Contributed Papers

Technologies of the Earth and the Skies


Edna Suárez-Díaz

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México


Presenter 1

The Overshadowed Revolution: Isotopic Insights Remake and Unify Earth and Planetary Science

Keith A. Nier

Independent Scholar


Two major developments in 20th-century geological sciences are very widely known and have been the subjects of considerable historical and other investigation. These are the determination of the age of the earth and the establishment of plate tectonics. The measurement of isotopic abundances and ratios was fundamental for both of those achievements. The effect of these methods in the two topic areas mentioned was however only a modest part of the role that the instruments and techniques of isotopic measurement have had in significantly reshaping issues in, and in weaving together, the whole range of geosciences and everything from ecology to astronomy as well. These transformations were based in part on the introduction of a genuine chronological metric and on thermodynamic calculations showing that all sorts of physical processes and events could produce some level of isotopic fractionation. The other crucial and arguably more important basis crucial was the development of improved mass spectrometers, the principle instrument in isotopic investigation. These made it possible to discover new phenomena and study far more than temporal questions from butterfly migration to planetary formation. The continuing result is the ever-increasing coherence of what are now widely called the earth and planetary sciences.


Presenter 2

Three Discoveries and the Truth: Stratospheric Ozone and the Opening of a New Frontier

Terrence R. Nathan

University of California, Davis


In 1840, Christian Schönbein published the results of his recent discovery: when an electric is passed current through acidified water, a pungent order is produced, the same odor that had been known for centuries to occur during lightning storms. Schönbein called the odor ozone, after the Greek word ozein, meaning to smell. In 1879, Alfred Cornu discovered "the terrestrial atmosphere exerts on the short-wavelength radiations an absorption so energetic that the greater part of the solar ultraviolet spectrum is intercepted in a complete way," though he was unable to ascribe his finding to a particular absorber in the atmosphere. Two years later, Sir Walter Hartley discovered that ozone was responsible for the absorption of ultraviolet radiation. The three discoveries made by Schönbein, Cornu and Hartley would, in the early twentieth century, culminate in the truth-the existence of the stratospheric ozone layer, a new frontier that spurred scientists to explore the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In this talk, I will discuss the trajectory that led to the discoveries, a trajectory that was propelled by innovative ways to use the emerging scientific tools and technologies of the nineteenth century, among them photospectroscopy, a technique that combines photography and spectroscopy to illuminate the properties of light and to expose the composition and structure of matter. I will discuss why some of the ozone-related conjectures made by the three discoverers proved prescient while others were made despite convincing evidence to the contrary; and I will place into context how the three discoveries helped shape climate science today.


Presenter 3

Tremulous Media: Nature, Technology, and the Seismic Imagination

Debjani Dutta

University of Southern California


This paper draws the scientific instrument of the seismograph into a broader history of media and technology while exploring its unique role in colonial knowledge production. I argue that seismographic devices form part of the late 19th century landscape of inventions that transformed spatio-temporal and sense perception. Considered a 'medium' for inscribing and transmitting tectonic movements, the early history of the seismograph reveals close affinities with photographic, phonographic and telegraphic technologies. Moreover, international seismographic networks anticipated the possibility of instantaneous communication over large distances before the development of modern media infrastructures. I examine how the recording of invisible and inaudible geological phenomena would
become crucial to the project of colonial expansion and consolidation. I create a technological history of the earthquake-measuring device, exploring the latent dreams and desires it evoked.
In early 19th century Europe, earthquakes elicited much curiosity and seismology emerged as a site of public knowledge (Coen 2012). Popular science journals discussed with fervor the technological overlap between seismological instruments and photographic and phonographic ones. Much like early photography, seismographs also extended the capacity of the human sensorium to apprehend
otherwise imperceptible phenomena. Friedrich Kittler (1990) notes that the coming of electricity in the late 19th century led to a technological re-ordering of the senses and machines increasingly began to assume the functions of the central nervous system. Rather than rely on the vagaries of human perception, these instruments could now accurately capture the imprint of natural and physical forces. Excavating these sensory and mechanical linkages, this project draws up an alternative genealogy of the seismograph.


Presenter 4

Perennial Environmental Crisis and Health Challenges of Oil Exploration and Gas Flaring in Nigeria since 1958.

Olusegun James Adeyeri

Lagos State University, Ojo, Nigeria.


Continuous pollution and degradation of the environment and its health implications in Nigeria have spanned over six decades of oil production. Due to oil spillages, pipeline leakages, well blowouts, and gas flaring etc, continuous pollution of thousands of square kilometres of territory including coastal breaches, estates, farmlands, towns and villages created a persistent environmental crisis with severe negative health impacts on the land, water, water resources (like fish), micro-climate, and inhabitants of the oil bearing communities. Oil burrow pits dug for storing test samples and for other purposes damage the land and general scenery. The environmental crisis in turn created persistent health problems and challenges, especially among the inhabitants of the Niger Delta region. Stagnant water retained by burrow pits serve as breeding places for disease-carrying mosquitoes and other vectors. Gas flaring raises daily atmospheric temperature beyond normal. These and other pollutions have led to peculiar and persistent ailments including diarrhea, conjunctivitis, dermatitis, and gastroenteritis. This paper contends that lack of effective regulatory policies and sanctions, which allows multi-national oil companies to adopt environmentally hazardous production and waste disposal techniques, is largely responsible for the environmental and health crisis. This study is a historical investigation into the health and sustainability implications of decades-old oil extraction, production and gas flaring for Niger Delta inhabitants, communities and environment. The study concludes that interdisciplinary research-based regulatory policy formulation and effective implementation and sanctioning will be veritable remedies for the crisis.