You may come to the conclusion that the research of Peter Ward is somewhat fatalistic. He did after all, coin the term Medea Hypothesis, which proposes that multicellular life as we know it is suicidal. However, the very poison of complex life may also be able to save it.
Showcased in his TED talk, Peter tells a story of the mass extinctions of Earth’s past in contrast to the plot of Hollywood blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon.
He proposes that many of the mass extinctions or “Animal Armageddons” of Earth’s history have been caused not by the impact of extraterrestrial bodies, but by bacteria.
Rapid global warming causes oceans to become depleted in oxygen, which allows buildup of a gas poisonous to complex life, hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Bacteria on the other hand thrives on H2S, and so its domination of the planet is abetted.
As it turns out, the hydrogen sulfide poison present at the boundary of these mass extinctions may actually have a medical application to sustain human life. Not all mammals were wiped out during the mass extinctions of the past, or you wouldn’t be here reading this. Those that survived underwent an adaptation to cope with small amounts H2S due to the series of exposures to high atmospheric hydrogen sulfide they experienced.
Hydrogen Sulfide may be used to facilitate lowering of core body temperature following trauma, to allow time for transport to hospital. Understanding Earth’s history provides an opportunity to revolutionise medicine.
This is research immersed in philosophy, that extends to the depths of the oceans. Work conducted with such passion and creativity is often sparked from a childhood experience. And so it is with Peter Ward.
In his surprisingly emotive piece in about a creature for a magazine of the same name, the Nautilus, Ward tells the story of a career researching a creature that has prevailed for 500 million years. It began with his entrancement with the Nautilus shell after first seeing one in a shell shop in Hawaii as a young boy. It ended, albeit temporarily, with the tragic death of a friend on a diving expedition in New Caledonia.
Ward visited Adelaide late last year to give a presentation concerning specific new data coming from research into the K/Pg mass extinction at field sites in Antarctica, the late Devonian mass extinction based on work just finished in the Canning Basin of Australia, and the Permian mass extinction from new work in both South Africa and Western Canada. He is now working at School of Earth and Environmental Sciences the University of Adelaide.
In a video interview for Nautilus magazine in answer to the question “What is your proudest achievement as a scientist?” Peter Ward muses “that I have been able to instill in students that it [science] is FUN.“
Our guess is that students are in for a real treat. The Environment Institute welcomes Peter Ward!