The Difference between Information and Meaning
"We live in a world where there is more and more information, but less and less meaning."
- Jean Baudrillard
As a comment on the communication of science, a funny misquote on Gizmodo.com in mid-January led to reports racing through the internet and eventually finding their way onto the national celebrity gossip television show TMZ. “Kellndorfer estimates that five million trees reside on U.S. soil,” said the articles and headlines.
This was misconstrued from the original “Kellndorfer estimates that the measurements of five million trees are in their mapping database [to inform and develop the models].” Just how did this reach TMZ? They came across the Internet buzz about some scientist counting five million trees and decided to play a prank on actor Elijah Wood, best known as Frodo in Lord of the Rings, asking him on camera how many trees called the U.S. home. Of course Frodo didn’t know.
In the prank TMZ tries to tell Elijah Wood that ‘NASA’s study’ (i.e. WHRC’s) says there are five million trees in the conterminous U.S. Ironically enough, this, said TMZ, contradicted their own research, which found that there are in fact no less than 747 million trees in the lower 48!
Well, I guess that one of the first principles of science was again violated – use a primary source. In this case that would be the U.S. Forest Service. Their inventory database (the same used for our National Biomass Carbon Dataset project) actually estimated in 2002 that about 286 billion trees grew from the soils of the lower 48 states. To put this into perspective, the ballpark for this cocktail party news is that there are about 1,000 trees per person, rather than about 6 persons per tree! As another fun statistic, based on these estimates and our own biomass work of the conterminous U.S., which shows a total biomass of about 26 billion tons, the average dry weight of one tree comes to roughly 90 kg – what I hope to weigh in a year’s time!
What are the facts? Our National Biomass and Carbon Dataset (NBCD) is now part of NASA’s Land Processes Data Center (NASA LP_DAAC), and besides TMZ, it also recently received acclaim via a feature article in NASA’s online Earth Observatory (EO) and in early January as Image of the Day on NASA’s EO website: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=76697
Actually, we don’t count trees just for the sake of providing arcane or puzzling trivia. Our work produces maps and datasets that help agencies, non-profits and conservation managers make informed land use decisions in the U.S. and further afield; it’s the difference between information and meaning.
For your amusement see the TMZ video clip here: http://www.tmz.com/2012/01/18/elijah-wood-trees-video-tmz-on-tv/#.Txb8PZjtGEZ