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So this rocky outcrop in the Atlantic, it vibrates?
September 2, 2010 3:09 AM   Subscribe

Charles Darwin, famous for his work On The Origin of Species, was also a secret terraformer.

More here.
posted by Biru (26 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
While the style of writing in the BBC article made me cringe a bit, it's a totally fascinating idea. Thanks for linking it!
posted by Megami at 3:33 AM on September 2, 2010


The actual news here is that Ascension island did have native plants which were thought extinct but, apparently not!
posted by vacapinta at 3:38 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error.

This is less comforting than you might suppose when you are not a couple of week's sailing from an actual, functioning ecosystem....

"We will colonize Mars! Via trial and error!"
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:03 AM on September 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


"What it tells us is that we can build a fully functioning ecosystem through a series of chance accidents or trial and error."

What accidents or trial and error did Darwin and the Royal Navy use to build this forest? It sounds like they just shipped some trees in.

Also, I'm surprised he didn't also ship them worms.
posted by DU at 4:52 AM on September 2, 2010


Um, I'd think that "just shipping" some trees in is a pretty darn fine example of trial and error.

"Hey let's just do this and see what happens." How much more trial and error does it get? The article doesn't mention how many of the trees were successfully transplanted. It seems reasonable that to think that they tried different types and modified future shipments accordingly.
posted by oddman at 5:30 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


How much more trial and error does it get?

Other plants, the addition of animals, the importance of bacteria, the shifting of paradigms.

The trial and error you are describing is tweaking of an already-working idea. That's not going to terraform Mars.
posted by DU at 5:41 AM on September 2, 2010


Um, not all trial and error has to be extensive or elaborate.
posted by oddman at 5:45 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


There were no trials that were in error. The single trial, described in the "more here" link, succeeded.

And this isn't just a matter of terminology. The one thing they tried worked. Maybe that means they got lucky or maybe it means the whole underlying assumption, that ecologies are difficult to build, is wrong. Maybe they would have succeeded with grass or bushes or ivy too. Maybe they didn't build it by any kind of trial and error at all but just by flinging whatever onto the ground.
posted by DU at 5:52 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


At the present time, any organism transplanted to Mars from Earth would die. Mars is too cold, dry, and airless. It just does not have an environment that is conducive to life. I realize that life manages to exist on Earth in some very hostile environments. There is algae underneath the ice in Antarctica. There are bacteria that live in hot springs, etc. But Mars is much more difficult than those. So, terraforming Mars, should we ever want to do such a thing, starts with the importation of large quantities of water and other volatile chemicals to thicken the atmosphere; greenhouse gases will also help to warm the planet so that water can exist in a liquid form. It would be ridiculous to import these substances from Earth, but they are also available in the form of comets. I suggested in an earlier discussion that this would logically be done by altering cometary orbits (it could be done with a modest nudge) so that they crash into Mars, but this raised a lot of alarm that the comets could wind up missing Mars and hitting Earth, causing massive catastrophe and the likely end of life on Earth. (Hey, the element of danger makes it all the more exciting!) This is not necessarily an impossible project, however. We would want to make sure that we have adequate space travel capability that if there were to be a mistake in a cometary trajectory, we would still be able to correct it in time. Still, it's an expensive project, and I doubt that we will ever do it.
posted by grizzled at 6:09 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


There were no trials that were in error.

I am not so sure you can look at it that way; each plant introduced to Ascension was a trial; there were most likely some plants that did not thrive. I wonder how detailed the record of this project were; it would be interesting to know how they chose what species to import and which did better than others.

One thing that the last article mentions briefly that the BBC article avoids completely is the fate of the island's original plants. The threat of extinction of native plants would make such a project difficult if not impossible in this day and age. A less charitable way of looking at it is as an example of invasive plants taking over completely, much as kudzu will one day cover the Southeastern US.
posted by TedW at 6:36 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


any organism transplanted to Mars from Earth would die

These are small details.
posted by stbalbach at 6:42 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


An interesting counterpoint to this is what happens when all (or almost all) the life is destroyed in an area. Volcanic eruptions such as Mount St. Helen's and Krakatoa have provided just this sort of event, ant it is amazing to me how quickly life returns even to an island after such a cataclysmic event. Although it formed de novo rather than being destroyed and re-colonized, the island of Surtsey has also been looked at in depth from an ecological perspective.
posted by TedW at 6:46 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maybe they didn't build it by any kind of trial and error at all but just by flinging whatever onto the ground.
posted by DU at 8:52 AM on September 2 [1 favorite +] [!] Other [3/3]: «≡·


Much like the attempts to construct "wetlands" here in Florida, under "No Net Loss (Google Docs)?"
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:14 AM on September 2, 2010


Mars or not, fascinating.
But according to Google maps, the island is still barren and the "forest" covers only one or two square miles.
Tiny.
posted by bru at 7:47 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


So I load up metafilter and I see this:

Charles Darwin, famous for his work On The Origin of Species, was also a secret terraformer.

But what I really saw in my mind:

Charles Darwin, famous for his work On The Origin of Species, was also a secret transformer.

I so wanted it to be real. Life is not that funny though.
posted by Fizz at 7:51 AM on September 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's what we call a "shake and bake" island.
posted by Brainy at 7:53 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


This and the Dune post, I'm thinking there's some kind of secret Liet Kynes fanclub going on.
posted by djgh at 7:55 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bless the Maker and all His Water. Bless the coming and going of Him, May His passing cleanse the world. May He keep the world for his people.
posted by Fizz at 7:59 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]



It's what we call a "shake and bake" island.


We manufacture these, you know.
posted by norm at 8:45 AM on September 2, 2010


If you want to learn more about island biology I highly recommend checking out this book from your local library.
posted by Bonzai at 8:57 AM on September 2, 2010


Also, I'm surprised he didn't also ship them worms.

It's probably too small for worms.
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on September 2, 2010


This and the Dune post, I'm thinking there's some kind of secret Liet Kynes fanclub going on.

Little known fact: Liet Kynes wrote the original Fremen version of Footprints, but in that version when he looks back he notices that the footprints are spread out wildly because they have to walk without rhythm.
posted by homunculus at 9:34 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


From the Wikipedia article vacapinta linked above: "[Anogramma ascensionis] was thought to have become extinct due to habitat loss, until four plants were found on the island in 2010. Over 60 specimens were then successfully cultivated at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and on Ascension Island."

Best make sure that fern is cultivated somewhere where real-estate issues won't lead to its re-extinction... Though I guess no one's likely to bulldoze the Royal Botanic Gardens anytime soon.
posted by limeonaire at 9:43 AM on September 2, 2010


Little known fact: Liet Kynes wrote the original Fremen version of Footprints, but in that version when he looks back he notices that the footprints are spread out wildly because they have to walk without rhythm.

Wait. That's not quite right. In the original Kynes version there were no footprints at because that's when Shai-Hulud bore you on his back.
posted by loquacious at 9:47 AM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I say we create a simulated Martian environment in warehouse somewhere and start bombarding lichens, molds, bacteria and other micro-organisms capable of photosynthesis, etc until we get a few that make it. Alternatively we could create some specialized micro-habitats that we gradually shift to martian conditions allowing these organisms to use natural selection and evolve to these conditions. Package up the survivors and ship them off to Mars and observe what happens.
posted by humanfont at 10:50 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


any organism transplanted to Mars from Earth would die

Wouldn't that be a more or less essential part of the process?
posted by cookie-k at 9:40 PM on September 2, 2010


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