5 Questions to a soil scientist
Address:Nad Patankou 34
Position:professor since 1973, now retired
1. When did you decide to study soil science?
After my graduation at the Civil Engineering in 1951, I started my professional career at the Department of Irrigation and Drainage, Czech Technical University in Prague. I discovered early that my creativity in this domain was rather limited by the extent number of norms and regulations. In addition to it, I was curious about the laws of soil water flow and behavior. And this part was generally neglected at that time in water engineering practice in our country. I have therefore decided to focus my PhD. research to soil physics and I performed mainly laboratory experiments on the influence of urban waste waters upon the soil structure. My studies were realized under the guidance of professor L. Smolak, a soil scientist. The laboratory soil testing was an exciting experience and I have continued further on in research of soil physics. Later on, when I was teaching in Prague as well as in developing countries I had to extend my studies to the general soil science, too. This knowledge contributed to my effort to perform the research on real soils and in the field, too.
2. Who has been your most influential teacher?
My approach to the research in soil physics was dominantly influenced by Dr. Ladislav Smolak, professor of soil science at the Czech Technical University in Prague. He has introduced me into the global concept of soil science and into the neo-positivist and Popperian principles of scientific discovery. Without quoting the philosophers, Dr. Smolak followed the deductive ways in research and he stated repeatedly: First the theory and then the experiments. Later on, when I was sometimes hesitating about my steps, there were discussions with Dr. D.R. Nielsen in which I found a support of my views. The book Soil Hydrology was the final product of our discussions. I am sure that the book would not appear without the general input of L. Smolak and without the opportunity to share the same point of view upon soil physics with Don Nielsen.
3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?
Even if soil science is a sort of the Cinderella of natural sciences, it has one principal feature in common with them: It is an open epistemological system. We meet all the time new problems to solve and what is very important, we find frequently the immediate practical applications of our research in agronomy, forestry, water management and ecology. There are so many branches of natural sciences which could envy us this opportunity.
4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science?
We have an immediate chance to get the teenagers engaged in soil science. There exists the GLOBE program of international cooperation aimed at the observation of nature and ecology: GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) is a worldwide hands-on, primary and secondary school-based education and science program. Soil science is among the subjects in which the students, mainly teenagers take field measurements. The students send their measurements into the data base in USA and they have the opportunity to compare their results with data from other countries since they obtain all measurements professionally evaluated, plotted etc. The program is realized in 104 countries. I am recommending to the soil scientists to get informed and to contact the local committees of GLOBE, see www.globe.gov, or www.globe-europe.org. This chance is perfect as I can confirm from my personal experience.
5. How do you see the future of soil science?
A very popular and general opinion on soil science is that soil is a sort of reservoir keeping the nutrients for plants and that the soil scientists take care of that reservoir. We have the chance to change this very narrow and not proper public meaning in the frame of UN Year 2008 of Planet Earth. I am urging soil scientists to contribute readable and popular information on advances in soil science into newspapers and into all media.
The research in soil science brought good knowledge in individual sub-disciplines as soil physics, soil chemistry, microbiology etc. The time is therefore suitable for interdisciplinary approaches where the tools of one sub-discipline contributes to the knowledge of the neighboring sub-discipline. Let me give one example on pollutants:
The accelerated flux of pollutants, the preferential flow within the soil profile can be understood only if the soil porous system is properly described in its full complexity. This aim is not attainable without the knowledge on soil micromorphology, which is linked to pedogenesis. Pollutants are transported in soils to deeper horizons where their accumulation, transformation and decontamination processes differ from the conditions in the root zone. Rates of various processes depend upon the properties of individual horizons, which are directly related again to pedogenesis. Thus the knowledge of soil genesis and of the properties of soil taxons is indispensable for the description of pollutant transport and transformation in soil. The variation of hydrophility and hydrophobicity due to transformed organic matter, root exudates and enzymes also plays an important role in transform processes of pollutants on pore scale. The pollutants alter the physical and chemical properties of soils, act either directly upon the soil edaphon, or indirectly through the microbial activity being influenced by changes of the soil solution. And the changed soil properties impinge upon the diversity and activities of soil microbiological communities. Even if the complicated processes are truly identified, knowledge regarding the nature and intensity of induced changes is not transferable from one taxonomic order to another. In addition to pollutant transport, soil physical characteristics are changed directly by the quality and concentration of the soil solution. The influence of inorganic cations upon the change of soil hydraulic characteristics is well known in relation to salinization and alkalization. More should be known on the role of products of humification upon the hydraulic functions of soil. Similarly, our knowledge on the role of organic pollutants in changing the soil porous system and soil hydraulic characteristics is insufficient. The change is either direct as is the case for organic cations, or indirect through the stimulation effect of particular species of the soil micro-edaphon.
Finally, we should not forget about our role in protection of pedo-diversity. It has the same importance as bio-diversity, but it is less frequently formulated.