It’s Complicated, And That’s OK

Author: Kelsey

As an undergraduate, I usually only go to museum or department talks if someone I know is talking or another undergrad coerces me into going with them. Mostly it’s a time issue. I’d honestly rather catch up on homework or research than be trapped in a lecture hall for another hour when I already have a full course load.

That being said, I am beginning to think I should go to more talks. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but the last two talks I’ve gone to have been important for me in learning not about specific projects, but about the scientific ideas and processes that shaped them.

The first talk I went to emphasized finding the simplest equation to predict the movement of blood through the cardiovascular system. The researcher’s goal was to take a complicated set of variables and get the most straightforward equation possible with an acceptable amount of error. Using this technique, variables could be dropped if they did not contribute significantly to the simulated cardiovascular system. This is a reductionist or “good enough” approach as far as I can tell that favors functional answers over the possibility of overly complicated or unknown factors.

The second talk I went to favored a holistic approach, where one method or answer didn’t necessarily have to be appropriate for the entire system. This was a paleoclimatology talk that examined comparisons between modern climate and species change and the way climate and species had changed in the Cenozoic. This four-dimensional system (the three dimensions of space, plus time) was divided into two parts, one part where humans were directly observing the system (shallow time) and the second part where humans could not (deep time). I may go into all the gory, glorious details in a subsequent post, but the talk concluded with the statement that “the present is only sometimes the key to the past.”

What? At first this viewpoint seems like a major letdown, kind of like waiting to see what Frankenstein’s Monster looks like, only to realize when he steps into the light that he’s just a guy in green makeup (or worse, just mediocre CGI). If we can’t tell what the past is from the present, I used to wonder, what good is it to compare the past to the present and are we even making appropriate comparisons? If past and present systems are only analogous some of the time, then what was happening the rest of the time?

Whenever I get into this frame of mind I am prone to fall into the black pit of philosophical debate that will get me to question my career and life choices. After about an hour or so one can then find me under a table in the lab, where I will have to be coaxed out with promises of coffee. (My own research projects, like my study of taphonomy, have done this to me more than once.)

It was one such time under the computer table that I realized I was looking at this supposed “problem of holism” the wrong way. These questions of past and present time that kept running through my head were not paleontology’s undoing, but its future. Take, for example, that second talk. The analysis of species change over the Cenozoic revealed trends that could not be explained by recent time because humanity (much less rational thought) had not existed long enough and in all places at once. Evolution was working at a pace beyond what could be directly observed by the human race in any meaningful manner. If deep time was not considered, evolution as it is understood would not exist.

I don’t go under the table much anymore. My mind is still swimming with questions, but these questions bring possibilities. With possibilities comes the promise that in the future we may understand a bit more here and there. To simplify this system would be to turn a blind eye on the beautiful and incredible complexity of paleoecology and evolutionary biology. Deep time in general would probably be rather boring if viewed only through reductionism, but we can’t look at all the components of the system at once… at least not yet.

So I will go to more talks, fill up my notebook, and, most importantly, think. As a scientist it drives me crazy and excites me to know there are ideas and viewpoints being shared out there right now that could help me with my research and rock my world.

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