How Hot Were the Oceans When Life First Evolved?

How Hot Were the Oceans When Life First Evolved?

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How Hot Were the Oceans When Life First Evolved?

When haze built up in the atmosphere of Archean Earth, the young planet might have looked like this artist’s interpretation — a pale orange dot.

Credit: Francis Reddy/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

We know little about Earth’s surface temperatures for the first 4 billion years or so of its history. This presents a limitation into research of life’s origins on Earth and how it might arise on distant worlds.

Now researchers suggest that by resurrecting ancient enzymes they could estimate the temperatures in which these organisms likely evolved billions of years ago. The scientists recently published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We need a better understanding of not only how life first evolved on Earth, but how life and the Earth’s environment co-evolved over billions of years of geological history,” said lead author Amanda Garcia, a paleogeobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “A similar co-evolution seems certain to be the case for any life elsewhere in the Universe.” [Ancient Earth: Pummeled, Cracked and Oozing Magma (Visualization)]

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Garcia and her colleagues focused on the history of Earth’s surface temperatures. Rocks offer many clues to deduce temperatures over the last 550 million years in the Phanerozoic Era, when complex, multicellular life took off, including that of humans. However, few such “paleo-thermometers” exist for the earlier Precambrian Era, spanning the Earth’s formation 4.6 billion years ago and the rise of life.

Earlier geological evidence has suggested that 3.5 billion years ago, during the Archean Eon, the oceans were 131 degrees to 185 degrees F (55 degrees to 85 degrees C). They cooled dramatically to current average temperatures of 59 degrees F (15 degrees C). Scientists made these estimates by examining oxygen and silicon isotopes in marine rocks. Quartz-rich rocks in the seabed, known as cherts, have higher levels of the heavier oxygen-18 and silicon-30 isotopes as the seawater gets colder. In principle, the ratio of heavier to lighter oxygen and silicon isotopes can shed light on ancient temperatures.

But such paleo-thermometers do not adequately take into account how these rocks or the ocean might have changed over the course of billions of years. Perhaps the isotopic ratios in seawater varied over time in response to physical or chemical alterations, such as water flows off the land or from hydrothermal vents.

Given the uncertainties, Garcia and her colleagues sought an independent measurement of seawater temperatures in the Precambrian that centers on the behavior of biological molecules. The scientists examined an enzyme known as nucleoside diphosphate kinase (NDK), which helps manipulate the building blocks of DNA and RNA, as well as many other roles. Versions of this protein are found in virtually all living organisms, and were likely vital to many extinct organisms as well. Previous research found a correlation between the optimal temperatures of protein stability and an organism’s growth.

The image on the left depicts what Earth might have looked like more than 3 billion years ago in the early Archean. The orange shapes represent the magnesium-rich proto-continents before plate tectonics started, although it is impossible to determine their precise shapes and locations. The ocean appears green due to a high amount of iron ions in the water at that time. The timeline traces the transition from a magnesium-rich upper continental crust to a magnesium-poor upper continental crust.

The image on the left depicts what Earth might have looked like more than 3 billion years ago in the early Archean. The orange shapes represent the magnesium-rich proto-continents before plate tectonics started, although it is impossible to determine their precise shapes and locations. The ocean appears green due to a high amount of iron ions in the water at that time. The timeline traces the transition from a magnesium-rich upper continental crust to a magnesium-poor upper continental crust.

Credit: Ming Tang/University of Maryland

By comparing the molecular sequences of versions of NDK in a variety of contemporary species, researchers can reconstruct the versions of NDK that might have been present in their common ancestors. By synthesizing these reconstructions, scientists can experimentally test these “resurrected” ancient proteins to find the temperature that stabilizes the protein and deduce from that the likely temperature that supported the ancient organism.

Scientists estimate when ancient enzymes might have existed by looking at their closest living relatives of their host organism. The greater the number of differences in the genetic sequences of these relatives, the longer ago their last common relative likely lived. Scientists use these differences to gauge the age of biomolecules such as the reconstructions of NDK. [The Strangest Alien Planets (Gallery)]

Previous research had reconstructed ancient enzymes to deduce past temperatures, but some of these enzymes may have come from organisms that lived in unusually hot environments, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which would not be representative of the wider ocean. Instead, Garcia and her colleagues sought to reconstruct NDK from land plants and photosynthetic bacteria living in the upper sunlit depths of oceans, presumably far away from boiling hot springs.

Microbial reefs called stromatolites are examples of biological structures found as far back as 3.7 billion years ago.
Microbial reefs called stromatolites are examples of biological structures found as far back as 3.7 billion years ago.

Credit: Pamela Reid, Ph.D., University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Their research suggests that Earth’s surface cooled from roughly 167 degrees F (75 degrees C) about 3 billion years ago to roughly 95 degrees (35 degrees F) about 420 million years ago. These findings are consistent with previous geological and enzyme-based results.

Garcia said such a dramatic cooling is hard to fathom, emphasizing how scientists need to remember how different conditions were in the past when figuring out how life evolved over time.

“It requires a lot of effort to envision a world that does not seem to fit with the common sense of our current Earth conditions.”

Future research could reconstruct versions of NDK from more organisms, as well as other enzymes, giving more evidence to support the method. Such research could help “in solving big questions about the early evolution of life and Earth’s environment,” she said.

The participation of study co-author J. William Schopf, founder of the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life at the University of California, Los Angeles, was supported by his membership in the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium.

This story was provided by Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program. Follow us@Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+

Posted, but not written, by Lou Sheehan
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Could subjects soon be a thing of the past in Finland?

Could subjects soon be a thing of the past in Finland?

Media captionFinland has one of the best education systems in the world.

Finland has long been renowned for the quality of its education and always scores highly in international league tables.

Now it is rethinking how it teaches in the digital age – seeking to place skills, as much as subjects, at the heart of what it does. But not everyone is happy, and there are fears it could bring down standards.

It is a chilly morning in a remote village in southern Finland, but the thoughts of this class of 12-year-olds are elsewhere – in ancient Rome.

Their teacher is taking them through a video re-enactment – shown on the classroom’s interactive smart board – of the day Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii.

In groups they take out their mini laptops. Their task is to compare ancient Rome with modern Finland. One group looks at Roman baths and today’s luxury spas; another puts the Colosseum up against modern-day stadiums.

Map of Hauho

They use 3D printers to create a miniature of their Roman building, which will eventually be used as pieces for a class-wide board game.

This is a history lesson with a difference, says Aleksis Stenholm, a teacher at Hauho Comprehensive School. The children are also gaining skills in technology, research, communication and cultural understanding.

“Each group is becoming an expert on their subject, which they will present to the class,” he explains. The board game is the culmination of the project, which will run alongside normal classroom teaching.

How Finland has shaken up teaching for the 21st Century

For nearly two decades, Finland has enjoyed a reputation for having one of the world’s best education systems. Its 15 year olds regularly score amongst the highest in the global Pisa league tables for reading, maths and science.

Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionExercise balls replace chairs in this classroom at Hauho school

Its ability to produce high academic results in children who do not start formal schooling until the age of seven, have short school days, long holidays, relatively little homework and no exams, has long fascinated education experts around the world.

Despite this, Finland is shaking up the way it is doing things – a move that it says is vital in a digital age where children are no longer reliant on books and the classroom to gain knowledge.

In August 2016 it became compulsory for every Finnish school to teach in a more collaborative way; to allow students to choose a topic relevant to them and base subjects around it. Making innovative use of technology and sources outside the school, such as experts and museums, is a key part of it.

The aim of this way of teaching – known as project- or phenomenon-based learning (PBL) – is to equip children with skills necessary to flourish in the 21st Century, says Kirsti Lonka, a professor of educational psychology at Helsinki University. Among the skills she singles out are critical thinking to identify fake news and avoid cyber-bullying, and the technical ability to install anti-virus software and link up to a printer.

Kids at lunchtime at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionThe school at Hauho is relaxed about the children using their mobile phones in class as well as in the lunch hour

“Traditionally, learning has been defined as a list of subject matters and facts you need to acquire – such as arithmetic and grammar – with some decoration, like citizenship, built in around it,” Ms Lonka says.

“But when it comes to real life, our brain is not sliced into disciplines in that way; we are thinking in a very holistic way. And when you think about the problems in the world – global crises, migration, the economy, the post-truth era – we really haven’t given our children the tools to deal with this inter-cultural world.

“I think it is a major mistake if we lead children to believe the world is simple and that if they learn certain facts they are ready to go. So learning to think, learning to understand, these are important skills – and it also makes learning fun, which we think promotes wellbeing.”

How Finland is ditching classroom traditions

Hauho Comprehensive School is nestled among forests and lakes, some 40 minutes drive north-east of the city of Hameenlinna.

With just 230 pupils aged between seven and 15, it has a homely feel. Shoes are left at the front entrance, exercise balls are used instead of chairs in some classrooms, and there are pull-up bars in the doorways.

Teachers are relaxed about mobile phones in the classroom; it is a chance, they say, for children to appreciate their value as a research tool, not just as a means for communicating with their friends.

Kids on their scooters at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionThe school’s skate park came from an idea suggested by the children, who helped design and raise funds for it

On this cold day, the older students huddle around their phones during the lunch hour while some of the younger children brave the snow flurries to use the skate park, football and basketball pitches.

Head teacher Pekka Paappanen is a firm believer in PBL and looks for a variety of ways of integrating it into the school’s curriculum.

“I talk through ideas with our teachers, and then I make sure there is time and space in the schedule for them to happen,” he explains.

“I think teachers have more power in this way, but they have to realise they can’t do everything. We are leaving some old traditions behind, but we are taking it slowly too – the job of teaching our children is too important and we mustn’t get it wrong.”

Tackling Europe’s biggest issues in class

One big project last year was on the subject of immigration, when the flow of migrants into Europe was making headlines around the world.

Kids at lunchtime at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionThe children linked up with German pupils to compare their understanding of immigration

Aleksis Stenholm says they chose the topic because it became clear many of their students had little personal experience of immigrants and immigration. The topic was incorporated into German and religious classes.

Their 15-year-olds carried out street surveys to garner local opinions about immigration, and they visited a nearby immigration centre to interview asylum seekers. They shared their findings via video-link with a school in Germany, which had carried out a similar project.

“It was really powerful, how the students reacted to it. They started thinking about things, questioning their opinions,” Mr Stenholm recalls.

“If I had just taught this over, say, the course of three lessons, the effect would have been very different.”

But does it work?

The idea behind phenomenon-based learning has its critics. Some, like physics teacher Jussi Tanhuanpaa, fear it does not provide children with a strong enough grounding in a subject to enable them to study it at a higher level.

He teaches in Lieto, just outside the south-west city of Turku, and says that of one cohort of children he knew who took advanced-level maths post-16, some 30% of them had to drop down a level.

He also worries it is widening the gap between the most and least able students – a gap that has been historically small in Finland.

Children learning at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionA smart board and tablet computers are used for this lesson on climate change

“This way of teaching is great for the brightest children who understand what knowledge they need to take away from an experiment. It allows them the freedom to learn at their own pace and take the next steps when they are ready to,” he says.

“But this is not the case for children who are less able to figure it out for themselves and need more guidance. The gap between the brightest and the less able has already begun widening and I am very afraid that this will only get worse”.

Girl learning at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image captionPens and paper are still an important part of classroom life

Others worry that it is also adding to teachers’ workloads and is disadvantaging older teachers who may not be as digitally able as their younger counterparts.

Jari Salminen of Helsinki University’s faculty of education says similar types of learning have been tried in the past – as far back as 100 years ago – and have failed.

“Many international visitors are asking me, why are you changing this system when you get such good results? And it’s a mystery to me, because we don’t have any data from school level that phenomenon-based learning is improving results,” Mr Salminen says.

Children in art lessons at Hauho Comprehensive School, Finland
Image caption…. so too are arts and crafts

Anneli Rautiainen of Finland’s national agency for education accepts there are concerns and says they are introducing the changes gradually: schools are only required to provide one such PBL project for its pupils a year.

“We want to encourage teachers to work in this way and for children to experience it, but we are starting it slowly. There are still subjects being taught and goals to be reached for each subject, but we also want skills to be embedded in that learning,” she explains.

But what about results?

“We are not too keen on metrics in this country overall so we are not planning to measure the success of it, at least not for now. We are hoping it will show in the learning outcomes of our children as well as in the international tables such as Pisa,” she says.


What’s unusual about Finnish schools?

  • Teaching is a highly respected, well-paid profession
  • There are no school inspections or teacher evaluations
  • The school system is highly centralised and most schools are publicly funded
  • School days are short and the summer break is 10 weeks
  • Children are assessed by their teachers. The only nationwide exam is for those who continue studying to 18
  • Average school size is 195 pupils; average class size is 19 pupils
  • Success has been attributed to a traditionally high regard for teaching and reading, as well as a small, largely homogenous population
  • Though still high, Finland has been slipping down the Pisa rankings in recent years
  • Like other nations, it faces challenges of financial constraints and growing immigration

While not everyone is convinced by this revolution in Finnish teaching, it has been given the thumbs up by most students and parents at Hauho.

Sara, 14, says it is “not so tiring. It’s much more interesting – I like that about it”. Anna, also 14, says her older sister is envious because she thinks “school is much more fun than when she was here”.

Mum Kaisa Kepsu says most parents she knows are positive about the changes to the curriculum. “There has been a wider discussion about the need to ensure children are still learning the basic facts, and I agree with that,” she says. “But raising their motivation and making the world more interesting is also important. I don’t see anything wrong with school being fun”.


Could this approach work in the UK?

Some project-based learning does happen in UK schools already, says Tom Bennett, the government’s classroom behaviour adviser, but on a much smaller scale than that planned for Finland.

And it is likely to remain that way, he says, as there is no compelling evidence that it is a more efficient way of teaching.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) funded a trial of PBL that involved mixed-ability Year 7 children in 24 UK schools between 2014 and 2016.

The findings were skewed because a large number of schools dropped out of the study, largely because of the high level of management support and organisational change needed.

The trial found no evidence that PBL had a positive impact on pupils’ literacy or their engagement with school and learning, the EEF said.

However, the independent evaluators did find that – from observations and feedback from schools – it could enhance pupils’ skills in communication, teamwork and self-managed study.

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Juno peers below Jupiter’s clouds

South Pole: The polar cloud structure at Jupiter is very different from that at SaturnImage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH/SWRI/MSSS/BA.HALL/G.ROBLES
Image captionSouth Pole: The polar cloud structure at Jupiter is very different from that at Saturn

Scientists working on the American space agency’s new Juno mission say its initial observations at Jupiter have taken their breath away.

In particular, they have been amazed by the storms seen at the planet’s poles.

“Think of a bunch of hurricanes, every one the size of the Earth, all packed so close together that each hurricane touches the other,” said Mike Janssen.

“Even in rooms of hardened researchers, these images of swirling clouds have drawn gasps,” the Nasa man added.

JupiterImage copyrightNASA/SWRI/MSSS/G.EICHSTÄDT/S.DORAN
Image captionMany of the best images are being processed by citizen scientists

The Juno probe arrived at the fifth planet from the Sun on 4 July last year. Since then, it has been making a close pass over the gas giant every 53 days.

The first data to come out of these observations are now being reported in two papers (here and here) in the journal Science, and in more than 40 others in a special collection for Geophysical Research Letters.

The mission team says that in nearly all instances, previously cherished theories about how Jupiter works are being challenged.

“We’re getting the first really close up and personal look at Jupiter and we’re seeing that a lot of our ideas were incorrect and maybe naive,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Those big cyclones that cover the highest latitudes of the planet are only now being seen in detail because previous missions to the planet never really got to look from above and below like Juno – certainly not at such a high resolution. Features down to 50km across can be discerned.

The structures are very different from those seen at Saturn’s poles, for example, and the team will have to explain why. It is also not clear at this stage how long-lived they are. Will they dissipate much faster than the storms at lower latitudes, which in some cases – as with the famous Great Red Spot on Jupiter – have persisted for centuries?

Ice cloudsImage copyrightNASA/SWRI/MSSS/G.EICHSTÄDT/S.DORAN
Image captionThe white spots in this image are ice clouds about 50km across

Another surprise comes from Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR), which senses behaviour below the visible cloud surface. Its data indicates the presence of a broad band of ammonia around the equator that goes from the top of the atmosphere to as deep as it is possible to detect, at least 350km down. It could be part of a major circulation system.

But the MWR records the ammonia at higher latitudes to be much more variable.

“What this is telling us is that Jupiter is not very well mixed on the inside,” said Dr Bolton. “The idea that once you drop below the sunlight everything would be uniform and boring was completely wrong. It’s actually very different dependent on where you look.”

Mission team-members picked out a number of highlights in the new results.

One concerned the magnetic field of Jupiter. It was known to be strong but it has now been determined to be even stronger than expected – a doubling of the assumed strength where the probe makes its closest approach to the planet (the field is about 10 times the strength of Earth’s magnetic field).

But the signal is quite lumpy, which tells the scientists that the dynamo system – the electrically conducting region generating the field – is probably not that deep into the planet.

“When we see small spatial-scale variation, it indicates to us that we may be very close to the source and so that might mean the dynamo is above the metallic hydrogen (layers) and it may operate in the molecular hydrogen envelope above. That’s very significant,” said Jack Connerney, Juno’s deputy principal investigator and the lead for the mission’s magnetic field investigation.

Southern auroraImage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH/SWRI
Image captionThese bright lights in the ultraviolet are the auroras over Jupiter’s southern pole

It is the magnetic field investigation that is also at the heart of trying to understand Jupiter’s very bright auroras – its northern and south lights. And again, what Juno is finding is not what everyone was expecting.

The auroras should result from electrons running down field lines and then striking the atmosphere. But the current carried by the electrons should have its own magnetic signature, and Juno has not at this stage been able to detect it.

“It’s got us all scratching our heads, I have to say,” said UK scientist Dr Jonathan Nichols from the University of Leicester.

“We see the auroras, we have a good idea we think of how they’re generated but when it comes down it we’re not seeing the signature of supposedly millions of amps of current.”

OrionImage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH/SWRI

One very smart picture taken by Juno and released on Thursday showed the ring of dust that surrounds Jupiter. It is not well known that Jupiter has a ring, but it does. What was clever was getting the familiar stars of the Orion constellation to be in on the shot as well.

“This is the first image of Jupiter’s ring that has ever been collected from the inside of it looking out,” said mission scientist Heidi Becker from Nasa.

“Juno is 3,000 miles from the planet when we took this picture. So, what you’re looking at is a ring of dust that’s 40,000 miles away and stars that are hundreds of light-years away, all in the same picture.”

JupiterImage copyrightNASA/SWRI/MSSS/GERALD EICHSTÄDT/SEÁN DORAN

It is early days in the mission still (it is likely to run for several years yet), but the first gravity sensing data is pointing to some weirdness in respect of Jupiter’s centre. Theories had suggested it either had a relatively small rocky core or no core at all (one suggestion was that the planet’s gases went all the way down to the centre in an ever more compressed state).

Scientists are now considering something in between – a diffuse core. “It really looks fuzzy,” said Dr Bolton. “There may be a core there but it’s very big and it may be partially dissolved, and we’re studying that.”

Dr Bolton flagged up Juno’s next pass, on 11 July. This will be dedicated to investigating the Great Red Spot.

Inside Jupiter
  • Jupiter is 11 times wider than Earth and 300 times more massive
  • It takes 12 Earth years to orbit the Sun; a ‘day’ is 10 hours long
  • In composition it resembles a star; it’s mostly hydrogen and helium
  • Under pressure, the hydrogen assumes a state similar to a metal
  • This ‘metallic hydrogen’ could be the source of the magnetic field
  • Most of the visible cloud tops contain ammonia and hydrogen sulphide
  • Jupiter’s low-latitude ‘bands’ play host to very strong east-west winds
  • The Great Red Spot is a giant storm vortex twice as wide as Earth

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter:@BBCAmos

 

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How could Germany of all countries have become a paragon, politically stable and economically successful, of democratic capitalism in the 1970s – ‘Modell Deutschland’ – and later, in the 2000s, Europe’s uncontested economic and political superpower?

Playing Catch Up

Wolfgang Streeck

  • BUYGerman Economic and Business History in the 19th and 20th Centuriesby Werner Plumpe
    Palgrave, 367 pp, £86.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 137 51859 0
  • BUYThe Seven Secrets of Germany: Economic Resilience in an Era of Global Turbulence by David Audretsch and Erik Lehmann
    Oxford, 229 pp, £22.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 025869 6
  • BUYGermany’s Role in the Euro Crisis: Berlin’s Quest for a More Perfect Monetary Union by Franz-Josef Meiers
    Springer, 146 pp, £90.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 3 319 37052 1

How could Germany of all countries have become a paragon, politically stable and economically successful, of democratic capitalism in the 1970s – ‘Modell Deutschland’ – and later, in the 2000s, Europe’s uncontested economic and political superpower? Any explanation must have recourse to a Braudelian longue durée, in which destruction can be progress – utter devastation turned into a lasting blessing – because capitalist progress is destruction, of a more or less creative sort. In 1945 unconditional surrender forced Germany, or what was left of its western part, into what Perry Anderson has called a ‘second round of capitalist transformation’ of the sort no other European country has ever had to undergo. Germany’s bout was a violent – sharp and short – push forward into social and economic ‘modernity’, driving it for ever from the halfway house of Weimar, in a painful dismantling of structures of political domination and social solidarity, feudal fetters which had held back the country’s capitalist progress and which, in locally different manifestations, continue to block capitalist rationalisation in many other European countries.

First among the events that put West Germany on the path to what it would later become was the arrival of ten million refugees and expellees from the East, who made up roughly one in five inhabitants of a devastated territory less than half the size of the prewar Reich. While some of them remained isolated, depressed and poor for the rest of their lives, others had brought with them as their only possession a determination to fit in and succeed in what was for them in many ways a foreign country. Their arrival disrupted for ever the fabric of what had been until then a largely traditional society divided between urban and rural, Catholic and Protestant, left and right. Centuries-old parochial ways of life and socio-cultural milieux were broken up, often in the face of adamant resistance. But, ultimately, the skills and hard work the newcomers contributed to their new homeland forced the locals to give them a chance to establish themselves. As a result, West Germany became a uniquely competitive and meritocratic society.

This was far from all. As Ralf Dahrendorf was probably the first to recognise, the two forces that had between them worn down the Weimar Republic – the eastern aristocracy (the Junkers whom Max Weber had identified as the Reich’s main roadblock to capitalist modernity) and the Communist opposition – had disappeared. The Junkers had been decimated by the Nazis after the putsch of 1944, and the rest were killed or driven from their estates by the advancing Red Army. The Communists now had their own state under Soviet sponsorship, the German Democratic Republic, which so much weakened them in the West that in 1956 the West German Constitutional Court outlawed the party. Both wings, reactionary and potentially progressive, of onetime resistance to capital were thus eliminated, leaving only the Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) in the middle. The CDU, a descendant of the Catholic Zentrumspartei of the Weimar period, appealed to Christians irrespective of denomination, in keeping with the postwar break-up of homogeneous local confessional communities. Add to this the disappearance of the Nazis as an organised political force and the incarceration of Germany’s industrial tycoons by the Allies (albeit soon to be released to help with the KoreanWar), and the result was a vastly simplified political landscape and an economic geography shorn of the parasitic manorialism of Prussia, now dominated instead by what would become the highly productive dualism of a small-firm economy in the south, south-west and Rhineland, and the huge industrial complexes in the Ruhr. (While the industrialists were in custody, the British had introduced robust rights for unions and workers’ participation in management, particularly of coal and steel companies.)

In comparison with these new structural fundamentals, as Philip Manow has pointed out, the influence of what is generally thought to have been the key economic doctrine in postwar Germany, the ‘ordoliberalism’ of the Freiburg School and its associates, a milder variant of the radical free-market theories of Hayek and Mises, tends to be overestimated. An offspring of Protestant social theory centred on the virtues of competition, it had to exist side by side with a born-again Rhenish-Catholic corporatism, which was soon to blend indistinguishably into the corporatist outlook of a no longer politically divided union movement. Reducing the role of the state in the economy to something like indirect control was a widely shared objective after the Nazi dictatorship. But this did not mean that capital would be given free reign, or that the distribution of incomes and wealth would be left to the market. Competition, under ordoliberalism, was an instrument to keep market power in check, but it was applied solely to product markets, never to labour markets, and only much later to capital markets; it was therefore met with approval even by trade unionists and Social Democrats. Catholics, empowered by the new economic and political geography, and traditionally concerned with ‘social justice’ (a concept Hayek considered nonsensical), always regarded the ordoliberalism of Ludwig Erhard’s Economics Ministry with suspicion, even though its standard-bearers adopted the rhetoric of the ‘social market economy’ and committed themselves to ‘prosperity for all’. In any case, Adenauer, Rhenish Catholic that he was, understood the pacifying capacity of social policy and skilfully used the Ministry of Labour to ensure that ordoliberalism never became the only game in town. Even on its home turf of anti-trust legislation, ordoliberalism suffered painful setbacks in the politics of West Germany, its leading theorists shifting their attention early on to the emerging European Economic Community, whose competition law they effectively managed to monopolise.

Unconditional surrender and the carving up of the Reich helped the German economy in other ways too. German industry had always been dependent on foreign markets for sale of its manufactured goods and for the raw materials it needed. Fear of being denied access to these markets, especially by the British, was an old German nightmare, which the Nazis tried to end through imperial conquest and autarky. The small, wholly defeated, semi-sovereign West Germany did not have such options. In the event, integration into the American-led post-Bretton Woods free-trade regime, and later into the EEC, offered a vastly superior alternative, not least because under the regime’s fixed exchange rates the new West German currency became increasingly undervalued over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, this laid the foundation for a uniquely strong, heavily export-dependent industrial sector which, continuing older traditions, became the centre of gravity of the West German and later the German political economy.

Werner Plumpe’s recently translated collection of essays gives an account of the postwar Wirtschaftswunder and the structural changes that followed it, focusing on the German tradition of ‘social partnership’ between capital and labour, grounded in a common interest in export performance. Plumpe shows that, contrary to the mainstream left-wing view of German business in the interwar period as being firmly on the side of anti-unionism and fascism, a desire for cross-class co-operation and social compromise existed among German employers even in the Weimar Republic.

A further misconception about the inter-war period, widely shared by outside observers, is that the deep aversion to inflation which has pervaded postwar German economic policy derives from collective memory of the hyperinflation of the 1920s. Much more significant is Germany’s structural condition as an over-industrialised national economy. That the West German central bank was from the beginning strictly independent of the government had less to do with ordoliberalism than with the fact that the introduction of the Deutsche Mark preceded the foundation of the West German state – not to mention the Allies’ determination to prevent future German governments from financing new rounds of rearmament by printing money. A common interest in low inflation also informed the West German class compromise, with the metal workers’ union, IG Metall, soon dominating the country’s industrial relations. In 1969, the incoming Social-Liberal coalition revalued the Mark in an attempt to shift economic growth from export performance to domestic demand. But as with subsequent revaluations, the effect was only temporary: owing to their superior quality, German industrial goods weren’t very price-sensitive. Still, employment in manufacturing declined, slowly but steadily, and in 1984 IG Metall called a prolonged nationwide strike for a 35-hour working week. For the first time, in the Economist and elsewhere, Germany was pronounced a victim of creeping ‘Eurosclerosis’.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s, with a population half the size of Japan’s and a quarter that of the United States, Germany had surpassed both as the world’s champion exporter. This was underpinned by a concentration on the production of high-value-added goods, a field in which competition is over quality and service rather than price. The industrial upgrade was accommodated – indeed was in part forced by – powerful trade unions and works councils defending high wages and low wage differentials, and drew on long-standing German traditions of high-quality engineering and vocational training, both of which were reinforced by educational reforms in the 1960s and 1970s. The result was a national supply-side strategy that utilised traditional cultural and institutional resources to rewrite the postwar class compromise, in the workplace as well as in the economy at large, at a time when, elsewhere, deindustrialisation was already well underway.

German unification came as a severe jolt, precipitating the country into a deep recession, not least because the oversized West German manufacturing sector had no need for additional production sites in the Neue Länder. To finance the full-scale extension of the West German welfare state to East Germany while keeping his promise not to raise taxes, Helmut Kohl accepted a rapid increase in non-wage labour costs, leading to high and rising unemployment. This provoked public debate as to whether in the 1980s Germany had missed its moment to move towards a ‘service economy’ on the British and US model. The Economist and the Financial Times called Germany ‘the sick man of Europe’. As globalisation opened up opportunities for companies to relocate production and employment, to Eastern Europe and China in particular, IG Metall in 1995 urged the Kohl government and employers to join the unions in a tripartite ‘Alliance for Jobs’. This, however, was blocked by the Liberal Party (FDP) and the CDU floor leader, Wolfgang Schäuble, who preferred neoliberal ‘structural reforms’ (as he would two decades later in the Mediterranean). In the years that followed, unions in the export sector of the German economy learned the hard way to accept wage restraint without compensation, in a painful process that extended from a fruitless second attempt at a tripartite employment policy under Gerhard Schröder in 1998-99, to the laying out of the neoliberal ‘Agenda 2010’ in 2003, to the threat of the first Merkel government (2005-9) to curtail the right of trade unions to collective bargaining.

Why did this not lead to more social conflict? In the rapidly internationalising economy of the 2000s, employment in a manufacturing country like Germany depended more than ever on international ‘competitiveness’, not just in product markets but also in labour markets, since manufacturing jobs are easier than service sector jobs to relocate abroad. Keeping inflation and unit labour costs low became the unions’ overriding concern, making them once again reliable allies in the eyes of employers and the government. At first the recalibration of German wage-setting institutions in response to political pressures didn’t help much. With European Monetary Union in 1999 and the transition to a single interest rate for the whole of the Eurozone, Germany as a low-inflation country had to live with interest rates higher than it needed for monetary stability, while the high-inflation member countries benefited, if only for a while, from rates that were too low for them. Gradually, however, rising unit labour costs in these countries (which under EMU could no longer defend themselves through devaluation) and steady or even decreasing unit labour costs in Germany turned the tables. After 2008, when credit for the countries lagging in ‘competitiveness’ was no longer forthcoming, Germany finally experienced its second Wirtschaftswunder, while the economies of the Mediterranean EMU member countries began to collapse.

*

Here the story is picked up by David Audretsch and Erik Lehmann. They purport to reveal the ‘seven secrets’ that enabled Germany to muster, in the words of their subtitle, ‘economic resilience in an era of global turbulence’. What are these secrets? Lots of small firms (Mittelstand), imbued with a new spirit of entrepreneurship prompted by Schröder’s declaration that 2004 would be the Year of Innovation; more students and higher spending on research and education, as German universities liberated themselves from ‘the ponderous centuries-old model of the university crafted by Humboldt’; regional development policies; superior physical infrastructure; flexibility in combining innovation with tradition (‘laptops and lederhosen’); rapid innovation, especially in manufacturing; and feeling good again about being German. Five of these were already at work well before the slump of the 1990s; Schröder’s Year of Innovation was soon forgotten; and the expansion of tertiary education came at the expense of the vocational training system that Audretsch and Lehman correctly see as an important institutional resource. They are explaining short-term variation as an effect of long-term constants. What’s more, their historical-institutional analysis is overlaid by culturalist speculation drawn from newspaper clichés and the utterances of celebrities. Reading passages such as the following, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry:

What do most Americans want to pass along to the next generation? Freedom … But Germany is different. Of course Germans value freedom … But Germans also value something else highly – beauty. German culture and sensibilities are a descendant of classical Greek values – which appreciate and hold beauty to rank among the greatest values … In Germany, beauty is embedded in a sense of structure. Consider the most compelling music ever composed in Germany, the national treasure of the great classical composers. Where would the beauty of Beethoven, Handel, Bach or Wagner be without structure? … If German is the language of classical music, with its heavily imposing structures, the Romance languages are better characterised by jazz, with its spontaneity, inspiration, and free format.

And so on.

German prosperity has depended historically on the export of manufactured goods and, later, the non-export of manufacturing jobs. Appeals to German unions to help rectify the obscene trade imbalance between Germany and other euro countries – by demanding higher wages and thereby raising unit labour costs – therefore fall on deaf ears. For the unions the euro is an ideal solution to the employment problem that hit them in the 1990s with the return of price competition and the internationalisation of production. Monetary union gives German manufacturing a captive market in Europe, as well as an edge over European competitors that have to operate in more inflationary institutional settings. On top of that, it equips German firms with an undervalued currency in markets outside the Eurozone, especially at a time when the ECB’s quantitative easing keeps pumping up the bloc’s money supply. To restrain the competitiveness of German industries in order to save the single currency, as outsiders sometimes suggest, would from the perspective of the unions be committing suicide for fear of death. It would also break up their alliance with employers and the government, held together no longer by trade union power but by the constraints and opportunities of the Eurozone. And it isn’t only the unions for whom the competitiveness of German manufacturing is of paramount importance. Their priorities are shared by the government, currently a grand coalition of the centre-right, representing industry, and the centre-left, where the SPD is basically the political arm of IG Metall.

Like Audretsch and Lehmann, the political scientist Franz-Josef Meiers attempts to explain Germany’s behaviour in the euro crisis in terms of culture not structure, blaming what he considers a disastrous cascade of errors on Merkel and the whole country’s supposed religious adherence to the prescriptions of ordoliberalism. Meiers is a true believer in Anglo-American neo-Keynesian doctrine, and treats it as a collection of universally applicable recipes for economic recovery. His message is simple. All it would take for the Eurozone to flourish is for Merkel to shed the mindset of a Swabian housewife (Meiers is not afraid of clichés), start borrowing and spending, and allow other countries to do the same, so that eventually everybody in Europe is better off and lives happily ever after.

Is Merkel – is Germany – in refusing to do the right neo-Keynesian thing, mad or bad? Meiers ignores the fact that the German economy, including the German labour market, is today doing better than it has done for thirty years, with balanced budgets, zero inflation and government deleveraging. The reason, he believes, for Germany’s rejection of Europe-wide debt mutualisation or forgiveness, of public deficits at home or abroad, and of higher German unit labour costs to get ‘Europe’ going again, is that ordoliberalism comes with sado-monetarism: Schadenfreude as the Mediterranean sinners suffer for their trespasses. Germany, then, is bad. But Meiers also seems to believe that the German preference for austerity reflects a mad shortsightedness: an inability to see that what benefits Germans now, at the expense of others, will later in some unspecified way come to damage them. Perhaps Germans are bad and mad at the same time, their Protestant desire to punish their neighbours preventing them from understanding their own interests?

Meiers never considers the possibility that countries requiring a soft currency to thrive would be better off outside the euro, in a flexible European monetary regime that would make it possible for them to restore their ‘competitiveness’ by way of occasional devaluations against Germany’s hard currency. On this he is no less dogmatic than Merkel, with her mantra ‘If the euro fails, Europe fails.’ Germany’s role in the euro crisis, pace Meiers, is determined by its own national economic interest, as it can be sold to a German electorate, as well as by the constraints and opportunities inherent in what, for all practical purposes, has become the unchangeable institutional framework of monetary union without political union. Meiers isn’t alone in expecting the German state to act as though the political union the Kohl government had wanted to institute along with monetary union hadn’t been blocked by France and other countries, which insisted – as they continue to insist – on their national sovereignty. That the EMU is structured as it is, with its emphasis on individual national ‘responsibility’, and its lack of provision for international ‘solidarity’, isn’t so much ordoliberal as the only way a monetary union between otherwise sovereign states can exist.

Meiers believes that the ailments of the Eurozone could be cured by a democratically elected German government willing to act as an ideal collective European by voluntarily sacrificing some of the national ‘competitiveness’ monetary union has bestowed on the German economy. He takes for granted that in an era of secular stagnation it is possible to restart growth by further adding to public debt, although for decades now public debt has been increasing even as growth has decreased; that growth in the Eurozone would, or could by means of a common regional policy, be equally distributed among member countries, reversing the long-standing trend of increasing inequality; that all Eurozone countries respond equally to fiscal stimulus; that higher public spending in Germany would somehow increase employment in Italy or Spain; and that debt relief for over-indebted countries would remedy their underlying lack of competitiveness. All of these claims are highly questionable.

In the 1950s and 1960s the US played the role of ‘responsible’ hegemon. Can Germany, given the uncertainties of global capitalism today, its need to maintain monetary stability and competitive advantage, and its small size compared to the US, really be accused of having failed to adopt an equivalent role in Europe? In my view, what Germany may justifiably be criticised for is its reckless identification of a common currency with ‘the European project’. There, of course, the governments of France and the Mediterranean countries are to blame as well, as they still hope to use the hard euro as an external constraint – a vincolo esterno – with which to ‘modernise’ their unruly political economies (and perhaps in the process extract a little help from their German friends). With monetary union set up as it is, and the path to political union foreclosed not only by member states but also by their peoples, the Merkel government, like previous German governments, has only one suggestion to offer the rest of Europe: that each country catch up with Germany by subjecting itself to its own second round of capitalist transformation – ‘structural reforms’ involving the replacement of traditional forms of social solidarity with market competition and, perhaps at some later date, the embedding of competition in modern institutions of solidarity, like the welfare state and collective bargaining. For this to happen, willing governments must be kept in power, if need be through discreet suspension of democracy, since resistance to the treatment is growing on a broad front. Here, as so often in her long career, Merkel is anything but dogmatic, and certainly isn’t beholden to ordoliberal orthodoxy since what is at stake is Germany’s most precious historical achievement, secure access to foreign markets at a low and stable exchange rate. For several years now, Berlin has allowed the European Central Bank under Draghi and the European Commission under Juncker to invent ever new ways of circumventing the Maastricht treaties, from financing government deficits to subsidising ailing banks. None of this has done anything to resolve the fundamental structural problems of the Eurozone. What it has done is what it was intended to do: buy time, from election to election, for European governments to carry out neoliberal reforms, and for Germany to enjoy yet another year of prosperity.

 

Posted, but not written by, Louis Sheehan

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Antarctica

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Beeeeeeuuuuutifuuul!! ‘Dinosaur Mummy’ Emerges From the Oil Sands of Alberta

The animal probably died as it lived — defying predators with its heavy armor and size — and after 110 million years, its face remains frozen in a ferocious reptilian glare.

How the animal, a land-dwelling, plant-eating nodosaur, died is not known, but somehow its body ended up at the bottom of an ancient sea. Minerals kept the remains remarkably intact, gradually turning the body into a fossil. And when it was unearthed in 2011, scientists quickly realized that it was the best-preserved specimen of its kind.

“It’s basically a dinosaur mummy — it really is exceptional,” said Don Brinkman, director of preservation and research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The dinosaur, with fossilized skin and gut contents intact, came from the Millennium Mine six years ago in the oil sands of northern Alberta, once a seabed.

That sea was full of life, teeming with giant reptiles that grew as long as 60 feet, while its shores were traversed by massive dinosaurs for millions of years. The area has been coughing up fossils since the beginning of recorded time.

“The shovel operator at the mine saw a block with a funny pattern and got in touch with a geologist,” Dr. Brinkman said. “We went up and collected it.” The fossil, photographed for the June issue of National Geographic, went on display on Friday.

Alberta law designates all fossils the property of the province, not of the owners of the land where they are found. Most are discovered after being exposed by erosion, but mining has also proved a boon to paleontologists.

Dr. Brinkman said the museum was careful not to inhibit industrial activity when retrieving fossils so that excavators weren’t afraid to call when they found something. “These are specimens that would never be recovered otherwise,” Dr. Brinkman said. “We get two or three significant specimens each year.”

Posted but not written by Louis Sheehan

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“She lived in exile,” Ms. Mackris continued. “She lived in silence. And I got really curious about three things: How did she live with it all? Did she forgive them? And was she free?”

Shadowing Another’s Exile

Ms. Mackris, the producer who sued Mr. O’Reilly in 2004, never worked in television news again.

In the years after the dispute, she suffered from post-traumatic stress and spent years seeing a therapist, struggling to figure out how to create a new life, according to interviews with people close to her at the time.

Ms. Mackris’s settlement prevents her from talking about Fox News and her dispute with Mr. O’Reilly, according to people briefed on the deal. But she is allowed to talk about her life now.

Today, Ms. Mackris lives with her cats in an art-filled condo in her hometown, St. Louis, where she keeps bowls of colorful gumballs on tabletops. Her family is close by. She has traveled the world, volunteered, returned to school, discovered prayer and meditation, and started writing.

She is working on a book she researched and wrote over the past four years about a woman who fled Romania during World War II.

“A few years ago, I heard about a pair of natural pearl earrings forgotten in a drawer for 35 years that had just sold for millions at auction,” Ms. Mackris said. “They’d been given to a woman named Elena Lupescu by the king of Romania who ruled up until World War II, and I was immediately and completely taken by her story.”

“She lived in exile,” Ms. Mackris continued. “She lived in silence. And I got really curious about three things: How did she live with it all? Did she forgive them? And was she free?”

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