University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, February 6th 2009
Speaker: Hugh Gorman, Department of Social Sciences, Michigan Technological University
Subject: The Story of N: Sustainability and Society's Changing Interaction with the Nitrogen Cycle
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

By focusing on long-term changes in societal interactions with one slice of nature--the nitrogen cycle--the "Story of N" provides a unique view of industrial society learning to interact with a complex earth system in a more sustainable fashion. Two centuries ago, flows of chemically active nitrogen through the biosphere differed significantly from the flows that exist today. Since then, humans have bypassed limits previously imposed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria and have roughly doubled the amount of chemically active nitrogen created each year. Our response to the resulting build-up of nitrogenous compounds and the associated concerns--including photochemical smog, hypoxic dead zones, nitrates in groundwater, acid rain, ozone depletion, and even climate change--suggests that learning to establish and manage ecological budgets is a key step on the road to sustainability.

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