Gaia ->Earth System Science

Beautiful Minds: James Lovelock and Narrative

As you experience each media work during this semester, I want you to think about three things: the content, the form and the context. Meaning emerges from the interplay of all three, but it can be helpful to describe and identify them separately in order to analyze the media. The content of Beautiful Minds is the Gaia theory. This is one of the theories that underpins Donna Haraway’s understanding of the current trouble. Gaia theory focuses on a complex pattern of chemical and organic connections and relationships. It was controversial because it appeared to critique Darwinian ideas about the survival of the fittest individual, suggesting instead that survival depends on a great network of interconnected and often co-operating processes regulated by life (largely microbial life). The content is radical in ways Haraway suggests are important.

But the form of Beautiful Minds is very traditional (see analysis below). Haraway is critical of human exceptionalism, the mental frame that assumes that “Homo Sapiens” is separate, superior, in control of the rest of the world, but we could argue that Beautiful Minds supports this idea by using a form that focuses on a “Great Man” and the way he changes the world around him. We can argue two things from this point, that this formal choice is useful because it uses a simple and familiar story structure to help the audience understand the complex ideas that are introduced; or flawed because the assumption that the important thing is the “Great Man”, puts humans and especially men back at the superior center of things and detracts from the importance of the Gaia theory.

Beautiful Minds follows a conventional “Hollywood” narrative structure, which is roughly like this:

  • inciting incident or hook – scene immediately or very early on that draws the audience in and starts the story rolling.
  • act 1 – introduction of theme/plot/characters
    • ends with plot point one/turning point – something that surprises the audience, adds to or changes the challenges
  • act 2 – development of story/plot and complications
    • mid point – a crisis or major event
    • ends with plot point two/turning point – another surprise or change that leads into the final act
  • act 3 – conclusion of story/plot
    • optional twist

“Hollywood” narrative structure mapped to Beautiful Minds

  • inciting incident/hook Lovelock says “I didn’t know I would be so controversial
  • act 1 introduction of story/plot
    • earlier inventions: electron capture detector, CFA measurement
    • flashbacks to childhood, triumphs and difficulties
    • war years
  • plot point one: Lovelock goes to NASA
  • act 2 development of story/plot, ups and downs and complications
    • challenges and absurdities at Nasa
    • midpoint: develops Gaia hypothesis
    • flashback to establishment bullying at school
    • parallel to bullying on Gaia
      • defense from all the wrong people (!)
  • plot point two: daisy world, scientific defense of theory
  • act 3 conclusion
    • Accepted by establishment -> but his theory comes to be called Earth System Science NOT Gaia
    • Lovelock’s dire predictions about climate change
    • possible twist – maybe we can dismiss his pessimism because he is a bit way out.

Beautiful Minds uses this narrative form to tell a conventional story of a lone genius/maverick fighting the establishment. This can be seen as part of the mental frame of individualism – the primary importance of the individual rather than the group – which is linked to the frames about the “Great Man” and “Homo Sapiens”. It is narrated by a voice of authority, which I talked about in week 2. This is another standard convention often used in documentary films and related to the same mental frames. The voice is male, objective, and speaks from an all-knowing position outside the situation. Contrast this to the situated and many voices in Gasland.

In Beautiful Minds: two narrative chronologies interweave then join about 1/2 way through: one follows the history of James Lovelock’s scientific inventions and impact, the other is his personal history told in flashbacks. Scroll through the program again to remind yourself of the incidents below and check my timing.

  • inventions
    • min 7 electron capture detector and DDT
    • min 15 measures CFCs, takes down aerosol industry
    • min 32 Gaia hypothesis
      • min 40 support for hypothesis/ algae feedback
      • little acknowledgement of hypothesis
    • min 42 publishes the book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth (1972)
    • min 46 attacks on Gaia, Doolittle, Dawkins etc.
    • min 48 defense of Gaia using computer simulation Daisy World
    • min ~50 vindicated/accepted by science establishment
      • 1. inventions
    • min 54 dire predictions of consequences of man-made climate change
  • personal history as flashback re-enactments
    • min 9 xmas present electronics set
    • min 20 chooses chemistry because of of dyslexia
    • min 21 war experience
    • min 25 Nasa
    • min 35 wins general knowledge quiz/bullied for winning (freak)

Earth System Science

The Gaia theory focused on understanding the complex interactions between chemical and organic elements on the skin of the earth. This kind of research is now known as earth system science and is integrally related to computational visualization and modeling of data to understand climate systems, oceanic current systems etc. etc. Go through links below, watch videos. Think both about the information you are getting from the images, webpages, videos and also about how they are working as media constructions. If you still have time, play with the interactive small scale climate models (links at the bottom of the page).

earth system model: GFDL/NOAA

What is a Climate Model?

  • mathematical representations of interactions between atmosphere, land surface, ocean surface, ice and the sun
  • models tested against past – “If a model can correctly predict trends from a starting point somewhere in the past, we could expect it to predict with reasonable certainty what might happen in the future.” skeptical science
  • WATCH The emerging patterns of climate change. Gavin Schmidt 12 mins
    • Schmidt is a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Deputy Chief at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
    • note: models are always inaccurate because they contain abstractions
    • note: nevertheless, they might skilfully predict events and that can be shown by testing them against the past
    • note: supercomputers are needed to crunch the data on complex models
    • mathematical models are visualized so we can see patterns more clearly
      • this step also includes choices, how things are colored, represented, the timing etc

What is a climate model video  (9 mins)

  • Media/computer visualizations are never neutral and complete representations of how things are, they are constructions made for a specific purpose.
    • data points/numbers are turned into computer graphics
      • data has a resolution which is always an abstraction, never at “real world” resolution
        • number of samples/ how often measurements are made in time and space
        • like the resolution/size of photographic image, or the resolution of film/video =number of frames per second
    • the person constructing the visualization looks at numbers and decides how to encode them
      • choices governed by established norms (e.g. red = hot)
      • Look at Bertin’s Visual Variables in the link here – for the kind of marks that represent information
    • visualizations make patterns apparent/specific aspects of the model are extracted
    • e.g. the visualizations in Schmidt’s video are made to demonstrate/underscore the points he is making

What is an Earth System Model?

  • modeling how earth’s biogeochemical cycles, including human actions, interact with the climate system
    • atmospheric circulation model coupled with an
    • oceanic circulation model, with
    • representations of land, sea ice and iceberg dynamics.
    •  incorporate interactive biogeochemistry, including the carbon cycle.
  • Note the complexity of each system let alone the whole!
  • Where do the measurements come from?
carbon cycle: nasa/

Who builds Climate Models/Earth System Models?

Earth and Climate Model Visualizations – 1-3 mins each

Climate Models Online – very simple, small scale models that work interactively online