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Will the future be 'Mad Max' or 'Star Trek'? Coronavirus offers clues.

Jordan Hall speculates on the fate of the species.

People wear face masks are checked by the Italian Army and Italian Police at the Termini Central train station during the Coronavirus emergency, on March 10, 2020, in Rome, Italy.

Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
  • Neurohacker Collective co-founder, Jordan Hall, believes we might be heading toward a "Star Trek" future, though "Mad Max" is entirely possible.
  • As human systems become more complicated and interconnected, the harder they are to fix when something breaks down.
  • COVID-19 offers insight into the dangers of introducing too much complexity to a globally-connected species.

The flood is coming. The elders, who have lived along this riverbank for generations, tell us it's time to move on. We've been living here for a long time. The water has been good, the feeding has been good, but the flood is on its way. We need to go. You travel across wilderness; you cross the valley. Your new home is raw. There's no infrastructure, but there's also no flood. You dig in and get to work.

"That would be was the best-case scenario."

Jordan Hall and I are talking about the coronavirus, but really, we're discussing America and by extension the world. There are many orders to our conversation, which makes sense given Hall's incredible polymathic mind. The co-founder of Neurohacker Collective (and formerly Jordan Greenhall) is somewhere in "the hills of Texas," taking time out to chat about the future, which today is both far from now and right now. We're trying to suss out if that means, as he has written, that we're careening toward "Mad Max" or heading into a "truly amazing future" akin to "Star Trek." At the moment Hall is optimistic, which is good, given that he's aware of how quickly small iterations can cause tidal waves.

When you author diametrically opposed potentialities about the future of the species, readers want context. The timing of our conversation is fortuitous; we have plenty of context in the form of COVID-19. Italy is shut down, the stock market is a confused boomerang, and for some reason my friends are asking for advice about their children or parents on Facebook—not exactly the most trusted forum for credible scientific evidence. Over the past week I've witnessed rants about government-created viruses, Democratic hoaxes, and oregano oil rooting out the virus like an exorcism. The collective intelligence seems to drop an IQ point every time someone logs on.

Fortunately, social media is not life, but viruses are. They long predate and will long outlast us. They're complex, as all nature is complex. Humans, by contrast, are complicated—Hall's terms. Sometimes, he continues, complicated animals introduce complexity through the systems they build.

"We need food. Back in the early days, we were simple biological organisms that gained footing in a complex environment. We then began the process of building things like early agriculture, which had the consequence of separating us from complexity, meaning that we could actually control our environment, which gave us for some period of time a significant increase in food—but at the cost of actually putting us in complicated systems that are themselves intrinsically fragile in the context of larger complexity."

Systems produce unintended consequences. Pandemics begin when we first domesticate animals. Obesity is only possible when an animal accustomed to scarcity suddenly discovers excess. Twelve-thousand years ago, widespread agriculture commenced, with the eventual consequence of selecting for the highest yields, which led to monocropping. An animal primed for both scarcity (in supply) and diversity (in choice) is now being sold frozen, processed dinners. The path of least resistance wins out, consequences be damned.

Yet we're not designed to understand thousands of years, much less millions of them. We're also not socially built for nation-states, or nations, but tribes. Nations require complex trading systems; a global trading system will suffer consequences, like epidemics. The more integrated we become, the harder complicated systems fall.

"Speaking of the arc of history, we see our complicated systems break. Sometimes those breaks were minor and we would patch them and upgrade them; sometimes the breaks were significant, in which case the civilization would either collapse or significantly transform, and we would move forward from that point. Where we find ourselves now looks like the end of that arc."

Every system requires design criteria. Civilizations must manage energy flows, floods, viruses and bacteria, pests, and the environmental consequences of our collective actions. Add to natural complexity anthro-complexity, the impact of our complicated systems; the tertiary layer is techno-complexity, the problem of accelerating change. A feedback loop: the better our tools, the more we impact nature. The higher the price we pay.

We discuss the global impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic, which spread despite having no social media presence. Then we pivot back to COVID-19, for which Hall contemplates three orders. First, the perception of a novel virus in Wuhan province. The Chinese government made ineffective choices, but given the nation's political system it was able to "engage in a massive iron-clad quarantine." The world's cameras all pointed at that province. Some nations responded immediately: South Korea has tested over 200,000 citizens. Then you have America.

Captain Spock and Dr. Boyce in "Star Trek" the series

John Hoyt as Dr. Phillip Boyce and Leonard Nimoy as Commander Spock (Mr. Spock) in the STAR TREK: The Original Series episode, "The Cage." This is the pilot episode completed early 1965, but not broadcast until October 4, 1988.

Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Onto the second order. "Well, I guess, today," Hall says, laughing, the day the stock market craters.

"Suddenly you begin to realize that a phenomenon at the first order spills over into other seemingly disconnected modes of the larger cultural milieu. It turns out that when governments are shutting down entire regions and people are choosing not to go to work, that has impact on the economy. An event that occurs in one system can very easily spill over into other systems, which by the way has feedback."

For the third order, we peer ahead to October, making me question Coachella's rescheduling, as if we didn't learn anything from the Spanish influenza. (Most of the 30-50 million people died the second year.) Sometimes our optimism does more bad than good. Hall picks it up, portending the possible.

"It turns out that we're in an economic depression and the virus has blown through our medical system and we've actually got 25 million people who are sick. Think about the degrading factor there. We've got a situation where the ability to make effective, nuanced choices at the political level is being degraded, both sociologically—people are panicking—and even practically. Many of the people who are leadership positions could themselves be sick."

A decade ago Hall was asked to consider questions of asymmetric warfare and global terrorism. His response? Get rid of the Pentagon. Minor tweaks won't solve an issue that requires a comprehensive systemic reboot, whether via a President Trump or President Biden. The flood is coming.

Still, Hall concludes, "Star Trek" is possible, more so than "Mad Max." We are optimistic animals, by nature, no matter how complex or complicated. He easily transitions between theoretical models and the model playing out in front of us. That doesn't make any of this easy. We have a lot of work ahead.

Hall compares our upcoming struggles to homesteading. We might have to fire up very old muscle memories, and soon—plowing and digging and planting. There is precedent: the Jews breaking ground in Israel; many wanted to leave given the work required. Yet they endured. Maybe, just maybe, things won't be so complicated when we reboot.

"The ability to make meaningful change at the individual level, and at a collective level, is always premised on being in a particular disposition. Some people refer to as the liminal space, a moment of clarity. You're an addict, you will not make changes, you will continue to take the shortest path, the easiest path, which unfortunately is the path to self-destruction. Something about reality, nature, hits you hard enough: a rock bottom event that gives you a moment of clarity. In that moment of clarity you actually can make really significant change."

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

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Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
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  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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