4%

“What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.”  – Ecclesiastes 3:9-14 (NIV)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012. What a day. As I write this, it’s Tuesday evening (EST)…frankly, I’m trying to regroup and reflect. What follows are several threads from here. Please don’t feel constrained to ponder these selfsame issues. Instead, feel free to come up with your own list. What has mattered to you over the past 24 hours? What puzzled you? Why? What do you feel led to do about it? Please take five minutes to sort through some of this before returning to your daily responsibilities.

_________________

First and foremost? I walked in this morning to find a voice mail left just a few minutes before from a close friend and colleague. He was alerting me to the fact he wouldn’t be in today. Why? Because he’d had a heart attack over the weekend. He was calling on his cellphone from ICU.

But of course he’s… “all right.” Later in the day…twice, in fact, he called me back. He’s been helping me with some work issues. He had some ideas to share.

Hmm.

Then, to pick up another random thread…this a cover story, entitled Over-regulated America, in this week’s issue of The Economist. [Fails to compare with my friend’s situation. But please bear with me.]  Several articles cover different aspects of our challenge. As you might expect (it’s The Economist), the bulk of the coverage is devoted to Dodd-Frank, rules changes in the regulatory framework governing the financial sector, triggered by the 2008 economic meltdown. The Dodd-Frank legislation runs over 800 pages (compared with Glass-Steagall, its Great-Depression predecessor, which was a mere 37 pages). But Dodd-Frank is a fractal, the merest tip of the iceberg. Just the 11 pages it devotes to the so-called Volcker rule, when converted to regulations, expands to 300 pages. Banks are hiring thousands of employees to deal with compliance (for regulations that are still being written) at the same time they’re letting people go who had been doing actual banking. Regulatory costs will run into the billions of dollars for the larger firms. But they don’t mind so much because the compliance burden will fall disproportionately on the smaller firms who are their competitors.

A companion article looks at a parallel ramp-up underway in the complexity of environmental regulation, on coal-fired plants (new requirements on mercury emissions, soot, and so forth), and nuclear plants (delays occasioned to allow the cautionary lessons of the Fukushima reactors to be incorporated into the new rules). The implication? The future belongs to (artificially?) cheap natural gas.

Why delve into all this here? It’s more than just the connection to environmental policy. If we believe that the key to sustainable living on the real world is accelerated innovation, then policy regimes and regulatory frameworks that are growing more stultifying pose a serious concern. It’s not a threat that those in Earth observation, science and services are equipped to handle, but neither is it a test we’re free to ignore. Whether scientists, engineers, emergency managers, business leaders, school teachers, journalists, or politicians, we all have to contend with this paramount challenge.

Another thread…further on, in The Economist’s science and technology section of the same issue…there’s an article about the astronomers’ search for dark matter and dark energy.  Are you like me? Then you’ve been only vaguely aware of these topics. The Economist provides a chance to bone up. The magazine has an amazing knack for making the most abstract science accessible.  [My uncle the plasma physicist has been rhapsodizing about this the last several times we’ve been together. I think I’m finally catching the fever.]

Here’s a summary of a summary. Picture scientists slowly coming to the conclusion that what you and I have thought about as matter our whole lives (the stuff we and the Earth and other planets and the stars are made of) is only 4% of the stuff in the universe. Dark matter – stuff not made of the atoms that we spent all that time learning about – maybe at most another 22%. All the rest, the other 74% or so, is dark energy, a form of energy nothing like our everyday experience. Examine as we might the Navier-Stokes equations, or Maxwell’s equations, or the laws of radiative transfer as we apply them in our field…we’ll find them silent on these subjects.

Picture efforts of those same astronomers to equate dark energy with something the quantum physicists know a under the name of vacuum energy. However, they find a little discrepancy. Sort of like not knowing whether climate change will amount to 2-4 degrees Celsius, or maybe twice that. Only here they’re in possible disagreement by a factor of 1060 to 10120 (!!! Do any of us, even the scientists among us, have a real feel for just how vast this discrepancy is?). Unless, that is, the excess density of dark energy might be stored in perhaps half a dozen spatial dimensions additional to the three in the equations we typically use.

Is your head spinning? Mine is.

This topic just might level the playing field between the general public and climate scientists. The lay public, hearing scientists debate climate change and its particulars, find it hard to separate fact from conjecture. My guess is, when it comes to dark matter and dark energy, climate scientists are in the same boat as the general public. We all struggle to get our minds around the notions that the cosmologists and the quantum theorists are debating. Figure out whether anybody is right and someone else is wrong? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Only difference? They don’t seem to be stealing and publishing each other’s e-mails, and vilifying each other along the way. Or maybe they are… maybe it’s all happening in the fifth or sixth dimension somewhere  so we can’t see or hear it.

But in our 4% of the universe, we all seem to be a bit more territorial, a little more tribal.

The warp? All the threads above. The woof, those verses from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

What a marvelous universe. How little we know about it. Do we understand what it’ll do next… even that 4%? How completely it mesmerizes and amazes us. How beautiful it is. And that beauty includes each of us. We’re each of us a part of this universe. And our material being (call us the 4 percenters), and our thought processes are beautiful in their time.

Are you a scientist, of whatever stripe? A policymaker? Of whatever party? A journalist or an educator? An emergency manager? A resource extractor? An environmentalist? A reader of this post? Of all people, we are privileged to eat and drink, and enjoy our toil. Wherever you are today or tonight in this world, you, like me, are among the privileged few.  But do we see the satisfaction in our work? Or only frustration?

And of all people, we ought to be happy and do good.

I wasn’t any of that today. Out of sorts from beginning to end. Deo volente, I hope to get a little closer to that ideal tomorrow.

I bet I’ll find you there ahead of me.

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4 Responses to 4%

  1. Jeremy says:

    Funny…I spent an evening last week pondering the mysteries of the planets, and the awesomeness of biology, and was thinking of you at the time, in fact. (because you could surely inform my amateur exploration of the subject matter)

    I marveled at continental drift (or not), global snowballs, evolution of mitochondria and anaerobic bacteria, oxygen creation on the young earth, snakes and whales with vestigial feet, etc. While one might be intimidated by the consequences to one’s belief systems, instead, I was just in awe of the wonder of it all. Spectacular beyond measure.

  2. Just to add to your angst…Big Government spawns Big Regulations that only Big Business and Big Unions can comply with, driving the little guys to distraction (or out of business). And yet we all know that 80% of our jobs come from small businesses, and virtually all of our new jobs come from startups. Even worse, these marvelous new financial regulations are going to make it much harder for communities stricken by disasters to get back on their feet. Why? Because Big Banks lend on the basis of [Big] numbers, community banks lend on the basis of relationships.

    Kinda makes you wonder if someone (Congress? The White House?) has forgotten that if you can’t explain something briefly, then you really don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Maybe I should pay more attention to Dark Matter…

    • :) Good points, John. It really is a serious national/worldwide challenge. At precisely the moment in history where we have to be our most adaptive, it often feels instead like we’re ossifying…

  3. Anteros says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. It made me think a bit, shift my perspective, and even see my own existence in a slightly different way.

    Thank you for that – it was part of an unremarkable day worth commenting on :)

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