Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

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Mariana Mazzucato Seminar Primer

Posted on Monday, March 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Since the Enlightenment and its corresponding assumptions of social-technological progress, scholars have debated what political and economic systems best facilitate technological growth.
These days, one of the common assumptions of the technology sector is that the government is fundamentally a limiting force when it comes to innovation. This view is a well-established conservative position since the advent of the Chicago School of Keynesian Economics, but even among progressives, there’s a strong sentiment that the government doesn’t have what it takes to innovate and bring new technologies to the helm. Headlines seem to support this theory: it takes the private sector a fraction of the cost to send rockets to space, new laws banning disruptive technology companies like AirBnb and Uber seem to crop up every week. A cursory glance at this issue would seem to suggest that when it comes to developing new technologies, Thomas Jefferson’s maxim still rings loud and true: That government which governs best, governs least.

5579b77b74fa8628aaa2b0fb97317742e3d7b6c1_254x191Enter Mariana Mazzucato. Currently the RM Phillips chair in the Economics of Innovation at the University of Sussex, she also has a long resume of academic positions at other prestigious universities, including University of Denver, London Business School, Open University, and Bocconi University. Her research focuses on the role of the State in modern capitalism, and her analysis runs counter to the tech communities’ common understanding of how technologies come to market. Mariana Mazzucato’s research shows that many of the technologies that form the backbone of our technological revolutions were the direct result of multi-decade research by the state. Consider the examples of computers, the internet, and GPS–all of these technologies were developed and funded by the government for decades before entering the consumer market, and it’s impossible to imagine an iphone without these technologies.

In his 02011 SALT talk, Geoffrey West noted that the average lifespan of a company is merely 10 years. On such short time scales, it’s hard for companies to invest in technologies that don’t have immediate market potential. It’s not a coincidence that Apple or Google came to fruition under the auspices of a government that heavily invested in these technologies: the computer manufacturer was able to build its first machine by virtue of a $500,000 investment from an obscure government entity, and the search engine’s revolutionary algorithm was developed through research that was funded by the National Science Foundation. When one then considers the network of publicly-funded universities and labs (which developed technologies such as HTML and touchscreens), the mythos of the lone entrepreneur/inventor starts to look incomplete at best.

Mazzucato’s analysis forces us to ponder a rather uncomfortable question: Why do we systematically downplay these long-term investments by the government, and champion the companies that bring these mature technologies to market?

To learn more about the economics of innovation, come see Mariana Mazzucato on March 24th at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. You can reserve tickets, get directions and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page.

Subscribe to the Seminars About Long-term Thinking podcast for more thought-provoking programs.

ICE/ISEE-3 To Return To An Earth No Longer Capable of Speaking To It

Posted on Monday, February 24th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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International Cometary Explorer (NASA)

This August, a pioneer in space exploration returns to Earth after more than 30 years of service. The spacecraft is still in good, functioning condition, and could possibly be assigned to another mission. Sadly, however, we seem to have forgotten how to speak its language.

The probe, a collaboration between NASA and ESA, was one of three crafts launched in 01978 to study the the interaction between solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. Named the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), it was the first-ever object to be sent into heliocentric orbit at the first Lagrangian point – a particular location between Earth and Sun, where our planet’s gravitational force cancels out the Sun’s pull in such a way that a satellite essentially orbits in tandem with Earth.

Upon completion of its mission in 01983, the probe was repurposed and re-christened: now called the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it circled the moon a few times to gather speed, and then flew off to chase after two comets. ICE intercepted comet Giacobini-Zinner in 01985 before catching up with Halley’s comet in 01986, and making history as the first spacecraft to study two comets directly.

After a brief third mission to study coronal mass ejections, NASA officially decommissioned the probe and shut down communications with its systems. Nevertheless, the agency discovered in 02008 not only that ICE had failed to power off, but also that 12 of its 13 instruments were still functioning. They entertained the idea of sending ICE off to study another corner of the Solar System – only to learn that the equipment needed to communicate with ICE is no longer available, and too cost-prohibitive to rebuild. The Planetary Society’s Emily Lackdawalla explains:

Several months of digging through old technical documents has led a group of NASA engineers to believe they will indeed be able to understand the stream of data coming from the spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) can listen to the spacecraft, a test in 2008 proved that it was possible to pick up the transmitter carrier signal, but can we speak to the spacecraft? Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

For the past 15 years, ICE has been patiently orbiting the Sun at a speed slightly higher than that of Earth. Now that it’s catching up with us again from behind, researchers realize there’s much more exploration that ICE could have helped us with. Unfortunately, we simply don’t seem capable of mustering the resources we need to communicate with ICE. Lackdawalla muses,

I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal – it’s meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.

The New California Water Atlas

Posted on Saturday, February 1st, 02014 by Austin Brown
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Almost forty years ago, California’s young new governor faced the challenge of leading his state through one of its worst droughts ever. Around that time, a group of cartographers had been hoping to develop a comprehensive and definitive atlas of the state and one of them suggested the idea to an advisor to the governor’s office, Stewart Brand. In light of the crisis, a scaled-back, more focused atlas detailing California’s water systems garnered support from members of the administration and governor Jerry Brown.

Several years later, in 01979, California’s Office of Planning and Research published the California Water Atlas, an attempt at “providing the average citizen with a single-volume point of access to understanding how water works in the State of California,” as the volume’s foreword, written by Project Director and Editor William L. Karhl, put it.

Several decades later, California is once again governed by Jerry Brown. Drought has returned and so, coincidentally, has the water atlas. The New California Water Atlas seeks to revive and update the original’s citizen-serving, data-sharing approach by offering online, interactive maps.


Headed up by Laci Videmsky, a project director at the Resource Renewal Institute, The New California Water Atlas operates as a non-profit project, rather than directly out of the Governor’s office. Now moved to the web, it also seeks to publish not a single volume, but a growing body of tools and interactive visualizations with regularly updated data.

Videmsky spoke with me about the project from Berkeley, where he also lectures for the College of Environmental Design at the University of California. He described at length how the original Water Atlas inspired this new project and about what’s in store.

Videmsky first encountered the original Atlas when his wife brought it home from UC Berkeley’s library. “Both of us were in awe,” he says.

Around this time, Videmsky explains, he’d been exploring the world of web mapping, open data and open government:

I was really interested in the ethos of open government and how people were using data, thinking about transparency and accountability, and how their systems communicate with government and the kinds of technologies they were using to connect people. And most of this work was being done at the city level and then at the federal level and also most of it was related to various amenities and services that were often not natural resources, so I wondered, why don’t we take this open government and open data to natural resources agencies? They are civic institutions and they could benefit from this.

One area he began researching was California’s system of granting water rights.

I was learning how to do web mapping and I called the state water board to download their data from their site. They had kind of an older application that they’d built a while back that kind of half works and doesn’t have an easy way to search or to download data, and they were actually nice enough to just give me their whole data set.


Not long after these extracurricular efforts, he walked into the office of Huey Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute (and a former SALT speaker), and noticed a copy of the Water Atlas. Johnson had been the Secretary for Resources in Jerry Brown’s first administration and served on the Water Atlas’s advisory board along with Stewart Brand. They got to talking about the original Atlas, as well as some of Videmky’s efforts to visualize water data.

I showed him this interactive map that I’d made with the water board data and the lightbulb went off and we started having conversations about open government and how open data’s kind of changing the way government works and how we can maybe do that for California water.

It was out of that conversation that the New California Water Atlas was born and from that early prototype map that the site’s first big visualization would eventually grow. Videmsky and others are currently working on two more interactives for the site, with hopes of many more being developed as the project grows. The first focuses on groundwater levels:

We’re working on groundwater – so another state agency called the Department of Water Resources, which actually funded the first atlas, they have a data set of all the water levels in the ground of about 15,000 groundwater elevation monitoring wells. We downloaded from their water elevation monitoring system about 500,000 records which represents about 30 years of data for the whole state. It was very laborious – it took us a month to get 30 years.

Using the final product, Californians will be able to zoom into an area of the state on a map and move a slider to view the last 30 years of fluctuations in groundwater levels.

Another interactive in the pipeline will track water prices across the state:

I’m starting a collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission to make data available to visualize water prices. Water isn’t priced according to scarcity, it’s priced according to the price of delivering the water. So I think it’d be really, really interesting for people to be able to compare what they paid for water.

Something Videmsky has found to be consistent with the original Atlas is the eagerness of state agencies to share their data, despite budgetary and technical challenges. Stewart Brand wrote in the original’s afterword:

Some of it was easier than expected. The state government probably has more information on water than any other subject, but early fears that the information would be jealously guarded by the agencies turned out to be incorrect. At every level, from local to state to federal, people were generous with their data and their time.

As Videmsky put it:

A lot of state agencies don’t have the resources either in staff or money to improve the way they make water understandable and water data available to the public. And so there’s definitely a need for private-public partnerships and that’s actually happening in many different sectors. We get a lot of moral support from the agencies. They’re very excited about this. We’re making something that’s very visible, highly accessible and so they’re really eager to participate.

Beyond helping the state’s agencies tell their stories, Videmsky is also exploring the idea of making a platform for citizens to tell theirs as well.

One idea – this is not implemented – but one idea is to allow for, almost a site within a site so a user would be able to create a blog around a certain geographic area. They’re dealing with issues locally that are important to them, like groundwater contamination, so it’d almost be like a citizen atlas, where citizens’ science sits alongside authoritative data. There are a lot of stories to tell that are not necessarily data stories but personal stories.

Additionally, they’re looking for help from programmers, translators (they want the site to be in both English and Spanish), designers and data-wranglers. Much of their work is open-sourced on GitHub, where they’d be happy for help building part of the visualizations or cleaning up the data.

Keeping the project open-source isn’t just a collaborative choice, though. Videmsky sees it as a way to help the project bear long-term fruit. While the original Atlas was a single volume, the web will allow the new Atlas to live and grow along with the state and possibly to be adopted by other states or for analyzing other natural resources. Along other long-term lines, Videmsky said they’re looking for a good institutional partner to help support and archive the data so that the database of California’s water system they hope to build can continue to grow and inform the state’s citizens for generations to come.

“Climate Change and Us” Event Video Now Live

Posted on Monday, December 23rd, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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Rarely do we get to hear directly from the scientists who compile, analyze, and synthesize the most recent climate change data. On December 13th, swissnex San Francisco, in partnership with The Long Now Foundation, hosted an event that explained the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, and what types of solutions would be needed to avoid pervasive climate shifts.

The evening started with a video highlighting the process of creating an IPCC report, and then a presentation from IPCC scientist Thomas Stocker on the conclusions of the report. The report divided the future into four possible scenarios, 2.0, 4.0, 6.0, and 8.0 degree shifts in mean global temperatures, allowing each country and policy maker to see the relative effects of each level of climate change. The news for even a 2.0 degree shift isn’t good, but the speakers did a great job of balancing the stark news with fruitful discussion of different avenues for addressing the causes.

The rest of the evening featured a diverse panel of experts on the report’s key takeaways for the scientist, the citizen, and the entrepreneur. Participants included former SALT speakers Saul Griffith and Paul Hawken, IPCC scientists Gian-Kasper Plattner and Thomas Stocker, and Susan Burns of the Global Footprint Network. After the event, swissnex hosted a reception in the venue to allow the audience to continue the conversation started on stage.

This embedded video is a 10 minute preview. The full video is available at Fora.TV

Wake up, Rosetta!

Posted on Monday, December 16th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Almost ten years ago, the European Space Agency launched a probe with the goal of approaching and studying a comet. The probe was named Rosetta because, just as the Rosetta Stone allowed historians to piece together an ancient language and unlock a great deal of human history, the Rosetta probe will give us a better understanding of comets than we’ve ever had and possibly help us unlock a great deal of our solar system’s history.

The ESA invited Long Now to include one of our Rosetta Disks (in early prototype form at the time) on the probe. The Rosetta mission, therefore, serves a second purpose (after its comet research) as an off-world archive of several thousand human languages.

In search of its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta performed several slingshot fly-bys of our solar system’s inner planets, the last of which happened in 02009.

Rosetta has been in hibernation mode ever since, speeding its way toward Comet 67P. It needs to wake up in January to begin preparing for its August rendezvous and the ESA wants some help rousing it:

In a competition that opens today, ESA invites you to mark this important milestone in the Rosetta mission by sharing a video clip of you shouting “Wake up, Rosetta!”

You can upload your video clip and share it with the world via ESA’s dedicated Facebook page.

Be creative and imaginative – you can include friends, family, colleagues, members of your team, social clubs, and school groups, or even put together a flash mob to create a memorable video shout.

Creators of the two most popular videos will get to watch the Rosetta probe drop a lander named Philae onto the comet from mission control in Germany! Details and how to enter. You can keep up with the Rosetta mission on Facebook and Twitter.

A 75-year Study on the Secrets to Happiness

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic make-up.

So concludes the synopsis of Triumphs of Experience, the latest book to come out of the Harvard Grant Study, an ambitious and comprehensive project that has tracked the life course of 268 male members of the Harvard classes of 01938 – 01940 for seventy-five years now.

The study began in 01938 as an effort to examine optimal human health: unlike ordinary medical studies at the time, the project’s directors were interested not in what made people sick, but rather in what caused them to thrive. Since then, teams of researchers have tracked an enormous amount of variables in the lives of their subjects. They’ve conducted regular physiological examinations and laboratory measurements, as well as IQ tests, personal interviews, and psychiatric evaluations. They’ve even spoken with the study participants’ parents, wives, and children.

There are other longitudinal studies that rival this one in length, but George Vaillant, the study’s director from 01972 to 02004, explains that none are as comprehensive as the Harvard Grant Study:

… what makes the Grant Study unique is that the men have given us permission to present their lives in three dimensions, so that the book is not only about statistics, but it’s about stories. The book is the history of how the men, and the science, and its author changed from a pre-World War II view of the world, to the way we see it in 02012.

Funded by a variety of sources over the years, the study offers a comprehensive history of individual lives (including that of John F. Kennedy, a study participant until his assassination fifty years ago), but also of the advances we’ve made in research methodologies and data collection: its files are stored in a variety of media, from the IBM punch cards used during the project’s first years, to the digital spreadsheets used today.

A first comprehensive report on the study was published in 01998, when participants were in their late 50s. Triumphs of Experience extends that portrait into the men’s old age, but still conveys the same basic message: happiness and professional success have little to do with status or income, and everything with the warmth and stability of your interpersonal relationships. What Vaillant emphasizes is that the course of our lives is not determined by the hardships we encounter, but by the resilience we show in the face of adversity – and the more connected we are with others, the better we are at coping with life’s difficulties.

Of course, a group of male Harvard undergraduates, particularly those of the late 01930s, is unlikely to be representative of the general US population – let alone of the rest of the world. Still, there are lessons to be drawn from this study. Not the least of these is the reminder that some of the most profound insights into the nature and experience of human life cannot be found through quick, narrow experiments: they require the dedication and patience of a long-term, multi-generational project.

Climate Change and Us: What Does the Future Hold?

Posted on Thursday, November 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Peer beyond the headlines as experts explain what the IPCC report really says about global warming and what it means for our planet and for mankind in a live presentation and discussion on Friday December 13, 02013 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth major assessment report in 02014. The first working group (of three) has already released their findings on the development and growth of global warming. In short: climate change is not slowing down and humans are a major factor in its acceleration.

swissnex San Francisco, in partnership with The Long Now Foundation, invites the public to hear from a diverse panel of experts on the report’s key takeaways for the scientist, the citizen, and the entrepreneur. Be prepared to come with your questions and join the discussion around short- and long-term strategies for a warming planet.  Long Now members receive a discount on tickets, please see your email for instructions on reserving.

The speakers and panelists are:

  • Susan BurnsSenior Vice President, Global Footprint Network
  • Saul GriffithInventor, Co-founder Otherlab
  • Paul HawkenEnvironmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, author, professor
  • Gian-Kasper PlattnerDirector of Science, IPCC WGI Technical Support Unit, University of Bern, Switzerland
  • Thomas StockerCo-Chair Working Group I, IPCC

Cost to register is $20, with a $10 discount for Long Now Members
(Check your email for promotional code.)
Friday December 13th, 02013 at the YBCA Forum
A reception for the audience and speakers will follow.
Details and Registration

Humans and nature: It’s complicated.

Posted on Friday, October 25th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Depending on your point of reference, humanity can seem distinct from and damaging to nature or like an emergent part of a single thriving force. Two interviews with the authors of new books illustrate this elasticity and the multifaceted conceptions of ourselves and nature we shift through depending on the questions we ask and the spaciotemporal scales we consider.


J.B. MacKinnon and Sharon J. Riley, writing for Harpers, discuss The Once and Future World in which MacKinnon explores the impact humans have had on the Earth’s ecosystems and how misunderstanding that impact can lead us to misunderstand nature itself. He relates the story of a whale that was spotted just off the coast of downtown Vancouver:

Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago… If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

It’s been said that “technology is anything invented after you were born.” In a similar way, our reference point for nature often comes from what we grew up with, even though most of us were born into environments hugely affected by human development. Ecology and Natural History can show us a deeper picture of the major changes wrought by humans the world over and illustrate major inflection points (like the Industrial Revolution, or the Columbian Exchange) against former baselines. MacKinnon reminds us that these baselines are relative, but that they also tend to be fairly stable in comparison to human rates of change.

Human society, in MacKinnon’s account, has degraded nature by harming biodiversity. It’s this diversity, he says that we ought to seek, rather than the restoration of any particular baseline of the past. In looking forward, he offers a model for valuing biodiversity that, surprisingly, comes from one of nature’s symbolic antipodes – the city:

I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity.

If MacKinnon asks how humanity has affected nature on Earth, Ross Anderson and Lee Billings discuss what life on earth has to learn about itself as our search for other worlds really gets going. This galactic expansion of scope compresses, in some ways, the conversation’s working definitions of nature and humanity.


Ross Anderson, for The Atlantic, spoke with Lee Billings about his book Five Billion Years of Solitude which explores the science and cosmological ramifications of the search for extrasolar planets and their potential inhabitants. The book is largely about the scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field, but Billings and Anderson also discuss the emergence of life on Earth and the inevitable end of Earth’s habitability.

A point Billings repeatedly stresses is the fragility of our newfound ability to look and venture beyond our own small world. Ecological, political, cultural and technological obstacles threaten to limit our achievement and, as alluded by the book’s title, doom our planet to a life of solitude. The work of the scientists in Billing’s writing is important and grandiose in effect, but often mundane in practice and the same can be said about the governance of a society.

Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.

These concerns, in Billings’ mind however, aren’t limited to humanity. What we’ve achieved, we owe to the natural world from which we’ve been born and to which we’re still a part. We aren’t beginning to consider that Earthlings might someday reach other planets and stars because of humanity’s exceptionalism, though that’s been important; we’re considering it because of the riches we lucked into on this precious world.

We really owe our progress and our current state not only to our biology, but also to our planetary resources—to the fossil fuels we burn, the ores we mine, the rich diversity of other species we exploit, and so on. We’re presently using most of those resources in very unsustainable ways. We’ve already plucked all the low-hanging fruit, and much of what we are burning and mining and exploiting now is only available to use through our already sophisticated technology.

So if we somehow drive ourselves extinct, if all our great edifices collapse, I think it would be very difficult if not impossible for anything else to rise up and rebuild to where we are now, even given a half-billion or a billion years. People can and will disagree with me about that, but my position errs on the side of caution, on the side that says humanity’s present moment in the Sun is too valuable to treat as something disposable.

Any species can overreach its niche and in that we may not be exceptional. Environmentalists often threaten apocalypse and the fall of human society if we don’t learn to value the Earth’s resources properly, but Billings expands the scope and the stakes. Our work seeking other worlds isn’t just a human endeavor, it’s a planetary one. Like MacKinnon suggesting that we imagine ourselves to be a citizen of diverse city, Billings suggests that we’re ambassadors for that city and we may not have a successor.

In taxonomy, classifiers who focus on their subject matter’s similarities are known as “lumpers,” while those most interested in difference are “splitters.” Ultimately, of course, humans are just another part of the natural world, governed by evolution and physics like anything else. But in our day to day lives, and even across generations, our place on this planet is clearly unique in key ways. As these two conversations show, parsing our role on this planet involves both lumping and splitting.

Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has spent a career studying humanity’s close biological family and often focuses on lumping us in with other primates, but he offers a single, essential split he’s observed about humans: that we can simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. And maybe that quirk itself is what allows us to zoom from a galaxy, down to a planet, and in to a city and to simultaneously lump and split this thing we call nature and ourselves.

Your DNA: Library or Thunderdome?

Posted on Friday, October 18th, 02013 by Catherine Borgeson
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Systems biologist Michael White, writing for Pacific Standard, dismisses the narrative that our genetic material is a “highly sophisticated, finely tuned data storage and processing device.” Instead, he says, it is an apocalyptic wasteland “littered with the rubble of ancient and ongoing battles with hordes of viruses, clone armies of genetic parasites, and zombie genes that should be dead but aren’t.” Arguing towards an ecology of the eukaryote genome, he likens it to an ecosystem full of communities that have grown, preserved, interacted and competed with each other in a complex system of relationships:

The major players in our genomic ecosystem are DNA parasites called transposable elements, named for their ability to move around the genome and make copies of themselves. Transposable elements, which make up at least half our genome, are “selfish” genetic elements that exist because they have a strategy to get passed on to the next generation without necessarily contributing any useful function to the organism. Other denizens of our DNA include Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVS, eight percent of our genome), viruses that took up permanent residence in the egg or sperm cell of one of our distant ancestors, and zombie “pseudogenes,” functional genes that were killed by some genetic mishap but still have an influence on their surrounding genes.

According to the PLOS Genetics study White references, about 50% of the human genome sequence is referred to as “dark matter” because of its unknown purpose or origin. The study demonstrates that approximately half of this dark matter is made up of repetitive sequences, “which are most likely dominated by transposable elements.”

Since transposable elements (TEs) are a considerable component of our biology, better understanding them is a fundamental issue in genetics. How do they help and how do they harm? White says TEs have contributed to building new links between genes. But he also states that this genetic innovation results in uncontrolled variability and unwanted mutations, leading to certain human diseases. The exact role TEs play in our genome will take a long time to unravel, but the picture they’re already beginning to paint depicts a less-than-harmonious path to our present selves.

The idea that your genome is an ecosystem populated with species that pursue their own self-interest may make you wonder: Who am I, really? Unlike the parasites that you pick up when you drink the water in a place where you shouldn’t, transposable elements and endogenous viruses aren’t really foreign invaders; they are your DNA, and they have been part of our genetic identity for longer than we have existed as a species.

(The image above was painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.)

Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History

Posted on Tuesday, October 8th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In 01970 John Conway developed a computer program called The Game of Life. The idea behind it was that the process of biological life is, despite its apparent complexity, reduceable to a finite set of rules. The game is made up of a grid of squares, or “cells,” in one of two states: “alive” or “dead.” A player sets the initial conditions, choosing which squares should be alive. Each turn of the game is like a generation – some squares live, some are born, and some die. Just a few simple rules determine cells’ behavior: Cells with too few or too many neighbors die. Empty squares with the right number of neighbors come to life.

This simple set-up, played out by the computer over many generations creates vast complexity that is hard to watch without thinking of life. And, in fact, in 02010 a structure was created within the game by Andrew Wade capable of reproducing itself, much like the real-life molecules that eventually lead to all the living creatures on earth.

The rules in The Game of Life are much simpler than real-life’s actual rules (which we’re a long way from understanding in full), but the point stands that simple rules can produce a shocking amount of complexity and even the possibility of one of life’s hallmarks: reproduction.

By elaborating the rules governing the simulation, could other life-like processes also be modelled? Ecologist Peter Turchin has done just that. He wanted to understand how human societies, not just single organisms, grow and disperse. So, he created a computer simulation not unlike The Game of Life. It’s got a lot more rules, but the basics are similar:


… they divided all of Africa and Eurasia into gridded squares which were each categorized by a few environmental variables (the type of habitat, elevation, and whether it had agriculture in 1500 B.C.E.). They then “seeded” military technology in squares adjacent to the grasslands of central Asia, because the domestication of horses—the dominant military technology of the age—likely arose there initially.

Over time, the model allowed for domesticated horses to spread between adjacent squares. It also simulated conflict between various entities, allowing squares to take over nearby squares, determining victory based on the area each entity controlled, and thus growing the sizes of empires. After plugging in these variables, they let the model simulate 3,000 years of human history, then compared its results to actual data, gleaned from a variety of historical atlases.

The simulation’s predicted history was about a 65% match to actual history, which is a pretty striking result – consider that a coin-flip has two possible outcomes and you’d therefore be able to correctly predict it half the time. Turchin’s model divided Africa and Eurasia into 100km squares – tens of thousands of them. They sampled each square 1,500 times – every 2 years for 3,000 years – assessing sociality and military technology, ultimately allowing the system as a whole to potentially produce on the order of a hundred million outcomes.

That their model matches reality more than half the time isn’t a lucky coin-flip – Turchin and other ecologists have been doing this for animal populations for quite some time. It’s also not Asimov’s Psychohistory, but like The Game of Life, it shows that seemingly complex behavior, be it molecular or societal, can and will increasingly be mathematically modelled and predicted.