I finally found time to put together
a few thoughts on recent events. It is
hard to select which of the many interesting happenings of the summer of
1999 deserve most attention. Candidates include the always-remarkable
demonstrations of Earth's geologic and meteorologic power, the rather
humorous debate over the latest political personality's intersection with
America's embarrassingly dishonest War on Drugs, the pain of
government-citizen conflict as displayed in disheartening detail in recent
revelations of the Waco confrontation, and the first-of-its-kind report
recently issued regarding unidentified aerial phenomena written by former
senior French military and aerospace officials.
But there are four other items deserving
special attention: progress in the
effort to prepare for Y2K, the mountainous ecological crisis now coming into
clearer focus, courageous acts of statesmanship in the Middle East, and
startling observations now surfacing in science.
An Early Bug in the Beta Test of Ideotechnomics
"Virtually all of us who are close
to this problem are confident that the
American economy is going to come through this just fine," Federal Reserve
Governor Edward Kelley said in an appearance on C-Span in recent days. This
was one of a string of increasingly upbeat comments by U.S. officials on the
readiness of the domestic economy to absorb the Year 2000 date rollover
without a fundamental crisis.
I recall first seeing warnings of
the Y2K issue in 1995, and like many,
disregarded its significance at the time. Feeling somewhat guilty as one of
the hundreds of thousands of people who wrote a few lines of "Y2K" code
(perfectly ironic as acronym for a bug of abbreviation) a decade ago, I
became a student of this subject.
During its earlier years more than
now, the software industry has tended not
to employ the kind of rigorous quality control methodologies demanded of
basic modern infrastructure. Upon realizing the true extent of the challenge
in 1997, and seeing a lack of appreciation of the depth of the challenge
among executives in Silicon Valley, I lent a hand to a few responsible
groups engaged in much-needed efforts to communicate remediation and
We have seen thinking among the
community of experts shift from profound
ignorance of the depth of the required remediation, towards well-founded
pessimism motivating action, now towards the tentative prediction that the
most expensive technological error in human history has been caught just in
time. The global situation is not as clear, and it is hoped that a report
being published by the U.S. State Department, grading more than 190 nations'
readiness, will shed additional light on this question. But even granting
the possibility that some nations may experience significant interruptions
in technology-dependent functions, it appears increasingly clear that the
urgency of global Y2K remediation efforts may have avoided any kind of
widespread systemic failure. Hopefully, the remaining months will be
adequate for the industrial world to complete the most important phases of
its corrective plan.
As we pass into to 2000, there are
many lessons from the Y2K saga worthy of
First, everyone in Silicon Valley
has been given a much-needed wake-up call.
We have been reminded that no one can "guarantee fitness for a particular
purpose" except the makers. As the pace of technology innovation continues
through communications and computing and leaps ahead in biogenetics and
perhaps even propulsion, the completeness of our scenario planning and the
rigor of our development methodologies need to be continually improved. Each
piece of our electronic infrastructure is as dependent upon excellence as a
skyscraper, suspension bridge, airplane, or moon shot. And from now on,
society is in the capsule.
Second, part of the fright of the
Y2K problem has been felt because of the
certainty of its timing. Rarely in human experience does the flow of events
allow a specific date to be known for a threatened social crisis. We should
realize that there are far more serious threats to our livelihood than Y2K
ever was, but we simply cannot predict The Date beyond which remediation or
evolution is no longer possible. Recognizing that Y2K's catastrophic
probabilities would not have become improbabilities had various dire
warnings not been made, we must make room in normal, optimistic, and happy
lives for the sober recognition of the reality of other total risks to human
civilization, and lead and act accordingly. Our inability to predict a date
for ultimate crisis should make us more wary, not less so.
Third, we have glimpsed yet again
the true power of technology in the hands
of natural life. Y2K is an example of how technology magnifies the ability
of human ignorance to threaten human life.
Given a pronounced cusp of discovery
and innovation unmatched in human
history, our judgment must race to maintain pace with our knowledge. In
this respect, we might recognize that the next technologically induced human
crisis is likely to be one in which we are afraid not as much of instant
stoppage of machines, but rather of an inability to slow or stop them.
Our technology systems are simply
individual robots, now being wired
together with a common nervous system and many developing centers of
function. Each function is increasingly specialized to meet the needs of its
constituents and its master. The ideological master of most modern
technology systems is the consumer. You might say that much of the modern
Western person's life is now driven by 'ideotechnomics' -- automation
servant to the customs of an ideologically-framed economy.
The present state of evolution in
the ethics of consumer ideotechnomics and
its impact on the biosphere of Earth are the study of many concerned and
intelligent people. As we face deep questions early in the 21st Century
regarding the ecological catastrophes that we must somehow avoid, we should
ask ourselves the question: to the degree that ideotechnomics forms the
substrate of our lives, what are ways that it can reduce happiness and
freedom of action for us and our descendants, instead of expanding these
truest qualities of life? As we witness the growing reach of wires and waves
coursing with energy around us, we must never lose our sense of the total
and unforgettable experience of being lovingly rooted in Nature.
Remember Y2K as you read When Things
Start to Think, by Neil A. Gershenfeld.
The Sixth Extinction?
Some news items are more important
than others, but are often drowned
because 'equal air time' seems increasingly to favor profitability rather
than relevance as the unit of measure. One such story appeared on MSNBC.com
on August 4th.
"We are predicting the extinction
of about two-thirds of all bird, mammal,
butterfly and plant species by the end of the next century, based on current
trends," said Peter Raven, President of the International Botanical Congress
at its annual meeting this summer. "The projected rate of extinction for the
next 100 years is equal to 65 million years ago."
50,000 of the 300,000 species of
plant on Earth are at risk of extinction
now. 200,000 species could vanish by the end of the 21st century. In the
oceans, 50 "dead zones" have been identified in coastal areas, the largest
in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus flowing from
the Mississippi. "We're witnessing many signals of the problems that will
result from these changes," reports Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State
University, "including toxic algal blooms, coral bleaching and sudden
disappearance of fish from key fisheries."
There are many reactions individuals
can have to news reports such as this.
Most people click on to the next site or station, thinking something like
"the government or environmentalists will find a solution". Many people
click into it one level further, learn more, and shift their thinking
modestly. Some people are motivated to act, and contribute or volunteer for
a role in the movement. And vanishingly few who do are in positions of
influence to accelerate the thinking of many others. It is important this
last group of people grows, and I will be greatly surprised if the health of
the biosphere is not a principal focus of the next Presidential election. My
personal bet is that the self-created environmental problems menacing
humanity will force their way to the front of everyone's attention soon. New
debates will be framed in increasingly clear terms demonstrating the stakes
of decisions we may or may not have the will to make in the next 10 years.
How long it takes for these debates
to influence everyday actions of several
hundred million relatively wealthy human beings will determine whether we
will have enough time to remediate our ideotechnomic system sufficiently to
avert biospheric catastrophe. Imagine the risk of delay: living in a society
which discovered that its extinction was inevitable and years away, not from
asteroid impact, but from disfunction and decay caused by an old bug in its
ideology. On present course and speed, the average 10-year-old child will
likely live to experience such a realization.
Here is an opportunity for the science
community to step up to the plate,
not only with studies, but with a loud voice, and with new ideas and
open-mindedness to new ways of thinking about the broader human condition.
The solutions we deploy must match the reach of the problems, and thus some
kind of shift in the basic behaviors of individuals is a necessary
foundation for any robust strategy. Individual choices of this nature, in my
view, tend to hinge upon individual ontology.
Across the Line in the Sand
Half a world away from us, the faces
of deeply seeded anger fighting wars of
old are slowly coming to focus in the lens of media. One of several
simmering global ideological conflicts among interpretations of religion,
the confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian has reached a pronounced
cusp of grace and fragile possibility. As dusty and worn-out warriors
recognize their brothers and sisters across the line of chalk, they have
begun to shake hands and sign parchment. It has taken extraordinary efforts
among countless statesmen to cross the point passed in the last two weeks
concerning a section of land in the Middle East.
As reported by CNN, six years to
the day after then-Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White
House, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and top Palestinian negotiator
Mahmoud Abbas met at a converted army base between Israel and Gaza for a
ceremonial relaunch of the twice-delayed peace talks.
"This agreement will bring to an
end, God willing, the 100-year conflict
that has caused so much suffering between Israel and the Palestinians," said
Levy. "No one among us has illusions. We face a difficult task. The
permanent status agreement is the final block in building peace, but it is
the most complex of them all."
Abbas, Arafat's deputy, urged a
speedy resolution, saying, "We cannot afford
to lose more time, for lots of precious time was wasted."
"The past was marked with denial.
Let the future be based on mutual
recognition of self-determination," he said. "It is time to feel. It is time
to reconstruct. It is the time for peace and peacemakers."
Imagine the opportunity now in view,
however difficult the steps to reach
it. This summer has seen old combatants envision a new threshold in the
quest for peace, in a land considered for millennia by much of the world to
be a center of spiritual tradition. In confronting questions as inherently
challenging as the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood, one hopes
that the negotiators can approach their charge with minds open to new ideas.
If this accord can be seen as the doorway it is, if a new level of trust in
common humanity can be held as the highest ethic, hands may find the handle
in unison, and swing the door open. Beyond the doorstep of mutual trust is
the only path to a better life for those touched by this cancerous conflict.
This much is certain: there are
new ideas for solutions outside of the box
of present thinking. One day soon, just perhaps, our fighters may see the
value in longer-term thinking. They might grasp each other's arms as
friends, and even embrace, remembering the common God they share. However
far off such a day may be, they will decide to drop their toys of hatred, to
rust in the rains of many springs to come. They will grow food and drink
wine together, and begin a new era for their children.
New Observations of Cosmology at the Millennium
There are, in fact, many reasons
for people to consider looking at life with
an interesting new kind of optimistic wonder. In 1999, a remarkable debate
has begun to sweep into the view of the public. It is the discussion among
scientists over the accuracy of the Big Bang hypothesis of creation. As
brilliantly argued in Seeing Red (Halton Arp, 1998) and elsewhere, a
century-old debate, 70 years of astronomical observations, and 30 years of
growing anomalies are coming to a head. Those of us who are fascinated by
the advancement of scientific knowledge are now settling down in our
armchairs to watch a debate that will ultimately entwine observational
astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and faithful from
every major religion. The Genesis of Western institutional science might be
"I believe the observational evidence
has become overwhelming, and the Big
Bang has in reality been toppled. There is now a need to communicate the new
observations, the connections between objects and the new insights into the
workings of the universe - all the primary obligations of academic science,"
says Arp, a highly respected scientist whose observations are the growing
subject of intense debate.
Other scientists strongly disagree
with Arp's views, but there are growing
indications that he is right, and that one of the primary bases upon which
the Big Bang hypothesis is hinged - extra-galactic redshift primarily as the
measure of recessional velocity - is incorrect. Compelling observations have
been repeated many times now demonstrating that mysterious objects known as
"quasars" are not in fact the most distant objects in the Universe, some of
which are alleged to be speeding away from us at several times the speed of
light. Instead, quasars appear to be ejecta from the nuclei of galaxies much
closer to us. High-redshift quasars have been observed to be physically
connected to low-redshift galaxies.
Arps observations go further. Like
those of quasars, high redshifts observed
in the spectra of young galaxies appear to have a cause other than
recessional motion. His work strongly suggests that quasars are, in fact,
young galaxies, given birth from parent galaxies. One can speculate that the
anomalous redshift effect might be caused as originating light interacts
with vast clouds of electrons or ionized gas, like a kind of amniotic plasma
surrounding the evolving body. If exaggerated redshift in the spectra of
young galaxies is not primarily caused by recessional motion, then it is
quite plausible that, in general, galaxies are not flying away from us, and
"Big Bang" is unintentional science fiction.
These are stunning observations!
They should startle every physicist, giving
us new reason to reconsider old assumptions.
Debate over a subject of this order
tends to become exceptionally heated,
for the outcome tends to alter our understanding of ourselves. Cosmological
discussion tends to inflame the passions of every individual, and rightly
so, for we find our purpose in knowledge of our origin. Surely the ontology
of people should not be toyed with lightly.
However, these and other observations
are now making visible significant
philosophical and observational flaws in one of the chief theories defining
the limits of human imagination. I presently favor the view that the
Cosmology we're most likely to see emerge when the dust from this debate
settles is impossible to anticipate with anything less than philosophical
wonder: the creation of matter is episodic in an infinite and eternal
Cosmos. If true, this realization will ultimately humble every person, and
yet thrill us at the same time. In the process of absorbing the implications
of this possibility, we might just gain important insights into the
fundamental nature of atoms and energy as well, with all sorts of
interesting new plausibilities coming into focus. The question of the
ongoing cause of Cosmic microwave background radiation now becomes a
fascinating issue to study more deeply, for example. So is the question of
the nature of inertia and gravitation.
As our collective consciousness
begins to grapple with the concept and
meaning of infinity, and as deficiencies in past physical assumptions
present themselves, we must not rush to personalize or stigmatize the
participants of any faction of the discussions (and I have been guilty of
this at times myself). All of us - whether our ideas are proven right or
wrong - are essential participants in a process of knowledge perfection. For
all the revolutions in interpretation and model which we might face, we know
that the quest of physics represents a vital search for truths that
contribute to meaning and destiny. Our knowledge of Nature is increasingly
refined as we experience more of the awe-inspiring beauty and perfection of
her bodies. And we have made true progress in this century, for our
knowledge earned within foundation disciplines of science has given rise to
the modern world and has dramatically enhanced our ability to learn. The
physicist can say with pride that, despite errors and large deficits and
even basic gaps, this science has brought human beings closer than ever
before to understanding the workings of that omnipresent and mysterious root
of being labeled "energy". Given recent insights, perhaps institutional
science can also begin to consider other names and definitions given to
"energy" by some within its own ranks, by mystics and by spiritual leaders
across the millennia.
In the midst of these happenings,
a few fascinating people have this summer
started to organize a new science enterprise whose mission leaps for the
stars. It is a pleasure to begin working with the associates of ISSO. We do
not agree on everything, but each of us holds a different version of the
same vision: that the greatest ocean of all -- Cosmos -- will be traveled by
humans more freely in the 21st century. We hope that the genuine intent of
this effort can be recognized and supported.
More importantly, we encourage all to pursue the quest.