My father, Roger Lines, was a research forester, working for the Forestry Commission. When, in the early 1970’s, I did my Statistics O-Grade I was fortunate to be able to help with some real research at the, then fairly newly established, Forestry Commission Northern Research Station. I was chopping young Sitka Spruce trees, grown under different conditions, in half at the basal node, and weighing the root and stem halves to determine how the environment in which is it grown affects where the plant puts its energy.
On the door of my father’s office was, in lieu of an official plaque with a job title, a clipping, presumably from some forestry journal, which simply said ‘Mr Acid Rain’
Acid Rain was one of my fathers many forestry related specialities. In earlier years soot from factories and power generation had been deposited on nearby vegetation, (and building and clothes on washing lines) physically blackening them and cutting off the light. The Clean Air Act of 1956 had greatly reduced smoke, but the sulphur which was still being emitted from the higher chimneys which were then being used was carried by the prevailing winds across the North Sea, where is acidified the rain falling on the Norwegian forests, stunting their growth.
Six hundred years later, in March 2021, another gigantic Treasure Ship sailing from the far east along roughly the same route, sailed past Yemen, but became stuck in the Suez Canal. This time Europe was immediately aware, and not simply because it made a dramatic story, there was a real impact on some prices and on availability of some items. (This is slightly reminiscent of the expected effect on the price of goods when the sailing barque Kishon was due to arrive at some destinations, but on a much larger scale).
Another item dominating the news in March 2021 was the Covid-19 pandemic, and how vaccines – developed with impressive swiftness, could be fairly distributed around the world. Although the various vaccines tend to be associated with particular countries (or even cities – unless it is just around here that the Astra-Zenica vaccine tends to be called the Oxford vaccine), supply chain difficulties tend to reveal how interconnected all the items required to create a vaccine which can be delivered to people really are. The interconnected nature of today’s world also makes a worldwide response to the pandemic essential, as if there are large populations of people who are transmitting the virus then it will mutate amongst that group, and will re-emerge as a new threat.
The worldwide flow of goods, information, wealth and problems.
As an aside I am currently reading ‘Good Economics for Hard Times‘ which has some interesting commentary, by Nobel Prize in Economics winning authors, on the traditional thinking on Free Trade, Globalisation, Migration etc. This article is already long enough, but I really recommend this book if you are interested in the economic issues raised by our Interconnected World.
Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.
It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.
The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)
To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.
Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.
How do They decide ?
If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.
If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.
All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?
This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.
Do we decide ?
I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.
A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.
This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.
In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.
The reasoned feedback loop is central to human progress. Feedback loops are everywhere, but the key element introduced by people is the Reason step. It is core to the way that science works, and engineering, and good (I wish I could think of a better word here), legal, moral and political systems.
In such loops things are in some state, which is examined, and reasoning is applied to do something, to get to a new – intended to be better – state. This seems very abstract, so I will supply some examples to show what I mean. I will also point out where access to information is important in this.
To many non-scientists, the role of a scientist is to know things, but real science starts with not knowing something, but wanting to find out. Scientists start off not knowing, for example if there is a connection between smoking and cancer, or where the energy that powers the sun comes from. They perform experiments, or apply statistical tests, and reasoning, and the end state is an increase in human knowledge.
The success of this process depends on open sharing of the information and reasoning used make the new discovery. Usually these are published in scientific journals, for fellow scientists to see if they can reproduce the results, and examine the reasoning.
Accurate measurement and good data is essential to all science, and in medicine this is particularly the case, which is why I support the Cochrane foundation – which promoted evidence based medicine, and the All Trials campaign, which pushes for the results of all drug trials, not only the favourable ones, to be made available.
Applying the Reasoning stage is particularly important in the face of a global pandemic. Denying it exists, or humanizing it leads to worse outcomes. An epidemic is the bad kind of a positive feedback loop leading to the bad outcomes, and rationally applied strategies can push towards the good outcomes, as described in ‘Is Coronavirus a Catastrophe‘
I shall use the British system here, as it is the one I am most familiar with, and because – despite it’s flaws – it is the result of many people over a long time trying to do The Right Thing.
The Law is not perfect, change can be frustratingly slow, and implementation often fails to match the ideal, but potentially it uses the same process of a reasoned feedback loop as science does.
British Law is made by Acts of Parliament, proposed, discussed and voted on by elected MPs. These discussions are publicly available in Hansard. They are not the most exciting reading, but these parts at least are public.
When there is doubt about the meaning of a law, this is decided by the Court system, refining this through the appeals system until a final judgement is reached. To make these judgements the lawyers use Hansard to try to work out what Parliament intended by the law, and the judgement of previous courts (precedent), to try to make the law as fair as possible. Most of the body of ‘case law‘ is in legal libraries, not published on the Internet, but, for example the British and Irish Legal Information Institute does make many cases available.
Parliament should (and usually does) take existing case law into account when passing Acts which replace previous laws.
Systems where knowledge important to bits of this process are hidden from wider view tend to work less well, as there is more chance that some key information will be missed. If the information is not available to decision makers (for example if their primary source of information are biased lobbyists – and there is no way to review the accuracy of what they have been told) they will make poorer decisions.
The Internet, the core part, which should be distinguished from the things which run on top of it, is another example of the effectiveness of open decision making and transparency being used to drive progress. The ‘laws’ of the Internet are a set of documents called Requests for Comments, and they most important of these are published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The final versions of these can be found on the web site of the RFC Editor. Those which are Standards are produced by IETF Working Groups, and the discussions which lead to the final documents are openly available (and open to public contribution).
In general for something to be a Standard there must be at least two interoperable implementations.
The guiding principles of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) an guiding committee of the IETF, is that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ making the ethical framework explicit.
Coronavirus is on everyone’s mind at present, including mine at about half past 5 this morning, when my mobile phone made an alert sound, but I could not find any message. There was a quick flash of what looked like the NHS Covid-19 app, which I have recently installed. In the way that the brain does in mind-wandering mode (as described in The Organized Mind) a connection between the Covid-19 Pandemic and Catastrophe Theory came into my mind. I have not done any of the mathematical modelling needed to take demonstrate that Covid-19 is a Catastrophe in the mathematical sense, but, as it feels like one, wanted to explore some of the implications.
Catastrophe theory is used to model systems which can be in one of two semi stable states, and switch rapidly from one to another. Classic examples are the financial markets, which can switch from being a Bull Market to a Bear Market or house price booms and busts.
Feedback is an essential part of these systems. In the case of the financial markets the controlling factor is investor confidence. If people are confident about the future they will buy houses, or shares, the price will go up, others will see this rise and also want to buy shares, or houses. In an infectious disease case the controlling factor is the rate at which the disease is spreading.
If every person who has Covid-19 passes it on to more than one person then it will spread, becoming a epidemic, with a potential end point of being endemic, that is to say in a widespread stable state, like flu. In the case of Covid-19 there will be medical penalty to pay if this happens. Medical resources need to be spent dealing with patient treatment, both for acute patients in Intensive Care Units and for chronic cases – the Long Covid cases. This is one possible stable state.
On the other hand if Covid-19 can be brought under control, then there is an opportunity for it to eliminated at a national level, as may be feasible for China and New Zealand. Medical resources are focussed on rapid detection of cases and preventing transmission. This is another possible stable state, and has been reached worldwide for some diseases, such as smallpox. This requires good data, and a rational plan of action, an example of the situations I describe in ‘The reasoned feedback loop‘.
If the world becomes divided between countries where Covid-19 is endemic and those where it is eliminated then this has major implications for tourism and international travel. Will tourists from a Covid-free country wish to visit one where there is a good chance they will catch a disease which may make them seriously ill. Even with the development of a vaccine it will be harder to avoid catching Covid-19 than, for example Typhoid or Yellow Fever due to the differences in the way these diseases are transmitted.
If you travel by train from London Marylebone to Oxford the announcements are in Chinese as well as English, as Bicester Village, which is served by that route, was very popular with Chinese tourists. If Britain becomes one of the countries where Covid-19 is widespread, and China becomes one where it is rare then I wonder if those tourists will return.
In 1950 the physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question “Where is everybody ?“, by which he meant – given the size of the universe, the diversity of life on earth, occupying every ecological niche, and the fact that the Solar System is a fairly average star system; why do we not see signs of extra terrestrial life ?
In 1961 Frank Drake formalised the question of the number of intelligent life forms in the universe into the Drake Equation (spelt out in full in the Wikipedia article). As a brief summary it multiplies the number of stars by the chances of a star having habitable planets, and then considers how many of those go on to develop life, and from those what chance that life will develop intelligence. Finally it considers the chances of us detecting that intelligent life. Since 1961 we have better data for some of the parts of the equation – for example we now have direct(ish) observation of planets in other solar systems. I am not going to go into all the factors in detail, but I have had personal interest in some of them.
When I did Sixth Year Studies biology, you had to perform and write up an experiment, and I re-created – as best I could in a school biology lab, Millers experiment. This was an experiment which showed that the more complex chemicals needed for life (amino acids) can arise spontaneously from the chemicals expected to be in the atmosphere of an early earth (or earth-. This involved explosive chemicals, sparks, Bunsen burners and other potentially exciting items, so in those days I was allowed a free hand to set this up, and it did produce some result – although in a school environment it is difficult to be sure this was not the result of contamination. Also not as dramatic as I had hoped !
If you use some reasonable assumptions into the Drake Equation (there are a number of calculators on the internet where you can try out different factors, such as one provided by the BBC) you find there could be quite a lot of civilisations in our galaxy, let alone the whole universe. The great distances alluded to earlier might explain why they have not dropped in on us, but might we be able to detect their presence in the sky ? This process of using (mostly) our radio telescopes to listen for signs of intelligent life is known as SETI, and has been undertaken since at least the 1960’s, but so far has (mostly) not found anything. This lack of demonstrable contact with other beings, in the context of the numbers of civilisations there could be out there is known as the Fermi Paradox. The Wikipedia article gives several possible explanations, one of which being that Civilizations broadcast detectable radio signals only for a brief period of time.
Listening to the radio
When I was at school we made what was essentially a crystal radio, by dropping a long piece of wire out of the physics laboratory window (which was on the second floor), and using a diode to demodulate the signal – that is to extract the sound signal from the Amplitude Modulated (AM) radio waves, and an earpiece to listen to Radio One. There was no amplification, and the tuning came mostly from the length of the aerial being around a quarter of the Radio One wavelength. I also build a Sinclair matchbox radio, which was not a lot more complicated than that crude crystal radio.
Frequency Modulated (FM) radio is more complex to decode, but can be built from general purpose components by an electronics enthusiast, and if we on earth detected FM signals from some alien source we would recognise them as containing information, even if we were unable to decode the language. Even a television receiver, in the days before Digital Television, could be built by a hobbyist and the signal was quite recognisable . With digital radio and digital television the signal is much more complex, and used Data Compression to carry many channels in the space which used to just carry one.
My mother did an Open University degree in the late 1970’s and part of the coursework was broadcast in the middle of the night. These broadcasts ceased in 2006, and the frequency they used now carries about a dozen shopping channels. Ironically, from an information science point of view, this counts as carrying much more information ! The flip side of this is that all the regularities in the signal, which might give a clue to its contents, are eliminated. Unless you know where to start then decoding a digital TV signal is very hard. In addition any signals, of any kind, which are sent out into space are – from the point of view of the broadcaster, a waste of energy. Many of the signals are now travelling through wires, or optical fibres, rather than being broadcast, thus increasing proportions of TV are watched over the Internet rather than over the airwaves. This drive towards communication efficiency is likely to mean that the radio (or electromagnetic) output from an advanced civilisation may not be detectable even with our sensitive instruments.
An alternative route to contacting other civilisations, would be to send a small robotic space ship. This would be take a long time to arrive, given the distances involved, and even at the speed of light, and there are many hazards which will deplete the number which can be expected to arrive.
The book ‘The Anthropic Cosmological Principle‘ has a section which attempts to demonstrate, by considering the age of the universe, and the distances involved, that humans have a special place in the universe as other intelligent life forms could create robot space craft which could reach other solar systems, and use their resources to create copies of themselves, which go on to reach new systems, and so on. The authors argue that, as we are not seeing such craft, we must be alone in the universe.
This can be looked at from two directions – if we sent a number of space probes from earth, what are the chances of them returning information about an alien civilisation, and – if an alien civilisation had send a space probe to us and it arrived, what are the chances we would know it was there ? A calculation, similar to the Drake Equation, may give us an idea of whether the answer to the lack of known probes from space is due to this being harder than it may appear.
Computer Systems Reliability
In the early days of my career at Harwell I was working on Computer system Reliability. This gave me some insights into the many and varied ways that computers can go wrong. Colleagues were investigating the effects on silicon chips of being bombarded with nuclear particles, as would be required for space hardening, as we had access to nuclear reactors. The on board computers for any form of interstellar probe will have to function for centuries, in an environment which is much harsher than on earth, where the atmosphere shields us from cosmic rays.
Mean Time Between Failures
When we calculate the percentage of failure of our space probes due to equipment malfunction we will be using concept of Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF), i.e. how long, average are they expected to operate. For example a Cisco PIX firewall has an MTBF of over 11 years. While there is some pressure to develop and market devices with an MTBF of, say 20 years, this is mostly so that the expected failure rate within, say 5 years, will be very low. Manufacturers have no interest in developing equipment which will last significantly beyond the time that it becomes obsolete. We have little real experience of items in use for over 100 years, the Centennial Light being a rare exception, and even its story provides a useful lesson in how tricky reliability can be, as in 2013 it appeared to have burnt out, but it turned out that the Uninterruptible Power Supply which powered it had failed.
Modulated Launch Laser
If the laser system used to push the probes was modulated to carry a signal, it would not reduce its efficiency greatly, but would be an additional signalling method, which would help with the Fermi Paradox issue that everyone could be listening, but nobody is sending. (what to send – thought experiment – show message to ant colony, dolphin, chimpanzee, octopus, primitive tribesman …)
Explorers and colonists
Another possibility for reaching the stars is to go there ourselves (or for another civilisation from another star to come here). Much as I would like there to be Faster Than Light travel of some form, as is the staple of much science fiction, I take the lack of any evidence of alien visits to be a sign that this is impossible. That leaves the slow route. There are many proposed solutions for this, but they are all huge projects, which will require the explorers and colonists to spend many lifetimes in space, in a Generation ship, before reaching their destination. Our rate of progress into space seems to have slowed – I was very disappointed when by the year 2001 there was not an almost routine, airline like, space flight. Unlike the expectations of science fiction we do not have colonies on the moon, miners in the asteroid belt, and although there is talk of a manned expedition to Mars, I would say that a permanent population somewhere else in the solar system was a prerequisite to an attempt to reach another star. Many of our ideas of the colonisation of space are influenced by the colonisation of America, however, as I described in Amazing Love, Demographics and Mass migrations, one of the reasons the people of Europe were willing to go to such risk and expense to undertake such a hazardous journey was that they were being pushed by population pressure at home. The parts of the world which have the capacity for a mass migration into the Solar system, let alone the stars, have already undergone a demographic transition, and a stable, mature populations lacks the incentive to emigrate to a less comfortable life.
Stephen Hawkin, in his posthumously published book ‘Brief Answers to the Big Questions‘ discusses the question ‘Is there other intelligent life in the universe ?’ , which he starts with a description of entropy, the measure of disorder in a system, which the second law of thermodynamics tells us is always increasing. Life creates a local decrease in entropy – a more ordered part of the universe – at the cost of a larger increase in entropy somewhere else.
As we attempt to communicate with other solar systems we are exporting order from our closed system, at a rate which has to be higher than the (pretty huge) rate at which the entropy is already increasing due to natural processes in the sun.