Earth in Five Reactions: Scientists Debate the Features Making Earth Unique in the Solar System

About 50 Deep Carbon Observatory scientists from each of the four DCO Science Communities and seven countries spent two days (22-23 March 2018) pondering what carbon-related reactions make Earth unique. This huge question made for some lively debates, friendly disagreements, and ultimately consensus about the most important carbon-related reactions on the planet.

The so-called Earth in Five Reactions (E5R) workshop is part of DCO’s suite of synthesis activities. Jie (Jackie) Li (University of Michigan, USA), Simon Redfern (Cambridge University, UK), and Donato Giovannelli (ELSI Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan) led the workshop held at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, USA.

From the time the idea was first proposed at a workshop at the University of Rhode Island in 2015, E5R has sparked animated discussions and sometimes heated arguments. That continued in Washington DC, where participants were charged with choosing five discrete chemical reactions from among hundreds that make Earth the only known habitable planet.

The participants began by considering the results of a survey distributed throughout 2017. The survey asked for criteria that might be used to judge Earth’s reactions, and invited respondents to nominate reactions for the top five.

Topics discussed over the two-day workshop included the role of the deep carbon cycle in plate tectonics, establishing and maintaining the geodynamo, and the development of an oxygen-rich atmosphere; the origin of diamonds; how microbial life has persisted throughout Earth's history giving rise to a diverse biosphere; and various ways water has influenced Earth’s evolution.

With keynote speakers, short-talk presenters, and debate panelists primed to argue for or against their chosen reactions, the debates were lively, passionate, and sometimes intellectually divisive. By the middle of day two, however, the group voted for a set of reactions central to defining the outstanding features of Earth.

The participants then turned their attention to how DCO can share these reactions with the scientific community and beyond. The group worked to develop a series of review articles for an open access special issue in American Mineralogist, for completion in mid-2019. Participants also worked with the DCO Engagement Team to start planning a strategy for reaching broader audiences. Breakout sessions and group brainstorming resulted in a variety of exciting ideas to complement the American Mineralogist publication.

“The workshop was a great success! It was particularly memorable because the snowstorm on the first day of spring caused many delayed or cancelled flights,” said organizer Jie (Jackie) Li. “We’re really excited about the outcomes of this workshop and look forward to synthesizing the DCO's findings within the E5R framework.”

The workshop also included an informal icebreaker and a group dinner. At the dinner, Executive Committee Chair Craig Manning (University of California Los Angeles, USA) presented Alberto Vitale Brovarone (Institut de Minéralogie et de Physique des Milieux Condensés, France) his 2017 Emerging Leader Award. The other Emerging Leader Award recipients, Taryn Lopez (University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA) and Daniel Hummer (Southern Illinois University, USA), received their awards in New Orleans at the 2017 AGU Fall Meeting.


Organizing Committee:

Jackie Li (University of Michigan, USA)
Simon Redfern (Cambridge University, UK)
Marie Edmonds (Cambridge University, UK; Chair, Synthesis Group 2019)
Donato Giovannelli (ELSI, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan)
Darlene Trew Crist (DCO Synthesis Manager; DCO Engagement Team)
Katie Pratt (University of Rhode Island, USA; DCO Engagement Team)
Josh Wood (University of Rhode Island, USA; DCO Engagement Team)

Participants (PDF)

Agenda (PDF)



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