The burning apple (by George Drake)

Back in March, when I wrote about my (potentially) fortunate encounter with Anne Ehrlich, Hank asked me where Visions “came from?”   Since I claim to have seen one, he apparently thought I might have an answer.  Some Visionaries may feel they do know, and the experience definitely seems to convey a sense of certainty with it, but, being from such a tradition of “hard science” as I am, all I can say is that I’ve pondered that question deeply ever since the experience, and still can’t say I have a firm sense of the answer.

One avenue of my thinking suggests very strongly that Visions are broadcast, not beamed, so that, despite our tendency to attribute them to only one person, it’s almost certainly the case that many people have the same perception, or a very similar perception, at about the same time as the person that gets the credit.

So, for example, Moses’ burning bush was merely a very concrete perception of a very widely held view that it was long overdue for the Israelites to take their future into their own hands and strike out for anywhere, even on their own into the desert.  I wrote about that way of perceiving the events of the Exodus at some length in my book.

Of course, there’s also a firm certainty, justified or not, that all Visionaries seem to share, that the origin is outside themselves.

More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about how Isaac Newton’s discovery of the calculus is often told anecdotally as an “ah-ha” moment motivated by having been struck on the head by a falling apple.  Most don’t know much about the history of Newton and the calculus, nor really the significance that his discovery of that discipline had.

First thing to know is that the calculus is certainly the greatest technological step man had made since the invention of the wheel.  But to get a handle on Newton’s role you must also realize that it is known fact that Newton discovered the calculus twenty , or thirty, or I forget how many, years before sharing it with the world.  And then he only revealed the method because Leibnitz, a young German (or was it French?) mathematician discovered it independently and asked the then already extremely famous Sir Newton to look it over before submitting it to be published.  Scared that he wouldn’t get credit for his most important contribution to a new way of approaching real world problems of every sort, Newton immediately published his already carefully constructed theories on the subject.  Today everyone knows of Newton’s role, and few realize Leibnitz’s.  This seems to have been a common way academic types operated in those days, for the parallels between Darwin and Wallace can hardly be overlooked.

Basically, what Newton did, for years after his discovery of calculus, was to take solutions to problems he arrived at by using that technique and rewrite them in the language of the contemporary science of the day so that no one would be able to see the methods he’d truly used to arrive at the solution.  Ironically, he built his whole reputation as being the world’s smartest man on the foundation of hiding his greatest invention from the world until forced to reveal it or loose the claim to its discovery.

Ever since learning of these facts I’ve struggled with the question of whether Newton was so great or not.  On the one hand, the very discovery of the calculus clearly establishes his genius.  Any one who truly understands how brilliant that approach to analysis, as teaching the subject for almost thirty years has shown me, cannot deny this fact.  But, on the other, one has to question the ethics of an individual who would conceal such a breakthrough from the rest of the scientific community for decades merely to enhance his own reputation as the greatest mind since sliced bread (which they didn’t have at the time, of course).  What if he’d been thrown from his horse or something?  And, of course, there’d never been a Leibnitz?

Hell.  What if there’d just never been a Leibnitz?

But I digress.  The point I wanted to get at was that the building of the apple myth and the Visionary element attributed to Newton’s conception of the whole idea of the calculus is striking when one is trying to answer Hank’s question of “where do Visions come from?”   Maybe the burning bush was once as metaphorical as the apple.

The calculus was such a revolutionary way of thinking about how to approach problems that it transformed many totally intractable questions into routine exercises.  By changing the way he thought about approaching such questions, Newton changed the problems themselves from impossibly difficult to relatively easy.  Such a revolution in thinking is probably only attributable to an insight of Visionary proportions.

But the insight itself may not be so complicated.  It may mainly consist of merely a refocusing from the common way of thinking about the problems to taking a different tack which makes the solutions almost trivial.  This breaks through the barriers of the conventional approaches by simply going about the whole process differently.

That is how I see my insight into the environmental question.  We’re always focusing our efforts on questions of “how do we cope” with this or that environmentally disastrous result of some widely used technology or another.  We repeatedly come up with solutions which eventually lead to greater environmental distress than we were under when the first problem was the concern of the day.

Thus the stink from horse manure was apparently relieved by the unnoticed odor from burning fossil fuel, which led us to the current trauma of the global warming threat of today.  Nanotechnology (or something else) may give us an apparently new lease on life, who knows?  But we also know nothing of the downsides that solution may eventually display.

The solution to spoilage via refrigeration led to the depletion of the ozone layer through the wide use of CFC’s.  The introduction of lead into paints solved most of the bleaching difficulties that medium suffered from, only to result in a generation plagued with the effects of exposure to a very toxic substance throughout it’s youth.  The examples are as rife as the stars were in the sky before we invented lights to hide them.

My insight, which came in a flash just like all the “ah-ha” experiences I ever had as a student learning mathematics, was that this is the way of all of our “solutions.”  We are not going to find solutions to the environmental problems our society creates because the solutions themselves become the root causes of greater, usually totally unanticipated, problems.  We are not going to solve the assaults on the environment for the simple reason that each solution is a new and worse assault lying in wait for the inevitable resurrection of newer, deeper, problems–at which time we’ll see our mistake.  We are not going to make it in that way.

The earth is, thereby, doomed.  And, therefore, Our only hope of eventual survival is too get off.  That humans are almost certainly the cause is a minor issue once you realize that it’s not merely mankind that is threatened.  It’s Gaia Herself.  Thence the significance of “Our only hope” vs. “our only hope” becomes obvious.

That observation–those realizations–bring into stark clarity so much that it changes the whole game.  Our attitudes must change if we are to succeed in saving the life from this planet, but they are so close to the bone or our culture that no one who fails to make this obvious connection–We’re not going to make it and, therefore, We’ve got to get off–will be able to change them.

Working alone, I could never hope to list all the transformations we must undertake, let alone explain how they might be implemented.  This is a task for us all.  But even the smartest of our scientists, unless they are able to see this bottom line, will find themselves victims of the dysfunctional approach that’s brought us to precisely this point in time.

So, let me turn Hank’s question back on him:  Where does the “ah-ha” phenomenon come from?  Is its origin any different when it addresses the concept of “a variable” vs. something really big, like “the calculus?”  Is a Vision no more than a really big “ah-ha?”

I just don’t know.  Nor do I know if it matters.  What matters is whether we really are “saving it,” and, if not, then what?  And how much time do we have/need?

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6 Responses to The burning apple (by George Drake)

  1. Jim McK says:

    Hello George.

    You were right that Leibnitz was German.

    Archimedes invented integral calculas and anticipated the invention of differential calculus.

    So maybe neither Newton nor Leibnitz was quite so great as we assume.

    I’m including a quote from above for reference.

    “We are not going to find solutions to the environmental problems our society creates because the solutions themselves become the root causes of greater, usually totally unanticipated, problems. We are not going to solve the assaults on the environment for the simple reason that each solution is a new and worse assault lying in wait for the inevitable resurrection of newer, deeper, problems–at which time we’ll see our mistake. We are not going to make it in that way.”

    To play Devil’s advocate –

    If you believe this which you obviously do, then how do you reconcile that belief with your stated goal of saving earthly life forms by getting off the planet? Wouldn’t migrating to a different planet only transport our earthly problems to that planet and, as a result, fail to save us?

    Wouldn’t our migration thereby result in the destruction of the host planet and its innocent indigenous life froms? If so, is that not immoral?

    If our attitudes are “so close to the bone or our culture”, do we not take those with us?

    In light of these questions I have difficulty seeing how changing planets changes the equation.

    Even if we discount the number of years it would take to develop the technology to move (I think you told me something on the order of 600 years) wouldn’t the pursuit of this extremely advanced technology ultimately result in greater and greater environmental problems (“the solutions themselves become the root causes of greater, usually totally unanticipated, problems”) that kill all of us here on Earth?

    Like the laws of physics the law of unintended consequences does not change with your position in the universe. I think it is hard to argue that, on the one hand, our technology will kill us and our planet and, on the other, it is the instrument of our salvation if we simply change our coordinates in the universe.

    In light of these observations I believe it makes little sense to pursue an illusive and most likely unattainable goal that could be 600 years in the future. It makes much more sense to, as you said, spend our energies in attempting to change our attitudes.

    But then again it is documented that I was wrong once. (grin)


  2. George says:

    Good to hear from you. How’s everything?
    Re your concerns:
    Number one, they are very commonly expressed, and generally reflect a misconception I think most profound.
    Most modern, aware individuals recognize the extraordinarily negative effect humanity has had on the overall environment. We see the loss of the paradise that the entire Earth once was, and attribute the degradation almost exclusively to humanity and the traits of humanity which most clearly have contributed to that result.
    What we most profoundly miss is that it is not those traits that are the problem. It is the overwhelmingly successful propagation of the species. The onerous traits of humanity are not unique to him. Every creature has its own form of excrement, and every creature attempts to secure all the available resources just for himself. Driving other species to extinction is not a goal only of ours, even if ours is the only one that seems to have figured out how to do it with cooperative sangfroid. Even mankind’s despicable traits were not a threat to the ecosystems of earth until his population became overwhelming. The indigenous peoples where no threat to Gaia, even though they did manage to drive a few species here and there to extinction. That wasn’t because they were so much better than us, whether they were or not. It was because there weren’t too many of them.
    You observe that the law of unintended consequences will be with us wherever we go. True enough, but it’s not the law of unintended consequences that’s the problem. It’s the impact on the planet of our numbers. We can’t stop our negative impacts on earth precisely because there are too many of us. Every solution becomes a new problem not because of some inherent flaw in the new technology, which, of course, there always is, but because the technology shows up rather quickly on a worldwide scale and in vast amounts.
    That is not a problem that will follow us to another planet–not for millions of years, at least. Our size, relative to a living planet, is so small that, so long as we’re not literally crawling all over it, the planet will have the opportunity to incorporate the negative impacts of any flaw in the technology. Here we’re crawling all over it. By the time that’s different on another planet, who knows what culture/creature will have evolved.
    It’s not a matter of coordinates in the universe, it’s a matter of imbalance in distribution of species. Technology will be necessary to transplant the Lifeforce, whether that turns out to include humanity or not (and nothing about beginning the attempt guarantees that humans will succeed in getting off).
    It’s far from obvious whether we can manage that technology without its becoming a death dealing factor not just to humanity, but to Gaia Herself. You seem to agree with the danger of new technology, which is the main reason I’m so panicked about the urgency of this task. You see, technology is driven by population, whether or not its being driven toward the stars. Tang happens, whether or not you’re in orbit, if you just have enough idle folks playing with sugar and water.
    But the idea that we will succeed in transferring the technology to another planet for anything more than a very short period of time, on a geologic scale, is absurd. Technology is not just driven by population. It goes both ways. Maintaining technology requires vast population. Vast population of humanity on another planet is simply not going to happen for many, many, millennia. And reliance on the technology on earth is, and will continue to be, prohibited by the vastness of space. Hell, the vicissitudes of public opinion alone will make reliance on earth untenable.
    We’ve talked about these points before, so I’m assuming you simply disagree. So, paint me a scenario in which mankind succeeds in destroying another, already inhabited, planet via his immigration. Let’s not include such sci fi phantasies as the transporter, but I’m open to speculation on easier tasks, such as an artificial photosynthesis unit or a massive atmosphere cleansing machine.
    I’d like to see the problem of how human population could ever be a negative factor on another planet, in time frames worth considering, addressed. I’ve thought a lot on the problems of even getting a toehold on another planet, inhabited or not, and just find the concerns about that level of “success” so extraordinary that I’d like to hear something of how you imagine it being even the slightest possibility, let alone a reason not to pursue a goal that is clearly the only option if our most fond hopes for this planet fall through.
    As for the goals of changing our attitudes, we seem to be in agreement on that point. My emphasis is on the need to do so in order for our species to survive long enough to have a chance of getting any life from this planet at all off of it. Yours seems to be either that humans will succeed and therefore survive here on Earth forever, barring some intervention by an asteroid or something, or that humans will eventually encounter some calamity that will bring them back into a status which doesn’t threaten the life of Gaia whatever.
    This latter is also a common theme I encounter in resistance to the idea of colonizing other planets. In it I see a tendency to underestimate the dangers our intelligence has brought with it. We have proliferated so successfully that we now literally have the ability to kill Gaia. Not humanity alone, but the whole thing. The hope that we can’t is merely a bet on the odds. Life seems to be far more fragile that we’ve given it credit for being. And for sure, there’s nowhere in our reach where we can anticipate doing extraterrestrial life any harm whatever. So what’s so wrong with hedging our bets?
    And here’s one thing for sure: if things don’t turn around here soon, our chances of ever being able to get anything off alive only go to zero. That’s why I keep talking about how long the lead time has to be. By the time most of us see the crisis coming, unless those of us who do see it coming really start to raise hell, it’s going to be far too late.


  3. Hank Raymond says:

    Hmmmm…. A few thoughts… George, are you talking about getting life off the planet to insure that life itself isn’t lost? Or are you talking about getting humans to Mars? Is your point that you want to preserve life? Or do you want to preserve humans? The only way you can kill all life on earth is to heat the entire planet including the entire atmosphere up to at least 250 degrees F. That means of course that all the oceans would be completely gone. Of course humans will all be gone long before it gets that hot. We could probably send microbes to mars right now that would survive and prosper. Maybe they are already there.

  4. george says:

    Short answers, as you deserve them, but I’m on a pressing schedule to try to get anything done.

    First and foremost, absolutely. The threat I see is to Gaia. On the way to fulfillment of that fear, I assume the humans will be driven to extinction, but that hardly matters, other than that, were it to come to pass in the “right” way and soon enough, Gaia might yet recover.

    Secondly, I don’t think there is any chance of getting humans to attempt to get life from Earth (which is the only form of life I’m worried about) to Mars on purpose unless they see it as a first step in trying to go there themselves. Not the way they think today.

    One of my highest priorities is to try to start the seed of a different way of thinking. Or, rather, to nourish that way of thinking, for many people recognize already that “we” are not merely humanity but Earthlings, I.e., ‘We’ are a much bigger group than we’ve always thought. If our proliferation has shown us anything, it’s that we had better start recognizing the greater We, or we kill Us all.

    You know, I assume, that there is currently a treaty forbidding forward contamination. I.e., it’s illegal to purposefully send life forms to another planet or to avoid attempting to sterilize planet-bound probes.

    The possible outcome of runaway greenhouse is, indeed, one way to kill everything on Earth. It amuses me that no one talks about that anymore. It was never actually shown convincingly to be impossible, and looks to be a natural consequence of global warming. But whether that is the only way or not seems a stretch to me.

    But it’s probably not nearly so easy to contaminate another planet as we assume. Being able to survive in extreme conditions on earth in no way makes it obvious one could survive, other than in homeostasis, on another planet. For a long time, perhaps. But forever, no. The only way to do that is through vitality and reproduction. And, besides, it’s illegal to try such a thing, as it stands.

  5. Jim McK says:

    Hi George,

    Well now you’ve changed the argument from technology to population.

    So we manage to get some small band of creatures onto another planet. Then what? How do you fix something that breaks? The earth has gone up in a figurative cloud of smoke and you need that 20 cent plastic thingy that keeps the wheels of your alien world turning. But you can’t make plastic because you don’t have the resources on this alien planet nor do you have the factory to build it.

    You’ve already said that we can’t rely on transferring technology and that technology takes vast populations to support. Machines wear out rapidly and there is a minimum population for any species that is required just to sustain the population. For humans that minimum population is around 20,000 based on my readings. Do you foresee transporting 20,000 people to a new world?

    Even the Starship Enterprise needed to return to earth to resupply and repair. Even if we could get 20,000 humans to another planet, in your scenario the earth is dead. When the technology breaks and a few breeding females have died so that the population growth rate drops below the required replacement rate everything eventually collapses.

    You asked to paint a scenario where we succeed in destroying an already inhabited planet via our migration.

    Well, the simplest and most obvious scenario is the introduction of earthly microbes. There is simply no way to guarantee that the microbes we carry with us won’t destroy, either directly or indirectly, the life we might encounter on another planet.

    And it is possible that it is the microbes on the host planet that turn out to be what kills the small population of earthly arrivals.

    It is also possible that conflicting microbes kill all life on the host planet regardless of its origins.

    Another scenario is the technology we bring with us. Who knows what that might be. However, we do have nanotechnology today. I’m not very familiar with the current state of the art in that area. However, my understanding about nanomachines is they have the ability to self replicate. In other words, at some level they behave just like viruses.

    Nanofactories, if they don’t now exist, are certainly being conceived of. So if we have the ability to build nanofactories that build self replicating nanomachines, what happens if something goes awry? What if something damages the DNA (i.e., software) of the factory or one of its machines so that there is a mutation of the functioning of that machine?

    Bill Joy who is one of the pioneers of nanotechnology has changed his original thinking about the technology and now sees it as a major danger that could threaten the existence of humans.

    As for your concern with population, Thomas Malthus proposed the ideas that two types factors work to control population growth. One type increases the death rate (called positive checks) and the other lowered the birth rate (called preventative checks).

    Even though many people say that Malthus has been discredited, I do not believe so. We may already be seeing a reduction of population from such things as famine, dwindling clean water supplies, disease, and a rise in the economic status and education levels of humans which lowers the birth rate.

    A United Nations report has noted that the rate of world population growth has been slowing starting around 1950 and projects that the world population will start to decline by 2040.


  6. Hank Raymond says:

    Jim, Do you have a link to that UN report that projects population will begin to decline by 2040? I’ve never seen such a projection. I wonder what assumptions they make that will cause a decline. The assumptions made in such a prediction will wildly influence the prediction. For example, the successful invention and subsequent production of small scale fusion reactors that produce electricity (makes me think of the movie “Back to the Future) would have an unpredictable planet changeing effect.

    If anything has the ability to self-replicate, isn’t that actually a kind of life? Perhaps the future belongs to machines that we build and then self-replicate and evolve and replace us. Well, I guess that’s the “Batlestar Galactica” scenario. But it could start with nanomachines I suppose?

    George, it’s still not clear to me what forms of life you want to get to Mars. Do you want to get humans there or do you want earth based non-human life forms? From what you wrote above it appears to me that you would be satisfied if we got non-human life from Earth established on Mars.

    Do you suppose that somewhere a planet exists that is inhabited by machines that spend all their time making copies of themselves?

    If something goes awry that damages the “software/DNA” of the machine and causes it to mutate, I would assume that mutation would be subject to evolutionary pressures just as life is. Most mutations cause the life form to fail to reproduce, but some mutaions turn out to cause increased reproductive success causing “evolution”. Perhaps if we put self replicating machines on a barren planet and went away for a billion years, we might find all kinds of self replicating machines when we returned.

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