Tomatoes can be sunny and delightful sources of gustatory joy. Unfortunately, they can also be utterly detestable wads of wet cardboard. The difference is that the tasty ones were bred to be tasty. The tasteless ones were selected for so-called “shippability,” which means that they are tough. They are so tough that in my genetics course we play catch with them across a large lecture hall. The tomatoes survive multiple throws from students keen to show off their good arms and maybe score a splat on their instructor’s shirt. I am pleased to report that no such splat has occurred in ten years of testing.
This interactive class experiment is always popular, and it’s a testament to the power of evolution by selective breeding. The tomatoes work well for this experiment because being projectiles is in their DNA. They are the descendants of tomatoes that survived lobbing by their originator, Jack Hanna of the University of California, Davis. Hanna wandered through tomato fields, picked some fruits, and chucked them onto nearby paths. Those that didn’t splatter but survived unbruised, he kept—and bred. Thanks to such stern evolutionary tests, our grocery stores were soon blessed with tomatoes that can withstand machine harvesting, tight packing, and strong-armed students, but utterly lack flavor. Indeed, those commercial tomatoes are better suited for summer sports than for dinner plates. In contrast, the tasty tomatoes I grow in my garden will spontaneously split open from an overabundance of flavor if I leave them on the vine too long.
The tomatoes are just one example among millions of species being manipulated by evolutionary events, right before our eyes. To many people, “evolution” means a slow and majestic process that unfolds over millions of years: we see fossils as witnesses of past lives, and we imagine the rise and fall of dinosaurs, mastodons, Neanderthals. These are certainly elements of the sagas that evolution tells. But they’re not the only story. Biological evolution is happening all around us, all the time. It’s caused by shifting environmental conditions that provoke changes in genetic features. Evolution is straightforward and easy to observe, in the present moment—and those tough tomatoes offer a fun, if tasteless, window onto it.
California is an especially good place to witness evolution. The state’s insular features give it island-like characteristics, and islands are known to be special settings to witness evolution in action. California is isolated from other landmasses by the ocean on its western side, and distinctive landscape features limit many species’ movement in other directions as well. High mountains and deserts are barriers preventing easy movement to the east. Deserts also reduce movement to the south. To the north, passage into and out of California is limited by mountains and colder climates.
A vernal pool on the Carrizo Plain. Photograph by Flickr user Mikaku.
Within California, we also have multiple kinds of archipelagoes. These aren’t the kind that poke up out of oceans, but rather chains of “habitat islands” that can occur in all sorts of environments. Within California, animals and plants confront landscapes that range in elevation from over 13,800 feet to below sea level, and within these landscapes are archipelagoes of habitat islands defined by shifting geology and soils that govern who can live where and how.
Take salamanders. Salamanders are moisture-loving Californians, and one group of these secretive amphibians has provided UC Berkeley’s David Wake and his collaborators an opportunity to study the origin of new species. These salamanders, of the genus Ensatina, live in habitats that are cool and permanently moist. Their ancestors came from regions to the north. As they moved south, they encountered the Central Valley, where hot and dry ecological conditions were not to their liking. So some populations moved south along the Coast Ranges, while others migrated south along the Sierra Nevada. Over time, as the salamanders faced the different sets of conditions prevalent in those areas, their DNA began to change. Eventually, when, after many millennia, individuals of Sierra salamanders met members of the Coast Range gangs in Southern California, the two groups had become so different that they rarely interbred. They had become different species.
We all know that California boasts many of the best universities and research institutes in the world. But we also have some of the world’s best museums, including world-leading natural history museums that document and study the diversity of life on Earth.
At the California Academy of Sciences, where I work, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, we have a research collection of nearly 46 million specimens, one of the largest in the world, spanning nearly every branch of life. Other great research collections can be found at other California museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the six natural history museums at the University of California, Berkeley.
These collections describe more than the branches of the tree of life. They span time and space. The Academy collections extend from the nineteenth century (although we have some older specimens too) to the present, and include specimens from every ecosystem in the world. Together, they give us a picture of how life varies—in time and space—on this incredible planet. They tell us how ecosystems respond to environmental pressures, including land use, the rise of invasive species, and climate change. Research collections are priceless scientific assets, and are crucial to understanding how the world’s ecosystems may change in the future.
California museums continue to push the boundaries of ecological science. At the Academy, we are currently expanding our scientific ranks, making our biggest investment in new science in a century. Along with other museums, we are pioneering the use of new tools, including molecular and genomic technologies, satellite remote sensing, and crowd-sourced observations of biodiversity from citizens (check out our iNaturalist.org platform), to describe the changing patterns of life on Earth. We are seeing a scientific renaissance blossoming in the world’s natural history museums, with California leading the way.
California museums curate and preserve collections like these to help us document and understand the changing nature of life on Earth, and to help build the tools we need to ultimately sustain the wonderful creatures and ecosystems we all depend on. We trust future Californians will be glad we did.
Ed Ricketts—later immortalized as “Doc” in Cannery Row by his friend John Steinbeck—collected this sea star during an expedition aboard a fishing boat around Baja California in 1940. That journey was chronicled in Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a classic in popular scientific literature. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Grévy’s zebras (Equus grevyi). Also known as the “imperial zebra,” this endangered species is named for Jules Grévy, considered the first true republican president of France. The largest of all wild equines—around five-feet tall and eight-to-nine-feet from head to tail—it lives in the semi-arid grasslands of Kenya and Ethiopia. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Orange sea fan (Eugorgia ampla). Also known as “sea whips,” the gorgeous sea fans are known as “gorgonians” because the order they belong to used to be known as Gorgonacea. Today, they are part of the Alcyonacea, composed of nearly 500 different species in the oceans of the world. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Pacific footballfish (Himantolophus sagamius). In 1985, deep-sea fishermen in Monterey Bay, California, hauled up their nets to find this fish with a six-inch-long globular body, prickly skin, needle-sharp teeth, miniscule eyes, and a strange stalk on its head. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Cuban land snail (Polymita picta nigrolimbata). The shells of this species, also known as the “painted snail,” are highly prized by collectors and poachers who sell them for jewelry and trinkets. As a result, this endemic species, found only on the island of Cuba, has become endangered. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces). First described in 1852, the Xerces blue is a member of the Lycaenidae (gossamer-winged butterflies), the world’s second largest family of butterflies. Found only in sand dune habitats around San Francisco’s Sunset District, the last known specimens were collected in 1943. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus californicus). Two male deer locked antlers while fighting and, unable to separate themselves, died in this position. These skulls were found in Southern California in 1946. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Biodiversity loss became a major concern among environmentalists in the mid-1980s. Since then, writers and artists have addressed the fate of individual endangered species as well as global scenarios of extinction in novels, poems, nonfiction, documentary films, photographs, paintings, and musical compositions, not to mention hundreds of websites. Most of these works are inspired by a realist impulse. They aim to move readers and spectators through details and data about the animal or (more rarely) the plant species they portray, creating aesthetic specimens for audiences to marvel at and mourn.
Hiroko Yoshimoto’s Biodiversity series of oil and watercolor paintings takes a strikingly different route. The works have none of the realistic detail of museum specimens or close-up shots, but rather resemble modernist abstraction. Bursts of clashing colors and palettes of subtly shaded ones evoke the vibrant fauna and flora of biodiversity hotspots such as rainforests and coral reefs. Varied shapes call up the enormous range of biological forms, from a single cell seen through a microscope and the texture of a sea anemone to the complex shadings of tree foliage and flashes of birds’ wings. The drawings in a naturalist’s notebook explode into cascades of color. Juxtaposed on flat pictorial surfaces without the illusion of depth that is typical of perspectival paintings, all of the organic objects in Yoshimoto’s works, from single cell to flower blossom, call on the spectator to give them equal attention regardless of their taxonomic status.
“The series Biodiversity reflects my ardent wish that life’s diversity would continue to flourish in the face of accelerated destructive forces created by human hand,” Yoshimoto writes on her website. “The seemingly infinite and wondrous diversity of life forms, like the microbes in a drop of water, inspires unique colors, shapes, and lines that then come alive on my canvas.”
Forms and textures that in the twentieth-century avant-gardes of Europe and Latin America called up the estranged environments of modernity—Salvador Dalí’s melting objects, F. T. Marinetti’s explosive battlefields, Wassily Kandinsky’s colorful geometries, Yves Tanguy’s mysterious plains, Wilfredo Lam’s sculptural jungle—metamorphose in Yoshimoto’s more organic imagination into celebrations of nature’s exuberance, and mourning for the parts of it that we are losing.
Biodiversity #25, 2012, 10 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., watercolor on paper. Yoshimoto painted Biodiversity #25 in two versions: oil and watercolor. The lighter and brighter hues of the watercolor version reproduced here playfully evoke the different scales of marine life. Small circular areas surrounded by dots and light shading might be colonies of tiny, plankton-like organisms or island archipelagos on a map. Elongated red shapes might be slugs or sea anemones, but they also recall the soft, fringed objects in some of Salvador Dalí’s surrealist landscapes, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931). Though none of the objects in the painting can be identified unambiguously, their combination evokes the sun-drenched colors washing around a tropical coral reef: schools of fish, colonies of algae, swarms of microorganisms.
Biodiversity #1, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel, collection of the Museum of Ventura County. Biodiversity#1 conveys a sense of life’s many forms through an exuberant explosion of color. Shapes strewn across the canvas suggest individual cells, single-celled organisms, sea anemones, or flowering plants, pulled together and propelled along by a horizontal color bar that evokes a fallen tree trunk or a rapidly flowing river around which life proliferates in multiple small environments.
Biodiversity #6, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel. Biodiversity #6 is even more radically decentered than other paintings in the series. Rather than showing recognizable organisms or emphasizing the idea of ecological stability, it shows the building blocks of life in exuberant motion. Cells, drops, stalks, and leaves whirl about in a dance that recalls Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric configurations, but moving in dynamic, unpredictable reconfigurations.
Biodiversity #10, 2012, 9 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., watercolor on paper. Biodiversity #10 plays on the conventions of the naturalist’s sketchbook. Painted on two sides of a ring-bound notebook, the watercolor painting takes up and transforms the parallel lines of the metal rings into parts of organic shapes—the ridged stalk of a vegetable, flower petals, segments of a sinuous worm or tuber. Writing technology morphs organically into the forms of nature.
Biodiversity #22, 2013, 30 x 60 in., oil on panel diptych, collection of the Santa Paula Art Museum. Biodiversity #22 can be understood as a riff on the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (ca. 1830), as well as the bright colors and bold dynamics of contemporary manga. If the round window at the center suggests a vanishing point that should logically organize the perspectival lines, the streams and flows of color that surround it defy any depth of perspective. Instead, they evoke flows of water, slides of mud, the push of growing roots, the speed of birds’ wings speeding past. From these dynamic, chaotic flows and clashes of ecology and biology, the still center emerges as a moment of genesis in which land and ocean separate from the sky, and organic forms begin to arise.
Biodiversity #33/6, 2013, 24 x 24 in., oil on panel, collection of Community Memorial Hospital, Ventura. Biodiversity #33/6 is the sixth and last of a series called The Future of Life, which forms part of the Biodiversity collection. The darkest and least varied of this series in its shapes and colors, it suggests that species extinction might bring about a future return to a more elemental array of environments and life forms: rock, water, and perhaps lichens and mosses.
Biodiversity #68, 2015, 11 x 14 in., monotype on BFK paper. This delicately colored painting resonates with the landscapes in Yves Tanguy’s surrealistic paintings, which are populated by strange objects and figures. A landscape of dried-up shore, desert, and mountains here seems inscribed with the traces of past life—shapes that suggest skeletal remains, tracks, and scat—but possibly also new small organisms and vegetation.
“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensees
This past July, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the bill ending personal exemptions from state vaccination requirements, many cheered this action to protect public health. But actor Jim Carrey did not, taking to Twitter to lambast Brown for the decision and calling him a “corporate fascist.”
In vain did scientists and other factually minded folk step in to point out the many fallacies in Carrey’s stance, which rested on the trace amounts of mercury contained in some vaccines. In fact, the mercury in vaccines and the mercury we justly fear in fish are completely different, chemically speaking. It makes as much sense to claim that wood alcohol—highly toxic methanol, chemically distinct from the ethanol used in drinkable spirits—and coq au vin are equally bad for you. Presented with the scientific evidence, did Carrey change his views? He did not. He doubled down, instead voicing doubt about the validity of countless studies showing no link between vaccines and autism, tweeting to his fourteen million followers, “A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you?”
Carrey’s behavior wouldn’t surprise Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. It’s just one more piece of mounting evidence that those most stubbornly committed to rejecting well-established science are largely immune to facts that don’t fit their views. Surely, rationalists have thought for decades, those in denial are merely ignorant. If we simply educate them and show them the error of their ways, they will change their minds and embrace scientific truth. (Perhaps they will even thank us profusely for our trouble.) This approach is known as the “information deficit model”—it assumes that a lack of factual understanding is the primary culprit behind staunchly antiscience stances, and hence the solution is to beat the public into submission with a bombardment of cold, hard facts.
The first in a series of photographs by Svend Keller documenting a phase transition from a liquid to a solid. Courtesy Andreas Keller.
The deficit model not only doesn’t work, it can backfire. Badly. So badly it has a name too: the “backfire effect.” Study after study has demonstrated that presenting hardline denialists with facts just makes them dig their heels in deeper.
Unfortunately, as Nyhan’s research also shows, clever alternative strategies to sneak past people’s cognitive biases—appealing to their emotions, or telling a compelling story—aren’t nearly as effective as one would hope. Last year, Nyhan conducted a study exploring attitudes about vaccines and examining what it might take to get people with strongly held beliefs—like Carrey—to change their minds. Nearly two thousand parents with mixed or negative feelings toward vaccines were shown one of four pro-vaccination campaigns, each adopting a different persuasive strategy—facts, science, emotional appeals, or stories—to see which was most effective in changing minds. (There was one control group.) The punchline: none of the above. Nothing changed people’s minds. “It’s depressing,” Nyhan admitted to The New Yorker.
This is the fundamental challenge of creating widespread collective change: it must start with the individual. But as Nyhan’s work makes clear, changing one person’s mind is no easy feat. So should we throw up our hands in despair at ever making a difference in swaying public opinion? Not necessarily. People sometimes do change their minds or alter core beliefs. But whether or not they do so appears to depend on how strongly they connect a particular opinion or belief with their personal identity. Political and religious affiliations, for example, are major factors in one’s personal identity. Thus, our beliefs about certain issues tied to those affiliations will be stronger “core” beliefs, and new information that challenges those core beliefs will be rejected. Opinions or beliefs less central to core identity are easier to discard when new information is received.
But there lies within a glimmer of hope, because identity is fluid. It shifts and evolves continually over a lifetime in response to personal experience. That means the question, “Who are you?” will evoke a different answer at different points in a person’s life. Change a person’s self-identity, even a little, and you just might have a better shot at swaying their opinion.
I like to think of the process as something akin to a phase transition. Any substance has a specific moment when the pressure or temperature is just right to cause it to shift from one state to another. Take water as a simple example: lower the temperature sufficiently and it will turn into ice; raise the temperature to a boil and it will evaporate into steam. Those are phase transitions. The precise moment when this happens is called the critical point—colloquially, the “tipping point”—when the substance is perfectly poised halfway between one phase and the other.
When this process is plotted out neatly on a graph, it doesn’t produce a continuous curved slope as the substance moves between phases. Rather, it resembles a staircase of sorts: the temperature drops (or rises) a bit, then there’s a long stretch where nothing appears to be happening at all. One might be forgiven for concluding that the old maxim is true: the watched pot will never boil. But then there is a sudden shift again as it hits the critical point and moves into a new phase. The kettle whistles. Teatime.
In nature, phase transitions are ubiquitous. They’re equally useful when thinking about complex systems in our cultural infrastructure: contagious diseases, electrical power grids, global financial markets. Raissa D’Souza, who studies phase transitions in complex networks, says they are also useful when considering profound shifts in public opinion.
D’Souza is a physicist-turned-computer modeler who straddles multiple departments at the University of California, Davis. She recently examined the role of zealots in swaying public opinion. Zealots are highly passionate, committed, and outspoken people who will never change their beliefs. Researchers also tend to use the labels “influentials” for people who can easily influence others and “susceptibles” for those who are, as D’Souza puts it, “a little easier to sway.” (Carrey would be both a zealot and an influential.) Unlike susceptibles, whose beliefs might evolve over time, zealots are “phase-locked,” says D’Souza—frozen in their core beliefs, like the tightly packed molecules in a crystal lattice of solid ice.
D’Souza’s group has done computational modeling of how opinions change in a population. They found that a small number of zealots can sway a large population over time, if there are no zealots on the opposite side. “The fact that just a few committed individuals can change public opinion is concerning when we think about climate change or vaccinations,” she says, particularly given the unlikelihood of a true zealot ever changing his or her mind. But D’Souza’s models also found that a roughly equal numbers of zealots on opposite sides of an issue produce a predictable result: stalemate. When there are more than two competing positions, a stable result is hard to predict.
Which still leaves open the question of how opinions change.
It is one thing to study collective shifts in public opinion. It is quite another to explore the complex murky depths of how a single person forms an identity and how that identity then evolves over time. But the phase transition analogy still applies, except now it is the collective influence of personal experience shaping an individual mind, rather than many individuals shaping public consensus.
Human behavior is inherently unpredictable, so there is no “one size fits all” description of how personal opinions may shift. There is more than one way to change a mind, and there is also more than one kind of phase transition. Take the case of water turning into ice or steam. The final shift may occur abruptly, but the underlying process is smooth and continuous. Similarly, we tend to think of pivotal moments in life as a sudden shift in perspective—a radical conversion of sorts, like Saul on the road to Tarsus. At least that’s how it seems. We don’t stop to consider the myriad past experiences that led Saul down that fateful road in the first place, or what role those experiences may have played in his seemingly sudden conversion.
The final photograph in the phase transition series by Svend Keller. Courtesy Andreas Keller.
Sudden-seeming, dramatic conversions are relatively rare. Most people’s opinions shift gradually, by degrees. Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran a wrenching essay by a rabbi named Gal Adam Spinrad, detailing how, over a period of twelve years, she shifted from being fearful of vaccinating her young daughter, to insisting that the entire family stay up-to-date on all immunizations, including flu shots. There was no one moment when she changed her mind completely; rather, many different incidents and experiences over the years slowly reshaped her thinking by degrees.
Initially, as a new young mother in San Francisco, she self-identified strongly with her local home birth collective’s views that vaccines could be harmful to newborns, delaying her daughter’s first immunizations until the child was a year old. Then Spinrad developed shingles while abroad, a result of having had chickenpox as a child, and she began to see the value in such protections. A second daughter, born with a serious congenital defect, lived just fifty-eight days, and a broken-hearted Spinrad realized she couldn’t continue to take her children’s health (and her ability to protect them) for granted. Moving to the Midwest and finding a staunchly pro-vaccination doctor sealed the deal. By 2013 she finally understood the concept of herd immunity and why it wasn’t just about protecting her children. It was also about protecting other vulnerable members of society who, for various reasons, couldn’t be vaccinated.
Those are just the episodes Spinrad recalled as she shaped her narrative with the advantage of hindsight. There were likely countless other tiny things, adding up over the years with seemingly imperceptible effects, until that critical threshold was reached.
Applying phase transitions to shifting opinion has already seeped into psychology. It’s been dubbed the “affective tipping point,” akin to the critical point, in this case one that describes a phase change in emotion or feeling. A 2010 paper in the journal Political Psychology involving so-called “motivated reasoners” found intriguing evidence for an affective tipping point in voter opinions. At some point, the authors reasoned, repeated encounters with new information at odds with closely held beliefs can overcome the backfire effect, potentially pushing even the most stubborn denialists out of phase-locked mode, past the critical threshold, to shift their stance, even if just a little.
Nyhan cautions that it is very difficult to get phase-locked people to reach that stage: “It may take overwhelming evidence to the contrary if the belief is deep-seated and psychologically meaningful enough,” he says, “but it can and does happen.” He thinks that ultimately, people are swayed over time by a combination of shifting opinions in their social circles—the herd mentality—and among high-profile “influentials.” He points to the rapid collective shift in public opinion about gay marriage as one example.
The 2010 Political Psychology study also found that voters become more anxious as they approach the tipping point, because their cognitive dissonance increases accordingly. This could be a driving factor behind Carrey’s Twitter rant. Perhaps the person loudly and passionately ignoring all of the scientific evidence contradicting any link between vaccines and autism is so forceful precisely because he is close to the affective tipping point—when cognitive dissonance is at its most intense, and he is closest to shifting to a new phase of thinking. Or perhaps that’s just seriously wishful thinking.
We can’t control what people experience and how their opinions and beliefs evolve in response—the same way we can’t control the stock market, or epidemics, or whether that latest YouTube video goes viral. Your smidgen of input is just one factor among many working to shape a complex system over time. All you can do is sow the seeds and hope some of those seeds find fertile ground. When you get discouraged, remember this: we can’t know another person’s innermost thoughts. Those seeds might not flourish for months, or years. You might not see any outward change at all for a good long while. That doesn’t mean your efforts were wasted; beneath the surface, any number of seeds could be taking root, slowly growing toward that critical threshold. Opinions can and do change, individually and collectively. The California vaccine legislation is proof of that.
One October evening in 1981, Molly Lawrence, widow of the fabled physicist Ernest Lawrence, took to the podium at the Berkeley laboratory bearing his name to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Listing the serendipitous circumstances and determined leadership that had put the University of California at the forefront of high-energy physics research, she asked: “What if that wonderfully inspired, dedicated, hardworking, long-suffering bunch of young people had not gravitated to Berkeley to work night and day, Sundays and holidays, for their demanding maestro?…What if the right people had not had the right ideas at the right time, the right degree of enthusiasm and persistence, at the right time and in the right place?”
The auspicious circumstances to which Molly Lawrence referred gave birth to the “Radiation Laboratory,” first in a ramshackle building due for demolition, then an expansive complex in a hillside ravine above the university with a superb view of San Francisco Bay. Her husband’s greatest legacy was not a lab, though, but a new paradigm in scientific research. It would become known as “Big Science”: a capital-intensive, large-group research method that would produce some of the most important advances in physics of the twentieth century, new diagnostic and treatment techniques in medicine, and—in a less uplifting vein—the atomic and hydrogen bombs. In the postwar period, Big Science would put humans on the moon and drive the exploration of the farthest reaches of the solar system and the infinitesimal world of subatomic particles.
And it all started in California, with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron, a peerlessly efficient and effective atom smasher, and his partnership with another young, ambitious physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Before Lawrence’s arrival on the woodsy campus in 1928, followed by Oppenheimer a year later, no student could lay claim to a complete education in physics without having done a turn at one of Europe’s great centers of theory and research. In Göttingen, Copenhagen, or Cambridge they would sit at the feet of Max Planck, Niels Bohr, or Ernest Rutherford, absorb these masters’ knowledge, and carry it home. Soon enough, it would be to Berkeley that students would make their pilgrimages, coming from all corners of the world to learn how to smash atoms and unlock their secrets with the help of a marvelous new machine Lawrence had invented, backed up by Oppenheimer’s theoretical explanations. The old masters themselves would come, too.
Ernest Lawrence sitting at the control table of the 27-inch cyclotron taken in 1933 or 1934.
What started there still drives much of twenty-first-century science. The physics and biology labs at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and California’s other great institutions of learning are modern manifestations of the Big Science paradigm. The Human Genome Project was a $3 billion Big Science exercise, nurturing not only a new field of study but new industries. California’s $6 billion stem cell research program is the largest such project sponsored by any state. Research into climate change is a quintessential Big Science endeavor.
Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (operated by CERN), with which three thousand physicists discovered the elusive subatomic Higgs boson particle in 2012, is the latest iteration of the first cyclotron Ernest Lawrence built more than eight decades ago. That first device cost less than one hundred dollars and fit in the palm of his hand. Its descendant today occupies a tunnel seventeen miles in circumference, buried under the French and Swiss countryside, built at a cost of $9 billion.
The invention that made Lawrence’s name was born in 1929. Lawrence had recently joined the faculty of the University of California, which had a lot of money and beautiful facilities and now had turned to assembling a science faculty to match. Physics itself was at a crossroads. The older, departing generation, scientists like Ernest Rutherford and Marie Curie, had probed the atomic nucleus with the tools nature gave them: alpha and beta rays emitted from radioactive minerals such as radium, husbanded by the thimbleful. With those tools, that generation had figured out the structure of the atom and discovered x-rays and radioactivity. But they had gone about as far as possible. To delve deeper into the nucleus, they recognized, science would need probes of higher energies, which could only be achieved through human ingenuity. Rutherford threw down the challenge for the new generation. He called for an apparatus that could charge a probe with ten million volts, yet still be “safely accommodated in a medium-size room.”
Scientists all over the world took up his challenge. But they discovered that when you load an apparatus with ten million volts, what happens is you blow up the apparatus. Think of trying to fire a mortar shell out of a cardboard-barreled cannon. Laboratories filled up with shards of splintered glass. One team of intrepid German researchers strung a cable between two Alpine peaks to capture lightning during a thunderstorm, and they did—but the effort ended with one of them getting blasted off the mountain to his death.
Lawrence began his career at a moment when physics had hit a brick wall in its understanding of the atomic nucleus. The obstacle was galling; physicists felt as if they could peer over the wall at a misty landscape, but couldn’t get there. One night in Berkeley, Lawrence had a brainstorm that would breach the wall: what if you don’t put the voltage into the apparatus, but build it up on the probe? If you start with a proton, say, with 100 volts, and give it a 100-volt jolt, now it’s got energy of 200 volts. Another jolt, and it’s 300, and so on. But a linear accelerator designed to keep delivering these jolts via synchronized electrodes arranged in a line would have to be almost a mile in length—not exactly fitting into Rutherford’s comfortably sized room.
Then came the second part of Lawrence’s brainstorm. He knew that a charged particle crossing through a magnetic field follows a curved path. So, apply a magnetic field, and you can bend your proton into a spiral, allowing it to receive repeated jolts from a single electrode. That’s the essence of the cyclotron, reduced to its simplest terms: after enough revolutions, you’ve got a particle that now carries a million volts, ten million, even one hundred million. All you have to do is aim it at a target and let it rip. To Lawrence, the possibilities seemed limitless. (In fact, they would be limited by the effect of relativity, but that was a realization years in the future.) And it all could fit into a medium-size room—at least the first cyclotrons could.
Lawrence knew he was on to something. The next day he bounded across the Berkeley campus, buttonholing friends and colleagues to declare, “I’m going to be famous.”
Part of Lawrence’s 1932 patent application for the cyclotron.
And so he was. In the next decade, Lawrence’s invention proved to be a spectacularly useful machine. The doctoral candidates and postdocs he assembled into teams at Berkeley—exploiting their student grants to employ them without pay—discovered scores of new isotopes, including carbon-14, which made its mark as a tool for carbon dating. Other isotopes created by cyclotron bombardment became the foundation of the new science of nuclear medicine and the sources of new cures. And there were new elements heavier than uranium, which had never been seen in a natural state—element 93, named neptunium, and then 94, plutonium.
Every discovery opened new vistas, and Lawrence responded by designing new cyclotrons, each one bigger, more powerful, and much more expensive than the last. The hallmark of the Berkeley Radiation Lab in those days was a relentless drive to overcome the succession of obstacles nature placed in its path. As the British cyclotroneer John Bertram Adams would recall, “One type of machine succeeded another, and as each type reached a limiting energy…a new idea was put forward which overcame these limitations and allowed higher-energy machines to be built. The remarkable thing was that these new ideas arrived at just the opportune moment so that the research proceeded rather smoothly from one energy range to the next.”
Beyond his real scientific accomplishments, Lawrence’s personality was perfect for a country striving to emerge from the shadow of European scientific traditions. He was youthful and engaging, very different from the popular image of the mad scientist locked away alone in a Gothic lab, wild-haired, foreign, and strange. He was sober, businesslike, very down-to-earth, Midwestern. New Republic editor Bruce Bliven went to visit him at Berkeley and returned home enthralled by this energetic young man he described as simple and natural, “easy to talk to and completely American.”
In 1939 Lawrence won the Nobel Prize for the cyclotron. What fellow physicists such as Niels Bohr found striking about the award was that for the first time, the Nobel committee had honored not a discovery, but an invention—a recognition that the techniques of scientific investigation had become as important as theory—perhaps even more important.
Yet Lawrence was not merely a genius of scientific technique; he was a master of research management. When you needed to raise millions of dollars to build your apparatus, you had to have the skills of an entrepreneur, a ringmaster, a CEO. He showed that the key to raising money from university presidents, foundation boards, industrial executives, and government officials was to serve their institutional goals without compromising one’s own. To attract grants from biological and medical research institutions, he played up the cyclotron’s ability to produce artificial radioisotopes that could help unlock the secrets of photosynthesis and generate neutrons to attack cancerous tumors. Private industrialists were plied with visions of the energy to be liberated from the atomic nucleus, unimaginably cheap and almost infinitely abundant. To scientific foundations he offered the prestige of association with creative efforts to solve nature’s mysteries. Rockefeller Foundation president Raymond B. Fosdick delivered perhaps the most concise distillation of this last impulse, stating in 1940, “the new cyclotron is more than an instrument of research. It is a mighty symbol, a token of man’s hunger for knowledge, an emblem of the undiscourageable search for truth which is the noblest expression of the human spirit.”
A few months earlier, Fosdick’s board had voted to grant Lawrence more than $1 million to build the most powerful cyclotron on Earth. The machine was to be completed by June 1944. It would fail to meet that deadline.
What intervened was World War II and, more specifically, the Manhattan Project. The effort to build the atomic bomb would validate the Big Science paradigm. The atomic bomb could never have been invented by a solitary physicist using handmade equipment. It required an investment of billions, the deployment of armies of scientists and technicians, laboratories built on an industrial scale. The Manhattan Project was the first great Big Science program, and it proved how powerful an approach Big Science could be—and how difficult its results might be to control.
Starting with Lawrence’s paramount role in the Manhattan Project, the University of California would become a charter participant in the government’s nuclear weapons programs, a role reflected to this day in UC’s leading role in the consortiums managing the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. At the outset, Lawrence converted his treasured new cyclotron, which was still under construction in a ravine above the Berkeley campus, into a mass spectrograph to enrich natural uranium to bomb grade by concentrating its fissionable isotope, U-235. He designed the industrial plant to manufacture the enriched product in a rural Tennessee district known as Oak Ridge—a plant that would concentrate every atom of the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He assigned one of his young associates, Glenn Seaborg, to isolate element 94, plutonium, which became the core of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
Robert Oppenheimer and Lawrence at Oppenheimer’s New Mexico ranch in 1931.
When General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, came around looking for someone to head up the actual designing of the bomb at the lab that became Los Alamos, Lawrence nominated Oppenheimer and helped get him the job.
The Manhattan Project also entangled the University of California, among Big Science’s other patrons, in the moral ambiguity of warfare. The scientists of that period subsumed whatever doubts they may have had beneath a sense of urgency: to develop the explosive force locked within the atomic nucleus before Hitler’s physicists could. Looking back on their work is especially complicated because the postwar age is so familiar with their consequences. We know the toll in lives from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—something that the builders of the bomb could only guess at (and they probably underestimated the figures). We know of the horrific disfigurements and long-term illnesses of those cities’ civilian residents, unlike anything experienced by any other survivors of warfare in history. We know the cloud that civilization has lived under for seventy years because of the decision to unleash the atomic nucleus’s destructive capacity. And we know that the Nazis never actually did have an atomic bomb program. The scientists who stayed behind in Germany got the physics of the bomb wrong, concluded it could never be built, and so never tried. But the Allies didn’t learn that until after the war ended.
Germany’s surrender in 1945 changed the calculus, but not the momentum, of this effort. Unlike Germany, Japan was not regarded as a potential nuclear threat and its regime was not seen as fixed on world domination. But by then, the bombs were nearly complete, and the impulse to use them to bring a quick end to the war was strong. The final pre-Hiroshima debate among scientists and military and political leaders concerned whether dropping the bombs on the unsuspecting Japanese was truly necessary—or whether doing so over an unpopulated atoll would deliver a sufficiently grim and compelling message to the Japanese regime. The record tells us that the last holdout against dropping the bombs on populated areas was Lawrence himself. He favored a demonstration, but eventually he concluded that there was still a chance that a demonstration blast could fail, and a dud that failed to communicate the power of the weapon could weaken the Allied military position and strategy for ending the war.
Image and diagram of the “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, from The Effects of Atomic Weapons, published in 1950.
Many of the scientists who developed the bomb, including Oppenheimer, would eventually reconsider their role. Even before the first bomb was dropped, some had begun thinking about how to manage the political and social implications of the technology they had helped to invent. Many would work to promote the cause of international control over nuclear technology, recognizing that what Big Science had unleashed could be managed safely only through a new kind of geopolitics. Many others would work to develop nuclear power and other peaceful technologies, perhaps in the hopes of expiating the qualms that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought about.
Ernest Lawrence was not among them. Introspection was not his strong suit, and when his old friend Robert Oppenheimer declared that through the atomic bomb program physicists had come to know sin, he responded, rather angrily, that nothing about his work had caused him to know sin. That was still true after the war, when he became the nation’s leading scientific promoter of the hydrogen (or thermonuclear) bomb, a weapon that many of his colleagues viewed as a genocidal device and that even the Pentagon acknowledged could never be used in a military campaign, only as a weapon of psychological terror.
Lawrence never apologized for his work on the H-bomb, either, even when he was accused of using the program to expand his own empire by building an H-bomb lab in the farm community of Livermore, California—what we now know as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. To Lawrence, both bomb programs were necessary for national security, and he never looked back.
But because he died in 1958, we don’t know what he would have made of the nuclear world Big Science helped create. His widow, Molly, thought he would have been aghast at nuclear proliferation. In the 1980s, in fact, she was so appalled at Livermore’s role in the arms race that she petitioned Congress to take her husband’s name off his lab. Congress turned her down.
The momentum created by Lawrence’s leadership of the “Rad Lab” would carry physics forward into the 1970s. Steven Weinberg, a future Nobel laureate, arrived at the Rad Lab as a postdoc in 1959 to work on the Bevatron, a new accelerator that was built to accelerate protons to energies high enough to create antiprotons—protons with a negative charge—which had never been done before. “To no one’s surprise, antiprotons were created,” Weinberg later deadpanned. But so were many other particles, which demanded the construction of yet another generation of accelerators, more energetic and of course more expensive, to break open new mysteries. The Bevatron pointed the way to accelerators too big to fit in the ravine and too costly for a single university to build. So the next-generation machines were built by academic consortiums and university-government collaborations like the ones underlying the Chicago-area Fermilab and the European government organization CERN, builder of the Large Hadron Collider.
But even during that transition, Lawrence’s excellent relationship with government research officials, born during the bomb project, ensured that Berkeley remained uniquely favored in the disbursement of government largesse. In the first peacetime years, government funding supported Berkeley’s “synchrotron,” a cyclotron based on new technology; a linear accelerator; the completion of Lawrence’s prewar cyclotron, now dubbed a synchrocyclotron; and a “hot lab” for Seaborg to continue his work on elements heavier than uranium (the “transuranics”). The physicist I. I. Rabi, the head of a rival consortium of nine Eastern universities angling for government grants, groused about the “University of California Atomic Trust.” (The rival consortium would eventually establish Brookhaven National Laboratory outside New York City.)
But within a few short years of Lawrence’s death, skeptics were questioning the scale and expense of the enterprises his methods had fostered. Among the doubters was the physicist Alvin M. Weinberg, who in 1961 coined the term “Big Science” in an article in Science magazine. Weinberg posed three fundamental questions about the new paradigm: Is it ruining science? Is it ruining the nation financially? Should the money it commands be redirected—spent on eradicating disease and other efforts aimed directly at “human well-being,” for example, rather than on “spectaculars” like space travel and particle physics?
Big Science thrived—even depended—on publicity, Weinberg observed. Discussions of the technical merits of projects were reduced to debates about how to make the biggest splash in the press. Weinberg illuminated the uneasiness already emerging about Big Science’s impact on research and the university. “I suspect that most Americans would prefer to belong to the society which first gave the world a cure for cancer,” he wrote, “than to the society which put the first astronaut on Mars.”
Other critics spotlighted the impact of Big Science on the traditional academic ideal, which melded basic research, applied research, and teaching. Once physicists’ equipment burst the confines of the campus, this relationship began to break down. It became further fragmented by the flow of military funding during World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. “When the machines outgrew their university environment,” John Bertram Adams told the audience at the Rad Lab’s fiftieth-anniversary symposium, “the place where experiments were carried out became separated from the place where students were taught physics.” Big Science was no longer part of the academic institution, but an institution unto itself. Experiments using billion-dollar machines had to be approved by committees, which based their decisions not only on the objective merits of the proposals but on subjective judgments of the applicants’ reputations and standing in their fields.
These questions emerged when Lawrence and his generation were no longer in a position to defend the paradigm they had pioneered. He and his cohort were scientific statesmen who drew their peacetime authority from the roles they had played during World War II. By the third decade after the war, many had passed on, including Oppenheimer (in 1967). No one in the succeeding generation commanded the respect of Congress or the White House as they had; none could claim to represent the scientific community’s unified interests as they could; none had Lawrence’s charisma or fundraising skills.
To the particle physicists who had come of age during the cyclotron era, the need for ever-more-powerful machines was an article of faith. “We simply do not know how to obtain information on the most minute structure of matter (high-energy physics) or on the grandest scale of the universe…without large efforts and large tools,” wrote Wolfgang K. H. “Pief” Panofsky?, a Rad Lab veteran who became head of Stanford University’s competing high-energy accelerator program. The projects, moreover, were all-or-nothing. “Big science has the special problem that it can’t easily be scaled down,” Steven Weinberg observed. “It does no good to build an accelerator tunnel that only goes halfway around the circle.”
But not all science was physics, and not all physics was high-energy physics. “A 20-year honeymoon for science is drawing to a close,” wrote Science magazine’s editor, Phil Abelson, a former Rad Lab researcher, in 1966.
A grand honeymoon it had been. During those twenty years, which started with Hiroshima and received a powerful booster shot from Sputnik, scientists rose to become figures of great consequence in American public life. Ernest Lawrence and his cohort were able to persuade Congress that “basic science was worth supporting for its own sake—or at any rate without inquiring too closely about its connection with practical results,” observed Don K. Price, an expert in public administration at Harvard University. Federal government spending on research and development had grown from $74 million in 1940 to $15 billion in 1965, an increase averaging nearly 20 percent per year. But the growth rate of that spending had fallen sharply. From 1950 to 1955 the annual growth rate was 28 percent; from 1961 to 1965 it was 15 percent.
This trend surely reflected the sheer impossibility of sustaining the growth rate of the war years and the immediate postwar period. But there was more to it. Big Science had allowed its past achievements to be oversold, and its promoters overpromised gains for the future. By the mid-1960s, the successes of wartime were receding into the mists of memory, and the expense of competing with Russia in the post-Sputnik era began to seem staggering. Then came Vietnam, which placed a heavy strain on government resources and raised public skepticism about the military’s patronage of basic research. Congress moved to wean academia from the mother’s milk of Pentagon funding through the 1969 Mansfield Amendment, which barred the Pentagon from spending money on any research not directly related to military needs.
The change struck at a host of Big Science university projects funded by the Defense Department’s Sputnik-era Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA—not least among them a network linking university research computers known as ARPANET, the grandparent of today’s Internet. (In recognition of the change in its mission, ARPA would be renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.) And it was especially hard on physicists, many of whom had based their career aspirations on expectations of continued government funding for Big Science. MIT physics department chairman Victor Weisskopf observed in 1972 that his university had sustained a 30 percent drop in its government support over four years and lamented the declining prospects of “a generation of people who studied physics under the stimulus of Sputnik. As kids in school they were told this was a great national emergency, that we needed scientists. So they worked hard.” Now, he said, “they are out on the street and naturally they feel cheated.”
Big Scientists tried to push back against the skepticism. They claimed that, given enough money, practical applications from basic science were just around the corner: the conquest of cancer “or heart disease, or stroke, or mental illness, or whatever,” as Harper’s editor John Fischer reported dismissively. They predicted world domination by the Russians if the U.S. effort in Big Science faltered.
What brought Big Science’s limits into sharp relief in the United States was the bitter debate over the Superconducting Super Collider in the 1980s and early 1990s. The SSC was projected to cost $6 billion over ten years. The sales pitch to Congress came straight from Lawrence’s playbook: national pride, the prospect of lifesaving discoveries, the glory of humankind’s search for nature’s fundamental truths. If America rejected the SSC, its promoters wrote, “the loss will not only be to our science but also to the broader issue of national pride and technological self-confidence.”
Yet as the SSC campaign progressed, budgetary considerations came to trump the promise of technological spin-offs, national pride, and human aspiration. Steven Weinberg came face-to-face with the challenge during an appearance on the Larry King radio show with an anti-SSC congressman. “He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities,” Weinberg recollected. “I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was ‘No.'” No mere congressman would have dared deliver such a rebuff to Ernest Lawrence in his day. In 1993, Congress killed the project.
The GRETINA gamma particle device in Building 88 of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Photograph by Roy Kaltschmidt.
Was that the death knell for Big Science in America? It remains unclear even today. After the SSC’s cancellation, the center of gravity of high-energy physics shifted to CERN and its Large Hadron Collider, which became the world’s most powerful accelerator by default. The LHC keeps thousands of physicists employed, and many Americans joined the project to identify the Higgs boson. But as has been the pattern in physics for a century, the discovery only pointed the way to more questions about fundamental particles and forces of nature—questions that might require yet bigger and more powerful machines to answer. “In the next decade,” Steven Weinberg predicted, “physicists are probably going to ask their governments for whatever new and more powerful accelerator we then think will be needed. That is going to be a very hard sell.”
In the years since the cancellation of the SSC, government’s role in funding Big Science has continued to wane. Big Science’s center of gravity has shifted to industry, whose R&D priorities are very different from those of universities, research foundations, and governments. Today, industry contributes two-thirds of all research and development funds spent in the United States. Of that, nearly two-thirds is “development”—that is, efforts to bring the results of applied research to market. Business was the source of almost all of the increases in funding reported by the National Science Foundation from 2003 through 2008.
The financial demands of Big Science feed the encroachment of commercial behavior into basic research. Lawrence struggled all his life with his patrons’ demands that he erect patent walls around his discoveries (the patent for the cyclotron was conditioned on free licenses for academic institutions). But in recent decades, scientists have been more aggressively acquiring and enforcing patents on their work. As a result, some experts say, researchers’ ability to build on each new discovery is impeded by licensing costs and financial rivalries. The line between basic research programs and commercial quests has become blurred, as in California’s own stem cell research program, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Created as a $6 billion publicly funded Big Science effort to develop cures for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and a host of other diseases via stem cell research, CIRM has shifted much of its portfolio into commercial arrangements with private companies that hope to turn any such cures into profits. Whether or how the public, which launched that program, will gain isn’t clear.
Ernest Lawrence on the hillside above 184-inch cyclotron in the 1950s.
The one aspect of Big Science that we still can be confident about, however, is that, when done right, it can feed the unquenchable human thirst to understand our natural world. As illustration, we need only consider the excitement everyone felt—not only astronomers and planetary experts but also the general public—this past summer when the New Horizons spacecraft began broadcasting photos of Pluto after its nine-year voyage to the limits of our solar system. Those extraordinary images and the accompanying data are already enhancing scientists’ understandings of planetary formation, and our origins in the universe.
None of this could have been achieved outside the paradigm that Ernest Lawrence developed, starting with his first palm-size proto-cyclotron in Berkeley more than eighty years ago. Robert Oppenheimer, whose friendship with Lawrence would crumble under the pressures of postwar nuclear politics, left a typically refined analysis of Lawrence’s contribution ten years after the latter’s death: “It wasn’t in the realm of understanding of nature, but it was in the realm of understanding the problem of studying nature.” Oppenheimer was thinking of what many of Lawrence’s colleagues regarded as his truly lasting achievement—not so much the invention of the cyclotron, but the invention of a style of conducting research in the modern world.
This essay is adapted from Michael Hiltzik’s book Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. All photographs courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Editor’s Note: As chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, Peter Kareiva has spent much of the past decade in the air, touching down to work with other scientists, conservationists, community organizations, and political and business leaders on projects to protect nature—for nature’s sake and for people’s—on every continent except Antarctica. Now he’s coming to roost in what might seem an unlikely perch: Los Angeles, a city not known as a paragon of preservation.
This summer, Kareiva became director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Los Angeles is changing, Kareiva told us. And cities are a crucial site for conservation science and solutions to the grand challenges of the twenty-first century: population growth and urbanization, threats to ecosystems and biodiversity, climate change, and sustainability in a world of inequality. What better place could there be for a scientist who has been called “one of the most innovative and provocative thinkers in conservation today”? We sat down for a long conversation with him on a sunny day with a light ocean breeze blowing across the City of Angels. This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen and Hillary Rosner.
Boom: Welcome to Los Angeles.
Kareiva: It’s nice to be here.
Boom: With The Nature Conservancy, you’ve been all over the world. What attracts you to L.A.?
Kareiva: Well, you know, I lived in L.A. twenty years ago. At that stage, I was surfing and enjoying the weather. This time around, it’s that I like cities! I know that’s kind of unusual for a conservation biologist. But I’ve always liked cities. And L.A. is a great city.
I like cities because of the creativity and the people in them. And now I like cities as a conservationist because I think they’re essential to get right in order to solve the big environmental problems: food, water, climate, transportation, all the supply chains that drive what happens in the world. Getting that right depends on cities because that’s where most of the activity is, the energy is, the people are.
L.A. is a pretty neat city because I like to run against the grain a little bit. And when I told my buddies I was going to L.A., they all said, “Why L.A.?” Most conservation biologists would go to Montana or go to Wyoming. But L.A. is doing a lot of interesting things with conservation. The whole notion of restoring the Los Angeles River is just wild. L.A. was a leader in dealing with coastal pollution decades ago. And now L.A. is facing a big water shortage, and how it is dealing with that, in everything from residential to industrial use, is fascinating.
The energetics of the city—just in terms of carbon emissions—are daunting. You have a sprawling city, notorious for not having mass transit, that could actually turn out to be carbon neutral. That would be remarkable. And that would tell you that other cities could do it too, that you wouldn’t have to start with a perfectly designed city. So all of that is pretty appealing. And then there is the diversity. Why do biologists do conservation? They like biological diversity. I like people diversity. I like food diversity. And L.A. has all that.
Boom: So you’re making a move from where you’ve been for ten years now—The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization—and doing all these great, exciting projects on the ground, around the world. Why make the transition to academia, to UCLA?
Kareiva: Well, I’m still going to stay connected to The Nature Conservancy in some ways, precisely because of what you just said: they’re always doing stuff. But there is a problem with organizations that are always doing stuff, whether they’re NGOs or the federal government. They’re called action institutions. And action institutions do not pause to think about what they’re doing. They do not pause to ask, really, how well is this working? Is there a better way or is there a different way to do things? Rarely do they even pause to analyze the data they’ve collected. And so, after ten years of doing stuff, I think there now needs to be some research and deep analysis of what’s working and not working and all the things everybody is doing in the environment.
And the other thing is that, you know, universities are places where, ideally, it’s fine to have arguments. It’s not always so fine to have arguments in the NGO world or even the federal agency world because there’s a tremendous cultural push to reach consensus, sometimes somewhat artificially, even when that doesn’t mean resolving the issues. It’s understandable that federal agencies have to achieve consensus. It’s understandable that NGOs have to reach consensus. But I think we’re at a time now in the environment where we don’t know what the consensus should be, and we should be having these arguments.
Boom: You’ve also taught at universities around the United States, public and private. What attracts you to a big public university?
Kareiva: Well, my very first job after I did my PhD was at Brown University, which is about as elite as you can get. My dad was first a coal miner and then a construction worker and finally a groundskeeper at a college, so I had a little bit of a working-class chip on my shoulder. Then when I moved from Brown to the University of Washington, just looking out at the students and seeing lumberjacks and a tremendous diversity of students, I really liked it. There’s something about the big public university that’s special. They really are the American dream. Somebody told me the statistic that one out of three UCLA undergraduates is a first-generation college student, and I can see it, just from the little time I’ve been on campus. Just looking around and talking to people, you see that diversity. They’re much less entitled. They’re much less cynical.
So I think there’s something special about public universities. But also, many who have been at a university realize that public universities are in trouble in the United States. The state and the public are cutting back support for them. They’re asking the faculty to do more with less. Students are being asked to pay higher tuitions. And it’s really kind of cramped from every side. Private philanthropy gives to the big famous private schools. They really should be giving to UCLA and other public schools, in my opinion. I just love big public schools. They’re exciting.
Boom: So you like a challenge.
Kareiva: I always like a challenge. I’m competitive too. I think that major public universities like UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Minnesota, those big schools actually can do better research and do things better in general than—I won’t name the schools, but you can name them—all the elite private schools, partly because they are more diverse. There’s more hunger.
UCLA Ecology and Evolutionary Biology student Sarah Ratay describes how the Western Scrub-Jay makes use of chaparral habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains. Courtesy the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science.
Boom: And energy.
Kareiva: Yes, and energy.
Boom: You said after ten years, now seems like a time to step back and assess what’s being done and perhaps argue with the consensus. So do you have a specific research agenda based on that, that either you want to see carried out or you plan to carry out yourself?
Kareiva: Yeah, I do, and it’s been evolving pretty rapidly, even within the last year. If you had asked me a year ago, it would be different than what it is now, partly because of analyzing data and thinking about things.
Probably the trendiest thing in conservation and the environment right now is urban conservation, green infrastructure, resilient cities. All of those are connected, but they’re connected pretty uncritically right now. And I think the way people are dealing with it, because they’re natural scientists like me, they’re coming in with a too mechanistic, biophysical point of view. Like, let’s put, you know, this much permeable surface, this much of this building type, this much green roof, this much of that, and then let’s write out a model that tells you what the city is like environmentally.
And that’s all valid. I would do that myself. But because I travel so much and I’m a walker, whenever I go to a new city, I’ll spend a whole day walking around the city. And you get different views. You see how people are different. But I don’t think that type of research captures that. It doesn’t capture what makes people really enjoy the city and the nature of the city, what makes people really connect with nature and feel different about the city. I don’t think it’s well captured by the way we’ve traditionally been doing this research on cities.
This research is also tied to the notion of resilience. There are a number of major philanthropists funding what they call the resilient cities network. And we all have an intuitive idea what resilience means. It means bouncing back when something like Hurricane Sandy happens, or not getting hammered when something bad happens to you. When I see conservationists and environmentalists take up the term “resilience,” often their interpretation of it is about keeping nature the same, and they think that maintenance of the same nature produces resilience for resilient cities. The hypothesis is often that if we maintain the biodiversity we have, if we maintain the vegetation we have without any nonnative species, and if we maintain nature as it has been, then we will get resilience. Well, that might be resilient for nature, but I am not sure it is resilience for cities and people.
There’s good reason to argue that what would make a city socially and economically resilient is to fundamentally transform nature, not keep it the same. In fact, spending energy trying to keep it the same could just waste energy, and it could be the worst thing in the world you could do. So I’m interested in exploring that idea of resilience, not just with cities, but in a variety of systems that are taking up this word “resilience.” I’m interested in trying to collect data and write mathematical models, frankly, and conceptual models, that ask the question: what type of nature would make socioeconomic systems resilient? The default answer of ecologists has been that nature has to stay the same to be resilient. But that might not be the case at all.
And then one other big thing that I’ve really become interested in is working with corporations to create environmental benefits. Related to that, what’s the role of consumer and investor behavior in prompting changes in corporate practices? There’s no question that corporations will not just automatically decide to become environmentally wonderful for the sake of “goodness.” But there have been cases where corporate practices have changed dramatically. Look at dolphin-safe tuna. We used to kill millions of dolphins a year. Now we kill less than a thousand a year. That involved totally revamping an industry. And it was an industry that resisted for a while because it made it more expensive and harder to catch tuna. They had to change their gear and everything. They totally changed.
And technology has a role in this. A lot of corporations, when you come to them, say, “Well, we can’t give you the information you want.” I think in this big-data era, they can. Also, most corporations, when they do “sustainability,” all they’re really doing is energy efficiency—and now maybe water efficiency. Sustainability is about a lot more than energy efficiency and water efficiency. But those are easy to report and tend to be as far as corporations go in their sustainability efforts.
The best case is from food safety and tracking E. coli outbreaks. There was an outbreak that originated here in California from lettuce grown in Salinas. There are ways of tracking supply chains that allow you to know where your food is coming from and how it was grown. Well, that same technology allows you to do that for any product, much better than corporations are actually using.
Nike is the best at it. Nike got very serious. You can go on Nike’s website and look at their MSI, or Materials Sustainability Index, and find out what material is in your running shoe and where it came from and how sustainable it is. And if you put that information together for all of a corporation’s products, you can actually really get what I would call the sustainability footprint and impact of that corporation.
So, I’m interested in thinking through the whole business enterprise from a supply-chain point of view and seeing what could be done with it. I think you have a lot of leverage there. And a lot could be done. We make it too easy by being satisfied with emissions reporting as though that captures all of sustainability.
Boom: Both of these things—focusing on what nature can do for people or for cities and your interest in working with corporations—have gotten you into some trouble with the traditional conservation community. And some of the debates you’ve been involved in have become very heated and personal at times. I wonder if there are things you’ve learned that have changed your approach.
Kareiva: Well, the two immediate, short-term, personal things that I’ve learned are, one, to be a lot better at listening and paying attention to other people’s values. The other is to open every paper and every talk with some sort of statement that says, “Hey, look, I love nature too. I go out. I like species. I don’t want to see them extinct.” And then move on from there. It’s sort of like announcing, “I believe in God too,” or, “I’m a patriot as well. I believe in the United States.”
Emily Ann Parker, a student in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum research course, conducts a survey on water use at UCLA’s Unicamp near Big Bear. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: “I believe in nature.”
Boom: But wait, you’ve been the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. What made some people think you don’t care enough about nature?
Kareiva: By paying so much attention to what nature can do for cities and people or corporate behavior, there’s sometimes the assumption that that means I don’t love nature as a value. And that by not loving nature just as a pure value, as an ethical value, I’ve surrendered too much and made it too easy to compromise and not produce the outcomes that conservationists want.
Where I come back on that is, well, you have to realize that nature is one of many values. And there certainly is an ethics to extinction. But there’s also an ethics to freedom from violence. There’s also an ethics to freedom from hunger. There are all these values and ethics. And so love of nature is one of many values that shape our decisions. And you can’t just make it automatically the trump card, because if you do that it means you’re not going to listen to anybody else or even have a conversation with anybody else. It ends all conversations to tell someone that nature is the highest value that trumps all other values. I am not willing to say that nature should trump all other values. And that unwillingness makes some conservationists squirm and think I am uncommitted.
The other thing—and this is what I think I did wrong and scientists often do wrong—is that there are a lot of debates about conservation and the environment that really are all about values, and we couch them in science. And I should have known better. Now that I reflect on a whole bunch of debates that I’ve been involved in, they were consistently about values. What does one part of society value versus another part of society? Science was used to create an answer to support a preference that had already been arrived at by values. And I should have been smarter about that.
Now, the way I like to reframe it is this. I know it sounds like it’s, you know, kind of a smiley-face answer. But I say everybody is an environmentalist. And to a certain extent, everybody is an environmentalist. You’ll find very few people who would say, “I don’t like the environment. I don’t like nature.” So everybody is an environmentalist. And the right way to ask the questions we face—in L.A., in national parks, with endangered species, the whole environmental movement and conservation movement—is “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” If we actually frame the question that way, “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” I think we’ll find a lot more common ground, because it’s looking forward. Almost everybody loves running streams and rivers with fish in them that their kids can play along, and everybody loves the coastline, and everybody would love the opportunity to go to a place like Yellowstone.
So let’s ask, “What do you want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” Start with that and then ask, “Okay. How might that happen?” Instead, if you look at environmental debates, it’s all about, “What do we do tomorrow?” What do we do tomorrow about building this road, or this corporate activity, or this housing development, or this invasive species, or this threatened and endangered species? By making it so proximate, you lose sight of the common ground that people have. People might differ about what they do tomorrow because they’re worried about jobs lost or not lost. But in fact, looking to 2030 and 2050, they have a lot more common ground. Let’s paint a picture. To make it real, you have to pick real dates. And it would either be 2030 or 2050 because that’s where all the models and projections go when you’re starting with science. So you pick one of those two dates. I’m inclined to go with 2030 because that’s not too far off. And then just start from there.
I think it would be an interesting exercise—something we could do at UCLA—to do some of that visioning. But it has to be based on science. It can’t be fantasy. You have to do some hard calculations and say, “Would there still be enough land to feed people, and where are you getting your energy from? And how much?” You know, it’s not just science fiction. It’s got to be grounded, with real constraints.
A team of students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum course work on their research projects at UCLA’s Young Research Library. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: OK, so everybody wants to go to Yosemite at some point in their lives. And everybody wants clean air and clean water. And everybody wants a world without runaway global warming. But there are still going to be big debates about what we need to do to get there. So how do we go from debating about what we’ll do or not do today or tomorrow to debating about how to get to a better 2030 or 2050?
Kareiva: People don’t see a path to getting there. There has to be path laid out to getting to that future world. And that path has to go all the way there, not just be about what you don’t do tomorrow. Do you know what I’m saying?
I’m trained as a mathematician. There’s a classical form of mathematical problem solving called dynamic programming, where you work backward. You end up at the final solution, but you step backward to get it, so you know how you get there. It’s a very deep mathematical insight. And it’s used all the time to solve complicated problems.
It’s actually not such a bad idea when you think about applying it to environmental things. Start with where you want to be and work backward. Because what we learn from dynamic programming is that you can’t do it the other way around. You actually can’t come up with a solution going from the starting point and getting to that desired outcome. You’ve got to start with the endpoint and work backwards. And I think that’s really true. If you don’t see a path there, why would you say, for instance, “I’m going to bear this burden of an increased property tax? All it’s going to do is protect a few hills in San Diego for a few species.” You’ve got to see a path the whole way, to conserving an ecosystem that’s crucial for the future of the place you live.
When you do this future visioning, where you’d see the real difference is in what type of nature people imagine in those futures. Are nonnative species okay? Nonnative species are out there. Are they okay as far as your joyous nature? Eucalyptus is a nonnative species. Are we going to try to eliminate eucalyptus from California, or are we just going to accept that eucalyptus is actually part of what most people think is California because we smell it everywhere? And it will be that way with a number of nonnative species.
Is it okay to have some engineering mixed in? Look at Kruger National Park, where in various places you see wells that were drilled to provide water for wildlife. Is that okay? Clearly it is for those people who go to Africa to see wildlife.
Boom: So when you’re teaching environmental science students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, what else do you teach them that scientists need to know and need to be able to do to make their work really effective and have an impact in the world?
Kareiva: We need to think about how we might use social media to change behavior. We need social scientists, cognitive psychologists, economists—that’s obvious. There’s no question that environmentalists need all that, and, I would say, we also need the humanities. The humanities are a way to learn how to tell a story that inspires and makes people thoughtful, or that enables your story about GMOs or your story about climate change to relate to their family history and their work. Humanities can also teach you empathy, which can so often be lacking in heated environmental debates.
Boom: These are questions about values as well as the stories that we tell. And science can clearly tell us what the problems are. But then there’s this huge arena of values and people making judgments about those problems. If science can tell us what the problems are, should scientists then step aside and let the social sciences, humanities, and politics deal with the rest? Or is there some role for science beyond just illuminating the problems and pointing to potential solutions?
Kareiva: Well, science can tell you the problems. It also can tell you the constraints and tradeoffs, which allows you to play out your scenarios in the future. For example, if you’re considering whether we should ranch or farm tuna offshore in California, as opposed to relying on catching wild tuna, science can tell us what’s the maximum energy efficiency by which you can convert food into tuna and what the yield will be, so that we’ll be able to make better decisions. Science doesn’t just tell you what the problems are. It tells you what constraints limit your solutions. It can also tell you rates. Rates are really important. And it can also tell you what variability and potential surprises to expect. It never gives you prescriptive answers. Scientists sometimes will make mistakes, of course, in thinking that it can.
Boom: But is there a role for—maybe not for science, but for scientists to be active in public and advocating for solutions? Or do you step back and say, “Here is what the science shows. Here are your options. Now you decide.”
Kareiva: I think there’s a public role for the scientist, although in my profession, opinion is divided on that. So many scientists would say that once you become engaged in that public debate, you have reduced your credibility as a scientist. I would say maybe even half of scientists today still think that—maybe even more. I think otherwise. And I think the way you have to guard against that is what you publish. It is kind of arcane, but what you publish in peer-reviewed literature has to maintain high quality and not be biased and be pretty, pretty clear. That’s not always the case for scientists who become activists. Some clearly fish for data and try to get results a certain way.
But you can have a public persona where you mix the two. You can say, “Based on my expertise, my values, and all this, this is what I think,” or, “This is the conversation we should be having.” We have to step up, because if we don’t, who is going to do it? Who else is going to take the science and bring it into the realm of values, other than scientists?
Boom: Writers? Artists?
Kareiva: Well, they can. You’re right. I agree. But they’ll be better off if they have scientists to talk to, as friends and colleagues and collaborators.
Boom: For sure.
Kareiva: Just like when I started out in biology and I went into mathematical biology, I had mathematicians to talk to, and they didn’t talk to me in just math. They talked to me in other ways.
I think we have to step up. But there are a lot of people on campuses around the United States who would sit there and say, “Oh, that’s not really science.”
Boom: Why do you think that is?
Kareiva: You know, people basically say, “Be like me. And if you’re different than me, you’re not good. That’s all there is.” I don’t think everybody has to be engaged publicly. Just like not everybody should teach. Not all scientists should be out in the public. They’ll only do more damage. They might be so obnoxious that they turn the public off of science. But a significant number of scientists have to be out in the public, and they shouldn’t be shunned or scorned because they are. And people who are out in public shouldn’t shun or scorn the ones who don’t go out in public.
Boom: Is there anything special about California in terms of the world of conservation and conservation science?
Kareiva: You know, there is, in a way. All biologists recognize it because of the many different habitats in California, from the deserts to the mountains and ocean. It’s a really special place biologically and in terms of biodiversity. Then you have the fact that California is also a huge economic engine—this state alone has the eighth largest economy in the world. It’s a huge source of economic growth and wealth. And it has a culture of innovation. Even if that’s just a made-up story or fairy tale, it doesn’t matter. It creates a mindset that we can innovate our way out of things. That whole Silicon Valley thing extends through the state.
So you have a biodiversity conservation hotspot. You have wealth and innovation coupled together; and it’s not wealth based on, for instance, selling oil, which would not have innovation associated with it. And then you have population diversity, in a diverse state where soon Hispanics will be the majority.
What makes that special is that the cultural diversity and the wealth here offer the means to try experiments in conservation and the environment, to do things differently, to be bold. The traditional John Muir–type conservation is not necessarily part of the cultural heritage of the Hispanic family.
So I think these things all come together so that California can try some pretty bold things. Look at Jerry Brown’s push for carbon emissions limits and renewable energy. Look at The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to buy back and refit trawlers. By doing that, they have created a private market solution so that fishermen ended up making more money. The Nature Conservancy in California has also created auctions around agricultural lands that can be flooded for bird habitat, so that instead of regulating who gets flooded, you have the farmers saying, “We think we’ve got land here that would be a stopover for a thousand birds, and we’ll flood our lands longer. So we’ll plan. And if we get those thousand birds, then you pay us this much money.” That’s pretty clever.
So I think the mixture of the enormous biological diversity and the wealth—it’s a lot harder to have environmental solutions when there are no resources, no affluence—enables California to come up with these things. And then just the diverse population.
We could talk about so many things. I’ll bet if you just went down the list of environmental problems—water. There’s a lot going on in California with desalination experiments. The only other place that’s doing as much is Israel. Energy. There’s a lot going on in California with respect to energy. Just go down the list, and you will find a lot more experimentation in California than in other places. They’ll do some stupid stuff, and they’ll get it wrong. But it’s that experimentation that’s pretty cool.
With a toast and a drink of reclaimed water, visitors from the California legislature, governor’s office, and state water board celebrate UCLA engineering professor Yoram Cohen’s demonstration project using reverse-osmosis to clean contaminated water in California’s Central Valley. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: One thing you haven’t mentioned, of course, is our great creative industry that gives us so many dystopias. You do realize you’re moving to the capital of dystopia?
Kareiva: Oh, yes. The film industry. I’ve seen Blade Runner many a time. A lot of people have said that if you really wanted to get people to pay attention to climate change and water and all these other things, wouldn’t the film industry be a big help? But look at gay marriage. It wasn’t the film industry, it was television. There’s no question, most people think that television shows had a lot to do with how rapid the transition was to supporting gay marriage. So you would think that the film industry could do more with for the environment. It’s made efforts.
I’d like to look at films as experiments and try different types of films and get a sense of how they resonated with the culture, whether or not they changed things. Maybe we can’t do it as an experiment. But maybe we could think of them as natural experiments and try to take advantage of it, because the media makes a difference.
Boom: What are you most looking forward to about living and working here in L.A.?
Kareiva: You know what I’m most looking forward to is this: I’ve always collaborated with people. I don’t think I’ve done anything by myself since my PhD thesis. And there’s a whole set of people here that I want to do joint research projects with—in a deep way, not a superficial way. I can hardly wait to get started. There are so many cool research projects I can do, collaboratively, with people.
And then a second thing is I like the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. I like the vision of it. I always just feel like it doesn’t tell its story that well. People don’t realize how good it is. And people don’t realize some of the neat stories that are going on at the Institute. At The Nature Conservancy, we learned the power of storytelling for raising money and effecting policy change. So those are the two things I’m most looking forward to: making what’s really good better known by telling our story better, and (at a sort of selfish personal level) collaborating with great people.
In The Log From the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts wrote, “We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: ‘D.XVII-15-IX; A.II-15-IX,’ but also we could see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate.”
A few years ago in the fall, I led a coastal field course from Los Angeles to San Francisco with thirteen undergraduates and graduate students from Duke University. Like John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in preparing for their expedition to the Gulf of California, I wanted us to go “doubly open,” knowing that this approach entails a whole spectrum of observation between the coldly scientific and the deeply experiential poles that Steinbeck and Ricketts staked out for their expansive interpretation of field science. I wanted my students to see California with reverence and awe, while not ignoring its flaws and internal contradictions. I wanted us to get immersed in its cold Pacific waters, to cover our hands in octopus ink and the slime of stranded drift mats of giant kelp. I also wanted to walk in its cement rivers and inhale the stink of its refineries. I wanted us to savor its delicious doughnuts, uncover the secrets of its wines, and gorge ourselves on enormous burritos. I wanted to share it all with the eclectic mix of artists and activists, scientists and stewards who make California their home.
Coastal California presents many possibilities for observation. Because the lessons we learned on our last day in San Francisco might also apply to our first day on Catalina island, and the cement-lined LA River is an excellent lens with which to understand a redwood studded creek near Santa Cruz, I want to break the constraints of time and space here and try—as biologist Ricketts and Steinbeck did throughout their fruitful collaborative years—to recount this story of our journey as a holistic, ecological account of what we saw and what we did. What follows, then, is not a linear diary of our trip, but observations that I hope might coalesce in the reader’s mind to define the whole of what it means to travel the California coast with eyes wide open to all its possibilities.
Observation is not just the task of looking at stuff. It is also the concept and process that paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij calls “the role of sensation—of observation with the brain in gear,” and it has been a little irritant in the mantle of my mind since I first started serious scientific observation of the California coast a few decades ago. I’ve come to see science as a shifting, evolving thing. It doesn’t really shift around the astounding new discoveries that make headlines, as we often are led to believe. Instead, like all evolutions, it shifts holistically in system-wide modifications of simple, ancient processes. Those simple and ancient processes are driven by observation—how we observe and how we use the products of our observation—and observation has become more powerful than at any previous point in scientific history.
Observation, hyper-accelerated by new technologies and hyper-expanded by greater openness to nonprofessional, noninstitutional, and even nonhuman observers, is the catalyst of the latest evolutionary shift in science. Observation is no longer just the first step in the well-codified, and too often mythologized, “scientific method” that we were all taught in high school, but the driving force in a recursive process of understanding our rapidly changing world at the smallest and largest scales imaginable. In this recent evolution of science—where we have bigger questions to answer and vastly bigger observational data sets to contend with—correlation can indicate causation, experiments and controls may be neither necessary nor possible, and mere fishing expeditions can and often do yield profound catches.
For my generation and those before me, this kind of talk is still dangerous, even as my colleagues begrudgingly begin to admit that all science can’t be controlled and all scientists don’t have letters after their names. But I wonder about the generation following me. My students grew up hearing about “the” scientific method, too, but the most exciting and troubling stories of their time—whole sequenced genomes and planetary-wide disturbances such as climate change—have been based on observations, not experiments or theory.
A field course is a good way to observe how students observe. On a field course, passive listening and lab exercises and reading and writing give way to observation. And field courses, obviously more so than lecture halls, reveal the individual behind the observations. We all observe in different ways, based on our personal skills and past experiences. Good birders observe with their ears. The first thing I observe when I came to the California coast is the smell. It’s a mix of kelpy iodine and guano and salt spray and the oily compounds of chaparral. Geerat Vermeij, who is one of the most skilled naturalists I know, has been blind since childhood, so he observes with his fingers.
Photograph by NOAA Fisheries West Coast.
Vermeij once said that observing is the most important skill a scientist can have, and he argued that it must be taught and honed. The students on my trip with the best eyes or noses or ears or fingers were not necessarily those who had spent much, if any, time in California, but the ones who had spent the most time observing nature. The ones who walked muddy creeks with a fishing pole throughout their childhood, or trapped and domesticated raccoons, or spent every summer on their grandfather’s farm. One student became known as “The Octopus Whisperer” for her uncanny ability to spot secretive octopuses wherever they roamed. It suggested to me that “search images”—which we are told on countless nature programs are how predators identify prey—are not necessarily specific images at all, but rather a way of observationally parsing patterns and relationships in the environment that transcends a particular place.
I can’t think of an observation of California life that isn’t profoundly shaped, distorted, and clarified through the lens of water. Its presence and absence are felt everywhere. This was well illustrated during a hot hike into the inauspiciously named Garapata (“The Tick”) at the north end of the Big Sur coast. I had promised redwoods, but all we saw for a mile or so were forbidding hillsides of prickly pear and poison oak and a scattering of tough wildflowers—Indian paintbrush, lupine, and, my favorite, sticky monkey flower—baking in the sun. Finally, though, we reached the spot where the steep hills of Garapata trap the coastal fog, and the hard dusty trail falls into a shady oasis of ferns and towering redwoods.
In Los Angeles, even a tiny gap in the cement channel of the LA River bursts forth with life, forming an unexpected urban oasis in the middle of miles of freeways and strip malls. As Joe Linton—artist, planner, dreamer, and lover of the LA River—explained to us, LA was transformed from a city born out of its river, to a city in fear of its river, to a city that forgot it even had a river. As a result, a place that is chronically short of water has created the most efficient system for ensuring that rainwater rushes right through the heart of the city and out into the ocean as fast as possible. Except for direct rainfall, barely a drop quenches dry gardens, feeds kayak streams, supports fish, or recharges aquifers. But a new transformation is taking place. Angelenos are reacquainting themselves with the river through bike paths and pocket parks that were once uninviting dead ends and vacant lots. The more adventurous take tours like the one we took, straight into the confluence of the LA River and the Arroyo Seco.
Photograph by Flickr user Pinkishkaty.
LA became a city of such great size and diversity only by taming its unpredictable river, and now the diverse energy of a great city is engaged in trying to bring the river back to LA. There are scientists and politicians, landscape architects and artists, movie stars and former gangsters all working on the problem of bringing a waterway cast in cement and surrounded by development back from near dead.
Meanwhile, every time it rains the cemented rivers of LA deliver thousands of tons of trash, bacteria, and virus-laced water out to the coast. We visited one such river, Ballona Creek, as it empties into Santa Monica Bay. For its last quarter mile or so the cement Ballona Creek is hopefully called “Ballona Estuary,” but its only resemblance to a real estuary is the tidal influence that gives it brackish water. Off to the side of the channelized “estuary” are the Ballona Wetlands, once a vast waterfowl playground for wealthy hunters, now a 600-acre patch of vegetation, mud flats, and stalled developments that were recently purchased by the state. It is scattered with beautiful native plants and over 200 bird species including the endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow.
Hundreds of miles up the coast and a universe away, a small network of streams in a redwood forest is facing its own water problems. Led by watershed activist Mat Rowley, we went out with a handful of dedicated local citizens, state, federal, and university employees who are working to protect one small watershed and the Coho salmon and cutthroat trout that are barely holding on to their stronghold here. Historical photos from the early twentieth century reveal entire basins here stripped of all redwoods, barren hillsides looking ready to slide at any moment. Luckily, the combination of California heat and coastal fog make ideal conditions for growing the giant trees, and they grow fast, prompting local agricultural scientists to imagine a future sustainable redwood forest industry.
Fish have a much shorter life span than redwoods, and their recovery is much less assured. It is a difficult life, being an anadromous fish, and all the stars must align, even if you are raised, as many are, in the coddled safety of a hatchery. Again, water is the key. There must be adequate water flow to scour creek banks and enough depth to provide deep holes for the fish. When they get to the ocean, those waters must be enriched by upwelling from deep, cold waters carrying enough nutrients to feed the trophic network atop which these predators swim. And when the same fish get back from long ocean migrations to spawn a year or two or three later, there must also be enough water that year to break open the sand berms that form at the beach end of many California streams. Unfortunately, these tiny salmon streams have three thick straws constantly drawing away their water to quench the thirst of some of the most expensive real estate market in the country, the semiconductors and servers of Silicon Valley, and the remnant agriculture that drew farmers to California in search of paradise.
Mat asserted that the ideal political unit is a watershed, and this certainly seems like a logical and more organic way to organize people. It even seems remotely feasible in a place like Santa Cruz. But what about in our massively altered watersheds? What about in Los Angeles? I once saw a tongue-in-cheek “Watershed Map” of LA. It contained nearly the entire state of California as well as much of the intermountain west, because these are the places LA sucks water from to sustain itself. The original topographic watershed of LA could never support LA as it is, and if whitewater kayakers in Colorado and farmers in California’s central valley and Mexican fishermen in the northern Gulf of California had an equal say on some supreme LA Watershed Council, it’s doubtful they’d continue to watch helplessly while their water trickled away from them in open air canals, headed for Hollywood.
If California gets any significant new source of freshwater, it will most likely have to come from the sea, but no one has figured out yet how to overcome the huge amount of energy needed to turn ocean water into drinking water through large-scale desalination. For now the salty waters of California have their own unique role in supporting what is likely the most productive ecosystem on Earth—the coastal kelp forest.
On a glorious afternoon we sat on the deck of a long-immobile trailer at the University of California’s Rancho Marino Research Reserve. We gazed out at a kelp forest stretching up and down a wild stretch of the coast. Don Canestro, the reserve manager and a true California waterman brought us down to tide pools “ferocious with life,” in the words of Steinbeck and Ricketts. Don serenaded us with a tune trumpeted through the massive hollow stipe of bull kelp. Here, in addition to five different types of starfish (the delicate little, blood red Henrecia, the homely and hermetic six-armed Leptasterias, the diversely colored bat star Patiria, the hard spiny Pisaster, and the ridiculously over-armed Pycnopodia), anemones, millions of black turban snails, a few remnants of old California, including abalone, still hung on, as well as more unusual creatures, such as the massive gumboot chiton, the oddly named sea mouse (really a polychaete worm), several types of brightly colored sea slugs, and the diabolically clever octopus. Offshore, otter dipped through the kelp and sea lions brayed from a distant islet.
A few days earlier on Catalina Island, we broke free of the thin intertidal zone, slipping out to sea on borrowed kayaks. We could look down twenty feet into the kelp forest past sparkling jeweled top snails, and look up to cactus-covered cliffs stretched and folded in the most improbable geologic contortions. Some of those contortions made grottoes in the cliffs, with the light reflecting in twisting, shimmering bands on the roof.
Later that day, we snorkeled through cobble fields and rich kelp forests. It was a stunning wilderness, just twenty miles from the urban expanse of Los Angeles. Abundant Garabaldi, the state fish of California, floated like orange lanterns among the kelp fronds. We did not see many starfish urchins and rockfish, however. These extremely long-lived fish have been virtually wiped out from many of the more accessible reefs in California. Because of their long lives (several live well over 100 years), late maturation, and low reproductive rates, it will take a long time for this diverse group of fish to recover. It raised an important question, of both scientific and personal value: “Do I focus my observations on what’s there, or what isn’t there?”
On a scientific level, dealing with negative observations is problematic. Maybe we happened to snorkel on a day the rockfish were mating on the other side of the island. The best way to sharpen the outline of that negative space is to get more basic observations—dive around the island, dive throughout the year, learn when and where the fish mate, set up well-enforced reserves, and see if the fish come back. On a personal level, it can be disheartening to always observe the negative space. It takes some of the unbridled joy out of floating in a kelp forest or hiking up a canyon. However, it does give a sense of direction for a conservation pathway, which always starts with that missing element or altered state, winds its way through trophic webs, habitats, climate, and history all the way back down to one important driver of change: people.
Ecologists such as myself, who were once content studying gorgeous ecological systems in the semi-pristine comfort of scientific reserves, are increasingly recognizing the obvious: all ecological systems are profoundly influenced by human beings who are themselves shaped by complex economic and social behaviors. California is a fabulous living laboratory for these “social-ecological systems.” In a state of thirty-six million people, it is pretty hard to separate nature from humans. That separation becomes even more difficult when you consider California’s role as the sixth largest economy in the world as well as its location as a gateway to the entire Pacific.
Nowhere is this interaction more clear than in the ports of LA and Long Beach—the largest shipping port in the United States. Here much of the world’s goods (and, I might argue, crap) are offloaded day and night. The ships idle, burning dirty marine diesel, while cranes pile huge metal containers into tall stacks that build up into ephemeral cities that are taken down as those containers are loaded onto flatbed trucks and long freight trains, which carry the shipments to warehouses and distribution centers where other trucks come to take the goods to Walmarts, Best Buys, and Home Depots near you.
All that movement has an environmental price, which is often concentrated in places where people can barely afford to pay it. Wilmington is a kind of nontown bordering the ports and politically forgotten in the vastness of the mega city of LA to which it belongs. When the ports announced plans to build a wall through the neighborhood to mitigate the local effects of traffic and pollution from all this global trade, Jesse Marquez, a Wilmington resident spoke out. With no college degree, no research training, and no money, Jesse educated himself about pollutants from the diesel ships, cranes, and trucks. He learned to read an environmental impact statement and to demand public hearings. He discovered alternatives, such as electrified ports, that at least don’t concentrate all the pollution in one area. Jesse has no staff and no political power, but he and his collaborators have not only brought several port and refinery projects to a halt, they’ve changed the way all future port projects in LA—and perhaps throughout the world—are likely to be constructed in the years to come.
With so much intense interaction between people and ecosystems, even the shadow of people long gone leaves a lasting impression. A remnant of William Randolph Hearst’s excesses, in the form of a zebra herd, grazed casually on the coastal below Hearst Castle when we visited. Hearst’s estate is slowly returning to the public domain, which offers wonderful opportunities to restore lands and riparian areas degraded by grazing (I don’t yet know what the plan for zebras is), bring back native plants and pollinators, and provide more public access.
However, the easily exploitable intertidal zones—once protected by gated roads—can often be unintended casualties of this movement. Researchers estimated that one of the last healthy red abalone populations live on a northern California ranch that returned to the public after over 150 years of private ownership. The population lost about twenty years of reproductive potential in the first year of public access, as abalone hunters, with the blessing of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, eagerly plundered a long inaccessible spot.
As we moved up the Big Sur coast, I saw another shadow of human interaction, the invasive pampas grass, which is outcompeting native plants wherever it appears. This grass spread from long fingers running along fissures in steep rock walls to whole fields full in just a few years. Their huge inflorescences full of easily transported seeds are both their source of attraction to landscape gardeners and the reason they spread so well, even to places like Big Sur, far from manicured California lawns.
Photograph by Melissa Weise.
How does an ecologist observe a landscape? Should I see the objectively beautiful pampas grass as blight on an otherwise gorgeous coast? The author Henry Miller, who retreated to Big Sur in the mid-twentieth century, asked of the region, “How long will it hold out against the invader?” Miller had people in mind, and there are still not many here, but should I expand his definition of invasion and concede defeat to the pampas grass?
Toward the end of our journey, I got to thinking about the long chains of observations, and scientific knowledge, and the links that are forged in individual relationships, directly between teachers and students, and remotely between strangers across the world and across time. On a wall at Hopkins Marine Station, the oldest marine lab on the west coast in Pacific Grove, California, is a copy of a hastily scrawled note written with a calligraphy brush that was found by a US submarine crew in the closing days of World War II, tacked to the door of a small island laboratory in Japan. It reads:
“This is a marine biological station with her history of over sixty years. If you are from the Eastern Coast some of you might know Woods Hole or Mt. Desert or Tortagna. If you are from the West Coast you may know Pacific Grove or Puget Sound Biological Station. This place is a place like one of those. Take care of this place and protect the possibility for the continuation of our peaceful research. You can destroy the weapons and the war instruments, but save the civil equipments for Japanese students. When you are through with your job here notify to the University and let us come back to our scientific home.—The last one to go”
I have passed that note thousands of times during the many years I have studied at, worked at, and now visited Hopkins Marine Station. And every time I stop to read it, I’m overcome with emotion. I think of that biologist, alone, fleeing a clash between two enormous forces, putting all his faith in a still larger truth: that the virtue of discovery would be universally acknowledged. The faith of that scientist, Katsuma Dan, who went on to an internationally recognized career in marine ecology and developmental biology, was affirmed. The Misaki Marine Biology Station still stands today.
That chain of knowledge can be seen and felt in the new clean basement of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, too. There we saw rows and rows of preserved specimens entrusted to the academy by naturalists and scientists hoping to pass something on—even the most simple “this lived here then”—to a future observer. The specimens are long dead. More than a century has passed since some were plucked from a tide pool or a forest stream. But there is power in them still. More than one student noted that touching a dry starfish that was placed in a jar years ago by Ed Ricketts and labeled in his own hand was one of the highlights of our journey.
Fire seems to bring out the best and the worst of people in California. As we motored up the Pacific Coast Highway, we passed dozens of boxy CAL FIRE trucks packed with men and women who, laden with gear, would soon be stomping up hot dry hillsides into probably the most terrifying of California natural disasters—wildfire. Wildfires can be just as unpredictable as earthquakes, and rather than being over in seconds, they linger and tease and strike over the course of many agonizingly fearful days. On the chaparral hillsides, wildfires are stoked in steep narrow canyons that concentrate the wind, spurring them into wicked fronts of destructive force.
It was like watching soldiers marching off to war. We slowed to a rubbernecking crawl when we saw the war zone unfold right in front of us on the north end of the Malibu coast. A huge air tanker swooped down low over a ridge and opened its bomb bay doors, dousing the hillside in red flame retardant. Just a few hundred yards offshore, helicopters scooped up water and circled over the burning canyon to drop a Pacific wave on the flames.
The ecological reality is that the Malibu coast, the canyons of Orange County, and the Hollywood hills will burn, fire suppression or no. It doesn’t take a buildup of understory to turn these places into tinderboxes, because they are already set to burn. Even the smallest chaparral plants burn. All it takes is a long dry season, a careless match or lightning strike, and a fierce hot Santa Ana wind. The land will come back quickly, however. Within weeks, new plants—some whose seeds have been dormant for years and have been released to germinate by the heat—will grow. Within months, black barren hillsides will be covered in wildflowers. Maybe this is why so many Californians forget. How can such stunningly lush hills, so close to an endless expanse of water, destroy themselves so often?
But fire brought out the best moments of our trip, as well. On cold coastal nights after long drives and long days of activities, we had excellent fires. They raised our primordial subconscious memories, and we became a clan. On the last night of the trip, we gathered by the fire one more time and we shared our best moments with each other. Some were simple things unique to our small group, such as making pasta dinner in a windswept shack on a coastal bluff. Some were grand things that have been commonly felt with reverence and awe by millions of people across generations, such as a quiet sunset walk in Muir Woods. Some were very personal memories that we were grateful to be invited to share. Some moments took place in specific places, and when we heard of them we all remembered how that place looked and smelled and sounded. Afterward, we sat by the fire quietly and listened to the waves crashing on the rocks and watched the flickering embers rising to meet the flickering stars, and I thought how everyone’s favorite moment had become my favorite moment, too. So in that moment I was finally taken to that place that existed only on paper when we started the trip, a place mapped out in prose by Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck on one of their own leisurely journeys of travel and research:
Photograph by Ed Bierman.
“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”
A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in a desert spider species complex. The tree represents how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge between two related species. The map shows that divergences between the two species are concentrated along the Colorado River. See endnote.
I am a herpetologist. I’m a lifelong fan of reptiles and amphibians. It’s how I was born. And now I study them.
I am also an evolutionary biologist and a conservation biologist. I’m fascinated by how animals evolved to mesh with their ecosystems, and I hope that I can help conserve them to keep them from going extinct.
I am also a genomicist. Genomics is genetics on steroids. Geneticists often study animals one gene or a few genes at a time. Genomicists study lots of genes all at once, sometimes whole genomes—all of the genes in a single organism or species—and sometimes the genomes of multiple species in an ecosystem.
I like to think about the stories that plants and animals can tell me—with a little help from their genomes—about where they came from, how they make a living in nature, and why they do the things that they do. By thinking about organisms as both players in their ecological communities and as bags of DNA that can be analyzed, I see a different view of the world around me and the animals I love. Thinking about genomes may seem like a stark, scientific vision of nature at odds with a love of the outdoors. I see it as an incredibly exciting view that allows me to ask very specific questions of plants and animals, and get answers back. The effect can be pretty amazing.
A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in desert spiny lizard populations. The tree and map represent how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge between populations in the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. See endnote.
Evolutionary biologists since the mid-twentieth century have realized that to understand how plants and animals adapt and evolve one has to understand the environmental challenges they face and how, genetically, species have changed in the face of those challenges. Genetics helps us understand how the fittest parents pass on their features to their offspring and, therefore, how lineages and populations adapt to environmental changes over time. Genomicists use some new tools and fancy computer programs, but we still build on basic genetic information to understand how animals and plants survive and breed in their habitats. Like geneticists, we care about how evolution occurs and enhances survival. Unlike traditional genetics, genomics allows us to understand evolution at multiple levels.
Take one of my favorite animals: the desert tortoise. A desert tortoise has roughly three billion nucleotides—single bits of genetic information—in its genome. A population genomicist might study a million of those nucleotides or maybe even go after all three billion. Genomics offers the possibility to understand vastly more about that tortoise’s family history, its physiology, and its ability to adapt than is conceivable when studying only a few genes at a time. Genomics opens windows of understanding into the lives of plants and animals—understanding that is critical to our ability to conserve species in the face of ever-growing threats and challenges from human incursions into their habitat, climate change, and other environmental degradation.
My work on animals and natural history has taken me to some of the most pristine places on earth and some of the most modified. In the past year, I snorkeled for mata mata turtles in the remote Rio Negro in the Brazilian Amazon, netted salamanders and frogs in the Hamptons on Long Island, and noosed chuckwalla lizards in the virtually untouched Old Woman Mountains of the Mojave Desert. My students and I collected endangered California tiger salamanders at a huge landfill in the Salinas Valley, at “Machine Gun Flats” on a decommissioned military base near Monterey, and in cattle ponds in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s all part of nature, and both endangered and common species are there to be studied, admired, and, hopefully, conserved.
A phylogenetic tree and map of genetic divergence in Western shovel-nosed snake populations. The tree and map represent how different genes at particular sites in the genome diverge across Mojave and Sonoran Deserts and the Colorado River. See endnote.
To take one example that is near and dear to my heart, consider the California tiger salamander, an endangered species that is restricted to California’s Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra and Coast Ranges. Adults of the species live underground, emerging on a few rainy nights a year to migrate to their breeding pools; they are otherwise cryptic animals that are incredibly hard to study. The species is listed under both the US and California Endangered Species Acts, and my guess is that fewer than ten university biologists in the world have ever seen an adult tiger salamander in the wild. My students and I have spent twenty years walking literally thousands of miles of trap arrays. We’ve caught tens of thousands of salamanders in order to learn where they go, when they migrate, how far they move, and how many of them exist in nature. We’ve made a lot of progress toward understanding these elusive animals by capturing, marking, releasing, and recapturing them. We’ve learned where they breed, how long they live, who survives, and who dies. That work has taken thousands of hours and several millions of dollars, but we now understand the population biology of the California tiger salamander as well as any amphibian on Earth.
Now we’re beginning to explore what we could do with a genomic sample of each of those salamanders. With a small bit of DNA, we could determine the parents of each animal that we capture, whether it has living siblings, and what genes it has that may enhance or threaten its survival. We could determine whether one or a few salamanders produce most of the successful youngsters in a population, or if all of the adults that go to a particular pond to breed have equal reproductive success. Tiger salamanders sometimes move more than a mile from their breeding pool to an underground retreat where they spend the rest of the year. I’ve often wondered if the salamanders that find a home close to the breeding pond are the strongest, most fit individuals, and, therefore, contribute the largest number of offspring to the population. I can’t work that out simply by catching salamanders in our traps, but genomic data can help answer these questions. The answers can be found within the DNA from a tiny tip of an animal’s tail or a cotton swab wiped across its skin. No fuss, no muss, and no harm or bother to the animal.
Here’s a question I’d like to ask the genome of the desert tortoise. How do desert tortoises travel across the Mojave? We know that tortoises are widely distributed across the desert and that they tend to favor certain soils for making their burrows. However, we don’t know whether they tend to use certain corridors for movement, or how important such corridors might be for tortoises as they move between protected areas of the desert. The answer to how they move is critical if we want to keep those corridors safe as large, solar power plants and other developments fragment more and more of the Mojave Desert. Genomics can help answer this question in a straightforward way. By measuring the relatedness of tortoises that are distributed across the desert, and simultaneously quantifying the soil, vegetation, and slopes of the intervening areas, we can develop a model that allows us to measure how easy it is for a tortoise to cross an acre of flat sandy wash, rocky mountain slope, and other types of habitats. If a habitat is easily traversed by tortoises, then tortoises that are very far apart geographically but still within that continuous habitat will tend to be relatively closely related; this is because parents and their offspring can move larger distances more easily within the habitat. However, if it is much more difficult for a tortoise to move across a different type of habitat, then individuals separated by short distances may be very distantly related. With the genomic data from a drop of blood and publicly available maps, this kind of information can be collected and used to help minimize the impact of habitat fragmentation on the connectivity of tortoise populations. We’re doing this work right now, and we hope to be able to help solve the problem of how we can produce clean energy without endangering tortoises on the same desert landscape.
A map of the average genetic divergence of twelves species and the protected status of desert lands in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Hot spots of divergence are in the Lucerne Valley, the Colorado Desert, and along the Colorado River. See endnote.
Genomics offers insights that were impossible a few years ago. The opportunities to learn about the natural world, to place our observations, thoughts, and guesses into a scientific framework, and to better understand the impact of our human actions on nature can be enhanced by genomics in truly amazing ways. Genomics will never replace going out for a walk with eyes wide open, and it will always rely on people with curious minds and sharp observations to motivate interesting questions and research. But the next time you look in your backyard and see a scrub jay burying an acorn, you might just wonder: Where did that acorn come from? The oak down the street or a tree twenty miles away? Are the acorns the jay is burying all from the same tree or from trees from all over the city? Are the scrub jays burying acorns in my yard brothers and sisters or unrelated animals that seem to be helping each other out?
A map of the average genetic diversity of ten species of the protected status of desert lands in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona. Hot spots of diversity are in the Coachella Valley, along the southern end of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, and along mountain ranges at the eastern edge of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. See endnote.
A few leaves from some trees, a few feathers from some birds, some natural history observations, and genomics can help answer all these questions and more. The answers can enrich our understanding of the natural world and help us better manage it.
Maps from “Comparative phylogeography reveals deep lineages and regional evolutionary hotspots in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts,” Dustin A. Wood, Amy G. Vandergast, Kelly R. Barr, Rich D. Inman, Todd C. Esque, Kenneth E. Nussear, and Robert N. Fisher, Diversity and Distributions (2012), 1–16, DOI: 10.1111/ddi.12022.