July 26, 2012

Yogi Berra's Future

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."  Yogi Berra.

"The winter in Ithaca convinced him that he had to leave, and Caltech, in addition to better weather, had the appeal of not being a liberal arts university like Cornell, where, he said, 'the theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on campus is offset by the general dopiness of the people who study these things.'"  Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss, about Richard Feynman's life in physics.  

Once I was asked by my mother what the university experience was all about (she had not attended college), and I thought about it for a minute and answered that, as far as the subjects I had studied, it seemed to be a reading list.  You could read the books that educated people thought were important, and the university provided a handy list, called a syllabus, as a guide to your reading.  Another approach to such an education, in other words, would be to have someone who attended the college simply give you the lists, and then you could approach your "education" at your leisure.

I think the "classical" style of education probably made more sense - an emphasis on hard sciences and dead languages, specifically Greek and Latin.  These subjects are better learned in a formal academic setting.  You can "figure out" the plays of Shakespeare or Toqueville's Democracy in America on your own - listening to people lecture about such things simply indoctrinates you into a certain subjective approach, which is probably more limiting than helpful.

The blogosphere daily reflects the limitations of "liberal arts" commentators.  I was thinking this as I read through Jim Kunstler's book Too Much Magic, about the general hopelessness of technology to solve our future energy and economic problems.  Kunstler assures us in numerous places that it's inconceivable we'll come up with solutions that "scale" to the problems we'll face,  and ticks off the usual arguments one by one (solar, wind, thermal, nuclear and so forth) and confidently proclaims that nothing is going to work once oil shortages begin to hit.

That's the thing about the blogosphere: it's become highly influential in a relatively short period, but the general reading public does not often reflect on the absence of peer review, that winnowing process in professional scientific journals that gives at least some guarantee that what you're reading is not absolute nonsense.  The absence of any "gating" procedure such as peer review means that a book like Kunstler's, which follows closely the arguments he makes weekly on his blog Clusterfuck Nation, enters the stream of commerce and consciousness without any real vetting.  I try to remember this as I read such confident "predictions" about the future.

Because I fundamentally agree with Yogi Berra.  Yogi, in his trademark way, was suggesting that the future is impossible to predict because of the problem of unknown variables and feedback loops.  Take the problem of water shortages, for example.  The Earth is covered with salt water, to enormous depths, over 70% of its surface (my daughter forwards word from her oceanography class this summer that the coolest theory going currently is that the water in the oceans originated with impacts from ice-bearing asteroids - I really like that one).  Most of mankind (on the order of 75%) lives near or on the sea coasts.  Thus, a major breakthrough in desalination (dealing, essentially, with the energy issues and with the osmotic sludge produced in the process) would solve the fresh water shortage problem in perpetuity.  But, Kunstler assures us, we will not have the energy for such a process.  He specifically rules out any possibility of fusion power as a solution (for desalination or anything else).

Feynman would not have ruled out fusion power; indeed, he encouraged his Caltech students to pursue the engineering issues (the science is well understood) because he was confident the process could be mastered.  So, just supposing, you simultaneously made breakthroughs in fusion power and desalination - immediately, two gigantic problems would be overcome by a synergistic interplay in (that awful word) technology.  (Or, in the Ali G usage I prefer, techmology.)  At one point (in telephone and telegraph days) the internet itself was unimaginable.  It required the development of materials science (something Feynman also got very interested in) alongside the development of computer science, which at the time was a subset of electrical engineering (Feynman was in on the ground floor of computer science as well, and was the first to conceive of quantum computing).

The mistake Kunstler makes, in my opinion, is that he violates the basic rule of the scientific method, and, again, no one could describe the integrity of the scientific method better than Richard Feynman.  Kunstler assumes his conclusion: we are headed back to horse-and-buggy days, with a general store and a cracker barrel, with a potbellied stove in the middle of the plank-floored room, and the women, dressed in gingham, will turn the paddles in the butter churn and gossip about the new young filly who's living in sin just up the road a piece.  Et cetera.  Thus, all variables which seem to defeat this illusion are quickly and summarily dismissed as inconvenient impediments to this anodyne imagery of America in the 1840's.

That's not the way to do it, in my opinion. At the front end of your "thought experiment," you must not presume your conclusion; otherwise, you will, consciously or unconsciously, force all of your data in a direction favorable to your presumed outcome.

In point of fact, there are lots of ideas which have not been tried yet.  For a simple example, people laugh at Steven Chu's suggestion that all roofs in America be painted white. In the Sunbelt, this will have the effect of lowering electrical usage for air conditioning, and, everywhere, the roofs will reflect incoming sunlight creating an albedo effect.  The reflected light will not radiate infrared heat into the atmosphere where it can be captured by greenhouse gases.  Similarly, all roads should be light colored to reduce the "heat island" problem.  Chu also is a proponent of the cellulosic conversion of switchgrass, essentially a weed, into ethanol as a power source for internal combustion engines.  Kunstler only argues about corn ethanol, but corn requires all kinds of heavy inputs, and its use for ethanol has negative impacts on food production.  Not so with switchgrass, which is an herbaceous, woody plant that in effect "self-fertilizes;" it dies back and replenishes the soil out of which it has been harvested.

The obstacles to such ideas are political, not scientific.  I do believe that social movements run in cycles, and currently we're locked into a very destructive one where the "financialization" of the economy has led to oligarchic control of the political process.  I don't think this will last, and the very crises which Kunstler and others describe will be among the reasons for transformation.  I just don't believe that future shortages of oil, which will doubtless happen along the lines Kunstler describes, will mean the end of the Age of Technology, because that's a little like saying that the human race will lose its collective memory of scientific progress, and that just isn't going to happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment