Posts Tagged ‘science’

The latest trend seems to be reading what the rich and powerful read. I regularly peruse these lists of recommendations and occasionally an interesting title catches my eye. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is one of those books.

For a while now this book has been in my ‘highly parallel reading queue.’ This is to say that my usual method of reading consists of a bookshelf of a hundred or so books that I’m somewhere in the midst of reading. From this bookshelf, a subset of about 20 find their way to a smaller bookshelf. These will be read randomly a chapter or so at a time until I’ve worked my way through them and have to reload from the primary bookshelf. Occasionally, as with my last reviewed book, I’ll do a cover-to-cover in a burst, but that is the exception. I’ve got some books that I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years (75% footnote material).

Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished a book there has been a fair amount of reflection and integration that’s taken place. The material in The Sixth Extinction is fairly heavy stuff. It’s not that the science is particularly difficult or that the writing requires you to keep a tablet handy for side exploration (I love side exploration). The thing is that if you have a decent understanding of the history of the planet (so far as we have come to understand it) and appreciate the impact that man can and does have on the biosphere, then by the time you finish the book, you’ll come away with a sense of profound sadness.

I’m a fan of John Brunner‘s work. He had a way of making the large scale personal. He also had a habit of killing off all his main characters within the first ten pages of his books (yes, this is a bit of hyperbole). In many of his works there is a sense that things aren’t going to work out, but you keep pulling for the hero anyway.

The Sixth Extinction is a methodical tour of the effects of the age of man (Anthropocene epoch). It takes us around the world, unblinkingly moving from one die-off in progress to the next. It puts a face and a context to each creature we’re introduced to. If the books thirteen chapters were made into a season of television, it would be the most stunningly depressing series ever. Whereas Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos appealed to our better nature and James Burke‘s Connections left us asking if we were any more than cogs, The Sixth Extinction ends with rats inheriting the Earth.

This may all sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s one of those mirror books that is a distinct departure from all the wishing that we lived back in 1950’s America or how can we become millionaires by eating the same breakfast as Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. We need to read books that show us the big picture. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

Many books on bad situations leave us with a call to action. Realistically though, the damage has been done. The question is one of how long it will take for all the dominoes to fall. For the vast majority of people, asking them to look further than their tribe is near unto impossible. Asking people to consider the planet, therefore, represents an intractable problem.

Read the book, if for no other reason than to come away with a greater appreciation of the impact of man on the planet.

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One of the interesting things that happens to me when I attend events like yesterday’s PDX Summit III is that it gets me thinking about things in a new and more connected way. For many who know me this will be perceived to mean that for some indeterminate length of time that I’ll be a bit more random than usual.

To misappropriate the Bard, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are accessible from your contact list.”

This morning I started reading Galileo’s Telescope and it got me thinking in terms of the big data / open source elements brought up at the summit. Before you injure your neck doing that head tilt puzzled look thing that dogs do, let me explain.

I have a great affinity toward data visualization. I could probably press my own olive oil with the stack of books I’ve got on the subject. So when I saw that Galileo had written a text entitled Sidereus Nuncius, my first thought was, “if you took nuncius (message) and pushed it forward into present day English, you’d end up at announce, denounce and enounce. What if you pushed it backward in time? How about sideways toward French? If we visualized this map, what would it look like? How would we navigate it?

I’ve always found it fascinating how speech informs thought. We live in a society where using ‘little words’ is encouraged in an effort to be more inclusive. The problem is that these ‘big words’ aren’t big for the sake of big. They encapsulate entire concepts and histories. We talk about ‘the big picture,’ ‘big data,’ and the like, but in our attempt to make it all accessible all we seem to be doing is creating a meaningless assemblage of words and acronyms, that at the end of the day, have the precision of a ten pound sledgehammer in a omelet shop.

What if instead of constantly, reducing our communication to the green card, red card of sports; we instead could point to the 21st century version of Korzybski’s Structural Differential and literally be on the same page? How would language acquisition be improved for both native and foreign languages, if you could build understanding based on the natural evolution of the language’s concept basis? What would the impact on science be if we could visualize past crossover points between disciplines? How much more readily would students learn the concepts of computer science and engineering if they could put present day abstractions into the context of past constraints rather than simply memorizing a given language, framework or operating system’s implementation?

Yeah, this is one of those posts that has no conclusion. It’s a digital scribble intended to be a jumping off point for future endeavors.

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