Research MagazineHumans as a Geological Force. The Anthropocene

OLAF BUBENZER, HANS GEBHARDT & FRANK KEPPLER

Do we live in a new geological era that is shaped by our presence on the planet? This question is giving rise to intense and controversial debates. Alexander von Humboldt already noted the impact of human activity on the environment. But it was not until the year 2000 that the atmospheric researcher and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen introduced the term of the “Anthropocene” into the scientific debate. In industrialising the world, humans became a geological force: never before has a species changed the face of the planet so fundamentally, and in so short a time. The most dramatic changes, frequently summarised under the term “The Great Acceleration”, began in the 1950s.

While geoscientists search for distinct markers in ice cores, sediment layers and soils and are on a quest for the “golden spike” that allegedly marks the beginning of the Anthropocene era, the term is used more widely, and discussed more critically, by social scientists and the general public. As a reflection on the current state of the world, the term “Anthropocene” indeed provides a new perspective. It uncovers the countless interconnections between nature, social affairs and technology and raises awareness of the implications for our planet. More specifically, it attributes a global importance to the geosciences that members of this discipline will certainly welcome for political reasons. Among social scientists, on the other hand, there are concerns that the definition of the Anthropocene as a quasi-geological era might lead to a de- politicisation of the associated global environmental changes.

But the debate centring on the Anthropocene is not purely academic. It also touches on the basic question of whether and how we can live on the earth in the long term. At Heidelberg University, the interaction between humans and the environment plays an increasingly important role in research and teaching alike.

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RuCa 15 Kapitel I-3

Issue 15 • 2019: ABSOLUT & RELATIV

What is ultimately stronger – nature or culture? What are the ethical and legal considerations around molecular biological tools like the CRISPR/Cas gene editing scissors that allow us to cut, modify, and paste DNA? How did changes in the climate and environment influence sociocultural development in the early phases of human history? Can lifelike material systems be created on the basis of engineering principles? In their presentations, 23 scientists from wide-ranging fields – from medicine, molecular biology, environmental physics, geology, and mathematics to the philosphophy of law, sinology, and mediaeval studies – will address these and other questions.

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The research magazine "Ruperto Carola" reports on scientific findings and ongoing research projects at Heidelberg University. Each issue of the magazine is dedicated to a socially relevant topic on which Heidelberg researchers present their scientific work across disciplines and subjects. In easy-to-understand language, the authors show the myriad ways in which research is conducted at Heidelberg University.

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