Values, Ethics, Beliefs:
Biosphere & Global Consciousness
Sir Martin is Britain's Astronomer Royal. His TED lecture is the most important link on my entire website. And, here are the parameters that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists uses to predict the end of humanity. (The clock was at 3 minutes to midnight for the past few years, but at the end of 2016 it advanced by 30 seconds toward Doomsday. The Bulletin explains why here.)
Yes, it has to do with President Trump's seemingly casual attitude toward nuclear weapons and his blatant disregard of global environmental destruction including anthropogenic climate change.
Global thermonuclear war (followed by nuclear winter) has always topped the list of extinction threats to humanity. The recent TED talks by atmospheric scientist Brian Toon and by submarine commander Robert Green are stark reminders. (The recent scary chatter about imminent, overlord AIs is just an exotic distraction.) There are plenty of threats that trump terminator AIs: pandemics (natural or malicious,) chemical or biowarfare, and environmental destruction. Harvard's Steven Pinker offers some hope in his new book, Enlightenment Now, which shows there has been a long-term flourishing of the human condition. But, that's not a guarantee.
- Will AI take over in the next couple of decades? No!
- Might it dominate all key decisions within a hundred years? Yes!
- Is that desirable for the long-term survival of humans? Possibly yes, but only if the AI has transcendent wisdom as well as great intelligence.
Attaining such supernal wisdom may entail understanding the entirety of the internet — not to mention hundreds of billions of real-time sensors. It will also entail advances in AI not yet even envisioned.
A byproduct may be the AI's ability to autonomously create Nobel-level science and engineering in many fields. This will not happen in my lifetime and possibly not even in yours.
Would this be desirable for planet Earth and our biosphere? Possibly, yes! Humanity's unchecked proliferation, uninformed by long-term sustainability, has been an unmitigated disaster for our biosphere.
Some SETI/Fermi Paradox cognoscenti believe there's a Great Filter that rids the Universe of technological civilizations, eg by nuclear annihilation or by crafty, rampaging AI. With regard to that, it seems to me more likely that superintelligent AI may eventually provide humanity with wise counsel and enhance our survival, rather than terminating us maliciously. They might ultimately be as good at steering civilization as they are at steering driverless cars.
Composed by the incomparable Jacques Brel, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Poignantly bittersweet, it captures the triumph and tragedy of the human race.
Every year I backpack in the Sierras, inevitably focusing on the big questions. How did all that exists come to be? Are there other Universes? Is mankind alone? Many physical constants that allow life to develop in the Universe appear to be finely-tuned. Did God sit at a control panel twisting the dozens of knobs that determine the interactions of the particles and forces that comprise reality? I discuss the views of physicists, cosmologists, and theologians.
Is ET out there waiting to be discovered?
My guess is "yes!"—
but the vast majority of extraterrestrial life is apt to be microbial.
My viewpoint follows the SETI Institute
and its founders and superstars. Included among those are Frank Drake — of Drake equation fame, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, and David Morrison.
Prof. Drake's car license plate reads N = L. The number of ET civilizations in the Milky Way is determined by their likelihood of survival. Our survival on Earth is not guaranteed but requires dedicated stewardship and devotion to long-term sustainability.
To paraphrase H. G. Wells, the future of humanity is a race between education and catastrophe.
This is a real photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2006. Here the Sun is behind Saturn. With the Sun fully eclipsed, Earth appears as a pale blue dot. That blue color originates from the interaction of oxygen and water on Earth. ET would be able to tell from our spectrum that water and oxygen are here. Several proposed telescopes may be able to image Earth-like atmospheres on exo- planets.
Gemini Planet Imager started collecting exoplanet spectra in 2014. The Thirty Meter Telescope being built on Mauna Kea will greatly expand the search.
Imaging exoplanets depends on Adaptive Optics (AO)—
see video from Boston Micromachines .
The Kepler Space Telescope regularly generates headline news.
Based on its discoveries, it's now certain that
planets orbiting other stars (exo-planets) are common.
Now orbiting the sun millions of miles from Earth,
Kepler looks fixedly for planetary transits.
Other future telescopes will examine the atmospheres of these exoplanets for oxygen.
2018 Addendum: TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has just successfully launched and is the exciting new successor to Kepler. Over the next few years TESS is expected to discover thousands of new exoplanets, including hundreds of Earth-sized rocky planets.
In the next couple of months TESS will fire its thrusters periodically and is expected to achieve its final science orbit by June 17, 2018. It will end up with an orbit resonant with the moon's and orbiting the Earth every 13.7 days (with an apogee 233,000 miles (376,000 km) from Earth.)
September 17, 2018 update: today NASA shared these stunning first science images from TESS.
Here's the ultimate big picture.
Our planetary civilization is a microscopic, transitory blip at this scale. And yet, the future of civilization may hinge on our collective efforts.
Here's another magnificent video by astronomer Tony Darnell. — on the JWST ( James Webb Space Telescope), Hubble's replacement (but in IR,) which will launch in 2020. (I've had a front-row seat, as one of my close friends was designing and testing the imaging instrument. Here's the inside scoop: the JWST being tested at Goddard.)
Above, a remarkable animation from Nature showing the newly calculated position of the Milky Way (our home galaxy) with respect to surrounding galactic superclusters,including the Virgo Supercluster and the Great Attractor.
The newly discovered massive supercluster, Laniakea (Hawaiian for immeasurable heaven), includes both of them.
So, on these grand scales is human civilization hopelessly insignificant or incredibly significant?
The answer is ... both!
Planet Earth has too many human beings.
And even worse, developed countries — the United States, in particular — consume far too much. We have too many houses, too many cars, and too much stuff.
The United States has 326 million and the world has 7.6 billion.
For years I wondered why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (forty four billion dollars) wasn't tackling birth control. Couldn't they see that that's one of the main problems creating poverty? Well, they woke up. In this must-see TED Talk, Melinda Gates presents the case for birth control.
Yes, our population growth in the USA has slowed but we're still consuming
25% of the world's resources. That over-consumption is poisoning the planet and devasting other species.
In 2015 PBS aired a show on sustainable businesses featuring
Ray Anderson (carpet manufacturer and eco-superhero (?!)).
See Ray's TED Talk..
founder, Lester Brown, is excellent.
See his video at Google HQ . Also see the wiki on sustainability.
Look at this list of the growth rates of the world's 233 countries. Lack of birth control dooms a country's future.
But, this video on
longevity/ wealth in 200 countries (from Hans Rosling) is (perhaps overly) optimistic. He argues that reducing infant mortality is the key to reducing explosive population growth in the undeveloped world. (Although persuasive, he confuses association and causation.)
That confusion is pervasive in the medical literature. I wrestled with it for a decade in my Stanford medical database research. .
My view is that reduced infant mortality is simply a marker of success. The real cause of success is women's access to birth control. Let's stop the political correctness — the major problem on Earth is too many people!
But, for a ray of hope, see Paul Hawken at Bioneers.
I heard priest and historian Thomas Berry speak many years ago.
His book, the Universe Story, combined scientific cosmogenesis with a story that emphasized the obvious creativity latent in the Universe.
His later books, particularly The Great Work focused on the wanton environmental destruction that has resulted from mankind's insane view of its perogatives.
Thomas Berry — particulary as a man of the cloth — was a great voice for the environmental movement. It's up to us to continue his Great Work.
Above is a wonderful hour-long PBS documentary on
John Muir, one of my life-long heroes and sources of inspiration. Every summer I tread the same ground he did in the Sierras and feel the same universality of nature. John Muir, through his depth of conviction and clear scientific mind, persuaded Congress to create the National Park System, beginning with Yosemite.
Nature and Culture International (NCI) is my favorite eco-NGO.
Founded fifteen years ago by entrepreneur and ecologist, Ivan Gayler,
NCI has protected millions of acres of precious rain forests in Ecuador and Peru.
Those regions have some of the highest concentrations
of unique and endangered species anywhere on the planet.
The culture piece of NCI's work is crucial. It refers to its emphasis on employing natives and local ecologists to carry out the preservation effort.
As a result, NCI's budget is super efficient — almost no money spent in the USA for staff —
almost all the money is used directly for land protection and preservation by locals.
Fans of Jane Goodall or of E. O. Wilson please note: they're both on NCI's board. (This is the most important ecology organization you've never heard of. Zero money for publicity.)
These videos describe Ivan's vision and NCI's work:
Save the Rainforest and NCI Saving Rain Forests.
My favorite website for environmental reporting is Mongabay.com .
Mongabay's international network of reporters scans the globe for detailed and accurate information on the environment. Annually, it garners grants and awards from some of our largest foundations.
Due to falling revenues,
newspapers (like the New York Times) have had to lay off their environmental correspondents. Mongabay — getting millions of hits a month — has helped provide news coverage on this essential topic.
Here, National Geographic provides fast facts about global warming.
The evidence is abundant (and universally accepted by experts) —
global warming is real and caused by mankind.
The IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
is the definitive source of reliable information and states the consensus of climatologists .
was on top of this story a decade ago. Now, global warming is on a steamroller.
Donald Trump readily poses for photo-ops in the wake of the hurricanes in Florida and in Houston. But his pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord was a major error and embarrassment. I look to China to continue outselling the United States in photovoltaics and other alternative energy sources.
(I have several Republican friends, but none are climate change deniers.
The real complexity in handling global warming lies in the trade-offs involved in mitigation.)
Addendum — In 2013 global CO2 levels hit 400 ppm
A new study predicts that by 2080 global warming will cause a
drastic reduction (50%) in species habitats.
Brilliant cartoonist Justin Bilicki hits the nail on the head, as usual
Scientists and Evangelicals Unite to Protect Creation
In an extraordinary meeting, top environmentalists and top evangelical leaders met at Harvard to jointly promote the rescue of Planet Earth. Read their inspiring statement. Religious people need to understand the scientific data. And, scientists occasionally need to take a moral stand (perhaps with the fervor and zeal of the church.) Preservation of Earth's biosphere is exactly one of those issues.
Combining intelligence, inner calm, and raw guts, Sam Harris is my go-to guy for navigation of the moral landscape. (I just began to support his superb podcasts and public events.) Sam is best known for his views on religion - he's not an enthusiast. But he also fearlessly attacks dogmatic, unexamined views in other arenas, especially politics. The loudness of his critics — from the left and the right — attests to his uncompromising rationality.
Sam Harris votes as a Democrat, but you can see in this video on Radical Islam why he upsets and confuses many liberals. (In case you're new to this, Sam Harris is really trying to help Muslim intellectuals (like his colleague Maajid Nawaz) build a culture of tolerance. Maajid Nawaz, as a former Islamist turned counter-extremist, is another courageous force for modernity.
And, Nobel Prize
winner Malala Yousafzai is another shining example of immense courage. In this inspiring interview Malala shows the path forward. The liberation of women in the Muslim world will help the economies of the Middle East compete in the twenty first century.
Frequently, Sam Harris also warns about the eventual arrival of superintelligent AI. Here, in April, 2018, he discusses this (audio only) with Silicon Valley VC superstar Steve Jurvetson.
Watch Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg on the hot seat in April 2018 as he skillfully parries forty three US senators. Obviously, Cambridge Analytica's manipulation of our election in 2016 with data scraped from Facebook was and is a problem. Nonetheless, I have confidence that our doctrinaire Congress can undermine America's domination of technology and the internet by hasty, heavy-handed regulation — exactly what Elon Musk and Sam Harris can look forward to, if their calls to regulate AI are heeded.
Ever since Charlie Rose crashed and burned in 2017, I've had to fill the midnight hour with some other means of getting long-form journalism. Sam Harris's superb podcast (above) is one solution. The other solution is the podcast of Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York. (I power walk two miles every midnight listening to either Harris or Bharara. Last night (April, 2018) I listened to Preet's superb interview of Stanford's Professor Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia. Charitably, McFaul underplays the notion that Putin "has the goods" on Trump. Hopefully, the Mueller investigation will help expose why Trumpsky pussyfoots around Russia's gigarich omnipotent dictator.)
If you've never listened to Stay Tuned With Preet, it is disconcerting to hear Preet advertise mattresses and internet recruiters — it's like Einstein or Gandhi or Lincoln pitching toothpaste. But just deal with it! Unlike Sam Harris or PBS, Preet has evidently decided to be supported by ads rather than by his thousands of fans. He's a superstar legal insider (who might've been Attorney General under Hillary) —I cut him slack on the bizarre ads.
BTW, Harris or Bharara or Yale's Professor Jake Sullivan would be ideal Presidential candidates for the Dems in 2020 — but only in an alternative universe run by intellectuals, maybe looking more like Singapore under philosopher king Lee Kuan Yew.
Another winner by Theo Moudakis of TorontoStar
Trump's war on the environment dramatically ramped up with his appointment of Oklahoma conservative Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. The PBS show Frontline documented Pruitt's extensive support from big polluters. Pruitt as EPA Chief is like the fox guarding the henhouse. It's hard to state the case better than does this 2018 Congressional resolution. Denigrating the role of humans in causing climate change has led to a huge international downgrade of the legitimacy of America's leadership.
Ex-governor Rick Perry's appointment as Energy Secretary is another of Trump's ill-informed and dangerous appointments that have devasted the credibility of the United States as the leader of the free world.
The Energy Department is the nation's steward of its nuclear stockpile, and has formerly been led by top physicists and Nobel laureates. Rick Perry, in contrast, views climate change as a "contrived, phony mess," and is a science flunky, who said he wanted to eliminate the department.
This diminution in the status of the United States is what Vladimir Putin sought in sabotaging Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Here, (just dethroned superstar) Charlie Rose interviews Harvard's outgoing president, the magnificent Professor Drew Faust. She espouses a worldview that is the best of what America stands for (pre-Trump:) inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunity. (Nov 20, 2017: What a horrible juxtaposition! Charlie was just canned today from all his tv shows as a result of sexual misconduct allegations. This is on a par with the Bill Clinton scandal.)
If you're as plugged into YouTube as I am, you're aware of the deservedly ubiquitous public intellectual Prof. Yuval Harari. Above he argues against the horrors of factory farming - he's a vegan - and the crucial role that scientists need to play in taking moral stands.
Most of Prof. Harari's mega-watched TED talks and interviews deal with the future of humanity. (But, for the crowd I run with, this stuff is old hat: humanity transcending the limits of biology, AIs transforming civilization, and extinction threats.)
San Suu Kyi was one of our most inspirational leaders in 2012.
Having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, above she accepts a gold medal from Congress for her efforts to move Burma (Myanmar) from military rule to democracy despite two decades of house arrest.
So, what happened in the interim in Myanmar? Recently, San Suu Kyi has been broadly condemned for seeming to stand by as her country has been riven by racial strife.
This 2017 piece in The NY Times provides some answers. Asian style democracy may be starkly different from our views in the West. And, our views of our Nobel Peace Prize winners may be distorted by rose-colored glasses.
This is a hard-hitting documentary emphasizing the important positive role the United States had for decades played in world affairs. (Note: this was written prior to the Trump presidency.) Drawing on the expertise of Harvard's Professor Niall Ferguson, it makes clear that an American withdrawal from foreign affairs would leave the world dangerously destabilized.
After twice reading Ashlee Vance's superb bio of Elon Musk, I wondered what would be next on my bedside table. From the deep past came a recommendation for Barbara Tuchman.
Harvard-educated and with ambassadorial blood, Ms. Tuchman won Pultzers for two of her works and all were best-sellers. I'm working my way through all of them. (Like my long-time favorite author, Steve Pinker, her secret is the same — it's ninety percent talent added to ninety percent work.
I started with The Guns of August (1962,) which garnered her first Pulitzer. In fascinating depth, it tells the story of the first month of World War One — August, 1914. Wholesale slaughter was only introduced to Americans during our Civil War. This is an exclusively European tale (from all sides) as told by the politicians and generals who formulated the strategies that shaped the war (and ultimately the twentieth century.)
Delivered March 30, 2015 at the dedication of the memorial to Senator Edward Kennedy, this speech (enthusiastically applauded by many Republican congressmen), addresses the wonderful spirit of bipartisanship that Kennedy championed, even in his spirited debates with leading conservative voices like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.
This 2011 speech to the US Congress by Israeli Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu was a stunner. It received dozens of standing ovations from the entire Congress. It hits many of the difficult issues that plague the on-going Israeli/Palestinian negotiations.
I don't condone Edward Snowden's going public with details of NSA's PRISM, but I agree with several of his assertions in this interview. Nonetheless, the 911 World Trade Center attacks, as well as the attacks in Oklahoma City and Boston, make it clear just how easy it is to cause death and destruction on a massive scale. Obviously, protecting the public both from terror plots and from excessive surveillance requires an on-going careful balance.
Starting in 2004, a series of books appeared on the bad aspects of religion: mindless belief in miracles, faith, and dogma and the crimes committed in their name. The courageous authors of those books have several online videos. Here are some favorites.
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion
Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell
Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great
My view is that religion can have many positive aspects,
well exemplied by my many religious friends who do
I personally favor secular humanism —
traditional virtues and positive psychology without the miracles and the dogma.
(Ok, perhaps it would be even better if we had some inspiring gospel singers.)
Optimism, hope, love, kindness, charity, and compassion are wonderful — the propagation of fairy stories and falsehood is not.
(There is one grand supernal miracle — the unfolding of the Universe.)
The notion that our Universe is just one of the 10500 predicted by string-theory is a cop-out.
The animator here captures the spirit of Earth's biosphere, a living wonder, that all of us must work to preserve.
Above is one in an inspired series by musician John Boswell. See the others here — Symphony of Science.
A beautiful (and family friendly) animation stepping successively down to the smallest objects and up to the largest objects in the Universe. Click each object for pop-up info.
Poet Laureate Maya Angelou's lovely poem, written in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
The angelic voice of Enya combined with a sublime tour of the heavens —
and the beauty of untrammeled Earth.
And, here in
Enya's Caribbean Blue.
Another sumptuous collection of fantastic images of Earth, the Universe, and the Surreal. We are part of something far bigger than we can imagine.
Science strives to explain Reality: Spirit, at its most transcendent, restores its Unity.
An incredible melding of physics and music from artist engineer Nigel Stanford. Resonance lies at the beating heart of aesthetics and spirit.
This video by Peter Russell has long been a favorite.
In half an hour he presents the history of life and mankind.
Humanity has such destructive potential that we may perish unless
we can make sacrifices for a sustainable future.
A beautiful collection of thirty three videos including ones by Steve Jobs, Randy Pausch, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama.
Here, Joseph Campbell's work on the Hero's Journey is concisely illustrated with clips from The Matrix.
In this TED video Josh Klein describes a vending machine he built for crows.
They're amazingly intelligent tool users.
When I backpack, I observe the Clark's Nutcrackers, another of the Corvidae. They can remember thousands of seed caches.
(I know my readers have all seen the wonderful 2009 movie Avatar — and we're all waiting for Avatar 2 (it'll come out in 2020.) I wrote this review when it first appeared. You may still enjoy the links.)
With breath-taking 3D graphics and a better-than-expected script
Avatar (like the original, 1977 Star Wars ) is a film I will see more than once.
(Here, I'm resisting the urge to dis the recent new Star Wars movie. Yeah, it was a big commercial success — but so is Donald Trump.)
While the script borrows heavily from the past
(At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Dune, Fern Gully,
Dancing With Wolves), it's a great reworking of important themes.
The main dramatic conflict is a high tech army of mercenaries in the employ of a multinational corporation exploiting the natural resources of a native people who live in a pristine jungle. Sound familiar? Think Big Oil drilling for petroleum in the Amazon or Brazilian agribusiness burning forests to graze cattle. Readers of this website know my sentiments. Even my conservative friends shrink from this kind of unconscionable 19th century exploitation. World Ending in 2012? (Vote for Sarah!)
A less readily defensible position taken by Avatar is the notion of the peacefulness and bliss of native pre-technological peoples - the assumption of the Noble Savage — that people uncorrupted by technology are less prone to violence than are modern folk.
(Of course, in fiction, to heighten drama, anything goes — but some may confuse art with life.)
Some may think that technologic society is becoming more violent. That would be wrong. Watch Harvard Professor Steve Pinker's TED Talk on the myth of violence of to be set straight.
In 1651 in Leviathan Thomas Hobbs
concludes that "(in primitive societies) the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
And, what of the avatars — meat puppets animated remotely
by the spirits of others?
Avatars have been a staple of sci fi since Wm. Gibson's Neuromancer and Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash .
An explosion of online verisimilitude is just around the corner (especially in 2016) and
somewhat later in robotic avatars .
Telepresence is now widely commercialized as in this video of Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci robot).
This is also one of the near-in paths to immortality as in Gordon Bell's Total Recall.
In the near future our online avatars will represent us politically. Facebook 2025 may be your online rep working for you 24 by 7 by 365 - coming soon to an internet near you.)
Most uplifting in Avatar is the transcendent spirit and natural wisdom
of the Na'vi (the natives) as they live in harmony with the Pandoran forest world.
Gut-level communion with Nature is gone in modern man. However, that spirit burned brightly in the writings of John Muir, of Carl Sagan, and of Thomas Berry.
The measure of our technology is whether it heightens or suppresses that spirit.
In 2010, Avatar dollars helped rescue California from avarice. James Cameron's one million dollar donation helped squash California Prop. 23, a greedy, short-sighted attempt by Big Oil to kill clean energy.)
Salman Khan started tutoring math to his relatives and
now is teaching math and science to the world via his videos at Khan Academy.
This is the future of education and the internet.
This is a stunning TED talk.
Sam is a high school student with progeria (vastly accelerated aging.)
His lifespan will be short, but he makes the most of every day.
And, here's another beautifully inspiring TED talk by Isaac Lidsky,
who asks, "What reality are you creating for yourself?"