether local zoning ordinances allow wind turbine installations. 4. Purchase and install a wind turbine sized to the needs of your household. The Small Wind Certification Council maintains a list of certified small wind turbines.” – at least, those are the basic steps, to get you started on your path. (You might want to take a look at the entire page: http://windenergyfoundation.org/wind-at-work/wind-consumers/wind-power-your-home/)

Take On The City: Let’s think of Los Angeles, for instance. Did you know that LADWP gets 52% of its electricity from coal-fired plants in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada? It receives power from other types of power plants including nuclear and gas-fired generating stations, but the whole of “clean energy” makes up for just 5% of LADWP’s capacity! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_Department_of_Water_and_Power and https://thinkprogress.org/los-angeles-aims-to-be-coal-free-in-12-years-12b611e530b4#.ivuk5n6ju at https://thinkprogress.org) An alternative to getting off the grid, by installing your own system for your own house, would be to change the source of energy coming from the grid, so you don’t have to disconnect. Wherever you live, you can “edit” where your power comes from, by taking the fight to the city’s/state’s Big Cheese – you could write a petition (I might, in fact, I will, and I’ll tell you about it when I do), email them or call their office, or talk to them in person. I’ll warn you, if you want them to change anything, you can’t tell them “I wish” – you have to have an effective plan in mind, and you should share it with them, that will let whoever is concerned know this is a good thing.

This Is A Weird One, But A Good One: Does “thorium” ring a bell? Thorium reactors deserve an entire essay of their own, but I’ll tell you this: There are many different types of thorium reactors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium-based_nuclear_power), but the most popular, LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor), already has some fans. “With LFTR technology, 6,600 tons of thorium could provide the energy equivalent of the annual global consumption of 5 billion tons of coal, 31 billion barrels of oil, 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 65,000 tons of uranium.” (http://flibe-energy.com) There you have it. If you want clean energy on steroids, here it is. And it’s completely safe, too. “The key to efficient, safe and sustainable use of thorium is liquid fuel, particularly, including a combination of lithium fluoride (LiF) and beryllium fluoride (BeF2) salts often called “F-Li-Be.” Liquid FLiBe is ideal for nuclear reactor operation and chemical processing as it is unaffected by neutrons or radiation and is chemically stable. FLiBe salts have tremendous heat capacity with over 1000 degrees of liquid range to transfer large amounts of thermal energy at low pressures, enabling more efficient electricity generation with a more-compact and safer form of nuclear reactor.” – More from that Flibe website mentioned above. (And: “LFTR technology is scalable from small 10-50 megawatt reactors that could be used in remote locations up to utility-scale 250 megawatt reactors that could be arrayed for multi-gigawatt installations. With LFTR, the thorium fuel cycle can generate significantly less mining waste and many orders of magnitude less long-term byproduct waste than conventional solid-uranium-fueled energy generation.” You know what, just use the link – read the entire thing.) And yes – it is weird. The reason it hasn’t quite “caught on” yet is because, in simple words, “nuclear reactors are terrifying.” But that’s just rhetoric.

The economy will not be affected negatively by furthering the use of clean energy. Wind, solar, ocean, and geothermal power are extremely expensive, due to fact that they aren’t being used in bulk (a simple case of supply and demand), the fact that wind and solar power both require certain environmental factors, and the distance between the generators and the cities they power (transmission costs) (http://burnanenergyjournal.com/what-is-the-cheapest-source-of-energy/ at http://burnanenergyjournal.com). However a massive influx of clean energy use would create more jobs than not, and there are many things in this world that don’t even need half the money they receive for their cause (Ever thought about how much money we’d save if we didn’t put every single mild “marijuana offender” in jail?). On top of that, we wouldn’t ever run out of money for the most important things in life unless something drastic happened – money is being printed constantly. From The Fact Monster: “The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces 38 million notes a day with a face value of approximately $541 million. That doesn’t mean there is $541 million more money circulating today than there was yesterday, though, because 95% of the notes printed each year are used to replace notes already in circulation.” (http://www.factmonster.com/ipka/A0774850.html at http://www.factmonster.com) All in all, if there’s something to spend money on, this is it, and it will hardly make a dent. Besides, I want to remind you – this is the cost of living. Global warming is a huge problem, and if we don’t fix it, there won’t be an economy to worry about, because we’ll all be dead.

You had better do your part, or else – for your own sake. Reading all these articles about the effects and the causes and the deaths and the extinctions and the Koch brothers and Donald Trump…one of the only reasons I don’t think we’re all doomed is because Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who dabbles in all kinds of science, who also happens to be one of the most logical and cynical people to ever live, is subtly optimistic. (“Cosmos” – episode 12 – “The World Set Free” – click here to watch episode via Dailymotion) I must insist that you understand the gravity of the situation. I also want you to understand – I’m not worried about “us” – I’m not worried about humanity. Even when we’re doomed, we’re not doomed. We’ve lived through things. Sure, we’ve never dealt with a slowly roasting planet before, but technology has progressed with us. I believe in human ingenuity. I’ll admit it. We could go live on the underground of Mars. Or the moon. Or we could just go live in a big spaceship (which would ironically cost more than switching to “clean”) with an artificial atmosphere. Maybe, just maybe, we could invent a huge machine to cool off our planet. I believe humanity will find a way out of this, even if just to save our own skins. So no, I’m not worried about us. I’m worried about what this says about us. When will we “magic” our way out of this? Once California really does run out of water? Once people start dying? Once all the ocean life goes extinct, and the ocean itself turns to acid? How far will we take this? How long will we wait? For instance, my family – we’re liberal, and we ride the Metro, and we have an electric car. All fantastic. But are we doing everything? The answer, sadly, is no. We don’t own our house. Every time I ask my dad about solar panels, he says he wants to have them, but we’d need to talk to the landlord. He wants to. Huh. But are we ever at the landlord’s doorstep, saying “Please, please, please” on bended knees? Are we trying our hardest? Are we? Are we doing everything necessary to solve this problem? No.

Actually, “How long will we wait?” is the wrong question. “How long will we wait?” invokes “Someone else will fix this, this is not my fight.” Will you continue to be complacently serene with thinking about doing things, but never doing them? Will you read this, think about how great of a writer I am (why, thank you) and then forget about it tomorrow? Will you make it a hashtag and say “There, I did my part!”? Will you take this seriously?

How long will you wait?

How many excuses do you have left?