Light is energy. There are many things about light that we don’t understand, but why should we understand everything? We only need three bits of very well established scientific fact to cover the most important aspects of how energy flows through the ecosystem to keep all of life alive.
1. Light is energy. We have defined energy as the ability to make actions happen, and light can make actions happen. For example, when light hits your eyes it activates molecules in a nerve cell that sends the message to your brain. That is one kind of work. Energy is the ability to do work.
2. According to the second law of thermodynamics, pushing anything from a lower level of organization to a higher level requires work. Work is necessary to push any kind of action “uphill,” but “downhill” actions can happen without help. It requires energy for you to climb the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building, but it requires no energy to get to the bottom if you fall off. In a more relevant example, anything that is more complicated or more powerful is “uphill.” To make a cake requires energy, but it can fall apart by itself. Cake is more complicated than flour. Life is the most complicated thing on earth. Cells require energy all the time in order to maintain their complex organization. But the important thing is that the entire system always is in balance because the downhill slide of energy balances its uphill push to the system. This is possible because energy comes in different forms.
3. Some forms of energy are “uphill” from others. For example, light energy can change to heat energy by itself, but heat energy can not spontaneously change back into light energy, because heat is a lower form of energy. Plants use light energy to make what I am referring to as organic energy (in food). Light energy is a higher form than organic energy, and organic energy is a higher form than heat energy.
So, the bottom line is that life maintains its complexity, even though it is always working “uphill,” because the entire ecosystem is provided with organic energy. For some people, this is the definition of life. Life is working, working, working all the time to keep itself from falling apart, and — if it stops working — it does fall apart. It dies.
That’s why people are alive and cake is not. Once you turn off the oven, the cake has no way to maintain its high level of organization and eventually it will fall apart. The miracle of life is that it can use light energy to keep itself organized and functioning — and it does it inside of itself. Inside every cell in our bodies and every organism in the ecosystem. So far as we know, nothing else in the universe can do this. Only life.
So the first half of our life story is about the amazing way that plants, and some bacteria, are able to capture light energy and convert it to food energy that we have referred to as organic energy. The process happens only in green plants and bacteria and it is called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of making organic molecules using the energy from light.
Capturing, or absorbing light energy is no problem for a pigment molecule such as the chlorophyll of plants. Pigment is any substance that absorbs light. Absorption of light energy happens all around us; it is what makes the colors. Light from the sun includes several different kinds (different wave lengths or different energy types) of light. We see some of these in rainbows, and we can see them because our eyes are activated differently by the different wave lengths of light energy.
So we see a cat because sunlight hits the cat and bounces off the cat into our eyes and energizes some nerve cells. This cat is orange, because only the orange light bounced off her. The other wavelengths were absorbed by the pigments in her hair. (We wrote a whole book about hair pigments, soon to be published, called The Colors of Mice, but that is blatant advertising and has nothing to do with our story here.)
The wavelengths that bounce off — that are not absorbed by the pigment — are still light energy; the wavelengths that are absorbed into the hairs change to a lower form of energy. For example, heat energy; that’s why the cat is stretched out in the sunlight on a cool day. It makes her feel warm and cozy. The pigment of a black cat absorbs most of the light that shines on it. A white cat reflects most of the different wavelengths of light. The green rug in this picture is reflecting green light back to our eyes and is absorbing the other wavelengths.
Plants, as you already realize, reflect the green light and keep the other wavelengths. Unlike cat hair pigment, however, the plant pigments (chlorphylls) do not allow the light energy to degrade into heat energy. Instead, the plant has a very complicated series of biochemical reactions that converts some of the light energy to make the energy bonds of large organic molecules. We will talk about the chemical reactions in some other post.
So, absorbing the light into a pigment molecule of (mostly) plants –and then using the energy to make food molecules — is the first half of the flow of energy through the ecosystem.
The second half is distribution of the energy so that all the parts of the ecosystem can stay alive. We discussed last time why an internet requires all its parts if it is to maintain resilience and sustainability.
So, to recap, the energy that does all this work comes from food. And of course you know what happens when you have no food. The only food we can use to stay alive is organic molecules, and the organic molecules are made by plants. If someone tells you that there is no limit to the energy available to us — because it comes from the sun — they are wrong. You and I both know we can not eat sunlight; our food comes from plants, and we are definitely limited by the amount of plants on earth, not by the amount of sunlight. If someone tells you we can make organic molecules for ourselves to eat, that is true, but unfortunately it takes more energy to make the food than we can get back when we eat it. Any anyhow food is not the only thing that keeps the ecosystem alive. The ecosystem is an internet; it requires a lot of things, and the most important is to keep all those things in balance.
The whole ecosystem stays alive by keeping a critical balance among all the different life forms that do the various ecosystem jobs we talked about last time, and a balance among the three forms of energy, light energy, organic energy and heat energy.
The ecosystem survives because the energy from the sun flows from one of its life forms to another to another to another, doing the work of keeping cells alive. Cells of plants, cells of bacteria, cells of turnips, cells of your body, cells of trees, cells of potatoes, cells of tigers, cells of worms, cells of mosquitoes, grass, horses, fish. You get the idea but if you want a visual cue you can look to the elegant, if simplistic, diagram below.
Every time we eat a bite of food (with the energy it contains) and then our body breaks down the food to release the energy bonds, and uses that energy to do the work of keeping our cells alive — every time we do any of those things, some of the energy is lost as heat. Nobody can eat heat, so then some plant somewhere in the ecosystem must capture more light energy to make more organic energy for our next bite.
Of course we know energy is not the only good thing we get from food. We will discuss other things — primarily carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen atoms and small molecules like water and carbon dioxide — in the third section of this book when we explain how the ecosystem recycles these materials into and out of our food. The point here is that the energy does not recycle. It is lost as heat. That’s why the plants must be constantly making more organic molecules to keep the entire ecosystem alive.
For the whole ecosystem to stay alive, it must provide food for every living part of itself. It must maintain the balance among the numbers of plants and the number of organisms that eat plants and the organisms that eat other organisms. And even more, the ecosystem must maintain the balance between the light energy that it uses to make organic energy, and the heat energy that is released when organic energy is burned to do work.
That’s why we have global warming. The energy balance is off. It has been for a good while.
Therefore, the only long-term cure for global warming is to help the ecosystem to restore her balance. We could do it, but not if we try to use any method that causes more heat to be released into the ecosystem. We can not cure global warming, and the starvation that comes with it, by burning anything or by growing our economy or our population. Because growth within our living ecosystem burns organic energy.
Today we take a little recess from writing our book, Basic Biology for Basic People, to report on two things of note that have interrupted the flow of ideas.
First is an answer to my question: “Can’t we think of a better name for this book?” because I have been trying for a year. We had several suggestions that were better than what I have so far thought of, which is a big help, and right now I’d like your feedback on “Bare Bones Biology.” Can anyone think of bad connotations of this title for the book and the accompanying series of radio spots?
Second, I happen to be listening to Tony Hillerman’s memoir, Seldom Disappointed, where he compares the Bible with Darwin’s book about evolution. This of course is a hot topic in Texas right now. Hillerman was raised in Oklahoma, just a few country acres to the north of us and is (was) the fine author of mystery stories based in Amerindian country. I am especially taken by his third sentence below:
“Darwin’s theories don’t conflict with our biblical genesis stories because we understand it as God talk in poetic metaphor. The biblical days represent eons of time. Humanity separated us from the primates when God touched the first of us with self-knowledge of him and of ourselves, and of life, death, good and evil. Darwin’s evolution theory was simply a brilliant scientist’s attempt to help us understand the dazzling complexity of God’s creation, from the amazing strength of a grasshopper’s legs to the way our brains transmit a signal from the optic nerves. Brother Bernard made the gospels equally simple. Christ tried to tell us that happiness lay in helping others. Selfishness was the road to damnation. His bottom line always boiled down to God loves us. He gave us free will. Permission to go to hell if we wanted; rules to follow if we preferred both a happy life and heaven; and a conscience to advise us along the way.”
This is of course an interruption of our series on the flow of energy through the ecosystem. For Christmas holiday I’ll continue the break from the FactFictionFancy blog and try to actually send cards to my whole list this year. Meantime I’ll keep you up to date with the daily traumas of life via the photographs of TheOneCreation blog. This week it was Postdoc with the vet student who came to help her recover from colic.
If I really want to understand the problems we face in trying to preserve the ecosystem from global warming, wars, and all that — what course should I take at TAMU during this coming Spring semester? Given that the basic ecology course repeats every semester on local TV, I guess I should continue to contribute there, but it’s available every semester. So other ideas in no particular sequence are: 1) economics, 2) management of charitable organizations, 3) politics. What do you think I most need to learn to make the measurable, biological facts in this blog useful to the world beyond the ivory tower?
FREE to senior citizens, and someone needs to help de-specialize our thinking.
OK, then I will say straight out that I am convinced (on the basis of my scientific training) there is a strong probability (almost a certainty) that the human species will extinct itself if we continue to believe that we can save ourselves with growth — economic and/or population growth.
I would find this very depressing except that I also believe human people can resolve this problem using our measurable factual knowledge about how the ecosystem functions. I believe this strongly enough to change my whole life in the effort to provide measurable, factual information so that people can understand for themselves the biological problem we face. Otherwise I would not be sitting here typing when the whole beautiful world is outside.
Because right-thinking, conscientious persons do not believe knowledge (especially unpleasant knowledge) unless they can discern the logic of it inside their own brains and unless someone makes that knowledge available to them. What we have available in he media is propaganda and in our educational systems is largely nature study rather than a study of functions.
Propaganda is always more palatable because propaganda gives us easy answers. Nature study is fun but gives no answers. The easy answers always relate to the most visible symptoms of a problem (war, starvation, epidemic, genocide, global warming, economic and political collapse, human rights offenses).
All these problems could be resolved by politics if we were to challenge their cause, but it simply will not work to try to cure the cause of a deadly problem by doing more and more of what caused the problem in the first place. The cause of our biological problems has to do with the ways in which humans react to shortages of resources. We will continue to have increasing shortages of resources that already are (uniquely in history) impacting the whole earth — unless we stop doing the thing that caused the shortages in the first place, which is rampant growth in a finite ecosystem that can not grow. It is a measurable fact that it is impossible to maintain life in an ecosystem that is growing faster than its energy reserves can support, and that has been the theme of all my blogs below.
Or, as I often say, you can not keep ten horses on a one-acre pasture unless your neighbor is growing hay. Our neighbor is the moon.
This is not an easy-answer sort of challenge, but it is logical and understandable, and we can solve it. We will not, however, solve any of the problems if we don’t try to deal with their common cause.
The ecosystem can not grow to accommodate our wishes. And why should it? Human persons are not God to define how we want the biology of the ecosystem to function. It is what it is, like it or not. We must honor the basic natural laws or we will be eliminated from the ecosystem, because the earth ecosystem is a living thing and all living things seek survival. The ecosystem will do what is required for it to survive. If that involves getting rid of us, then that is what will happen, regardless of CARE or Pres. Obama or anything that anyone believes.
Pres. Obama is not bigger than the ecosystem and he can’t do impossible things, no matter how many letters we send to him, but we could do it together if we would. He can not politically change something that is caused by an unhealthy earth ecosystem, but we could do it together if we would. But we can not make the ecosystem healthy — in the face of our rampant growth of the economy and the population of earth because human power does not control the ecosystem. Even if every person on earth were compassionate, well intended and law abiding we would still come to our end if we continue trying to use growth to solve problems that are caused by growth. If we really want to resolve this problem, we will have to talk about the problem, learn what is fact and what is propaganda and what is opinion or misunderstanding, decide what facts are important to the problem, and do something that will work to resolve it.
If we want to maintain any kind of reasonable quality of life within this earth ecosystem, we need to begin immediately to provide birth control for PEOPLE WHO WANT AND NEED IT, and we need to begin even sooner to stop pretending that we can cure the disease by treating the symptoms — and begin positive discussion of the issues that we need to resolve if we are to save ourselves for our future.
So let’s all listen to what our only brave politician has to say, and then send her peals of applause for not being too chicken to say it. Whatever it is. And then continue the conversation to a positive end.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver a major speech Monday, December 21, 2009 to mark the 15th year of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Secretary Clinton will announce the U.S. Government’s renewed support for and dedication to reaching the ICPD goals and other related UN agreements, including the Millennium Development Goals, by 2015.
Recent polls show that a majority of Americans across the ideological spectrum strongly support the principles in the worldwide consensus reached at the ICPD, including providing voluntary family planning and reproductive health services.
Take this opportunity to view Secretary Clinton’s speech, host viewing parties and take action to support ICPD 2015 throughout the holiday season and new year.
Visit http://www.icpd2015.org for more information.
I wrote a very good one for today. Spent several hours yesterday and last night and this morning. Computer wiped it out. Have to start over.
But in the meantime I wrote an email, to another scientist in another part of the world, that is more straightforward than anything I would say in a book that is written for people who have been deprived of the real biological background facts about our living world. It was that email that wiped out the lovely bit of explanatory writing. Maybe that’s a clue that I should share the nitty gritty with my readers, so here it is:
“1. If all scientists thought alike we would be in deep doodoo. They nearly do and we are.
2. If the “scientists” were paying attention to the whole living reality, rather than focusing almost exclusively on the details, it wouldn’t be necessary for me and a couple of other minority scientists to spend all our time trying to draw their attention to the fact that different levels of living things are characterized by different emergent properties and different requirements for their survival. Therefore it is not possible instead to understand the whole emergent needs of the ecosystem by a few details that are peculiar to us in the organismal level.
Taken together, Diamond’s COLLAPSE and Barabashi’s LINKED (these are referenced in recent posts) should be read by every scientist who believes the details are more important than the whole picture — or believes we can understand the whole picture by adding up all the details. The whole point of internets (and of course we and our lives are part of a biological internet) is that the details can change without loss of the emergent properties — up to a point. That is, an internet such as the ecosystem can afford to lose some of its parts, so long as the whole internet is able to use other parts to get what it needs to stay alive. Therefore, it is more important to study what the internet needs to stay alive, rather than to focus on individual details to the exclusion of our understanding of the whole system. Because, when an internet runs out of resources, the collapse is awesome, it is very quick and it is unavoidable. And — because we are living in the emergent property of the ecosystem of which we are details, or rather life itself is the emergent property of which we are only details — therefore we have no way to recognize the point of collapse of the ecosystem by studying only the details.
And of course we can not avoid the collapse by reducing global warming or any one of the component symptoms of the problem; we only delay it, and the delay predicts a more awesome calamity when the time comes. The only viable solution is to address the CAUSE of the problem, which in this instance is overpopulation. The only good that I see coming from our fixation on global warming is that we might make the connection between GW and overpopulation, but in fact the politicians and other people who make their living out of rampant growth have decided to use GW as an excuse to not deal with overpopulation. As they always do, every time we hit a new limiting factor.
Nobody needs me to help treat the symptoms of overpopulation — starvation, war, genocide, disease, global warming — the world abounds with people trying to make their reputations by claiming to do something that will help solve these problems — details that will not in fact help to fulfill the needs of the ecosystem unless we also give the ecosystem what it needs to stay alive — so that we all can survive.
At least this is a useful way to think of these entities that are so small and at such a relatively low level of organization that we (meaning the physicists) can’t see, touch or imagine precisely how they function.
But we can make a model that describes the things we know about how they function.
Atoms are made of mass and energy. Mass means they have weight (where there is gravity) and volume. On earth there are a little over 100 different kinds of atoms. The mass of an atom can be thought of as protons and neutrons that make up the internal portions of the atom. Protons have positive energy that attracts electrons. Electrons have negative charges that make up the outer portion of the atom where it can come in contact with other atoms. (These negative energies are very similar to minute units of electricity). Atoms with more protons also have more electrons because the opposite charges attract each other.
Different kinds of atoms are attracted to each other according to their different electron energies. If the energy attractions are strong, then different kinds of atoms can make energy bonds between themselves to form molecules.
A molecule is two or more atoms joined together with energy bonds that we can describe according to the following diagram.
Energy bonds are not random. The innate energy characteristics of a particular kind of atom determine if it will bond and how it will bond with other atoms. This is another one of those laws of nature that humans can not control. We can change atoms around — we can bombard them and break them because we have powerful technologies, but we can not change the nature of the energy interactions. Energy interactions happen according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
That’s what we really need to know. We don’t need to know all about the physics of atoms and molecules to understand how living things are able to use these characteristics to flow energy through their selves.
Energy flows both vertically and laterally through the network of levels of organization that make up the living Creation. The question, of course, is why and how does the living earth ecosystem accomplish this flow of energy. We have already introduced most of the components of this process.
Energy is the ability to do work. If this definition seem to you impossible to understand, you are understanding. The definition an observational one. We do not see and we do not fully understand energy, but we need the word to describe the processes that we do see, without exception, in the living and nonliving parts of the earth ecosystem — and in the whole universe, so far as we know.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a another observational definition of the reality of how the whole of The Creation functions. The whole universe, so far as we can know. The second law says that everything will naturally tend to become less organized on it’s own. Energy can spontaneously convert from a higher to a lower form (nuclear > light > heat), but not the other way. Also physical things can fall apart (because it is energy that keeps them together), but it requires energy to do the work of putting them back together. The rock will roll downhill, fall into the river, and be buffeted about by the water that is running downhill into the ocean, but it requires energy to build a pile of rocks or to carry the water back uphill. So, for our purposes, work is anything that can cause a change from a lower (less organized) to a higher level of organization of energy or of matter. If the second law of thermodynamics seems difficult to understand, it is. But within the ecosystem we need only to understand that energy and matter exist in lower and higher levels of organization and it requires energy to make things more organized.
Life on earth is organized into levels of energy and complexity: the cell, the organism, the ecosystem and the whole earth ecosystem are the major levels of complexity.
Living organisms are able to use the natural flow of energy to do the work that is required to stay alive, but they can not change the laws of thermodynamics (or any other basic law of nature). Basically, living organisms (plants mostly) change light energy into organic energy, in the form of food The plants are able to make larger organic molecules and macromolecules from small molecules.
Energy is required to make something big from something small.
The plants capture light energy from the sun and change the light energy into what we are referring to as organic energy. We define organic energy as the energy of the “bonds” that join together carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen (and other atoms) to make organic molecules.. The bonds that join organic molecules are not different from energy bonds that join inorganic molecules, but there is a whole big branch of chemistry that studies energy bonds between and among different kinds of atoms. We don’t need to understand allo the different kinds of energy bonds that function to make big molecules not fall apart, and so I have lumped them all in the category of “organic energy.” For our purposes, we need to know that molecules are held together by energy bonds and bigger molecules contain more energy than smaller molecules. This amazing accomplishment uses the second law. A higher form of energy is converted to a lower form — light energy is converted to organic energy. The higher energy form (light energy) contains more energy than the lower form. Some of that energy is used by plant cells to make the energy bonds of organic molecules and someof the energy is lost as heat.
Macromolecules are large molecules that are composed of molecules that are joined together by energy bonds.
Molecules are composed of atoms that are joined together by energy bonds.
Living things are composed of atoms and molecules and organic macromolecules that are joined together by energy bonds.
Atoms contain energy and matter (matter is the stuff of things that we can see and feel and it has weight if it is in a field of gravity). Again, there is a nice picture book on this subject, by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann, that shows the different elements of which the earth ecosystem is composed. That is, the different kinds of atoms. Everything we know is composed of atoms (matter and energy). The atoms join together to make molecules, and they do this according to energy relationships that depend on the specific matter/energy characteristics of each different kind of atom, that is, the kinds of energy bonds they can form. We do not need to study all these different energy relationships to understand that different atoms are more or less likely to form various kinds of energy bonds, that big molecules contain more energy than small molecules because of the energy bonds that join together the component elements, and that the particular atoms that make up most of the organic molecules are carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. And that plants capture the light energy from the sun and use that energy to join together atoms to make organic molecules.
Our food — also all of our other energy-containing carbon compounds (oil, gas, coal etc) – consists of organic molecules that were made by plants at some time in history. This is why some people propose to use live modern plants to make fuel for our cars.
In fact, the energy that runs all of the living earth ecosystem, comes from organic molecules. High energy organic molecules are circulated through the network of levels of organization of the whole earth ecosystem, first by plants. Organisms that can not do photosynthesis get their energy by eating plants, or other organisms. At every step of energy exchange (whenever organic molecules are eaten or burned) some of the energy is changed to heat and is lost from the system.
The Ecosystem is a Network of Levels of Organization
The diagram below needs explanation, but it won’t be easy, because the ecosystem is so complicated that it is impossible humanly to represent or to fully understand.
If you find it mind boggling to comprehend the levels of organization, all interacting among and between themselves, then you are just like the scientists, the politicians, the religious and everyone else. Fortunately, we do not need to understand all the little details of the system in order to have a good idea of how it functions — the structural and functional requirements for it to stay alive — and that is our goal. A basic appreciation of the beautiful idea of networking. and of the levels of organization. is background for understanding the flow of energy, and of other things, through the living ecosystem. Life is possible because of the internet of living and nonliving things through all the levels. The basic format of these realities is outlined in the below diagram.
The ecosystem consists of sets and subsets of living and nonliving entities that interact between and among themselves. We can not represent the entire system in a diagram for two reason. One is that the sets and subsets (levels of organization)
are flexible, a fact that is necessary for their survival (sustainability). The other is that there are just too many interactions to understand or represent.
For example, looking to the diagram, there are ecosystems within ecosystems. I am a functioning part of the pasture ecosystem and the East Texas group of ecosystems and in fact all the ecosystems in the world because I contribute to the materials (such as carbon dioxide) and the energy flow and many other activities that occur within each of these ecosystems and the whole earth ecosystem. If I could draw all the lines of interaction between myself and all the other ecosystems and all the other levels of organizations, the entire page would be black. So I drew only one or two or a few lines to feebly represent just a few interactions.
Imagine that everything interacts with everything on this diagram in some way(s) and also everything interacts with millions of other entities that make up the living system. For example, your heart interacts with every other component of your body; your resilience and therefore your survivability (sustainability) would be unlikely if any of these interacting components of your body were missing. All the organs work together to maintain your life. This is represented by the lines between the heart and kidney and skin on the diagram. However, it is true of every organ in your body. They all interact. Similarly, the leaves, bark and other organs of a tree all interact with each other to make the tree alive, and the tree interacts with nearly everything else in the ecosystem, including us.
We are only one component of the metabolism of the ecosystem. Our lungs breathe the oxygen that is provided by plants; our food gives us the energy we require for life; the environment degrades our wastes, so that we are not suffocated in a dung-heap of the unused byproducts of our metabolism. These processes are carried out by other organism that all are interacting within all the big and little ecosystems of life on earth. We could not survive without the other elements of the ecosystem, and we also contribute to the other elements of the ecosystem.
Levels of organization are shown on the diagram by the large headings on the left side of the page. Levels of organization are a special type of interaction that we have discussed before. Everything in the universe is composed of other, smaller things. These relationships are referred to as levels of organization. A very few example relationships of this kind are shown in the diagram with vertical lines. To summarize some of the levels of organization that exist:
1-The whole earth ecosystem is made up of smaller ecosystems and organisms. The whole earth ecosystem is the biggest (most inclusive) unit of life on earth.
2-Organisms are made up of organs and their environment
3-Organs are composed of specialized tissues and their environment.
4-Tissues are composed of specialized cells and their environment
5-Cells can be organisms or they can be subunits of organisms. The cell is the basic unit of life. Below the cellular level of organization, life as we define it is not present in the interacting systems of which it is composed.
6-Cells would not be alive without the precisely organized organelles, macromolecules and molecules of which they are composed.
7-Organelles are subunits of the cell that perform specific functions. For example, the chloroplast is an organelle that is made up of macromolecules and molecules that, in the environment provided by the cell can do the processes of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of changing light energy to chemical energy that is used to form the energy bonds of macromolecules.
8-Macromolecules are organic molecules joined together with smaller molecules by energy bonds.
9-Molecules are made of atoms that are joined together in very specific ways by energy bonds. The kinds of energy bonds and the kinds of relationships between the atoms are not random. They depend upon the fact that different kinds of atoms have different characteristics.
10-Atoms can not be seen or directly measured individually. However, if we collect a few million/billion atoms all together in one place we would call that an element. There are not very many elements that (in their special combinations as molecules) make up all the living and nonliving things of the ecosystem. These elements/atoms are diagrammed by chemists in the “periodic table.” A lovely book by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann describes and illustrates all these basic elements (and atoms) of our existence.
Atoms are studied by physicists. There are many metaphoric descriptions of atoms, but the bottom line is we do not fully comprehend atoms from our perch so much higher up in the levels of the ecosystem (just as we do not fully comprehend things that are at levels of organization over our heads. Our sensory organs are designed to function in our own level.) What we need to know is that atoms are matter (they have mass, which means they have weight and volume. Everything from your desk to your grandmother is composed of atoms). Atoms also carry the energy that we require to do any kind of action in our lives or in the ecosystem. The energy of atoms determines how the different atoms can make energy bonds with other atoms so that molecules can form, and macromolecules.
It is important to know that humans do not understand most of these interactions. It’s also important to remember that any system that has more interactions, to a point, is likely to be more resilient (suggested reading linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi). Resilience is largely the result of complexity and is essential to life. Increased complexity of a network increases resilience because it makes available “fail-safe” options by providing several methods of accomplishing each process. Increased complexity can also increase the efficiency of energy usage (notice these elements also can be true of social organizations).
However, this does not mean that more complexity is always better than less complexity. Complexity is not the only element of life that is essential, and complexity must be maintained in balance with all the other essential components of ecosystem viability. Too much complexity can be as harmful to the balanced organization of a network as too little complexity. We could not be alive if the nature of the chemistry and physics of our environment were different than they are, or if the interactions within the ecosystem ceased to function. All the levels and all the interactions make us what we are.
Filed under: Emergent Properties, Environmental Photography, Levels of Organizaion, Photography, Power of Learning, Power of Reality | Tagged: ecosystem, internet, levels of organization | 4 Comments »