The future of humanity: can we avert disaster?
Climate change and artificial intelligence pose substantial — and possibly existential — problems for humanity to solve. Can we?
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- Just by living our day-to-day lives, we are walking into a disaster.
- Can humanity wake up to avert disaster?
- Perhaps COVID was the wake-up call we all needed.
Does humanity have a chance for a better future, or are we just unable to stop ourselves from driving off a cliff? This was the question that came to me as I participated in a conference entitled The Future of Humanity hosted by Marcelo's Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement. The conference hosted an array of remarkable speakers, some of whom were hopeful about our chances and some less so. But when it came to the dangers facing our project of civilization, two themes appeared in almost everyone's talks.
And here's the key aspect that unifies those dangers: we are doing it to ourselves.
The problem of climate change
The first existential crisis that was discussed was, as you might guess, climate change. Bill McKibben, the journalist and now committed activist who first began documenting the climate crisis as far back as the 1980s, gave us a history of humanity's inability to marshal action even in the face of mounting scientific evidence. He spoke of the massive, well-funded disinformation efforts paid for by the fossil fuel industry to keep that action from being taken because it would hurt their bottom lines.
It's not like some alien threat has arrived and will use a mega-laser to drive the Earth's climate into a new and dangerous state. Nope, it's just us — flying around, using plastic bottles, and keeping our houses toasty in the winter.
Next Elizabeth Kolbert, one of America's finest non-fiction writers, gave a sobering portrait of the state of efforts that attempt to deal with climate change through technological fixes. Based on her wonderful new book, she looked at the problem of control when it comes to people and the environment. She spoke of how often we get into trouble when we try to exert control over things like rivers or animal populations only to find that these efforts go awry due to unintended consequences. This requires new layers of control which, in turn, follow the same path.
Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur via Unsplash
At the end of the talk, she focused on attempts to deal with climate change through new kinds of environmental controls with the subtext being that we are likely to run into the same cycle of unintended consequences and attempts to repair the damage. In a question-and-answer period following her talk, Kolbert was decidedly not positive about the future. Because she had looked so deeply into the possibilities of using technology to get us out of the climate crisis, she was dubious that a tech fix was going to save us. The only real action that will matter, she said, is masses of people in the developed would reducing their consumption. She didn't see that happening anytime soon.
The problem of artificial intelligence
Another concern was over artificial intelligence. Here the concern was not so much existential. By this, I mean the speakers were not fearful that some computer was going to wake up into consciousness and decide that the human race needed to be enslaved. Instead, the danger was more subtle but no less potent. Susan Halpern, also one of our greatest non-fiction writers, gave an insightful talk that focused on the artificial aspect of artificial intelligence. Walking us through numerous examples of how "brittle" machine learning algorithms at the heart of modern AI systems are, Halpern was able to pinpoint how these systems are not intelligent at all but carry all the biases of their makers (often unconscious ones). For example, facial recognition algorithms can have a hard time differentiating the faces of women of color, most likely because the "training data sets" the algorithms were taught were not representative of these human beings. But because these machines supposedly rely on data and "data don't lie," these systems get deployed into everything from making decisions about justice to making decisions about who gets insurance. And these are decisions that can have profound effects on people's lives.
Then there was the general trend of AI being deployed in the service of both surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state. In the former, your behavior is always being watched and used against you in terms of swaying your purchasing decisions; in the latter, you are always being watched by those in power. Yikes!
The banality of danger
In listening to these talks I was struck by how mundane the sources of these dangers were when it comes to day-to-day life. Unlike nuclear war or some lone terrorist building a super-virus (threats that Sir Martin Rees eloquently spoke of), when it comes to the climate crisis and an emerging surveillance culture, we are collectively doing it to ourselves through our own innocent individual actions. It's not like some alien threat has arrived and will use a mega-laser to drive the Earth's climate into a new and dangerous state. Nope, it's just us — flying around, using plastic bottles, and keeping our houses toasty in the winter. And it's not like soldiers in black body armor arrive at our doors and force us to install a listening device that tracks our activities. Nope, we willingly set them up on the kitchen counter because they are so dang convenient. These threats to our existence or to our freedoms are things that we are doing just by living our lives in the cultural systems we were born into. And it would take considerable effort to untangle ourselves from these systems.
So, what's next then? Are we simply doomed because we can't collectively figure out how to build and live with something different? I don't know. It's possible that we are doomed. But I did find hope in the talk given by the great (and my favorite) science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. He pointed to how different eras have different "structures of feeling," which is the cognitive and emotional background of an age. Robinson looked at some positive changes that emerged in the wake of the COVID pandemic, including a renewed sense that most of us recognize that we're all in this together. Perhaps, he said, the structure of feeling in our own age is about to change.
Let us hope, and where we can, let us act.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.
Before Alexander the Great established Alexandria around 331 BCE, one of Egypt's primary ports on the Mediterranean Sea between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE was a place called Thônis-Heracleion.
Now researchers from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), the same organization that first found the city in 2001, have announced the discovery of a couple of fascinating items from the city's heyday. Pinned beneath fallen temple stones is a surprisingly intact Egyptian military vessel from the second century BCE, and researchers have excavated a large cemetery from the fourth century BCE.
Thônis-Heracleion was one of the two primary access points to ancient Egypt from the Mediterranean. (The other, Canopus, was discovered in 1999.) For millennia, experts assumed Thônis-Heracleion were two different lost cities, but it's now known that Thônis is simply the city's Egyptian name, while Heracleion is its Greek name.
Thônis-Heracleion had been the stuff of legend before it was located, mentioned only in rare ancient texts and stone inscriptions. Herodotus seems to have been referring to Thônis-Heracleion's temple of Amun as the place where Heracles first arrived in Egypt. He also described a visit there by Helen with her lover Paris just before the outbreak of the Trojan War. In addition, 400 years later, geographer Strabo wrote that Heraclion, containing the temple of Heracles, had been located opposite Canopus across a branch of the Nile. Today we know Thônis-Heracleion's location as Egypt's Abu Qir Bay. The sunken port is about 6.5 kilometers from the coast and lies beneath ten meters of water.
Both Thônis-Heracleion and Canopus were wealthy in their day, and the temple was an important religious center. This all ended when the Egyptian dynasty created by Ptolemy set out to establish Alexandria as Egypt's center. Thônis-Heracleion and Canopus' trade — and thus wealth — was diverted to the new capital.
It was perhaps just as well, given that natural forces eventually destroyed Thônis-Heracleion. Located on the Mediterranean, the ground upon which it was built became saturated and eventually began to destabilize and liquefy. The temple of Amun probably collapsed around 140 BCE. A series of earthquakes sealed the cty's' fate around 800 CE, sending a 100 square-kilometer chunk of the Nile delta on which it was constructed under the waves. The Mediterranean's rising sea level over the next couple thousand years completed the drowning of Thônis-Heracleion.
Researchers have recovered a large collection of Thônis-Heracleion's treasures revealing an economically rich culture. Coins, bronze statuettes, and over 700 ancient ship anchors have been pulled from the waters. Divers have also identified over 70 shipwrecks. A giant statue of the Nile god Hapi took two and a half years to bring up.
An ancient vessel and a cemetery
Gold mask found in a submerged Greek cemetery.Credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques
The newly discovered ship was found beneath 16 feet of hard clay, "thanks to cutting-edge prototype sub-bottom profiler electronic equipment," says Ayman Ashmawy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques.
The military vessel had been moored in Thônis-Heracleion when the temple of Amun collapsed. The temple's enormous blocks fell onto the ship, sinking it. The boat is a rare find — only one other ship of its period has been found. As underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, one of the scientists who found the city, puts it, "Finds of fast ships from this age are extremely rare."
At 80 feet long, the boat is six times as long as it is wide. Like its dually-named city, it's an amalgam of Greek and Egyptian ship-building techniques. According to expert Ehab Fahmy, head of the Central Department of Underwater Antiquities at IEASM, the boat has some classical construction features such as mortar and tenon joints. On the other hand, it was built to be rowed, and some of its wood was reused lumber, signature traits of Egyptian boat design. Its flat bottom suggests it was built for navigating the shallows of the Nile delta where the river flows into the Mediterranean.
Also found alongside the city's submerged northeastern entrance canal was a large Greek cemetery. The funerary is adorned with opulent remembrances, including a mask made of gold, shown above. A statement by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques describes its significance, as reported by Reuters:
"This discovery beautifully illustrates the presence of the Greek merchants who lived in that city. They built their own sanctuaries close to the huge temple of Amun. Those were destroyed simultaneously and their remains are found mixed with those of the Egyptian temple."
Excavation is ongoing, with more of Egypt's ancient history no doubt waiting beneath the waves.
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