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Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution$
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Thomas N. Sherratt and David M. Wilkinson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199548606

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199548606.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 01 March 2021

How will the Biosphere End?

How will the Biosphere End?

Chapter:
10 How will the Biosphere End?
Source:
Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution
Author(s):

Thomas N. Sherratt

David M. Wilkinson

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199548606.003.0014

This fictional description of the destruction of much of life on Earth comes from a novel by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, co-authored with his son Geoffrey. In the story, the formation of a quasar in the centre of our galaxy leads to the destruction of all life on Earth, except at a few fortuitously sheltered locations. Quasars—first described in 1963—are colossally energetic astronomical objects with extremely high output of radio waves. The novel built on some of Fred Hoyle’s own scientific interests because in the early 1960s, along with the astrophysicist W.A. Fowler, he had predicted that the collapse of a super-massive object could form a distinctive radio source—just before the discovery of the real thing. Although Hoyle and Fowler had the theoretical head start in explaining quasars, being busy with other work they failed to follow up on this advantage, and the current best explanation for these objects is largely due to Donald Lyndon-Bell and Martin Rees. Building on the ideas of Hoyle and Fowler, they argued that a quasar is formed by a rotating super-massive black hole, fed by a disk of in-falling matter, with jets of matter flying away from the system along its axis of rotation. Like the Hoyles’ novel, this chapter focuses on ways the biosphere could end; a fitting question for the close of a book on the ecology and evolution of Earth-based life. However, any answer to a question set in the far future can necessarily be only speculative and, of course, nobody will be around to put the theory to its ultimate test. This raises a philosophical problem namely, has such a question a place in science, or should it be left to science fiction writers? We believe that such questions count as science, not least because it would be good to know the answer (especially if something could be done to postpone the end), but also because in attempting to answer the question, we can extend our understanding of processes that are currently operating. Indeed, J.B.S. Haldane, one of the greatest scientists of the past century, wrote an early essay on much the same topic we consider here.

Keywords:   abiotic environment, biosphere, carbon cycle, eukaryotes, fossil fuels, global warming, lichens, methane, nitrogen

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