How science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
(Seminar on Responsibility and Education in a Risk Society, 16 April, 2002 London, organised by the government-funded Learning and Skills Development Agency, and intended for policy-makers and others responsible for post-16 education.)
How science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda is something very close to my heart. So close that I cannot bear to give a lecture, as I was asked to, on why science and scientists should be socially responsible and responsive to moral concerns, and how we can educate our university students to those ideals.
I've never tried to be a 'good responsible scientist', so there is no point in my telling others how to be one.
I do feel passionately, however, from my own experience as a scientist, that science and scientists can contribute to the sustainability agenda without trying to be good.
Ecologist David Ehrenfeld wrote  that the ultimate success of all our efforts to stop ruining nature will depend on a "revision of the way we use the world in our everyday living when we are not thinking about conservation." We cannot change the way we use the world unless we see it in a different light. And when we do, the last thing we will want to do is to ruin it. That's what I want to share with you. I am saying we need to introduce a new kind of science to the university curriculum.
I was walking on the Berkeley campus, University of California, one balmy afternoon some years ago, with evolutionists David and Marvelee Wake, molecular and cell biologist Richard Strohman, and my husband, bio-mathematician Peter Saunders, when a flurry of butterflies descended on us from the clear blue sky. A bright orange monarch landed just above my head in the eucalyptus, whose scent pervaded the afternoon air. I reached up, my thumb and forefinger pinching the folded throbbing wings, and instantly became transformed to a child again. (I hasten to add that I freed the captive, and watched it flutter away back into the blue.)
Nothing could have been further from my thoughts than becoming a scientist, or anything at all, as I roamed the fields in search of those objects of my desire, butterflies, alighting on the tall grass, or in the case of dragonflies, hovering in the air within my reach. And when I tired of that, to scramble up the tallest tree, lean back, and dream of infinity.
That was Hong Kong before the fields were paved over with concrete, and skyscrapers sprouted everywhere to blot out the sky and extinguish all traces of my old haunts and their unseen powers that drew me unerringly to them.
I went into science because it was the thing to do for 'bright girls' in the Italian convent school my parents sent me to. But the science was dull. It was years later before my soul was set alight again as an undergraduate, when Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobel laureate biochemist remarked, "Life is interposed between two energy levels of an electron". To me, that was sheer poetry.
It launched me on a 30-year odyssey searching for 'the meaning of life'. I fell in love with ideas, with people, and oftentimes the two coincided. Much later, I was to learn that all loves converge to the love of nature. My career consists, above all, in following the tangled, unpredictable paths of love. And it isn't over yet. I am convinced it is this undying, ever deepening love that has carried me through the most difficult times and swept me up to ecstatic heights of the imagination.
I wandered, gypsy-scientist fashion, into many fields of research and enquiry: biochemistry, evolution, developmental biology, rational taxonomy and genetics. At the same time, I imbibed the great books in philosophy, literature and anthropology, and gave myself up to art and poetry. I longed for knowledge I could live by, emotionally and intellectually, that did not fragment my soul. I wanted to weave science and art intimately and seamlessly into my life. I want a science I could love, that does not reduce organisms and people to machines and commodities.
I suppose I am saying we must keep our aesthetic/emotional faculties alive and fully integrated with the intellectual. For how else is it possible to have real understanding, which requires that we feel what the words and concepts signify?
By 1992, I found a 'physics of organisms' that could have all those qualities, and it indeed changed my vision of the world . For that, I have to thank the long string of distinguished scientists who shared their dreams with me , from whom I have learned what they never meant to teach, and that, perhaps is the greatest gift of teachers.
Most of all, I have to thank the fruitfly. In the course of more than 20 years, it suffered at my hands and died again and again, in order to teach me the most profound lessons in the science of life. When I finally learned to communicate with it without violence and destruction, the tiny fruitfly larva revealed itself as a symphony of pure colour that never repeat, as life never repeats (see Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Fruitfly larva, just after emerging
The fruitly larva is not unique. All living organisms look something like that, and there is no reason to suppose we're different. (You can see more organisms live on our website www.i-sis.org.uk.) Life is all the colours in the rainbow.
The beauty of the rainbow worm does not end there. It goes on, in our trying to fathom the meaning of the colours.
The colours surely belong to the organism, but we can only see them when we observe in a particular way under the polarised light microscope. This clearly demonstrates that science isn't about discovering things independently of us. Knowing depends irreducibly on both the knower and the known. In quantum physics, that's referred to as the entanglement of the observer and the observed. How we know determines what we know.
Only when I learned to know with the greatest sensitivity and compassion was I rewarded with this resplendent vision of the organism. And who will want to hurt a fly after that? We can put the creature back where it belongs afterwards.
I felt sick with memories of how, as a biochemist, I was schooled to the routine of fixing, pinning, pulping, homogenising, separating and purifying until no trace is left of the living organisation we were looking for.
Animal experimentation is a big issue in science, especially in Britain, and among the young. People have a natural empathy of the violence inflicted. I do think it is time we abandon some of the crudest mechanistic experiments on animals that are totally uninformative or even misleading. Besides, we've had centuries of biology aimed at taking the organism apart, and we already know too much about the parts. We need to move forward to a science of the organic whole.
That brings me to the next question on what the colours mean. The colours appear under the polarised light microscope that earth scientists use to identify rock crystals. We have to alter the settings somewhat, but the principles are the same . Crystals show up in brilliant colours because they have an orderly arrangement of atoms and molecules. But how can a living, squirming worm be a crystal? All the molecules in its body are moving about, transforming energy.
The answer is both simple and revealing. The molecules (mostly proteins) are in a liquid crystalline state, where they are aligned in the same direction. But in addition, the molecules are moving coherent together as a whole. Let me explain.
The light that we see vibrates at 1014 cycles per second. Molecules, however, move much slower, probably at least ten thousand times slower. So the molecules will appear to the light coming through as though motionless. And, as long as all the molecules in each muscle and tissue are moving coherently together, it will give the appearance of static alignment and order, ie, a crystal. It is like being able to take a sharp image of a very fast moving object with a sensitive film that requires only the briefest exposure time.
The colours are telling us that the living organism is coherent and whole beyond our wildest dreams; that all the parts are co-ordinated at every moment and every level, down to the motion of individual molecules.
From there, I could begin to see intimations of how life could interpose itself between two energy levels of the electron. Szent-Gyorgi was talking about photons -packets of sunlight - trapped by chlorophyll, the pigment that gives plants their green colour. The packet of sunlight absorbed boosts an electron from its 'ground state' to a high energy level, from where it cascades down an energy 'staircase'. At each step down, part of the energy is spirited away, ultimately to make the green plant, which feeds the snails, the butterflies, the rodents, the birds, the foxes, the cows and the human beings.
All flesh is grass and grass drinks pure sunlight. Ecologically, all living things are interconnected and interdependent.
The reason this is possible, stated in one sentence, is because the organism is an organic coherent whole that stores and transforms energy and material most efficiently and rapidly. Of course, behind this sentence is at least an entire book that describes not only the colour images, but also many other kinds of experimental findings together with a lot of physics, chemistry and cell biology; and yes, even some philosophy on the meaning of life.
I want to give a flavour of how profoundly it changes my vision of the world. Alfred North Whitehead, British mathematician-philosopher, gave a description of something like that in the first decades of the past century.
The symphony of colours in the organism emerges from the grand ensemble of all its activities, playing spontaneously to no pre-set score, full of unexpected twists and turns as the organism goes about its business of living.
There is no one controlling the organism from the outside, that much is clear. An organism, as distinct from a machine, is ultimately uncontrollable and unpredictable. It is not even controlled from the inside.
There is no central controlling agency, no driver propelling or pulling the parts into action. There is no switching mechanism to turn any part on, no line-managers transmitting a chain of command from top to bottom.
Instead, intercommunication is the key; each part is as much in control as it is sensitive and responsive. The liquid crystalline continuum that is the body certainly helps to facilitate rapid intercommunication. The result is perfect co-ordination, from split seconds and minutes to days, months and years, from individual molecules and cells to tissues and organ systems of the entire body .
I call this quantum jazz, where every single player is freely improvising at any moment, yet remaining in step and in tune with the spontaneity and freedom of the whole. The ideal organic whole is simultaneously most coherent and most free. It is the coherence of quantum states, which is quite paradoxical from the mechanistic perspective.
From the mechanistic perspective, the individual and the collective, the public and the private are invariably seen to be in conflict. That has misguided government policies for centuries, within national boundaries as well as in the international arena.
I could go on about quantum coherence, but I won't. Instead, I want to explain how the remarkable properties of the organic whole arise from the way it is organised to sustain itself, to keep alive and vigorous.
In physics, to sustain oneself is to keep far away from thermodynamic equilibrium, which is death by another name.
There is a lot we can learn about sustainability by studying how organisms make a living. The pre-requisite for keeping away from thermodynamic equilibrium is to capture energy and material in order to develop, to build itself up.
To do so, an organism needs physical barriers that separate inside from the outside, though not completely. It also needs a dynamic structure that enables it to store as much energy and material as possible, and to use the energy and material most efficiently and rapidly, with the least amount of waste and dissipation.
The organism has solved those problems over billions of years of evolution. It has an obvious nested physical structure. Our body is enclosed and protected by a rather tough skin, but we can exchange energy and material with the outside, as we need to, we eat, breathe and excrete. Within the body, there are organs, tissues and cells, each with a certain degree of autonomy and closure. Within the cells there are numerous intracellular compartments that operate more or less autonomously from the rest of the cell. And within each compartment, there are molecular complexes doing different things, such as transcribing genes, making proteins and extracting energy from our food. And all those compartments are perfectly orchestrated, depending on the way energy is mobilised.
It turns out that energy is mobilised in cycles, which can be thought of as dynamic boxes, and they come in all sizes from the very fast to the very slow, from the global to the most local. Biologists have wondered why biological activities are predominantly rhythmic or cyclic, and a lot of effort has gone into identifying the centre of control, and more recently to identifying master genes that control biological rhythms, all to no avail.
Cycles pervade the organism because they make thermodynamic sense. Cycles involve perpetual returns to the same states, they give dynamic stability as well as autonomy. Cycles also enable the activities to be coupled, or linked together, so that those yielding energy can transfer the energy directly to those requiring energy, and the direction can be reversed when the need arises. These symmetrical, reciprocal relationships are most important for sustaining the system. That's how our metabolism and physiology is actually organised: closing the cycle and linking up.
I have drawn a diagram to represent the nested cycles that span all space-time scales, the totality of which make up the life cycle of the organism (Fig. 2). It has a self-similar fractal structure, so that if you magnify each cycle, you will see that it has smaller cycles within, looking much the same as the whole. The system stores and mobilise energy over all space-times that are coupled together, so energy can get from any space-time domain to every other, from the local to the global and vice versa. This complex dynamical structure is the secret of how the system can sustain itself as a whole.
Figure 2. The life cycle of the organism consists of a self-similar fractal structure of cycles turning within cycles
In the ideal, the system is always tending towards a dynamic balance, expressed in another diagram (Fig. 3). The simple equation, S DS = 0, inside the cycle, says there is an overall internal balance and compensation of energy so that the system organisation is maintained, and the necessary dissipation is exported to the outside, S DS > 0. But that's the abstract ideal. In practice, dissipation within the system goes to a minimum, not quite zero. In other words, the system does grow old and eventually die, but only very slowly.
Figure 3. The organism consists of internally balanced cyclic processes coupled to energy flow.
Minimum dissipation means that energy (as well as material) going into the system is used many times over before it is exported to the outside. Intuitively, one can see that the more complex the dynamical structure, the more cycles there are, the longer the energy remains in the system, and the least amount is dissipated.
There is some indirect recent evidence that organisms do achieve minimum energy dissipation.
The body size of organisms varies over 21 orders of magnitude, and size affects all biological structures and processes, from metabolism and growth rate to population dynamics. The variation goes according to the relationship,
X = aMb (1)
where X is the biological variable, M is the body mass, and a and b are constants. The constant a is specific to the kind of organism. The constant b, the scaling exponent, however, is the same for all kinds of organisms, much to the puzzlement of generations of biologists. If the relationship were purely due to three-dimensional geometry, b should be a simple multiple of ⅓. But most biological variables scale as quarter rather than third powers of the body mass. Thus, metabolic rate scales as M3/4, heartbeat and maximum population growth rate scale as M1/4.
The puzzle was eventually solved in 1997 when ecologists Brian Enquist and James Brown of the University of New Mexico teamed up with physicist Geoffrey West of Los Alamos . They presented a theory in terms of resource-distribution networks such as the blood vessels, the trachea in insects, the xylem that transports water through the plants. These structures are optimised for doing their job, in terms of the area across which they can take up and release resources and minimise the energy needed to transport those resources through the organism. Such networks have fractal geometry.
Filling a three-dimensional volume with a network that maximises surface area available for capturing and releasing resources creates a four-dimensional geometric entity, which is why biological variables scale as quarter powers of the body mass.
I am particularly intrigued by the assumption of minimum energy dissipation, which is satisfied by self-similar fractal geometry. That is what I have proposed in my arguments based on thermodynamics. Maybe there is a deep relationship that deserves further investigation.
Can we look at a sustainable ecosystem, and ultimately, the sustainable global ecosystem and economic system in the same way? I have suggested we can , and that the destruction of local autonomies by economic globalisation can be shown to be unsustainable on my model. There is also relevant recent evidence from ecology.
For decades, ecologists have debated whether complex, biodiverse systems are more sustainable and productive. Recently, David Tilman and his colleagues in the University of Minneapolis in the United States have produced the best experimental evidence that biodiverse fields are indeed more productive, although the precise explanation is still hotly debated . Other ecologists are also rediscovering how it is the symbiotic reciprocal relationships, rather than competition, that sustain the ecosystem as a whole .
Sustainable farming across the world relies on cultivating a diversity of crops and livestock to maximise internal input, which effectively closes up cycles and maximise the nested, space-time structure of the system. This wisdom has informed traditional indigenous farming systems for millennia, in marked contrast to the high external input monoculture of industrial farming, which is proving unsustainable in many respects.
These findings explode the myth of constant 'carrying capacity' that have been used to estimate how many people a piece of land can support.
A report in last October's New Scientist  describes how all along the edge of the Sahara, in Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Kenya, African farmers are working miracles, pushing back the desert, and turning the hills green, not by using genetic engineering, or any western aid programme. But simply by integrating crops and livestock to enhance nutrient recycling, by mix-cropping to increase system diversity, and reintroducing traditional water-conservation methods to overcome drought. Yields of many crops have tripled and doubled, keeping well ahead of population increases.
In fact, high local population densities, far from being a liability, are actually essential for providing the necessary labour to work the land properly, digging terraces and collecting water in ponds for irrigation, and to control weeds, tend fields, feed the animals and spread manure. In some areas, the population density or carrying capacity went up fivefold, but the land is far more productive than ever before.
Organisms are the most energy-efficient 'machines' by far, a point that is lost on policy-makers bent on increasing efficiency by getting rid of workers and introducing other unsustainable 'labour-saving' measures.
In 1994, my friends in the Third World Network, a non-government organisation that has been playing a leading role in the struggle for equity and justice for the world's poorest countries, persuaded me to help make sense of gene biotechnology, and whether it was safe. I had left molecular genetics five years before, when all the scientific findings already indicated that gene biotechnology would not work, and was dangerous besides.
On a more positive note, it was the new genetics of the 'fluid genome' uncovered by the scientific findings that persuaded me to take the plunge into the physics of organisms. The old assumption that genes determine characteristics of organisms in a linear chain of command was falsified many times over. Geneticists discovered numerous levels of dynamic feedback between organism and the environment that can change the genetic information itself.
The fluid genome is part and parcel of the shift in scientific vision, from the mechanistic towards the organic, that has been happening across the disciplines: the mathematics of chaos and the science of complexity, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, quantum physics of coherent states, to name but a few.
At a very early stage, I became aware that the debate on genetic engineering was no less than a global struggle to reinstate holistic knowledge systems and sustainable ways of life that have been marginalised and destroyed by the dominant, unsustainable culture . This task has become all the more urgent as the earth has been brought to the brink of extinction by the excessive uses of fossil fuels; and 'weapons of mass destruction' are once again being seriously contemplated as part of the so-called 'war on terrorism'.
We have all the means at our disposal to go forward to sustainable, peaceful ways of life for all. Only the political will, and the appropriate vision, is missing.
One of the most important lessons that the organism teaches us is that the organic whole is quintessentially diverse and pluralistic. The organism is the antithesis to uniformity and homogeneity. It is truly remarkable that we should habitually think of ourselves as "I" in the singular.
We have some 30 000 genes; but alternative splicing , RNA editing and other ways in which the genetic code is modified by feedback from the environment  gives us perhaps ten times as many possible proteins. A different combination of genes and proteins is active from moment to moment in each of the seventy trillions cells that make up the different tissues and organs of our body. Within the cell, each individual protein molecule will have its own diverse, 'cytosocial' neighbourhood of other proteins, as well as cofactors and metabolites. So much so that if ever the same kind of protein molecules clump together, as the prion-protein in mad cow disease and sickle-cell haemoglobin in sickle-cell anemia, that spells death.
What if the same principles were involved in the survival of our planet and the human species, as I have argued they might be? It is not too difficult to appreciate why we need the full diversity of cultures in the human species. The different cultures are so many repositories of wisdom necessary for our survival; they are needed to sustain the human miracle, to express the full creative human potential.
But why does it matter that the sparrow is no longer seen in London? That the frogs are dying out all over the world? That our children and grandchildren may come to feel the peculiar flutter in their heart when they see their loved one, but will never know it came from the experience of real butterflies?
Ecology tells us that the living world is interconnected and interdependent. Quantum physics says the interconnection is much deeper. Perhaps the reason we can feel other's joys and pains with such immediacy is because we are really entangled with our fellow human beings and with all creatures large and small. Entangled beings are as one, even though separated by vast stretches of space-time.
From the perspective of quantum entanglement, the self and other are aspects of one and the same. That is why we cannot do violence to our fellow human beings or to other creatures without harming ourselves. One of the most pressing items on the sustainability agenda is poverty. The glaring inequality that blights the lives of billions ravages the conscience of all.
That is why I want to reclaim science for the good of everyone, to promote the kinds of science that enable us to thrive with nature, that nature may never cease to set our soul on fire.
Article first published 16/04/02
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