Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

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Mount Tambora Eruption in 01815 Reverberated Across the Planet

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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In April of 01815, Mount Tambora - an active volcano in what is now Indonesia - erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.

A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.

Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.

There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:

… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.

Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.


2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

Himawari-8 Satellite Offers A New Look at Our Planet – 144 Times Per Day

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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A sense of perspective is unavoidable from 22,000 miles out. Looking down at Earth from that distance — almost three times farther than the diameter of the planet itself — allows a view of the globe as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement. (NY Times)

Last month, Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite began sending data back to Earth. Launched in late 02014 to help track storm systems and other weather patterns in the Pacific Rim, it looks down on Earth from a geostationary orbit, at about 36,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) from the surface.

Its considerable distance from Earth isn’t necessarily surprising; most weather satellites do their work in high earth orbit. But what makes Himawari-8 unique among its colleagues is the fact that it is capable of taking full-color photos of the entire planet. Every day, it sends 144 of these “living portraits” back down to Earth – or one photograph every ten minutes.


With an unprecedentedly high resolution that can visualize features as small as 500 square meters, these images will help scientists better understand the genesis, evolution, and outcome of large-scale weather patterns. But on a broader level, the pictures Himawari-8 sends back can’t help but awaken in us what the Planetary Collective has called the Overview Effect: the combined sense of awe and oneness that seems to come over us all when we see images of the whole Earth, framed by the blackness of space.

The data Himawari-8 produces is meant to help us better grasp the ever-changing, fleeting, and highly localized behavior of the Pacific atmosphere. But it also offers us a reminder to step outside of ourselves and consider the fact that we ultimately inhabit a very small corner of a much larger unit of space and time.

The Really Big One

Posted on Monday, July 13th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

A sobering article detailing the science, infrastructure, and politics behind preparing for a once-a-several-century earthquake from Kathryn Schulz at The New Yorker.

Centre for the Study of Existential Risk needs researchers

Posted on Monday, April 6th, 02015 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Former Long Now speaker Sir Martin Rees just wrote in to let us know that the new Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (At the University of Cambridge) is recruiting four postdoctoral researchers to work on the study of extreme risks arising from technological advances. Specific projects include: responsible innovation in transformative technologies; horizon-scanning and foresight; ethics and evaluation of extreme technological risks, and policy and governance challenges associated with emerging technologies.

They also have the flexibility to hire one or more postdoctoral researchers to work on additional projects relevant to the Centre’s broad aims, which include impacts and safety in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, biosecurity, extreme tail climate change, geoengineering, and catastrophic biodiversity loss. They welcome proposals from a range of fields.

The deadline for applications is April 24th, and details can be found here:

1,000 Year Old Recipe Effectively Kills MRSA (An Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug)

Posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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A 1,000 year old treatment for eye infections, recreated from a recipe recorded in the 9th Century, killed up to 90% of MRSA bacteria, suggesting a new path of research against antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The treatment is made up of onion, garlic, wine, and cow bile, and was recorded in Bald’s Leechbook, an early medical textbook that has been preserved by The British Library.

The Cosmological Limits of Information Storage

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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An important part of long-term thinking is the never-ending search for very long-lived methods of information storage. A perfect, eternal storage medium still eludes us; most of the ones we’ve invented and used over the course of civilization have had their limitations – even stone, nickel, and sapphire have a shelf life.

But new research by a team of physicists now suggests that searching for a storage medium that lives forever may be a waste of energy, because the laws of physics themselves limit the amount of time that any information can be kept.

In a paper recently published by the New Journal of Physics, the researchers review how spacetime dynamics might influence the storage of information by asking how much data we can reliably hold on to from the beginning to the end of time.

In order to answer that question, the team combined Einsteinian cosmology with quantum theories about the nature of matter and reality. They worked with a standard model of the universe, called the Friedman-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric: based on Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it describes a universe that is homogeneous and isotropic, and therefore expands (or contracts) uniformly in all directions.

Working with this metric, the researchers modeled what would happen to stored data over the course of universe expansion. When you encode information into some kind of matter and then track what happens to your storage medium throughout the life course of the universe, you’ll find that the quantum state of its matter (in other words, its properties: its position, momentum, and spin) will eventually and inevitably change. The research team was able to prove that this change in state creates ‘noise’ that dampens the stored information. One of the research physicists explains the process in this video abstract of the paper:

The faster the universe expands, the team argues, the more ‘noise’ interferes with stored data. Looking at the storage of both classical information (anything encoded in bits) and quantum information (anything encoded by the quantum state of a given particle), they conclude that not very much data will last from the beginning to the end of time.

In other words, it seems as though we may be doomed to an eventual quantum dark age. Unless, of course, we always take care to anticipate these state changes, and continuously forward migrate our data.

David Keith Seminar Primer

Posted on Wednesday, February 4th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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On Tuesday, February 17, David Keith will present Patient Geoengineering, as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background information about the speaker, including links to learn even more.

In 01991, Mount Pinatubo – a largely forgotten and underestimated volcano in the Philippines – erupted in what would turn out to be one of the 20th century’s most significant geological events. It shot about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide to the surface, much of which a coinciding typhoon then swept up into the air. This produced a cloud of sulfuric acid aerosols that quickly spread across the planet and managed to lower global temperatures by about 0.5 ºCelsius for the next few years.

This one-time event thereby managed to achieve what decades of political discussion about curbing CO₂ emissions has so far been unsuccessful at doing: counteracting the unprecedented global warming of our planet. Could Mount Pinatubo be pointing us to a viable new solution for climate change?

Many people, climate scientists included, are wary of proposals to reverse or reduce global warming by tinkering directly with Earth’s climate and atmosphere. Such efforts at geoengineering, they worry, could have unforeseen and dangerous regional side effects that we may not be able to control or reverse. What if it interferes with local patterns of rainfall – or produces powerful storms?

But after decades of getting nowhere with emissions caps, argues David Keith, we simply can no longer afford not to put these ideas on the table.

Keith is an applied physicist and climate scientist at Harvard, with dual appointments in the university’s schools of engineering and public policy. He splits his time between Cambridge and Calgary, where he runs Carbon Engineering – a company that works on developing technologies for the capture of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and turning it into low-carbon fuel.

Keith dedicates both his academic and entrepreneurial efforts to the exploration of climate engineering. While his company works on methods to directly reduce the amount of CO₂ in the air, his research explores ways to counteract human contributions to rising CO₂ levels by diminishing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth’s surface. Indeed, one method for this kind of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) takes a cue from Mount Pinatubo, and would involve the release of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere:

Keith not only argues that we must seriously consider these options, but also suggests that they may not be as irreversible, costly, or dangerous as they seem.

There’s no question [solar radiation management] reduces the global average temperatures; even the people who hate it agree you could reduce average global temperatures. The question is: how does it do on a regional basis? By far the single most important thing to look at on a region-by-region basis is the impact on rainfall and temperature. And the answer is, it works a lot better than I expected. It’s really stunning. A lot of us thought that, in fact, geoengineering would do a lousy job on a regional basis – and there’s lots of talk on the inequalities – but in fact, when you actually look at the climate models, the results show they’re strikingly even.

Nevertheless, Keith by no means means to suggest humanity should begin experimenting with these methods immediately, nor should they be considered a viable and ethical alternative to cutting CO₂ emissions. Above all, he argues for thoughtful discussion, rigorous research, and global consensus about the best way forward. We must, above all, be patient and thorough. As he told Time Magazine in 02009, when the weekly named him a Hero of the Environment, “The thing about tools … is not that you have to use them: it’s that you have to understand them.”

Join us next Tuesday, February 17th at SFJAZZ Center to hear David Keith present his case for patient geoengineering.

From the City to the Great Basin: a Trip to Long Now’s Mountain in Nevada

Posted on Thursday, January 8th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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The Big Here video documenting a drive from San Francisco to Mount Washington in eastern Nevada was made in 02009 and shown as a Long Short before Stewart Brand’s Rethinking Green SALT talk. We showed it again this week at The Great Basin in the Anthropocene talk by Scotty Strachan at The Interval. That event focused on the larger region that includes Mount Washington.

The mount Washington site was originally purchased as a potential site for a monument scale 10,000 Year Clock to act as an icon to long-term thinking. The first of these Clocks is now underway in Texas (see for more details), and Long Now remains involved in this fascinating, important region of eastern Nevada.

Our Mount Washington property is home to the largest population of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones, amongst the oldest living things on Earth, are a symbol of The Long Now. And Long Now is working with scientists, like Scotty Strachan, at University of Nevada, Reno to study these bristlecones for insights into the last 10,000 years of climate amongst other research efforts.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The IntervalPhoto of Mount Washington by Scotty Strachan

Jesse Ausubel Seminar Primer

Posted on Tuesday, January 6th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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On Tuesday, January 13, Jesse Ausubel will present Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing Through Concentrating Human Activities, as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background information about the speaker, including links to learn even more.


The stories and scary graphs aren’t hard to find: the global industrialization that has been taking place since the middle of the 19th century has had a disastrous effect on our environment. It has led to massive deforestation, depletion of other natural resources, and a (resulting) rise in greenhouse gases not seen in millions of years.

But Jesse Ausubel counters this gloom with a bit of optimism. He argues that modernity and technology are not necessarily the unusually destructive forces we make them out to be. Humans were impacting the world around them long before we first started burning fossil fuels to power large-scale factories. And the technological progress we’ve made since then, Ausubel suggests, can actually – and might very well – help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint.

Ausubel is an environmental scientist who combines research with an active policy agenda. He has played an important role in bringing environmental, ecological, and climate issues to the attention of governments and scientific agencies, and has been instrumental in the formulation of US and international climate research programs. He helped organize the first United Nations World Climate Conference in 01979 – the event that first brought the issue of global warming to governments’ attention – and served on a variety of federal research agencies throughout the 01980s and 90s.


Through his work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he is a science advisor and former Vice President of Programs, Ausubel has pursued several efforts at documenting and conserving biodiversity. He helped develop the Census of Marine Life, an international mission to study the distribution, diversity, and abundance of life in Earth’s seas and oceans. The census has so far discovered numerous previously unknown species, and species thought to have gone extinct millennia ago. Honoring Ausubel’s efforts, a recently discovered deep-sea lobster was named Ausubel’s Mighty Clawed Lobster (or dinochelus ausubeli).


In addition, Ausubel is a co-founder of the Barcode of Life – an initiative to begin using very short genomic sequences (rather than morphological characteristics) as universal ‘barcodes’ for species identification. He is also founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life, a wikipedia-like website, first proposed by former SALT speaker E.O. Wilson, that aims to catalog all species of life on earth.


Ausubel is currently Senior Research Associate and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, where he studies how human technological and economic development interact with the environment. He is considered a founder of the field of Industrial Ecology (and his 01989 textbook, Technology & Environment, is accepted as one of the sub-discipline’s foundational texts).

Ausubel argues that industrial development can help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint, because it always tends toward greater efficiency. As the New York Times reported in 02011,

In a recent interview in his office at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Ausubel explained his view that the environment will be protected, not harmed, by technology. Over the long run, he notes, the economy requires more efficient forms of energy, and these are inherently sparing of the environment. Cities used to use wood for heat and hay for transport fuel. But the required volumes of wood and horse feed soon led to more compact fuels like coal and oil.

Jesse Ausubel : Why Renewables are Not Green from Arcos Films on Vimeo.

As industry evolves, Ausubel argues, it constantly finds ways to use fewer material resources for every unit of production, thus decreasing its consumption of the world’s natural resources, including land. In other words, industrial development follows a path of dematerialization. Ausubel claims it is also on a course of decarbonization: a consistent and gradual replacement of carbon-based fuels by much more efficient hydrogen-based ones. Indeed, Ausubel is an advocate of nuclear power as a highly efficient source of energy, and a useful alternative that can help us spur society’s decarbonization along.

In a landmark paper, for which Ausubel won The Breakthrough Institute’s 02014 Paradigm Award, Ausubel concludes:

The builders of the beautiful home of the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., inscribed it with the epigraph, “To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.” Finally, after a very long preparation, our science and technology are ready also to reconcile our economy and the environment … In fact, long before environmental policy became conscious of itself, the system had set decarbonization in motion. A highly efficient hydrogen economy, landless agriculture, industrial ecosystems in which waste virtually disappears: over the coming century these can enable large, prosperous human populations to co-exist with the whales and the lions and the eagles and all that underlie them–if we are mentally prepared, which I believe we are.

Human culture is poised to realize technology’s potential to liberate the environment, Ausubel suggests: we need simply to pursue our drive toward efficiency and greater convenience. This drive might just allow us to have our cake and eat it, too – a prosperous and growing human society amid a thriving natural environment.

To hear more about Jesse Ausubel’s vision of a prosperous human population co-existing peacefully with a thriving natural world, please join us on Tuesday, January 13 at the SFJAZZ Center.