For most of this lecture, I was entirely confused. Everything that Neill Schubin talked about was very interesting and his stories were vivid and engaging, but each topic seemed distant I could not understand what point he was trying to make. That is, until the very end, when he began to pick up the threads that he had cast on the stage and tie them together, and all of the scrambled notes I had taken “just in case” he was going to stick with each individual topic fell into one large picture in my notebook.
Schubin began by talking about rocks and how, years ago, he decided to search for fossils that would bridge the gap between the fossils we have from life existed only in the sea and fossils we have from when life moved onto land. In the artic islands, he found this fossil: a flatheaded fish with fins. I am mentioning this particular story because I noted the connection to things we have learned in AP Biology so far: comparative anatomy. The bone structure in the fins of this flatheaded miracle fish fossil was similar to the bone structure of the human arm.
Next, Schubin moved on to talk about many different things, including the connections between biomes, stories of the Harvard Computers, our connection to the stars, body clocks, the Cold War, the Ice Age, and the correlation between the Earth’s orbit and the waxing and waning of ice.
Put in a compressed list like that, it seems as though his talk was hectic, random, and disconnected. For most of it, I did feel as though it was, and I was confused. But before I talk about when he brought everything together, I’d like to elaborate on a few of my favorite stories.
When introducing the idea of a body clock, Schubin told a story of a French spelunker who lived in a cave for 60 days without any clock and only artificial light. Whenever he ate, took a nap, or did something of that nature, he would record it in his log and make a phone call to his associates on the surface to let them know about it. On day 37 of his notes, his associates asked him how many days he would need to get back to the surface. He said he would need two days, so they told him to start his ascent that very day. But, if it were only day 37 out of 60, why would he leave the cave? It turns out that when the spelunker thought he was just taking a nap, his body clock shut him into a 12-hour sleep, so he recorded that only about a half-hour had passed when really, half a day had gone by. Though he thought he was underground for 37 days, he was really underground for 58. I find this whole story fascinating. Our bodies have an internal clock that is strong enough to overcome our conscious mind: what other processes are happening inside us that we are not aware of?
Continuing on the topic of body clocks, Schubin pointed out that the body clocks in humans and other organisms are all connected, essentially leading back to being connected to the Earth’s rotation on its axis, orbit around the sun, and therefore the solar system, galaxy, and entire universe. It is here that Schubin began to tie the threads of his net together: each small subject that he touched on, seemingly disconnected from the rest, affects everything else in the world and our universe. The ice ages, which very much affect human civilization, are connected to the interactions of Earth with other planets in our solar system, which is connected to the galaxy and the rest of the universe beyond. Our internal body clocks contain a rhythm set by the universe, each biome that exists today is a memory of what a different biome looked like at a different time, all affected by the ice ages, and therefore, the universe.
Schubin’s concluded by mentioning how science has moved us from the center of the universe (thank you, Copernicus!) to a small corner, existing only as a pixel, and what it has really taught us is not that we are insignificant, but that everything – absolutely everything – is connected.
Though I was confused for most of the lecture, once I understood the connections, I was astounded. Schubin even organized his lecture the way he sees the universe: he gave us small snippets of things that we superficially perceive as unconnected, but, in the end, he revealed the interdependence of the topics he talked about and the universe around us.