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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Complexity and Connectivity: A New Cartography for Science and Engineering"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
AGU Fall Meeting
San Francisco, CA

December 13, 1999

Thank you, John [Knauss, AGU president] for your introduction. We go back many years, way back to the Sea Grant days.

I feel very much at home here with AGU. I see so many familiar faces and old friends.

Another reason I feel so comfortable is that this meeting marks a new and commendable emphasis on research with physical and biological components.

This very natural coupling is now being blessed and strengthened by official recognition.

Your spotlight on biogeoscience is a most welcome step. I understand that the theme has attracted almost 400 submissions. This is certainly evidence of an idea whose time has come.

This leads into the title of my talk--"Complexity and Connectivity: A New Cartography for Science and Engineering."

It underscores how strongly I believe that linkages of many sorts provide coordinates for the future of our fields.

Edward O. Wilson, the famous entomologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author, has set forth a vision in his latest book, Consilience, proposing the unity of all knowledge.

As he writes, "The greatest challenge today--not just in cell biology and ecology but in all of science--is the accurate and complete description of complex systems."

I'd like to demonstrate the complexity of this unity with a very short video clip from the IMAX film titled "Cosmic Voyage," which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The film takes us on a "cosmic zoom" across the orders of magnitude, from inner to outer space. It includes actual astrophysical simulations.

The kind of cosmic vision we've just seen enervates the breadth of our mission at the National Science Foundation. It carries us all the way from quarks to stars. This perspective frames the themes I want to highlight tonight: the integration of the sciences, the critical role of information technology in research and education, and the paramount importance of science literacy for everyone.

These themes reflect our philosophy at NSF. We invest in initiatives that will generate benefits across the spectrum of science, engineering, and society.

John Muir got it right when he wrote, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Only through mapping and nourishing these links can we truly reflect and probe the wholeness of the world that we study.

[3 spirals]

These three spirals connect across grand scales--beginning with the form of a hurricane on the left and moving to the spiraling galaxy in the middle.

Even gravity waves--the blue circles on the right, which we have thus far detected only indirectly--ripple across this cosmic vision.

The blue circles are an artist's depiction of two black holes orbiting each other. Even the very fabric of time-space is warped.

Just a month ago I helped inaugurate an NSF facility called LIGO--the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

LIGO is designed to see such disturbances and may ultimately show us gravity waves.

[Geo processes in space and time]

We can view this unity across scales from an earth science perspective that transcends both time and space. I borrowed this graph from Bob Corell. It displays how systems fit together.

The lower left shows the tiniest and briefest scale. That's where we find microbial kinetics. The larger and longer perspective is to the upper right.

There we find events and processes such as plate tectonics and the evolution of the earth.

We have framed a new and encompassing approach to studying our world. My term for it is biocomplexity. The earth sciences will be essential to making this approach mature and succeed.

This initiative is rooted in the visible integration of environmental research and education at NSF.

Most of you know that Margaret Leinen from the University of Rhode Island will soon come on board at NSF as our assistant director of geosciences.

She will become the foundation-wide coordinator for our environmental activities. (Science Magazine this week bestowed the title of environmental "czar" on Margaret; however, proper English would make her "czarina.") This cements geoscience at the very core of this theme. It's an obvious match.

[river network/leaf slide]

This particular pairing of images symbolizes for me the interchange between the physical and biological sciences.

We see the same principles of branching at work--whether in the form of the river network on the left, or in the veins of the leaf on the right.

Many of the biogeoscience topics being discussed here over the next few days reflect this confluence of disciplines.

  • We now know that biology controls many earth processes--either directly or indirectly.

  • Marine organisms affect how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere. For example, bacteria have been used to seed clouds to induce rain. None of us had thought of bacteria as rainmakers.

  • Biogeography's perspective is also valuable. It draws in the human interactions with natural processes.

Paleontology also provides us a critical window into biocomplexity. It's the direct path to understanding the 99% of the species that are now extinct. Puzzles such as what triggered the explosion of life in the Cambrian are ripe for further exploration.

All these exciting directions bring the disciplines closer, broaden our knowledge of earth history, and enhance our understanding of how to sustain our planet.


We enrich our own disciplines and deepen our links to others by incorporating mathematical approaches such as complexity and chaos.

To quote from a special section on complexity that ran in the journal Science earlier this year, "...very simple ingredients can produce very beautiful, rich and patterned outputs."

[eigen faces]

This is another leap across disciplines. Here is a set of "standard" human faces used to extract patterns. The faces are used in biometrics, with wide application in computer security.

The FBI uses the same methods in fingerprint identification. In fact, a recent visit to Intel Corporation in Oregon demonstrated how our entry code--say to a bank account--is our thumb pressed on the computer screen, which is then recognized and opens your account.

[earthquake map/California]

Here we see a map of earthquake activity, organized quantitatively into patterns. The same technique--a correlation matrix--finds the patterns in the earthquakes and in the faces we just saw.

(I should add that I'm indebted to John Rundle of the University of Colorado for providing several of these images.)

[4 MRI brains]

Connections abound as well between medicine and the fundamental sciences.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging, illustrated here, has improved basic health care. This well-known and non-invasive technique is used to diagnose many illnesses.

[4 baboons]

I'd like to emphasize that the public is unaware that this advance, MRI, springs from basic research in chemistry, math, and physics. Let's look at these four images of a primate.

The top one is actually the sum of the other three. It's like the way the sounds of musical instruments combine in a performance, such as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The same mathematical concepts underlie MRI.

[Gemini dome]

Now just six months ago NSF dedicated the Gemini Telescope in Hawaii, one of the new generation of ground-based telescopes with unprecedented, fantastic reach.

[Gemini image]

This is one of the first images from Gemini. Astronomers are in the process of fitting the telescope with adaptive optics.

The technique removes the blurriness of our atmosphere and sharpens the telescope's vision out into the universe.

In fact, the Center for Adaptive Optics, funded by NSF, just opened at the University of California-Santa Cruz. It has a dual mission.

It will refine adaptive optics not only for astronomy, but also for research on the human eye.

[deep earth microbe]

An enormous number of discoveries are being made at the confluence of disciplines. For example, we are finding life everywhere.

The discovery of life in the most extreme environments is one of the most exciting frontiers where the geo and biosciences meet. At this meeting a paper is being given on bacteria living in and on ice crystals.

In this slide we glimpse microorganisms--deep earth bacteria--found in rocks retrieved from deep within a South African mine.

We are beginning to suspect that the biomass inside the earth could equal or even surpass the quantity of biomass on the surface.

In many ways it's like the huge numbers of bacteria happily living in our intestines, helping us to digest and producing vitamins. So do we also suspect that deep in the bowels of the earth there exists a biomass serving a similar function for our living planet.

[Antarctic map with Vostok]

Antarctica is another extreme of the planet that is yielding life in abundance. Beneath the east Antarctic ice sheet lies Lake Vostok, the largest sub-ice lake known to exist.

This relief map of ice topography, derived from satellite data, shows the lake's location.

As many of you know, it is estimated that the lake has been sealed off for at least one million years.

[picture of two microbes side by side]

The December 10 issue of Science Magazine features these microscopic images of bacteria frozen into ice.

They are thought to have been refrozen from the waters of Lake Vostok.

Two research teams led by David M. Karl of the University of Hawaii and John Priscu of Montana State University found the bacteria.

They've concluded that a potentially large and diverse population of bacteria may live in the lake.

The challenge now is to design a probe that could sample the lake for these ancient life forms without contaminating it with our present-day bacteria during the sampling process.

Besides yielding unexpected life, Antarctica serves as a model for exploration of life beyond earth.


Many of you will recognize Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. Lake Vostok is considered to be an analogue to Europa.

Now it's only a dream, but perhaps not far off in the future, is an attempt to join the disciplines to search for evidence among the stars that an explosion of diversity might have occurred elsewhere in space and time.

[PITAC report]

Let's come back down to earth--really down to earth: Washington, D.C. Many of you may have heard about the report from the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee--PITAC for short.

The committee issued an urgent call for the federal government to step up spending on information technology research.

NSF, as you know, has taken up the challenge with a major new initiative on IT.

  • It points the way to new frontiers in fundamental research.

  • It draws different disciplines together.

  • It integrates research and education.

[skull and lentil brain]

These two images symbolize the synergy in our initiative. On top is a reconstructed skull found by NSF-funded anthropologists, whose research was featured on the cover of Science earlier this year.

This human ancestor left us the earliest evidence of tool use.

Our latest tools give us the lower image--what is called a brain template. The picture is from UCLA's Neuro Imaging Laboratory.

Though still at fundamental stages, this research may help show which sections of the brain are active when we are learning throughout our lives.

Visualization--one of most revolutionary tools--helps give the big picture--the entire brain.

[neuroscience scales]

Computational methods cut across the old sub-disciplines of neuroscience, symbolized by this "cascade" of scales found in the nervous system.

Computers allow neurological data to be linked across scales, from the molecular level all the way up to the entire organism.


Many similar challenges in biology are being conquered in lockstep with IT.

Genomics for one is flooding us with information. This image is from my own research on the cholera vibrio. The genomic sequence of Vibrio cholerae will appear in Nature. It's both an environmental inhabitant of rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters--as well as a potent human pathogen.

It's been only four years since we mapped an entire genome. Today, we know the entire genetic sequence of 25 organisms. Twenty-four are microorganisms, and the 25th is a nematode. Vibrio cholerae will be the 26th.


This modest-looking plant actually promises a great deal. It is Arabidopsis, a mustard plant that is used as a model for all aspects of plant biology.

As we decipher its entire genome, we'll unlock secrets to the life cycles of all plants.

[Chesapeake Bay visualization]

Our investments in IT promise pay-offs across the board, including the geosciences. Here is a three-dimensional visualization of the Chesapeake Bay.

Researchers from different parts of the country can work with this data simultaneously. Their "virtual doubles" can actually move around together within the data set.

[El Niņo]

By now you are all familiar with how computer modeling has revolutionized our understanding of climate. A recent triumph is our ability to predict for the first time the advent of El Niņo. The successes of the 1997-98 El Niņo were astounding.

Colors in this simulation of sea surface temperature show red for warm waters and blue for cooler.

[Rita cholera, SST, and SSH graph]

My own research on cholera and climate would have been impossible without the progress of IT and remote sensing. Our results will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences very soon. They confirm how cholera epidemics are linked to climate.

It turns out that sea surface temperature, mapped by satellite over an annual cycle, tracks closely with cholera outbreaks.

[Clinton Dry Valleys declassified image]

Now, new resources are available. You may recall that President Clinton visited NSF's facilities in New Zealand in September. These facilities support the U.S. Antarctic Program.

The president announced the declassification of important satellite images of Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

Such previously classified images give us a tremendous resource for tracking environmental change, whether it's ecological or climatic. Again we see how our information tools open up unimagined vistas.

[blue and gold: Earth's magnetic field]

Some of you will find this particular image familiar. This simulation is a snapshot of the magnetic field of the earth.

Magnetic field lines are blue where the field is directed inward and yellow where oriented outward.

This research by Gary Glatzmier at the University of California-Santa Cruz and other researchers sheds light on why the earth's magnetic field reverses itself periodically.

The work exemplifies how supercomputing has preceded and pointed the way to actual discovery. We see how simulation has become the third branch of science.

[Digital library; global to local scale]

Advances in information technology dovetail with progress in the final area I would like to highlight: science literacy.

Here we see earth science imagery presented as part of a prototype digital library. The images of volcanic activity progress from the global scale on the top to the local down below.

Now being developed, the digital library will provide instructional materials, connect teachers with others who teach similar courses, and provide students with real-time data and information.

The teaching resources will be peer-reviewed.

We're excited that earth science can offer some of the most dynamic, real-world, visual data at all levels of learning.

[Faultline project]

· Earth science education is already capitalizing on the Internet. The Exploratorium right here in San Francisco just sponsored a "Faultline Project"--with live webcasts with seismologists along the San Andreas fault.

[girl jumping to create her own earthquake]

  • This girl is creating her very own earthquake at the Museum of Natural History in New York. For those of you too far back to see, she's launched herself at least a foot up into the air. It's simple, but it brings home the concept. (It also gives her a future in the WNBA.)

[teacher webzine: "Making Waves"]

  • The University of South Florida has created an interactive teacher magazine--Making Waves--to bring an introductory oceanography curriculum into the schools.

It's like bringing coals to Newcastle to say that geoscience has a wealth of potential in education and outreach. Let me relay some thoughts on the subject brought to us by the Channel 4 weatherman in Washington, D.C., Bob Ryan.

He is "Bob" to all of us in Washington, and he's the only TV weathercaster ever to serve as president of the American Meteorological Society. Even better yet, he is also an AGU member.

[Bob Ryan quote]

As Bob Ryan says, "No science offers the opportunity of discovery like the geosciences."

He then goes on to describe the problem:

"We now have a generation of adults ignorant of science and frightened by the technological revolution taking place. In an ever-more competitive world, we cannot afford to lose a second generation."

In this context, one particular misperception is much on our minds. That's the unfortunate decision of the Kansas School Board not to require testing on evolution in the state curriculum.

This disturbing event touches us all, because an evolutionary perspective is so basic to many sciences. This AGU meeting includes a session on explaining evolution to students and the public, and I am pleased that you're doing that.

We simply must give our children the best possible education. So many of their future decisions will require a solid grounding in science and technology.

[girl and teacher with slinky]

Scientific principles can be demonstrated with very simple tools like this Slinky. NSF supports increased opportunities for students and workers to acquire the skills they need for the knowledge-based century. A competent and diverse workforce drawing on all sectors will be critical to our nation's leadership in our future global economy.

[young girl with seismometer]

We're committed to improving science, math, and engineering education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten to post-doctorate, and even beyond, to lifelong learning.

However, we must do better in attracting women and minorities to science and engineering, especially the geosciences. This is the responsibility of every one of us.

Some of you know about a new NSF-wide program that I'm very excited about. We call it GK through 12--that's short for our program to put graduate students as teaching fellows into K-12 classrooms.

It targets teaching and learning at several levels at once. The first grants have been awarded, and three of them are focused on geoscience. It's only the beginning.

[teacher waving on Alvin]

Here's an illustration of the integration of research and education.

This seventh grade teacher, Midge Yerken from Yakima, Washington, is waving on-camera to her students before she descends in the submersible, Alvin, as part of a project to retrieve black-smoker chimneys from the sea floor.

One of her fellow teacher-travelers wrote,

"Drifting downward we were engulfed by total darkness. Then the light show began...bioluminescent plankton gave us a show more spectacular than any July 4th fireworks...The sights of the ocean bottom will never leave me."

[Rita waving on Alvin]

I can't resist adding that I know just how that teacher felt! I was able to go down on Alvin myself just two months ago.

[John Steinbeck quote]

I will close by thanking you for the chance to speak with you about a new and exciting cartography for science. We will need help from all of you to fulfill it. I think the breadth of AGU really dovetails with this quotation from John Steinbeck.

It is this:

" things is all things--a plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time."

[NSF slide: where discoveries begin]

As we break down barriers, as we study complexity, and as we share our discoveries of the earth and beyond, we create a future that knows no boundaries.

Thank you.



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