15 May 2019

Pillars of the Earth Sciences: explanation and scientific understanding

Maarten Kleinhans breaks a lance for a more fundamental perspective on the principles of the earth sciences

Starting in September 2019, Prof. Maarten Kleinhans will spend seven months working as a Fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS). During this period, he will try to find answers to fundamental questions such as: how do the earth- and planetary sciences differ from other disciplines in explaining various phenomena in the physical world? And what role does human understanding of those phenomena among researchers and students play in those explanations? In his research, he aims to bridge the gap between earth science research and how students are taught to think about the discipline. “There are unfortunately just a handful of earth scientists around the world who focus on those kinds of questions.”

Physical geographer Kleinhans named his research project after the bestselling novel by Ken Follet: ‘Pillars of the Earth Sciences: explanation and scientific understanding’. During his fellowship, he aims to link the day-to-day practice of the earth sciences to the latest philosophical insights into the building blocks of the concept of ‘explanation’. Kleinhans: “The earth- and planetary sciences focus on the causes of events and phenomena from the distant past, billions of years ago, but also those that occur today. In the process, they also examine the underlying biological, chemical, and physical mechanisms and laws. I would like to know exactly how different research activities combined can lead to an explanation and insights, such as biological field work (Darwin), observation of processes (von Humboldt), and explaining through the laws of physics (Newton). Finally, I will also study how we can use these concepts to improve education in the earth- and planetary sciences, and how we communicate the results of our research.”

Fundamental principles

According to Kleinhans, it is high time to re-examine the fundamental principles of the earth sciences and to try to position them within the context of contemporary philosophy of science. “Our textbooks mention primitive philosophical concepts that go back to the time of James Hutton, the 18th-century founder of the study of geology. But the latest philosophical insights seem to have left our field of research behind, along with the many thousands of practitioners around the world. That is especially unfortunate, considering how vital the earth sciences are to humanity: they are the focus of six out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals formulated by the United Nations.”

Sand, mud, and patterns of vegetation

Since 2014, Maarten Kleinhans has served as Professor with a specialised remit in the field of Process Sedimentology of River Systems. He studies the formation and changes in patterns of sand, mud, and vegetation in rivers, deltas, and coastal regions. But in addition to his own field, he has a special interest in philosophy of science, science communications, and educational innovation. The NIAS selected him as a Fellow based on the quality of his research proposal and the innovative insights that his research is expected to provide. He has been awarded many other grants in the past, including a VICI grant in 2014.

NIAS building Amsterdam
NIAS-building in Amsterdam

Interdisciplinairy collaboration

The NIAS, which was founded in 1970, is a research institute in Amsterdam in the field of the humanities and the social and behavioural sciences. The institute’s mission is to encourage and promote interdisciplinary collaboration in these fields. Here, established and junior researchers can conduct independent, curiosity-driven research. The NIAS has been a part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1988.