"In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son; that exact daughter...until your mother loves a man ...and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you...(it's) like turning air to gold... a thermodynamic miracle."

Those words, from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” indicate that despite the common features of all members of our species, the biological laws and relationships that apply to us all, each of us is unique in some way. I am reminded on this on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild, Caroline Harper Phillips, yesterday.


Caroline Harper Phillips, age <1 day


But how is this relevant to geosciences? The obvious analogy is that while Earth surface systems (mountains, watersheds, forests, sinkholes, or whatever) have certain commonalities and are in part governed by principles that apply everywhere and always, each is also affected by the particular combination of environmental factors of a given location, and by a unique sequence of events. Like the contingencies affecting whether two people meet and reproduce, going back generation after generation, landscapes and Earth surface systems are affected by uncountable contingencies—events that did or did not happen; the occurrence and timing of meteor impacts, fires, floods, storms, earthquakes, bison herds, insect swarms, lightning strikes, droughts, landslides, gully erosion, dust deposition, human impacts, etc., etc., etc., over thousands to billions of years.

Knowing people is not just about knowing human biology, physiology, medicine, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and so on. It is about knowing individuals. The same goes for Earth surface systems. Place matters, and history matters, and truly understanding one of them, like understanding a person, requires dealing with them one-on-one. That’s the kind of approach to geosciences—integrating laws, place, and history—I’ve been advocating for a number of years. Right now, though, I plan to focus on getting to know Caroline, the thermodynamic miracle.