On the edge

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Science  26 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6204, pp. 1552-1554
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6204.1552

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Marten Scheffer, a math-savvy ecologist from the Netherlands, has become a leader in the science of tipping points by studying lakes. Using equations and concepts once largely relegated to the theoretical realm, he's shown how they can be put to practical use understanding why ecosystems can quickly shift from one state to another with just an extra nudge (for instance, how lakes can shift from clear to cloudy and back again). Now, at 56, the Wageningen University academic has crossed a threshold of his own: Flush with funding, he's become the intellectual hub for a global network of scholars who meet for freewheeling discussions, often at a retreat center he's built on his family farm in the Netherlands. The collaborations are carrying Scheffer far from the rural lakes where he started, to efforts to identify tipping points in tropical forests, global climate, and communities of gut microbes, and even in the onset of migraine headaches and depression. Some researchers, however, worry that Scheffer might be moving too far, too fast with his ideas, and that tipping point models, while elegant, are sometimes too rudimentary to be very useful. Still, few question his scientific acumen or skill at shattering disciplinary barriers. And they say Scheffer, also an accomplished musician who has recorded 15 albums, can be a remarkably creative catalyzing force.

  • * Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental writer in Mount Rainier, Maryland.

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