Saturday, January 18, 2014

Scientist as Humorist

In fact, scientists are human, richly endowed with human frailties, often involved in polemics, and often gifted with an excellent sense of humor.
                                                               ~ Cesare Emiliani, Planet Earth

I’ve been reading about geologist and micropaleontologist Cesare Emiliani (1922-1995), as well as reading some of his written work.  Emiliani, a central figure in the study of ancient climates, was also, in my opinion, a humorist of high rank, and this post is basically an excuse to present a couple of examples of his brand of humor.

First, though, a bit about the man and his science.  Emiliani was born and raised in Italy, and there pursued his early scientific career in micropaleontology.  He came to the United States in 1948 and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1950.  At Chicago, he then spent several years doing research in the Geochemistry Laboratory, headed by Nobel Laureate chemist Harold Urey.  In 1957, Emiliani went to the University of Miami, where he taught and researched until his retirement in 1993.  He was a polymath, his interests and skills were astoundingly broad – classical languages, history, philately, calendar reform (advocating a move away from any religiously based system), among others.

His claim to scientific fame centers largely on his analyses of oxygen isotopes in fossil shells and what that can tell about past climate.  He built on findings by Urey and others that showed how different oxygen isotopes behaved slightly differently.  (Isotopes are forms of an element having different numbers of neutrons but the same number of electrons and protons.  Thus different isotopes of an element have the same atomic number but different atomic mass.)  Water molecules with the “lighter” (most common) isotope of oxygen, O-16, evaporate more readily than those with the “heavier” isotope, O-18; this changes the ratios of these isotopes in the water vapor and in the remaining liquid water.  Further, carbonates precipitated in warmer water have a lower O-18/O-16 ratio than those formed in colder water.  Finally (and critical to Emiliani's work), it had been shown that the O-18/O-16 ratios in ancient calcium carbonate reflect the ratios that prevailed at the time the calcium carbonate was precipitated.  Thus, analysis of that calcium carbonate could provide insight into ancient environments.

Emiliani utilized these findings with gusto, beginning while he was a research associate in Urey’s lab.  Working principally with the fossil shells of planktic foraminifera, he determined patterns of O-18/O-16 ratios across time.  He used these patterns to identify cyclical variations in ancient water temperatures and glaciation.  In part, his work showed more glaciation cycles than had been assumed previously for the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago).  Emiliani's findings were often revolutionary and certainly provocative.  He is identified as the father of the field of paleoceanography.

(See, Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams’ The Goldilocks Planet:  The Four Billion Year Story of Earth’s Climate (2012, p. 114 -117), Emiliani, Planet Earth:  Cosmology, Geology, and the Evolution of Life and Environment (1992, p. 542), and Emiliani, Ancient Temperatures, Scientific American, Volume 198, 1958, p. 54-63).  I described the foraminifera that Emiliani used in his work as "planktic" (they float in the water column).  Previously, I would have written "planktonic," but Emiliani convinced me that "planktonic" is improperly derived from the Greek.  See his article titled Planktic/Planktonic, Nektic/Nektonic, Benthic/Benthonic, Journal of the Paleontological Society, Volume 65, Number 2, March, 1991, p. 329.  Sadly, most of the items I cite in this post are not available on the web in their entirety.)

Aside:  As I understand it, the link between the O-18/O-16 ratio in ocean water and glaciation hinges in part on the fact that evaporated sea water in the form of water vapor, richer in O-16, circulates toward the earth's poles.  There it precipitates and can either be tied up in ice - thereby "freezing" the higher O-18/O-16 ratio left behind in ocean water - or flow back into the oceans, helping to restore the initial O-18/O-16 ratio.

And now for something completely different - the scientist as humorist.

In 1978, Emiliani scratched out a letter to the editor of Science, commenting on an editorial that evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr had published in an issue earlier that year in which he called for periodic review of tenure decisions at universities.  Emiliani dissented from Mayr’s focus on the removal of what Mayr had called the “drones” in academia.  (Tenure Review, Science, May 12, 1978, p. 600).  The drones, Emiliani suggested, really were just “harmless souls fulfilling humble academic tasks.”  Rather, he thought, the periodic pruning of the tenured ranks was a “good” idea for a different reason.  Such review would allow for
the dispatching of those inflamed, highly vocal, pestilential earthshakers that make our academic lives utterly miserable by spasmodically convulsing what would otherwise be a supremely calm, serene, tranquil, and placid academic world.
Emiliani, trying to be “helpful” to Mayr’s cause, offered an historical list of “such cursed people,” with what would probably have been the academic department vote had they been up for tenure review, and the action which the institution’s administration would have taken in response to that vote.  Here are four he included on the list with the purported department vote and administration’s action:
Pythagoras:  department vote:  against; administration action:  exile
Socrates:  against; poisoning
Jesus:  against; crucifixion
Galileo:  against; house arrest
Such "supportive" letter writing went way back for Emiliani.  In 1967, an address by historian Lynn White, Jr., had been published in Science, in which White argued that our relationship to the environment was grounded in religious beliefs and that those beliefs would have to change before the impending ecological crises could be addressed.  He characterized Christianity as a singularly human-centered religion which historically had fostered an exploitative attitude toward nature.  (See CounterBalance, Introduction:  Beyond Lynn White, Jr.)

Emiliani in a letter to the editor (also signed by inventor Shale Niskin) noted that White’s assertion had profound implications about the history of religion.  (Christian Impact on Ecology, Science, May 12, 1967, p. 738.)  Emiliani cited a recent piece in Nature (1966) which had shown that
the early overkills which destroyed 40 percent of the mammalian fauna in Africa and 70 percent in North America . . . took place, respectively, 50,000 and 12,000 years ago, clearly demonstrat[ing] that the Judeo-Christian tradition is considerably older than generally assumed.
Hmm . . . .

Finally, I turn to Emiliani’s magnum opus (perhaps he wouldn’t have agreed with that label, but it’s an impressive and huge work), Planet Earth: Cosmology, Geology, and the Evolution of Life and Environment.  It’s a book I’ve been “reading at” in recent days.  As far as titles go, it’s up there with Douglas Adam’s Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), though Adams wrote his book for the laughs and Emiliani didn’t.  Well, for the most part, he didn’t.

For all of the riches it has to offer, Planet Earth has many of the off-putting attributes of a textbook (which explains why I cannot read it cover to cover, though it’s a welcome reference) – overly broad scope, daunting length, and insistence on a close reading to understand its arguments.  (Emiliani also gave no quarter to those who would pander to the widespread fear or ignorance of mathematics; he assumed his reader is math literate.)

But Planet Earth is quirky and wonderfully punctuated with myriad examples of Emiliani’s rich sense of humor (not a feature all reviewers liked).  For instance, the book opens with a discussion of several religiously based accounts of the creation of the planet, surely a most provocative place to begin.  At one point, he noted that the Greeks asserted that the island of Cyprus arose from the ocean foam with Aphrodite lying on the beach.
[T]his, in my opinion, is a vastly superior origin for Cyprus, as compared with the tectonic push from the African plate advocated by geologists, who can offer nothing to rival a nude goddess on the beach.  (p.2)
Science, he asserted, had replaced those creation myths with “a reasonably coherent story about our world,” a story he proposed to tell.  And he did, moving from science and religion, to matter and energy, to cosmology, to geology, to evolution of life and the planet’s environment, and, finally, to a compilation of biographical blurbs on the world’s greatest thinkers, past and present.

In that concluding part, he actually included one for himself.  Here it is in its entirety:
Cesare Emiliani (b. 1922), Italian-American marine geologist, applied oxygen-isotopic analysis to deep-sea sediments and demonstrated the cycle nature of the ice ages (1955) (see the Note at the end of this list).
In that Note, he wrote,
After a brief battle between modesty and thoroughness, I decided to include my own name in this list, taking the description of accomplishments from Millar D., Millar I., Millar J., and Millar M.  1989.  Concise Dictionary of Scientists . . . .  This work profiles what those authors deem to be the 1,000 most prominent scientists of all time.  Buy a copy of the book and see if your name is there.  If it is not, you may complain to Millar, Millar, Millar, and/or Millar.
(By the way, the Concise Dictionary of Scientists by Millar, Millar, Millar, and Millar, exists.)

Now, Emiliani wasn’t content to offer up his master work with its full, scientifically based, history of the planet and leave it to chance who would review it and how.  No, that wouldn’t do.  So, he made a grand proposal which appeared in the pages of Eos:  Transactions American Geophysical Union (Volume 74, Issue 23, June 8, 1993).  He titled his piece Authors, Review Yourselves!

In that article, he began with the assertion that
We all know that the process of reviewing scientific papers, research proposals, or books is a royal pain for everybody.  The reviewers have better things to do, the editors are in a perennial state of nervous collapse trying to get reviews back in time, and the reviewees risk heart attacks each time they scan the obviously unfair reviews of their work.
His solution was for the principal investigator to review his or her own work which would mean that, finally, the reviews would be done “by a person really qualified to do the reviewing.”  Obviously, he added, “being the most knowledgeable person about his or her own work, [the principal investigator] can be expected to be totally objective.”

Emiliani noted that he initially proposed that this process be applied to the review of research proposals; this was in an article that appeared in the Journal of Irreproducible Results (1992, Volume 37, p. 12).

(I have searched for that article and, so far, have not had any luck.  I do assume it exists because the JIR does.  It's a wonderful tongue-in-cheek scientific serial.  One of my favorite JIR articles is titled A Briefer History of Time.  I quote it in full:  “Bang!”)

In the Eos piece, Emiliani posited that his self-review process should be applied to book reviews.  To that end, he presented his “thoroughly knowledgeable and totally objective review of my own book, Planet Earth . . . .”

The review opened with:
What a fantastic book Planet Earth is!
The next paragraph began
The breadth and depth of this book are stunning; the author is obviously a genius of transcendental proportions (he told me so himself several times).
Several (similar) paragraphs later, he made his clinching argument.  Compared to other textbooks on the earth and earth systems, Planet Earth was a “good deal” because it came in at “4.86 cents per page” which was less than those other books.  But, in a final bit of honesty to demonstrate the total objectivity of the proposed self-review process, Emiliani acknowledged
Of course, the phone book is an even better deal.
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