"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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."
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.
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
[4 MRI brains]
Connections abound as well between medicine and the
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, illustrated here, has improved
basic health care. This well-known and non-invasive
technique is used to diagnose many illnesses.
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
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.
This is one of the first images from Gemini. Astronomers
are in the process of fitting the telescope with adaptive
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
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
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
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
- 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
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.
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.
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
[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
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
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
· 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
[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.,
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
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
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
[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:
"...one 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.