Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Ramon Margalef López 1919-2004

Ecology is recognised today as one of the main scientific disciplines at humanity's disposal in confronting the challenges of the future. This is due in no small measure to six decades of work by Ramon Margalef, the Catalan scientist who has died aged 85, and whose name is invoked whenever someone measuring biodiversity within an ecosystem applies one of their key tools: the Margalef Index.
The man himself was modest about his achievements, preferring to define his discipline as an extension of common sense. He explained: "Ecology is partly based on seeing ourselves as part of the natural world. Those who study these matters see this interdependency as something positive, not a matter for argument or conflict. And increasingly, it is seen as implying obligations: this is where we live, so we have to attend to our housekeeping and not leave the place a shambles."
As for the eponymous index: oceanographers, terrestrial ecologists and nowadays even geographers and sociologists routinely employ this calculation, based on the total number of species present and the number of individuals within each kind, to characterise a given system - a millpond, a coral reef, a human community or a maize field - in terms of its comparative diversity and to forecast its development. The versatility of the tool testifies to its author's ingenuity in the application of scientific method but only partly explains why he is among the most frequently cited sources in learned journals worldwide.
Ramon Margalef López was born in Barcelona and was still a teenager, studying in the city's commerce college while indulging a keen amateur's interest in natural history, when Spain was engulfed in civil war. He signed up to fight in the Republic's youngest fighting unit, the "quinta del biberón" (the "baby's bottle brigade"), and after his side was defeated, he found work in insurance sales until Franco's army called him up for two more ignominious years of compulsory service.
On his discharge, Margalef won a scholarship to the Institute of Applied Biology, where he excelled; by the time of his prize-winning graduation in 1949, he had already begun publishing a body of work that would ultimately run to more than 300 articles and books.
Margalef made daring use of logarithms and thermodynamics in his researches into biodiversity and his 1957 inaugural lecture as a member of the Barcelona Royal Academy of Sciences, on the use of information theory in ecology, was promptly translated for the journal General Systems and won him a worldwide audience.
Another groundbreaking article, "On certain unifying principles in ecology", appeared in American Naturalist in 1963 and this, along with his 1968 collection Perspectives in Ecological Theory, based on his guest lectures at Chicago University, secured his standing as a forerunner of modern scientific ecology in any language. Limnology, the study of lakes and wetlands, would still be in its infancy without Margalef's input.
Appointed to Spain's first chair in ecology, which he held at the University of Barcelona from 1967 to his retirement 20 years later (when he was appointed emeritus), Margalef supervised the doctorates of a whole generation of ecologists from throughout Spain and beyond. He preferred to teach early in the morning and late in the evening, to free up his days for research - yet students still packed out his lectures. When one student observed that it was difficult to absorb all the ideas and information he imparted, he promised to sum it up in a book: the result was his famous 1974 textbook, the much-translated Ecologia, which like his other standard work Limnologia (1983) runs to just over 1,000 succinct pages.
He was an enthusiast for the public appreciation of science and for the engagement of scientific rigour in environmental policy. He once said: "People talk about dumping our wastes in the ocean depths, because the ocean supposedly has an immense digestive capacity. But I believe there are dangers, since this would alter many of the ocean's mechanisms of which we are ignorant or still little aware... (our ignorance) is itself a bigger danger. On issues like this, the ecologist is often asked to give approval or offer arguments in favour. Or else the ecologist goes for an equally untenable stance, one of simple protest. Protest, itself, has to present constructive solutions."
He was a visiting professor at Yale, Melbourne, Chicago, Quebec and several other universities in Europe and the Americas and held numerous honorary doctorates as well as the foremost international garlands in his field - the Humboldt, the Ramón y Cajal, Catalonia's main public honours and the Order of Alfonso X. His citation for the Huntsman Award, the Canadian prize regarded as the Nobel in oceanography, credited him among "the main architects of the intellectual structures in which we oceanographers and limnologists organise our observations, conclusions and speculations."
Margalef died in Barcelona four days after his 85th birthday. His final work, for the catalogue of an ecology exhibition at the current Barcelona Forum, was just off the press. He was survived by his wife, María Mir, and their family of four. Tragically, María died a few days after her husband. A fitting epitaph for both of them might be a line from an interview he gave in 1992: "If God has put us on Earth, we have the right to make use of it but we might as well do so with a modicum of intelligence."
  • Professor Ramon Margalef López, ecologist, born 20 May 1919; died 24 May 2004
[PUBLISHED ONLINE AT http://www.grijalvo.com/  Photo from the Catalan government's ecology prize website, http://www.gencat.cat/premiramonmargalef/cat/index.htm ]

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