Geomiracles

 

Science fiction and popular science writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Riffing on that theme, I once gave a talk in which I proclaimed that "any sufficiently improbable event is distinguishable from the miraculous." Some definitions of "miracle" invoke the divine or supernatural, but I have in mind the definition (in this case from the Merriam-Webster dictionary) as: "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment." The point of the argument is that, due to the inescapable, irreducible role of geographical and historical contingency in Earth surface systems, all such systems (landscapes, ecosystems, soils, etc.) are unique in some respects (a formal argument along these lines is presented in this article: Phillips, J.D.  2007.  The perfect landscape.  Geomorphology 84: 159-169.). Thus the probability of existence of any given state of any given system at a given point in time is infinitesimally low. This exceedingly low probability makes nearly any environment in some senses extremely outstanding and unusual, and thus a miracle.

Like any natural scientist, I seek the universal (non-contingent) laws, relationships, and representations that help explain our world. But I am convinced that such laws alone, no matter how advanced they become and how much data, information, and observational detail we have, are not sufficient to explain real-world Earth surface systems. Place matters and history matters.

I will use this blog to share some of my ideas along these lines, along with other ideas, suggestions, opinions, etc. on Earth and environmental sciences more generally. As I get older I realize that I have more ideas and such than I will ever publish, even if I doubled my output (and that ain’t happening; if anything I’m headed in the other direction), and worked till I was 90 (that ain’t happening, either). Hopefully these will be of interest or use to someone, but at least I’ll have them off my desk and off my chest.

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