Sunday, 5 February 2017

Week 18: (30th January to 5th February 2017) or 'One mosquito bite felt 5000 miles away'


In a little while from now, deep in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, a butterfly will realize that the leaf it sits upon is far from supreme and tantalized by an untenanted, altogether more sumptuous leaf on a neighbouring stem, it will ascend into flight. As the wings whip the air, little does it know that it's causing a hurricane, thousands of miles away. Little does it realize that the seemingly innocent pursuit of another place to park has the potential to destroy homes and disrupt livelihoods across the planet. But then, there's little chance that this butterfly has studied, or even heard of, the so-called 'Butterfly Effect'.

For the majority of his life, Edward Norton Lorenz (1917-2008) was a mathematician and meteorologist, fascinated in how the very smallest of changes can have extremely large and unrelated implications. After digesting a complex string of equations, he churned out a simple, albeit controversial analogy: the 'Butterfly Effect', which proposes that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can influence the weather in the Himalayas. Although it's an interesting thesis, there is of course no means by which to prove it.

Having said that, the concept is not entirely redundant. The notion that something so meagre in size can influence events from thousands of miles away is fairly sound. I suggest this with some degree of certainty and although I do not have equations to hand, I do have experience. Allow me to explain. 

City clocks had barely wrapped up their midnight broadcasts as I climbed aboard an all-night Megabus coach on Tuesday morning. I might have absconded from a piercing chill but I was to spend the next six hours absorbing unpalatable odours. About a lifetime later, which equates to about 240 miles, I disembarked at London's Victoria Station and presented myself in front of another driver. He promised another 120 miles of dreary road but affirmed Norwich as the final destination. And so on we went, wriggling around the labyrinths of London, fleeing the endless sprawl of its suburban territories and finally on to the M11. I cruised in and out of slumber, but the driver had kept his promise, and four hours later, the engine spat out its final fumes in the heart of Norwich.

What I've just described is, to state it in the simplest terms, over 350 miles of travel and 10 hours of my life. Each and every mile - indeed, each and every second - of that trip was caused by something no larger than a centimetre, no heavier than a milligram, living more than 5000 miles away. I am referring to a mosquito in Brazil that, after one fatal bite last month, caused a Yellow Fever outbreak, a state of emergency in South America and, 5000 miles away, another Megabus experience for this writer. There is only a week to go now before I fly into the epicentre of this Yellow Fever plague and, having not been specifically vaccinated for it, I had little choice but to endure yet another injection.

If something as small as a mosquito in Brazil can subject a Lancaster student to 10 hours aboard a Megabus, perhaps there is some truth in Edward Norton Lorenz's 'Butterfly Effect' after all...


***
With a droplet or two of Yellow Fever swimming around inside of me and an immune system preparing its weapons against impending attack, it was fortuitous that the rest of my week only consisted of project meetings. On Wednesday, I welcomed Dr Andrew Tye from the British Geological Survey to Lancaster and together with John, we sat down to discuss the finer details of my project proposal. Andrew was a member of a team that studied soil production in Bodmin Moor (Cornwall) about five years ago, although it's questionable as to how representative the data from that study is for UK soil production. After all, Bodmin Moor has not been cultivated. I fully expect to find that agricultural practices, despite occurring at the surface, propagate effects all the way down to the underlying bedrock and as a result, influence the rates of bedrock weathering (soil production). Indeed, as I have previously written before, my project will be one of the first (if not the first) in the world to study soil production on agricultural land.


There are few alleyways in the world that I can instantly recognise and pin to a map. But the ascent up these well-trodden slabs, passing paint-peeling drainpipes and timeworn brick walls into the hub of Edinburgh's Royal Mile will forever be etched into memory. I first climbed these steps on my December visit and remember feeling at the time that this narrow passage-way bridged England and Scotland more aptly than any tannoy at Edinburgh Railway Station. Halfway along is a reasonably labelled 'Halfway House' and this week marked my second passing of it. Rather reluctantly, it also marked the second time I've resisted the temptation of venturing in. It is Edinburgh's smallest pub, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for all the more in history. Sheltered from development, it has sat on the ledge of this city since the 1700s and I dare say that much of it rightfully remains in its antiquated condition.

I had travelled to Edinburgh to meet with Professor Simon Mudd, another supervisor involved in my project. We met inside a wonderfully ornate building. The Institute of Geography is nestled both in the heart of Edinburgh and in the heart of its history; the exterior facades are such as to make you believe that beyond the doors, 19th century Geographers are busy unrolling scrolls and illustrating maps. One couldn't be further from the truth, though. Beyond the doors in the 1850s were Doctors, indeed, but medical doctors, performing operations; this was Edinburgh's Old Infirmary. It's surreal to consider that where Simon's desk is currently placed was where an operation table might have once stood.


We enjoyed a productive meeting. Soil formation is one of Simon's key interests and, as such, his advice was both thorough and useful. One of the next steps I will now proceed with is deriving some topographic information about my study areas and with the aid of a programme that Simon and his team have constructed, I should be able to select my sampling locations with greater rigor.

The final piece of advice Simon gave me was, in many ways, a plea for me to visit the National Museum of Scotland and thus I left the Institute of Geography and made my way towards it. From the outside alone, it looks a formidable building, though this isn't necessarily a unique attribute in this city. From its entrance lobby, the grandeur is only enhanced. I had every expectation, therefore, to part with quite a considerable sum of money in exchange for what would be a fascinating afternoon consuming the very fabric of Scotland's culture. Thus, I was aghast when the personnel in the foyer told me there was no admission fee. The pursuit of learning in Scotland has yet to be blemished by the money-bag; no tuition fees and now a free museum! I glanced at my watch; there was under an hour to go before my return train would depart and so I made my apologies to the lady at the counter and gave her my assurance that the next time I am in Edinburgh, I would most certainly pay a visit.

And I meant it, too.

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