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Symposium examines evolution of Earth system

The Earth System Initiative's first-ever symposium on March 7-9 attracted more than 250 participants and 17 speakers who discussed the past present and future of the Earth's evolution, with a focus on the role of life in shaping our planet.

Attendees and presenters at the meeting, titled "Was ... Is ... Might Be... Perspectives on the Evolution of the Earth System," came from an unusually large number of fields including biology, geology, electrical engineering, genetics, hydrology, ecology, chemistry and physics.

Speakers covered topics including the evolution of Earth's landscapes and topography, the genetic composition of the oceans' microbial populations, the role of symbiosis in biological evolution, and the interactions between ecosystems and the Earth's climate.

A highlight of the meeting was a message from Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and other works, who greeted participants in a recorded message from his Colombo Sri Lanka home and offered his own vision for the future role the human race will play.

"The exciting thing about this symposium was that it brought together researchers from a broad range of disciplines who, under normal circumstances, seldom have the time to contemplate the impact of their science on other fields," said Kip Hodges, co-director of the Earth System Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

"Just as importantly, they had an opportunity to gain new perspectives on the earth sciences that might suggest entirely new research directions in their fields. I was particularly gratified to hear many of the participants comment that the symposium had been a real eye-opener for them. Hopefully, we'll see a spread of the kind of interdisciplinary research that is so important for Earth system science to move forward," Hodges said.

"This symposium brought together people who are interested in understanding the 'assembly rules' of life on Earth--from the genome to the biome--as well as how life shapes the very nature of our planet," said Penny Chisholm, ESI co-director and a professor of biology and of civil and environmental engineering. "One could feel the disciplinary walls breaking down over the two days--one of the keys to making progress in Earth system science and engineering."

The Earth System Initiative, a collaboration between departments in the Schools of Science and Engineering, brings together researchers in science and engineering to apply their collective knowledge to understanding the Earth system. It involves more than 40 faculty and also is the home for Terrascope, a freshman program that uses environmental case studies as the foundation for an intensive, project-based learning experience.


A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 17, 2004.

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