How did it get to be the way that it is?


Ilulisaat Iceberg

Back to “Science is a heterogeneous aggregate”

I took this photo in August, 2004 from the deck of an expedition ship outbound from the town of Ilulisaat on the west coast of Greenland. Later on the same trip I took the banner shot I am using under my website title. I want to use it as an illustration of the basic question in geology: How did the Earth get to be the way that it is?

You can approach answering this question in (at least) two ways. From the top down or from the bottom up. Pragmatically, we start in the middle-where we are- and go both ways at once. But you can’t write sentences that way, so you have to pick out the path to follow.

The top down strategy says begin with some intuitively obvious first principles and deduce the consequences. From my post-retirement reading in the history of my science, mainly Martin Rudwick, that approach fell under the philosophical purview of the word “physics”, and still seems connected in that way. There seems to be a sense amongst some physicists that once they get the Theory of Everything down, all else will follow tautologically. I will leave it to the philosophers to argue whether or not the Illulisaat Iceberg photoed above would some how come out of the equations just in time for me to take the picture, and thence to melt/dissolve completely away into the waters of the Davis Straight.

The other path starts with the thing itself and goes up from there. Start with the part of the story and build from there. The whole story is a constructed composite of the different parts, with clear recognition that many parts are missing and will remain so, even in spite of incredible advanced in technology.

The first step in approaching the bottom-up answer to the question is, not obviously, to ask the question.

I can say with confidence that the question is not obvious because standing at the rail on the expedition ship, in the company of the other passengers, it was not a question that was in the minds of most of them. To be sure, it was common knowledge that the iceberg broke off from some glacier at an earlier time, though there may have been people who thought it was frozen sea-water. But images of iceberg calving off into the sea are pretty common, and this group of people were not cruise-line tourists. It was a fairly select group with academic backgrounds and professional geologists for lecturers. I myself found my way there following AAAS/Sigma Xi adds, being a member of both organizations. But intuition tells us the world is now the way it always has been. It is not supposed to change. You couldn’t safely drive your car down the street if you didn’t make this assumption. Driving your car down the street itself becomes more problematic if you think that by that activity you are going to change something beyond your location  in space, like the climate.

Breaking through the intuition to see the world as historically evolved means changing your mind about what you think you already know. That doesn’t come easy.

I think this iceberg is quite beautiful. It has a graceful, almost sensuous shape, and the contrast between the corrugated part and the smoother part appeals to me. Most icebergs don’t appeal to me esthetically, but this one did. I use this photo for my Desktop background. Like many beautiful things it is no longer in this world. The photo itself leads the minds eye to see the passage of time. The clouds overhead we know are in a constantly shifting pattern, changing by the minute. The small clots of floating ice in the foreground may persist for hours or days, but our experience tells us they to will vanish. A blemish on the leading corner of the icebergs tells us that a piece must have broken off recently, either due to some natural process (sad, but OK), or some human induced process (not OK).

But what about the thing itself? What history can we read from it- more correctly, the photo of it.

First, the way that it is. We cannot attempt to answer the question of how it came to be without knowing the way it is. That is not the path we are on. That would be the other path-the top down path. So the next step is description. We would like not to waste time describing irrelevant things, but we have no way of sorting those out at first. We would like not to waste time being seduced in describing things just because they are easy to measure. But that is the way we begin to form the “search image” of the important things.

I am going to stop here for now. I have already exceeded my self-imposed limit of 500 +/- words. Take a close look at the photo. See what you can see. “I’ll be back”!



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