I Wonder as I Wander

Why we need sacred places.

Recently, my friend and 13.8 writing colleague Adam Frank, wrote a moving essay on the joy of finding things out. Today, and in celebration of the nearing holidays, I will consider another joyful aspect of being a human being—the joy of wondering.

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Life Lessons from the Sun

Observing the great gas giant helps me to keep important things in perspective.

Like a lot of people, I'm worried. I'm worried about the politics of hatred and its seeming steady rise across the world. I'm worried about the way new digital technologies seem to be unweaving the fabric that allows democracies to function.

Most of all, I'm worried about the rapidly changing climate and the cascade of impacts it will force on our cherished project of civilization. Sometimes, this worry is enough to literally keep me up at night.

That's when I remember where the real power lies, and I look at videos of the sun.

Over the last few decades, astronomers have gotten really good at observing the closest star to us—our sun, which is pretty ordinary as stars go. It's not exactly average, since lower mass stars are the most common. But the sun is no prize winner, and it's not going to get itself placed in any record books. It's not really big. It's not really bright. It's doesn't have cosmic scale explosions that can be seen from across the galaxy. It's just a smallish G-type star living its life in a not particularly interesting corner of the Milky Way. It seems completely non-descript.

Until you really look at it.

Please take three minutes to watch this video, and you'll see what I mean:

You can see that our sun—that every-day, bright yellow disk in the sky—hosts the power of a god. Like every star, the sun is a ball of ionized gas that glows via energy released in fusion reactions at its core. The surface is where all that energy is released, and just a few minutes of watching the sun's surface activity is enough to change your opinion about the real nature of what's going on in our lives.

There are vast plumes of plasma—thousands of times larger than Earth—blown 100,000 miles into space that fall back to surface like rain from hell. There are giant arcs of magnetic field that form a fibrial network the extending across the entire disk of the sun. Watch long enough, and these ethereal webs of magnetic energy will shudder and short out, reconnecting their arcs from one location to the other and releasing hurricanes of light in the process. When the fields really “let go," they can create explosions that drive planet-sized cannonballs of plasma into space with an energy equivalent to a billion aircraft carriers moving at 1 million miles per hour.

A profound narrative

All this mayhem and power, revealed through the eyes of science, has a profound lesson to teach us.

Watching a few minutes of solar activity reminds me that whatever moment in history I am living through, its story is just one of many. Each tiny eruption on the sun is a narrative of titanic forces unbalancing and rebalancing. And each is powerful enough to put all the arsenals on Earth to shame. Simply put, what I see watching the sun is that whatever I'm worrying about doesn't matter much at any scale larger than the daily frame of my life.

Now please don't misunderstanding me. We should be deeply concerned about the suffering of others. We should be, and must be, committed to actions that alleviate that suffering. We can and should look for opportunities every day that contribute to supporting a future of freedom, equality, and thriving for all living things.

That is the good, necessary work of being human in whatever moment you were born into.

But it's also important to see how our lives are embedded in a bigger story that is equally true and equally real. The sun shows us one, very local aspect, of this “cosmic perspective." It tells us just how remarkable, extraordinary, and awe-inspiring our vast home of the universe really is.

What that means, for me at least, is that I should just get on with the helping day-to-day and let go of the worrying. That's what the stars—and the Sun most of all—have shown me.


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Is Big Business Finding a Soul?

Changing times demand changing leadership principles. The post Is Big Business Finding a Soul? appeared first on ORBITER.

Last week, in Brazil, I had the opportunity to address corporate leaders from some of the most prominent companies in the world, from Google and Facebook to Audi and Pepsi. The topic, broadly speaking, was “What Is Leadership in the Twenty-First Century?” These were mostly (but not exclusively) tech companies, and my presentation revolved around the impact of technology in modern society, its promises and existential threats.

The usual model for a business, at least from the outside, can be simplified as thus: The product, or products, must be sold at the most profitable margin possible. This requires an efficient and creative staff, a lean production line, a good distribution center, an appealing advertisement platform, and, of course, a captive consumer. It is quite a challenge for any company to excel in all of these categories.

To improve profits, companies tend to cut down expenses in production, use cheaper materials, low-paid jobs, bad compensation packages (the recent complaints from Amazon warehouse workers come to mind, a cheaper workplace, and other even less appetizing options. Companies that focus on the outdoors, like oil and gas, timber, mining, or large farms, might cut costs by ignoring waste production, not worrying or cleaning after air and water pollution and general environmental degradation. Pharmaceutical companies may charge absurd prices for some of their drugs in complete disregard to their mission to alleviate human suffering.

As I had a captive audience, I stressed that this age of corporate moral disregard should come to an end. I saw a few heads bobbing. We can see signs that things are changing, even if slower than most of us would like. I repeated:

The age of corporate moral disregard is coming to an end.

Case in point, visit, for example, Chevron’s website. You will quickly notice that most of the opening page centers around headlines like “Creating prosperity,” including a photo of a woman working on her solar panel in what appears to be a third-world country. Their 2018 report on “Corporate Responsibility” says things like this: “Chevron supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to deliver value for global societies.” Further down, “Protecting the environment is at the core of the Chevron Way.” We see pictures of wind farms too. Corporate responsibility is their central message.

Other companies say the same. Go to Shell’s website to find this very promising statement on the main page: “Shell is a big company that supplies around 3% of the energy the world uses. We want to play our part and contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change and meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. Working towards our Net Carbon Footprint ambition is how we plan to do this.”

Unless hypocrisy can go unnoticed forever, we sense that something is happening. The message is changing. And finally, I believe, for the better. Corporations are beginning to understand that, at the end of their production, manufacturing, and distribution chain is a human being—just like the ones who are working for them. They are beginning to wake up to the fact that every company needs not only a code of conduct and a mission statement, but also a soul. It is the corporate soul that speaks to the consumer, who will scrutinize how the company’s values and actions align with his/her own, and now more than ever with such easy access to news and data from so many sources. Smart businesses know that to be successful they must make the consumer into their ally, their partner; they know that the chain of production and the act of buying form one big whole, like the mythic Ouroboros—the snake that eats its tail and closes itself in a circle.

They know that the secret is to create brand allegiance.

And how’s that going to happen? Well, the examples I gave above and many others point to the obvious fact that as society becomes increasingly aware of the existential risks from global warming and environmental degradation, the companies of the future—the ones that will have a future—need to restructure their message around the search for low carbon emissions and low overall environmental impact.

21st Century values

They must respect their employees and their clients. They must strive to align their business practices with 21st Century values, where consumers, especially younger ones, are more attuned to the impact companies have on the world.

More than twenty-three centuries ago, Plato elaborated a pedagogical plan for future leaders in his book The Republic. His goal was to educate the philosopher-kings, leaders who had a broad intellectual, physical, and moral base to be the mentors and role models of the communities they served. Even if Plato’s strategy didn’t quite work out at his time (it did to a point, as his pupil Aristotle mentored none other than Alexander the Great), it could be easily bootstrapped from political leadership to the new leadership in the corporate world.

What kind of human being do you want to see at the helm of a company you buy products from? What does the company stand for in the world? What are its values? We live in an age where major corporate leaders have become celebrities—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. Do their companies or brands reflect your values? Are their practices ethically aligned with yours?

As long as there are choices in the marketplace, consumers have much more power than they believe. If corporations embrace values that resonate with those of a growing number of consumers worried about the future of our species in a highly stressed world, they will definitely be ahead of the game.

And it can’t be only lip service. It’s actions that count here, not words.


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The Evolution of Climate Science

Since the late 1800s, what we know has advanced light years ahead.

If you bring up climate science at Thanksgiving dinner this year, what do you think will happen? Well, if you are like a lot of people, you might find yourself in the middle of a fight about the end of civilization or vast global hoaxes.

The instant polarization concerning climate science is nothing short of bizarre when you take the second part of the term—science—seriously. That’s because the science of climate science has made such remarkable advances over the last half-century, it should rightly be considered one of the great triumphs of humanity.

To understand how far climate science has come, you really have to focus on how far climate science has gone. That’s because we have a lot more than one planet, and one climate, to study these days.

Climate science is often called the study of long-term weather patterns. It may or may not rain tomorrow—that’s “weather,” not climate, and it gets hard to predict beyond a few days. But global circulation patterns, which move water around over yearlong timescales, are quite predictable. That’s because rotating planets with atmospheres that are heated on one side by a star represent a physical system that obeys very well-understood laws. Those laws translate into a basic understanding of how climate works and how it can change. Of course add an ocean, glaciers, volcanoes, and perhaps even life into the mix, and the whole system gets very complicated. But it’s still just the laws of physics and chemistry at work, and that means with enough effort, climate systems can be understood.

Earth was, of course, the first climate system people studied. It began back in the late 1800s when it became clear that the planet had undergone prolonged periods of cold called ice ages. Having huge areas of the Northern Hemisphere under a mile or two of ice for 100,000 years is definitely a problem of climate and not merely weather. The pioneers of the field struggled to understand what forces could drop the planet into the freezer for so long and, just as important, what forces got it out.

Anthropogenic climate forcing

It’s worth noting that one consequence of these early climate study efforts was the first recognition of “anthropogenic climate forcing.” The Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius was trying to understand the role of CO2 in ice ages when his calculations revealed the human use of coal was already starting to warm the planet. (Tell that to your climate-denying uncle who claims “global warming” is a modern hoax.)

But as the 20th century progressed, scientists eventually found themselves with more than one climate to study. Telescopic investigations of Mars and Venus opened up questions of a distinctly climatic nature. Radio observations of Venus implied surface temperatures of 700 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than anyone could understand initially. And Mars not only showed seasons in the form of polar ice caps that grew and retreated, it also appeared to change color for months at time.

Once the space program took off, robotic probes to the planets gave scientists such a rich treasure trove of data that “comparative climate studies” became an actual thing. The insanely high temperatures on Venus were found to come from a runaway greenhouse effect. The occasionally strange colors of Mars came from planet-enveloping dust storms where tiny wind-blown particles absorbed sunlight, darkening the world below. What was learned from both of these planets was soon incorporated into the study of Earth’s climate where, for example, the role of dust became essential to understanding the terrifying possibility of a “nuclear winter.”

Soon every planet in the solar system with an atmosphere joined the comparative climate studies list. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune—they have all been investigated and they have all yielded new insights and new mysteries. We even have Titan, the giant moon of Saturn with a dense hydrocarbon atmosphere. Titan is the only other world with liquid on its surface—but you wouldn’t want to swim in it; it’s liquid methane.

These days, the frontiers of comparative climate studies lie light years out in space. We have discovered so many planets orbiting so many stars that the study of their possible climates now occupies a lot of astronomers. For a few worlds, we already have observations that translate into day and nighttime temperatures, the most basic of climate data. More important, over the next few decades telescopes will come on line that will let us study these climates in remarkable detail. The most exciting possibility is that we’ll find biospheres existing as part of the climate systems on some of these other worlds.

So don’t let anyone fool you. The “science” in “climate science” is not just healthy and robust; it’s some of the most exciting work out there.


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Tangible Pervasiveness

Matter can indeed sprout out of nothingness, causing the universe to expand. The post Tangible Pervasiveness appeared first on ORBITER.

“Nothing” is one of those words that inspire all sorts of musings. Not, of course, in the sense used to answer questions like “What’ve you been up to?” But the nothing nothing—the void, total emptiness. Is there such a thing? Or is Nothing—let’s use a capital “N” to characterize it—just an idea, a concept we invented to help us organize the way we see the world?

In the real sense of the word, this is a metaphysical question—the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of things, including being, space, time, cause, etc. But then, it is also a very physical question, concerning the stuff that exists in the universe.

There is a sense where Nothing can only be conceived in a materialistic worldview: “Nothing” would mean the absence of matter, the no-stuff parts of reality. The Greeks were into it—at least the Atomists Leucippus and Democritus, and, later, Epicurus. To them, all that existed was Atoms and the Void, bits of matter moving about in perfectly empty space, i.e., Nothing. So it had to be a materialistic worldview with an added property, that matter was made of tiny bits of stuff, perfectly separated and independent from one another. There were no forces between them, they just collided and stuck to one another upon touching.

Aristotle would have none of it. He conceived reality as never having any emptiness. Space was filled up with “ether,” the fifth essence. So, Aristotle added a strange kind of matter to the mix, a matter that had different properties from the usual kinds of matter we see. This idea, with variations, would come in and out of fashion throughout the centuries, as physicists grappled with the bizarre twists reality threw at them.

Religions complicate the conversation, especially the ones that presuppose omnipresence, that the divine essence is everywhere at once. So even if matter may be discrete and there is void in between, there is no emptiness in a strict sense, as everything is pervaded by some intangible divinity. But I’ll leave this sort of intangible pervasiveness out of our conversation today. Our focus is tangible pervasiveness.

In the 17th century, Newton went back full force to the Atomistic worldview, rejecting the notion that space was filled with some kind of material. In particular, he attacked Descartes’ idea of a plenum, somewhat similar to that of Aristotle, that some material filled all of space. The key difference between Descartes and Aristotle was that for Descartes this stuff acted on normal matter, creating, for example, vortices that were responsible for the planetary orbits about the sun. Newton, using his brand new theory of gravity, showed that any kind of stuff out there capable of moving moons and planets about would cause enough friction to have them all spiral down to the center of their orbits. No game.

Newton was missing something

But Newton knew something was missing in his theory. When he proposed that any two masses attracted one another, the assumption was that they did so instantaneously. The sun tugged on the Earth (and the Earth on the sun) with a mysterious force that acted at a distance. What caused it, Newton wouldn’t try to answer: “I feign no hypotheses,” he wrote. A clever choice. Physics is about the how and not the why of things. It describes what we can see of reality and, so long as the description explains the data, we are good. Why masses attract one another the way they do is not, it was decided, a scientific question.

Light, to Newton, was made of tiny corpuscles, little atoms. Using this idea, he explained many of the properties of light. But then, there were others that he couldn’t explain, or did so convolutedly. The alternative that gained impetus during the nineteenth century was that light was a wave. Light diffracts when passing through a small aperture or across an edge, and refracts when moving from one medium (say, air) to another (water). But if light was a wave, it needed a medium to support it, just like water waves move in water and sound waves in air.

The solution was the “luminiferous ether,” an imponderable plenum whose sole purpose was to allow for light to move from point A to B. A weird medium it had to be, echoing Aristotle a bit: weightless, transparent (so we could see stars), offering no friction to matter (to avoid Descartes’ issues), and very rigid (to allow for fast wave propagation). In short, a pretty magical plenum.

The alternative, light propagating on empty space, was unthinkable, unacceptable, deeply counter-intuitive. For about fifty years, the ether ruled. But experiments searching for it came back empty-handed. Finally, in 1905, Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity where he demonstrated that the ether wasn’t needed: light, mysteriously, does travel in empty space. So, no ether.

Einstein and the vacuum

But then, Einstein himself confused the issue when he proposed, in 1917, that the whole of space is filled with something called a “cosmological constant.” This he did out of desperation, after he found out that his equations predicted an unstable universe that would collapse upon itself. This extra term is understood as an energy of the “vacuum,” of empty space itself. So, in a sense, the ether was back, in new clothes.

How can empty space have energy? Well, this goes back to Newton and his mysterious action-at-a-distance. In the nineteenth century, physicists came up with the concept of a field, the idea that the space around the source of a force—say, a mass that attracts other masses gravitationally, or an electric charge that attracts or repels other electric charges—is actually filled with a field that has energy and affects other masses and electric bodies. The field is how other masses and charges “know” there is a mass or charge somewhere out there. Within this classical view of the world, all of space has some field in it, even if the sources are very, very far away. It may be weak and negligible, but it isn’t zero.

Things get even more interesting when you add ideas from quantum physics. In this case, even if you could imagine a completely empty space, devoid of any sources of gravitational or electric force, there would still be a leftover energy, the “zero point energy,” the energy of nothingness. How come? Well, according to quantum theory, there is a fundamental uncertainty in nature, an uncertainty that affects the values of physical quantities such as distance, momentum, energy, and time. Every measurement of these quantities fluctuates about the mean, even if a system has zero energy.

Something from nothing

Now, combine these fluctuations in energy with Einstein’s idea that energy and mass are interconvertible (with some caveats we don’t need to worry about), the famous E=mc2 formula. Then, these small fluctuations of energy could produce pairs of particles that would bubble out of the vacuum, or empty space: yup, matter sprouting out of quantum nothingness. The best part is that we know this is right: empty space can actually produce attractive forces between electric plates, an effect known as the Casimir Effect.

The big question is whether something like this is responsible for the mysterious accelerated expansion of the whole universe. We know it’s happening, and we have called the culprit “dark energy.” The best candidates right now are Einstein’s cosmological constant, the energy of the vacuum somehow dialed to have just the right value to match observations, or a strange quantum field that pervades all of space, called, not surprisingly, quintessence, echoing Aristotle’s plenum.

In its turbulent existence over the past 25 centuries (or more), it seems that Nothingness is now relegated to a mere metaphysical concept, incompatible with physical reality. Space does appear to be filled with stuff, stuff that determines the fate of the universe itself.


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