Wednesday, April 4, 2012

When the Natural Meets the Social

Sometimes people with exceedingly similar personalities can't play nice with one another.  Maybe they try to bond over their shared interests, but eventually they bitterly part ways.  Perhaps this separation is due in part because the other person's similarities are too reminiscent of pieces of themselves they'd rather forget.  Other times, people who really would enjoy each others' company just never cross paths.  Perhaps they just can't get the timing right.  Sometimes people in any of these situations are called Natural and Social scientists.

The Natural sciences rely on each other.  Physicists would be little without mathematicians and biologists and chemists often intermingle.  As a biology student, I'm not familiar enough with the sub-disciplines of the Social scientists to describe their relationships.  However, I am willing to say they're probably pretty social.

Despite the bonding between the sub-disciplines, members of different disciplines like the Social and Natural scientists often seem to forget that the other exists.  Case in point: Murray River Turtles and the Murray Darling River Basin.

The Murray River Turtles were the subject of a recent scientific investigation of the perplexing question of temperature and timing of turtle egg hatching.  As exotherms, temperature affects the metabolic functions of reptiles like turtles.  Different areas of turtle nests are different temperatures.  Therefore, turtles that happened to be in the warmer area of the nest should hatch sooner than their siblings in the colder corners.  But contrary to logic (a favorite of Natural scientists), the eggs all hatch at the same time.  Researchers from the University of Western Sydney used Murray River Turtles in their research project investigating how the turtle siblings communicate with each other to coordinate their grand entrance into the world.

The Murray Darling River Basin is formed by two major rivers in south east Australia.  Water from those rivers is responsible for forming wetlands where unique birds, trees, and reptiles live.  The water is also used by farmers in the region to irrigate what is essentially Australia's bread bowl.  Excessive use of the rivers for irrigation has decreased the amount of water in the rivers and increased the salt content of the water, both of which are problems with dramatic ecological consequences (a concern of Natural scientists).  These issues also have cultural consequences for the communities who rely on the environment, economic consequences for the farmers, social consequences for the individuals who rely on food produced by the region, and political consequences for those responsible for enforcing irrigation regulations (all of which fall into the realm of the Social scientists).

The Murray Darling River Basin is a real physical place where the Natural and Social sciences are simultaneously relevant.  When turtles started helping researchers explore topics in the laboratory, the Basin added 'scientific resource' to a resume that already included 'ecological wonder' and 'economic treasure'.  Separating the social consequences of decreasing Basin health from the environmental consequences inhibits effective communication and limits public awareness of the relevant issues.

This dualism of Natural and Social topics is also present in energy policies (for oil and electricity), for medical policies (including public health care), and scientific communication (to both expert and non-expert audiences).

Ignoring the overflow of the Natural into the Social also sets the stage for a real shame if the Natural and Social scientists continue to pass up opportunities to rekindle their undeniable attraction to one another.  Perhaps quality time near the beautiful Murray Darling River Basin is just what they, and the Basin, need.

For updated information about the new water regulations for the Murrary Darling River Basin, explore the official website.  To do your part to solve all of the universe's problems, make friends with someone with a different area of expertise.

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