Pushing the boundaries.

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein

This past Thursday, January 15, Will Steffen of the Australian National University and seventeen co-authors generated a bit of media stir with the electronic publication of their paper in the journal Science: Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet. Their paper merits a fuller read, but access to it is somewhat restricted. Suffice it to say for present purposes that the paper builds on a framework put forward in 2009 by a group led by Steffen and Johan Rockstrom from the Stockholm Resilience Center. While you can find a fuller summary of the framework in Wikipedia, an excerpt of that latter article gives the basics:

The framework of “planetary boundaries” is designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity” for the international community, including governments at all levels, international organizations, civil society, the scientific community and the private sector, as a precondition for sustainable development. This framework is based on scientific research that indicates that since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have gradually become the main driver of global environmental change. The scientists assert that once human activity has passed certain thresholds or tipping points, defined as “planetary boundaries”, there is a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. The scientists identified nine Earth system processes which have boundaries that, to the extent that they are not crossed, mark the safe zone for the planet. However, because of human activities some of these dangerous boundaries have already been crossed, while others are in imminent danger of being crossed…

The proposed framework of planetary boundaries lays the groundwork for shifting approach to governance and management, away from the essentially sectoral analyses of limits to growth aimed at minimizing negative externalities, toward the estimation of the safe space for human development. Planetary boundaries define, as it were, the boundaries of the “planetary playing field” for humanity if major human-induced environmental change on a global scale is to be avoided…

…Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be highly damaging or even catastrophic, due to the risk of crossing thresholds that trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems. The 2009 study identified nine planetary boundaries and, drawing on current scientific understanding, the researchers proposed quantifications for seven of them. These seven are climate change (CO2 concentration in the atmosphere < 350 ppm and/or a maximum change of +1 W/m2 in radiative forcing); ocean acidification (mean surface seawater saturation state with respect to aragonite ≥ 80% of pre-industrial levels); stratospheric ozone (less than 5% reduction in total atmospheric O3 from a pre-industrial level of 290 Dobson Units); biogeochemical nitrogen (N) cycle (limit industrial and agricultural fixation of N2 to 35 Tg N/yr) and phosphorus (P) cycle (annual P inflow to oceans not to exceed 10 times the natural background weathering of P); global freshwater use (< 4000 km3/yr of consumptive use of runoff resources); land system change (< 15% of the ice-free land surface under cropland); and the rate at which biological diversity is lost (annual rate of < 10 extinctions per million species). The two additional planetary boundaries for which the group had not yet been able to determine a boundary level are chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading.

The figure below is one of numerous depictions of the nine boundaries; tables and text in the Wikipedia link provide additional detail. One especially important and welcome feature is the emphasis on the zone of uncertainty characterizing the boundaries, and the careful nature of discussion of this uncertainty and its implications. The Wikipedia article also provides a portal to some of the debate that the original 2009 work inspired. In keeping with the spirit of Darwin’s quote on the home page of this blog, that debate may perhaps be the nine boundaries’ most useful contribution.


The current article updates the status of the nine boundaries. The authors find that four of the safe boundaries have been exceeded (the 2009 work listed only three): the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;  biogeochemical cycles (in particular, the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous into the ocean); biosphere integrity (the extinction rate); and land-system change (deforestation). The authors also further develop the basic planetary boundary framework, introducing a two-tier approach to accommodate heterogeneity at regional levels; update the quantification of most of the planetary boundaries; argue that two of the boundaries – climate-change and biosphere integrity – are “core,” and more.

Reading this newest update to the nine-boundaries discussion prompts two thoughts. First, the entire paper speaks of trends but stops short of estimating a time frame during which each of the safe boundaries might be exceeded (unless it has been exceeded already). That’s undoubtedly wise in many respects. However, our community is in the business of forecasts, and we’ve learned that making forecasts has a marvelous ability to focus minds, foster accountability, make evaluation more pointed, and thus accelerate the advance of knowledge and understanding. By analogy, consider how hurricane forecasts of landfall (both location and time) drive societal response. Much of this is clearly going on across the IPCC realm, but we’re only scratching the surface; we could perhaps use such a “stretch” goal[1]. Surely it would help to have an idea, however rudimentary, of “how much time we have,” and how we might buy ourselves more such time.

Second, nine boundaries for the globe as a whole, with infrequent updates, even by a large group such as the eighteen authors of this paper, or the hundreds or thousands of contributors to the IPCC reports, leaves most of the world’s seven billion people as uninvolved spectators. When we see excellent reports such as this one, the rest of us might do well contemplate the personal boundaries that limit our own behavior or accomplishments or contributions to global problems such as this one… and explore how we might expand or push those boundaries back a bit.

[1][1]. Elsewhere in this LOTRW blog, and in the book by the same name, the suggestion is made we should follow the example set by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, with its doomsday clock.

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Four metrics: four conversations.


Four conversations – and their juxtaposition –merit our reflection on this three-day weekend. Interestingly, each swirls around an indicator.

The first is the Dow. The Dow and other stock-market indices hit new highs toward the end of 2014, but the past two weeks have seen gut-wrenching volatility for those invested (both dollar-wise and emotionally) in financial markets. Day-to-day swings of a percent or more since the first of the year have spawned a nervous buzz: Where are the markets headed? What are the root causes for the volatility? Global oil prices? Threats to the Euro? Instability in the Crimea and the Middle East? Southeast Asia? Were last year’s advances based on fundamentals? Or merely signs of a bubble? Should I buy? Sell?

The second is “Earth’s warmest-year-on-record.” In the last day or so, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released figures for 2014 suggesting that the year was the hottest in 135 years of record-keeping, and that December 2014 was the hottest December on record. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration reached similar conclusions. Needless to say, the press releases have prompted a lot of comment. Chances are good you’ll find versions of it from whatever news source you favor. One interesting read: the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang collected responses to the news from individual, well-known climate scientists; you can find CWG’s summary here.

Financial indicators and the calculations of global temperatures have been with us a while. Over time, each has nourished a cottage-industry of analysis and interpretation. Not surprisingly, in each case the news of recent days has functioned essentially as a Rorschach test. Few minds have been changed. The respective discussions show similarities; the dialog surrounding Dow-hits-new-high, or subsequent selloffs sounds much like the debate on Earth’s warmest year of record and the so-called “pause” teased out of different segments of the record in recent years.

All this is probably a good thing. It’s not much different from any-other high consequence discussion – that surrounding a hurricane making landfall, for example. Each departure of track or timing of landfall or estimated storm surge from that previously expected generates thought, reexamination of responses either planned or already underway. That constant surveillance and reinterpretation is the key to successful living on the real world.

Which brings me to the last two indicator-based conversations. The first appeared on the front page of this morning’s print edition of the Washington Post: Most public school students now living in poverty, by Lindsey Layton. The article merits reading in its entirety, but here are some (extended) excerpts:

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

“We’ve all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it’s here sooner rather than later,” said Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noting that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. “A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school.”

The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

It also means that education policy, funding decisions and classroom instruction must adapt to the needy children who arrive at school each day…

…Schools, already under intense pressure to deliver better test results and meet more rigorous standards, face the doubly difficult task of trying to raise the achievement of poor children so that they approach the same level as their more affluent peers.

“This is a watershed moment when you look at that map,” said Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, referring to a large swath of the country filled with high-poverty schools.

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people…”

The report comes as Congress begins debate about rewriting the country’s main federal education law, first passed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and designed to help states educate poor children. The most recent version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, has emphasized accountability and outcomes, measuring whether schools met benchmarks and sanctioning them when they fell short.

That federal focus on results, as opposed to need, is wrong­headed, Rebell said.

“We have to think about how to give these kids a meaningful education,” he said. “We have to give them quality teachers, small class sizes, up-to-date equipment. But in addition, if we’re serious, we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

This brings us to the fourth conversation. This one isn’t so longstanding. It took place around the kitchen table at a friend’s house only yesterday. I was sitting in as a spectator to a meeting of our church’s mission committee with a missionary who was paying the U.S. a brief visit. The seven of us were sharing a simple meal. He reported on his work with Water for Life (WFL[1]) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in Africa. For a number of years he’s been working with in-country men and women in Rwanda to build clean-water access, primarily by capturing roof-water runoff from schools and hospitals and collecting it in cisterns. More recently his work has been expanding across Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and other portions of Africa.

At one point he brought up the subject of indicators. Can’t offer a precise quote, but here’s an (inadequate) paraphrase: “You know, when we went to Rwanda [a few years ago now], we had in mind making clean water available to 100,000 people. I think we achieved that goal. If you count only the school students and the medical patients we might be a bit under. But if you include school and the hospital staffs, and the use by the larger surrounding communities, we’re probably way over. I can’t help thinking though, that the real benefit is not in that number, but the intangibles. For example, school enrollment where’ve instituted water capture is way up. Those kids who had been spending two hours a day finding water safe to drink for their families are now spending that time in class. Their entire lives are changing; they’re finally getting the education they’ll need for later in life.[2]

Two notes in closing. First, it’s hard to escape the thought that if we make education for our young people a priority here in the United States and abroad, we will see favorable consequences for both global financial markets and global temperatures over the longer haul. By contrast, if we ignore the challenge of educating our kids, the long-term outlook for both the world’s finances and the planet’s habitability will sour. Second, the Dow and the Earth’s temperatures have the look and feel of challenges that require action from small groups of leaders, either of the financial world or those directly responsible for the world’s energy infrastructure. The majority of the world’s seven billion people are being carried along for the ride. Their fates are intertwined with macro-economic success or failure and with the use of fossil fuels, but there’s little they can do day-to-day to change matters. By contrast, public education and the contributions and threats to that arising from conditions of affluence or poverty are matters that can be addressed by the population more broadly. There all of us can take matters into our own hands, can make a difference working collaboratively and locally.


[1] my apologies, couldn’t find a better website for this

[2] from the rest of our conversation, I’d estimate that YWAM and WFL are accomplishing this for a one or a few dollars-a-person-served installation costs.

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Fulfilling the Vision of Weather, Water, and Climate Information for Every Need, Time, and Place

A tall order? That’s AMS President Bill Gail’s theme for the 95th AMS Annual Meeting getting underway here in Phoenix, Arizona. Here is an (extended) excerpt:

“People, businesses, and government agencies depend increasingly on weather, water, and climate information matched to their specific needs, delivered when and where it is most useful to them. Businesses already receive just-in-time weather information to make truck routes more efficient and wind turbines more productive. Consumers optimize their daily routines around rain or severe weather. Such information increasingly factors into broad issues such as healthcare, as collaboration teams are discovering new ways to apply weather and climate information to advance preparedness. We are converging on a day when such information is embedded – often implicitly – within nearly every decision or action people take. New requirements and innovative use cases emerge almost daily. Yet the revolution in how weather, water, and climate information gets used is just beginning. It will make our lives safer, more productive, and more enjoyable – and produce billions of dollars of enhanced economic growth through reduced losses and improved economic productivity.

To enable this user revolution, the information we provide will be by necessity of higher quality, more customized to individual needs, and finely-tuned for each time and place of interest. Advances in observational systems, computational modeling, dissemination tools, and basic science can help make this possible. So can a growing cohesiveness of our multi-faceted community. Many challenging problems – in both research and applications – remain to be solved if we are to succeed. Further improvement to the collaboration and data sharing among our public, private, and academic/research sectors (and the disciplines within them) will also be required.

The challenge for our community is this: collaborate and innovate to develop – and ultimately deliver – actionable, user-specific weather, water, and climate information across spatial and temporal scales in support of our nation’s safety, health, and prosperity.”[1]

Today’s sessions open with the 15th Presidential Forum:

“Twenty five years hence, meteorology will be much different and expand far beyond the traditional weather forecast. Personal sensors will monitor weather nearly everywhere. Advanced computing will allow us to forecast at perhaps minute scales and kilometer resolutions, customized for each particular user. Post-mobile devices will enable instantaneous use of the information – even in remote areas of today’s developing nations. Transportation will be safer, businesses will operate more efficiently, events will automatically schedule around anticipated weather, and much more. Operational weather forecasts will be interlaced with new environmental elements that impact economic, health, energy, and security decisions. Many aspects of our daily lives will change forever. Climate change’s possibilities add a critical dimension to community resiliency. Should global weather patterns be altered, forecasting could become more challenging than today. The recent release of the fifth IPCC synthesis report has brought focus to this particular issue. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator, will lead the session with a keynote on her vision for the meteorology enterprise in the year 2040. Following her keynote, the panelists – representing different demographics and perspectives – will then provide their vision, accompanied by a moderated discussion among the panelists.”

Kimberley Klockow of NOAA will moderate the panel. Other panelists include, in addition to Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA: Bernadette Woods Placky, Climate Central; Mac Devine, IBM Cloud Services Division; and Curtis L. Walker, University of Nebraska.

If you’re here in Phoenix, get yourself going promptly and be part of the discussion in person. Not able to attend? There should be an on-line version available down the road.

But don’t settle for just being in the room. Formulating such views of the future isn’t intended to be a spectator sport. Each of us should actively participate. Take some time during this meeting and in the weeks ahead to formulate your own view, identify your piece of the action, and then dedicate yourself to fulfilling that vision over the next decade or so. After all it’s early January, a time for such resolutions.

And while you’re at it, ask yourself: What larger societal trends could foster or threaten such a vision of Weather, Water, and Climate Information for Every Need, Time, and Place?

Here are a few thoughts to set you thinking: This vision assumes that America (and the world) continues to develop a culture of innovation. That means more than just passive acceptance of the idea. It means vigorous, purposeful, sustained strategic investment in innovation across a broad spectrum of the world’s agenda. (Stop right there: all adjectives of the previous sentence matter; take a moment to reflect on each.) And this is not just about money. It means that innovation can’t become a political football. It can’t be relegated to an agenda for only one party or one half of the American people. And finally, it must be backed by a publication education system up to the task. This starts with STEM education but doesn’t stop there. The need is for an educational system that contributes to a public actively and thoughtfully engaged in a strong representative/participatory democracy.

Worth working toward.


[1] The remainder of the theme material focuses on execution and implementation.

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“I Am”… thoughts at the transition from 2014-2015.

The ninth of Bill Gail’s ten questions in his new book is this: do we live in a special time?

He was asking of course, whether we are at a pivotal point in world history. It is tempting to see and write about history and events in such terms. One famous book along those lines is The Hinge of Fate, published in 1950 by Winston Churchill – volume 4 in his prodigious six-volume treatise The Second World War (now there was a memoir!). In volume 4, Churchill recounted events from January 1942-June 1943, a period he saw as registering a significant change in Allied fortunes. Prior to 1942, the Allies were reeling; after mid-1943, their victory was inevitable.

In a parallel way, most of us recognize several such hinge-points in our personal histories: a choice of career; commitment to a life partner; the birth of a child; a fork in the road at work; deciding where to live, an illness or setback, and so on. And the annual change of year such as today’s offers additional opportunities to take stock and reflect.

Fact is, our lives are really a continuous sequence of such hinge-points, whether we recognize them as such or not. We call this seamless succession the present, separating the past from the future.

How we view these three periods – past, present, and future – as we live out our years plays a big role in shaping our life story. It’s easy to regret the past and fear the future, but if we allow these negative memories and concerns to rule our present, it’s difficult to lay hold of what peace of mind life has to offer, and form a foundation from which we can find satisfaction and meaning in our work and circumstances.


It has always been thus. Here’s an example:

4300 years ago, give-or-take, a Hebrew shepherd, isolated in the Midian desert, was regretting his past and fearing his future[1]. At 80 years of age, he’d had a lot of past to regret. Raised in the house of Pharaoh, he’d been frustrated by what he’d seen of the oppression of his Hebrew people by their Egyptian hosts. Once in a fit of anger he’d taken it upon himself to mete out rough justice to an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew. He’d killed the man, and had then been forced to flee for his life. He’d spent most of his adulthood in exile. And at the moment we find our shepherd, he’s having a terrifying conversation with God, who’d called to him from a burning bush. This God was sending him back to Egypt… and not just to live in the shadows. Instead, God was telling him to be bold, and visible, and to finish the job he’d wanted to do as a young man – end the oppression of his people and lead them out of Egypt. But the years of isolation and coming to terms with his earlier failings had changed Moses. They’d made him tentative, hesitant, doubtful.

He tried to talk God out of the idea, at one point even asking God His name. The answer surprised him. “My name,” God said, “is I am.[2]

As the remainder of his life unfolds, Moses is able to look back on this episode through life’s rearview mirror and recognize his conversation with God for the significant hinge-point it was. What he’d been unable to accomplish in the full vigor of his headstrong youth, he was able to achieve even as a washed-up old man – in God’s strength. The reality was that his best stretch lay ahead. Instead of having just a short time left on this earth, he had forty years to live and lead. At the end of his life and in history since, he’s been known and revered as the lawgiver, and as a man who stood up to God to plead his case – and won[3]! Talk about a comeback.


Meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers, emergency managers, social scientists, and other readers of this blog might be identifying with Moses and his regrets and doubts at this turning point in the calendar year. In addition to our personal past shortcomings and problematic individual futures, there are our corporate, community concerns. When we look to the past, we see that more than a century of effort has not attained anything like sustainable development, hazard-resilient communities, and pristine environment. Just as Moses’ earlier, youthful efforts to rouse his people had fallen on deaf ears, so it seems that few people heed our findings and warnings, on any threat. Our observations and science tell us that ahead the challenges that have thus far defeated us will be growing ever more severe.

As Earth scientists, social scientists, and practitioners of every stripe head to Phoenix for the AMS Annual Meeting, we might therefore do well to recall the words of the late Helen Mallicoat, a poet from nearby – Wickenberg, Arizona:

i amAnd then, with these words in mind, let’s live our lives the way we approach our profession. We don’t try to predict twenty years of weather at one stroke, and then collapse in frustration at our failure.

Instead, every day, we observe, predict, evaluate, improve, repeat.

We ought to be better than anyone else at doing life this same, ultimately productive way.

Happy New Year!


[1] Exodus3-4 tells the story.

[2] Frequently given to us today as YHWH, or Yahweh; theologians have puzzled over and written about this name ever since.

[3] That account is recorded in Exodus 32.

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Two books worth reading.

Regrettably, you usually see the word “reading” tied to the word “remedial” in these LOTRW posts. All too often I find myself belatedly giving attention to books I wish I’d come across years earlier, when they were first published. Could have saved myself time, been more productive and insightful in my work, and more.

You may share this problem. The reality we face has two causes. First, seven billion people are writing a lot of books while our backs are turned. We can’t keep up. And second, today most of us are doing our reading in short bursts, doing Google searches for quanta of information we need as a just-in-time next step for some task at hand. (Indeed, a case could be made that the future belongs to those who best master this new 21st-century skill.) This approach to knowledge work and problem solving means that when we’re reading something voluminous we find it hard to concentrate; we keep wondering about the opportunity cost associated with spending a large block of time on a single person’s perspective. Chances are good that there’s another book out there that might be a better use of our time – more germane to our work, perhaps, or slightly more insightful or well-researched or deep. Thought processes like this might lead to a sort of AADD. We don’t have a congenital attention-deficit disorder so much as we have acquired attention deficit disorder. As a result we don’t read books beginning-to-end so much any more.

So it’s a pleasure to suggest you buck this trend, and to commend to your reading two books that weren’t written years ago; instead, they’re actually current:


1. Roger Pielke, Jr.’s The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change, just published by The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes in November of 2014. This small (114-page) volume is wholly compatible with today’s brief attention span; it can easily be read in a single sitting, though it merits fuller, more thoughtful reflection. Mr. Pielke crisply reviews Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conclusions on the links between natural extremes, disasters, and climate change. He compares those conclusions and the assertions of others with the findings of his own research, accomplished in collaboration with a number of distinguished colleagues over past decades[1]. He is careful to acknowledge that climate change almost certainly is impacting human experience with disasters and will do so more strongly in the future. However, he argues persuasively (as he’s done in the peer-reviewed literature) that the strongest signal in the disaster-loss trends over the past century or so arises from the population growth and increased value of property and business activity worldwide over that same period. Losses are rising largely because more people and activity are in harm’s way – in hazardous coastal areas, riverine floodplains, seismically-active regions, and the like. The book reflects the author’s signature traits: reliance on comprehensively reviewed material such as the IPCC products to provide a solid context; extensive referencing of the peer-reviewed literature, and meticulous attention to the definition of terms (in this case: extreme events, climate change, risk, etc.). Happily, the book also bears Mr. Pielke’s stamp in another respect. It contains a number of his personal anecdotes and vignettes from recent years. Institutions, groups, and individuals worldwide seek his perspective and his active participation in variety of public and debates and collaborations, so he can draw from many examples, featuring more than a little controversy. Their inclusion gives the narrative a breezy, inside-baseball feel. The book closes with a brief discussion of the bearing of all this on climate policy and vice versa, and reemphasizes some of the key points from one of his earlier works, from 2010: The Climate Fix. However, given the book’s compelling conclusion that trends to date in disaster losses are the result of population growth and economic exposure, it would have been interesting to hear more of Mr. Pielke’s thoughts on policies that might target that challenge. Perhaps he was remaining true to the spirit of yet another of his books, 2007’s The Honest Broker.

AMS Book Cover-Final

2. William B. Gail’s Climate Conundrums: What the Climate Debate Reveals About Us, just published by The American Meteorological Society, in November, 2014. At 235 pages, this refreshing book will require more of your time, but is well worth the read. Mr. Gail centers his book on ten related questions, grouped into three categories:

Part I. Humans and Nature.

Are humans distinct from nature?

Can we make nature better?

Is nature sustainable?

Part II. Humans and society

Should society’s future matter to us?

Will civilization advance indefinitely?

Can we engineer everything?

Is knowledge always beneficial?

Could science and religion reconcile?

Part III. Humans and destiny

Do we live in a special time?

What will become of us?

He’s careful at the outset and throughout his book to warn that these questions don’t have “answers” in the literal sense; instead, they’re more of a Rohrschach test (as the book’s subtitle suggests). He’s not summarizing research in the mode of Mr. Pielke, but instead writing essays, in the tradition of, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Every reader of Mr. Gail’s essays will find much to like, but also one or more particular inferences that the reader feels could stand improvement (and of course, this’ll vary for each of us). In that sense, Mr. Gail’s done an admirable job of fulfilling the role described by Charles Darwin in the quote on LOTRW’s home page: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.[2] Mr. Gail has done us all a service by taking the bold step of providing preliminary answers to some big questions. He invites us to reflect and add to the conversation on each. Regardless of our role in life, we would probably all do well to take a breather from our Google searches and piecemeal work to consider these larger issues… or frame alternative questions. Much more such conversation wouldn’t just provide insight into our worldwide future; they would brighten it.

The invitation? Lay hold of these books, start reading, and offer feedback. If you’re going to the upcoming 2015 AMS Annual Meeting in Phoenix, an added opportunity: Mr. Gail’s book will be for sale at the AMS Resources Center, and he will be signing autographed copies off and on. Consult your program… or hope to get lucky and catch him in the hallway.

Not planning to buy the books? The one excuse the authors might accept: that you’re too busy writing your own, better material.


[1]In fact, the IPCC inferences are drawn in part from the work of Pielke et al. over the period, so these two bodies of work are not independent.

[2]Charles Darwin The Origins of Man, Chapter 6


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Innovation in space technology and its applications: stepping up the pace.

As hinted in an earlier LOTRW post, NASA’s Applied Sciences Program (ASP) and the 2007 NRC Report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (the Decadal Survey) have accomplished a beneficial synergism. The existence and work of the ASP contributed to the Survey’s title and helped NRC minds focus on applications during the preparation of the initial report and the mid-term assessment[1] that followed several years later. The Survey in turn gave the efforts of the ASP a much needed visibility and boost.

That synergy and its continuing promise for realizing societal benefit from NASA’s science and technology are certain to play a role in the upcoming, follow-on Decadal Survey, which will look out another ten years into the future and beyond. Any statement of task for this new Survey will no doubt embody the intent of the earlier version, which generally read as follows:

“The study will generate consensus recommendations from the Earth and environmental science and applications [emphasis added, here and below] community regarding science priorities, opportunities afforded by new measurement types and new vantage points, and a systems approach to space-based and ancillary observations that encompasses the research programs of NASA and the related operational programs of NOAA.

During this study, the committee will conduct the following tasks.

1. Review the status of the field to assess recent progress in resolving major scientific questions outlined in relevant prior NRC, NASA, and other relevant studies and in realizing desired predictive and applications capabilities via space-based Earth observations.

2. Develop a consensus of the top-level scientific questions that should provide the focus for Earth and environmental observations in the period 2005-2015.

3. Take into account the principal federal- and state-level users of these observations and identify opportunities and challenges to the exploitation of the data generated by Earth observations from space.

4. Recommend a prioritized list of measurements, and identify potential new space-based capabilities and supporting activities within NASA [Earth Science Enterprise] and NOAA [National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service] to support national needs for research and monitoring of the dynamic Earth system during the decade 2005-2015. In addition to elucidating the fundamental physical processes that underlie the interconnected issues of climate and global change, these needs include: weather forecasting, seasonal climate prediction, aviation safety, natural resources management, agricultural assessment, homeland security, and infrastructure planning.

5. Identify important directions that should influence planning for the decade beyond 2015. For example, the committee will consider what ground-based and in-situ capabilities are anticipated over the next 10-20 years and how future space-based observing systems might leverage these capabilities. The committee will also give particular attention to strategies for NOAA to evolve current capabilities while meeting operational needs to collect, archive, and disseminate high quality data products related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, land, and the near-space environment. The committee will address critical technology development requirements and opportunities; needs and opportunities for establishing and capitalizing on partnerships between NASA and NOAA and other public and private entities; and the human resource aspects of the field involving education, career opportunities, and public outreach. A minor but important part of the study will be the review of complementary initiatives of other nations in order to identify potential cooperative programs.”

Calling for the advance of both Earth science and its application is salutary, but it might also be viewed as to some extent business-as usual. The United States and other countries routinely advance space technologies and Earth system science each and every day. Nations are also harnessing that knowledge and those technological capabilities along the way.

Instead, increasing the rate of such progress ought to challenge and intrigue us more[2]. What limits that rate? Is it really only brute level of effort? Or mere luck? Or by being more disciplined in our approach to both science and applications, could we more rapidly increase our store of knowledge and the speed with which we translate any new understanding to greater public health and safety, more productive agriculture and use of water resources and energy, and a more robust environment? Surely the need for such applications is growing in scale and urgency. Just as surely, the speed and effectiveness of technology transfer should matter.

Perhaps it’s time for a more aspirational and deliberate goal, something to be more carefully articulated, but along the lines of “accelerating the advance of science and technology, and accelerating their application for societal benefit.” At the end of each decade, advancing science and the application of science ought to be more effective than it had been at the outset – not necessarily cheaper in absolute terms, but perhaps less expensive relative to the return on investment, and quicker and surer to reach useful application.

The earlier LOTRW post gave an illustration from genomic mapping. Reductions in the cost and time required have opened up whole new areas of application[3]. Here’s another example, from my own work experience, dating back to my Boulder days in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At that time, the National Weather Service was embarking on a major Modernization and Restructuring. Some of this involved development and employment of so-called next-generation weather radars, and a renovated network of surface weather instruments. But some of the needed pieces were entirely new. One key element was the development of a workstation for weather forecasters, one that would integrate all the information coming into the forecast office from disparate sources: the satellite and radar data streams, the model outputs, etc., and at the same time allow the forecasters to generate text that would rapidly provide warnings and forecast products to the public, emergency managers, police and fire stations, hospital and school officials, and others. University of Wisconsin researchers had already developed such a workstation, called McIDAS, for use by scientists, but its tailored recalculation of forecasting products with each new request was slow and cumbersome.

NOAA/OAR researchers, under the leadership of Don Beran, set to creating a so-called Advanced Weather Information Processing System, or AWIPS. They concluded early on that the chances of hitting on an optimal workstation configuration from a priori reasoning were infinitesimal. Dave Small, the lead engineer, suggested that instead they create an Exploratory Development Facility, or EDF, that could rapidly be reconfigured in response to user feedback – a kind of breadboard on steroids. This was an early example of rapid prototyping or rapid application development, terms which have only entered the jargon since. The program was running at $4M/year, and it took two years to develop the first prototype workstation: cost $8M. But the next version of the workstation took six months, and subsequent workstations took less time and effort still.

A story from the period: About the same time the Navy-NOAA Joint Ice Center was also seeking a new workstation that could integrate polar satellite images and other observations as well as forecast models to provide civilian and military maritime operations in the Arctic nowcasts and outlooks for the Arctic icepack thickness and extent. The NOAA-Boulder AWIPS group volunteered its services, but even after deliberation, the JIC leadership had pretty much settled instead on letting a contract to JPL for several million dollars to accomplish this work. On their way to visit JPL, they paid a courtesy call to AWIPS. Darien Davis, then a junior member of our group, but destined for greater things, gave them a briefing. She showed them a mockup of a workstation pretty much able to do everything they needed and put it through its paces. I was in the room. The Navy officer’s jaw was working hard throughout the demonstration. Finally he asked, “How long did it take you to do this?” Darien gave him her signature smile. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” she said, “but we were involved in some other projects, and so it took us about two weeks.” (As in, a couple of junior people; total marginal cost, maybe $5-10K)[4].

The point is this. The work of NASA’s ASP and similar groups within NASA and collaborations with other agencies and institutions is laying the groundwork needed to greatly improve flexible and facile user access to the new data sets and integrate these with other observations and models. United States federal agencies and their private-sector partners are on the threshold of major breakthroughs reducing the time and cost to user-application of new Earth science. We should hope that the new Decadal Surveys pay attention not only to the basic instrument suites and data sets but also to this application piece – not just as an add-on, but as an integrated part of the whole.


[1]Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey (2012)

[2] These ideas so much my own as those of others. One voice has been especially resonant – that of William Gail, who has been active in the decadal surveys and other NASA advisory roles, as well as President of the American Meteorological Society this past year.

[3]As covered in the past few days by CBS and others, DNA testing is now so inexpensive it can be used in practice to identify dog owners who are failing to clean up after their pets.

[4]Undeterred, our visitors thanked us politely, continued on to California, and carried out their original procurement plan.

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Do you hear what I hear?

Said the night wind to the little lamb,

“Do you see what I see?

Way up in the sky, little lamb,

Do you see what I see?

A star, a star, dancing in the night

With a tail as big as a kite,

With a tail as big as a kite.”


Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,

“Do you hear what I hear?

Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,

Do you hear what I hear?

A song, a song high above the trees

With a voice as big as the sea,

With a voice as big as the sea.”


Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,

“Do you know what I know?

In your palace walls, mighty king,

Do you know what I know?

A Child, a Child shivers in the cold–

Let us bring him silver and gold,

Let us bring him silver and gold.”


Said the king to the people everywhere,

“Listen to what I say!

Pray for peace, people, everywhere,

Listen to what I say!

The Child, the Child sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light,

He will bring us goodness and light– Noel Regney[1]


A few evenings ago I was at a Christmas party… a truly pleasant and memorable one… warm and gracious hosts, dozens of conversations with fascinating and good people, mostly strangers. In the course of the evening, one of the guests asked me what I thought about climate change. I shared a few thoughts. In response, he said he was a skeptic. He then offered a rationale. Part of his reasoning caught me by surprise. It was so different and unexpected that in the days since I wonder if I heard him correctly. What I (thought I) heard went something like this: “If scientists truly thought things were as bad as they claim, they would be acting differently – less like business as usual.”


Taken at face value, this raises questions on so many levels. In retrospect, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask: Do you think scientists should be taking to the streets? (Some have done that.) Do you think they should be hacking the e-mails of their critics in the debate? (Some have done that.) What about the opposite view – that scientists are overreacting? That they’re too shrill? Have we reached such a state in our polarized, cynical society that the dialog we hear on climate feels no different from “talking about the weather?” You’d probably have asked my companion even better, more insightful questions of your own.

Coming during the holiday season, this conversation drives home a point we all know. As human beings, we have little difficulty discussing life’s daily concerns and events. We can agree on whether it’s raining or the sun is shining. We can ask each other “where’s the nearest bus stop” or “who won last night’s game” or “what’s for supper” and process the answers with ease. But we struggle when it comes to the momentous:

Is climate change real? If so, was/is it caused by human beings, or some external agency? And what should we do about it?

Did Jesus really exist at all? Was he man, born of the world or is he God, entered into the world? And what should we do about it?

The two sets of questions might have more similarities than differences. Neither should be ignored. As the song asks, when we hear the message of climate change – or the message of Christmas – what do we hear?

Something to think about today. Or maybe even tomorrow… or over a succession of tomorrows[2].


[1] This beautiful Christmas song, with lyrics by Noel Regney and music by his wife Gloria Shayne Baker, was composed in 1962 at the height of, and partly in response to, the Cuban missile crisis. You can find fuller background here. Of course you want to give it a listen! You’ll find dozens of different performances, ranging from the 1963 Bing Crosby classic that helped make it famous to today’s popular Carrie Underwood rendition here.

[2] One difference? The length of time we’ve been processing the two questions. We’ve been trying to wrap our minds around Jesus Christ for two thousand years. Climate change has been on our minds only for a few decades, maybe a century. Will this new idea demonstrate the same staying power?

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The Applied Sciences Program: NASA’s (almost) hidden treasure.

(The last few posts have focused on technology transfer, by various names; this present piece continues that line of thought.)

Artist's rendition of NASA's SMAP spacecraft

Artist’s rendition of NASA’s SMAP spacecraft

It’s been a privilege to serve on several advisory groups over my career, but none has proved more interesting than NASA’s Applied Sciences Advisory Committee (ASAC), which has provided periodic looks at NASA’s Applied Sciences Program (ASP)[1]. Embedded within NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, ASP is unique across the agency.

There’s history behind this. Look back to the 1958 language establishing NASA, which charged the new Agency with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:”

  • Expansion of human knowledge of the Earth, the atmosphere and space
  • Improvement of aeronautical and space vehicles
  • Development and operation of vehicles for space flight
  • Establishment of long-range studies of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes
  • Preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science technology
  • The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance
  • Cooperation by the United States with other nations in the peaceful application of space research
  • Effective utilization of scientific and engineering resources of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment…”

With the exception of the bullet referring directly to national defense, the stated objectives only hint at applying NASA science for societal benefit outside the aeronautical and space activities per se. That was the way things were done back then. NASA was established as a so-called science agency, and it was accepted as a given at the time that as science and technology advanced, applications – and with them, societal benefits – would necessarily follow. There was no need to take special measures to foster such innovation. Much the same philosophy guided the formation in those years of the National Science Foundation, the DoE national laboratories, the Office of Naval Research, and so on.

As policies, go, it hasn’t proved half-bad. Results for the past half-century have surpassed expectations. Public support and funding for science (not just for NASA but for all these agencies) have remained strong and remarkably consistent. Scientists and engineers in turn have delivered an enormous payback – in all branches of science and technology: IT, healthcare, energy technologies, earth sciences, and much more. But over time, both sides have developed a sense that it might be possible to do better. Start with scientists: ICSU noted early in this century that the biggest challenge facing science and technology is the widening gap between the advance of science and society’s ability to benefit. For its part, society has found itself financially strapped even as confronted with resource-, environmental-, and hazard- challenges of greater complexity, scale, and urgency. Requests for help from scientists and engineers have gotten more pointed. In recent years, language in the enabling legislation for NASA and other science agencies has made more explicit mention of societal benefit as an overarching goal.

Enter the Applied Sciences Program, specifically established in NASA to accelerate and increase societal return on investments in space science and technology. ASP is both relatively young (dating back in its present form only about 14 years) and relatively small (its budget is just less than $40M/year, compared with a budget of $1.5-$2B for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division as a whole). But throughout its history, ASP has been punching above its weight. The Program can already point to numerous successes: fostering the application of space technology to air quality monitoring, public health, agriculture, resilience to natural hazards, and much more.

The societal benefits aren’t confined to the United States. They’ve been shared abroad as well. Just one example: SERVIR, a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helps developing nations in Asia, East Africa and Central America improve their environmental decision making through access to observations from space.

Over its short lifetime, ASP has quickly grown more disciplined and proactive in its work, across a broad front. ASP is increasingly able to entrain applied scientists and users in the early mission-planning stages, instead of waiting until near-launch. In this way they’ve reduced the time lag separating the initial collection of data for science from its ultimate practical use. Consultation with users has led ASP and NASA’s ESD to develop new big-data archive formats such as so-called data rods to facilitate data access and applications. And by explicitly characterizing the rate at which projects advance through nine-level Applied Readiness Levels (ALR)[2], ASP has helped its investigators and users evaluate their progress.

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) mission exemplifies the progress being made. Encouraged by a call in the 2007 Decadal Survey[3], the SMAP mission and science team included applications in their pre-launch sciences while remaining within a pre-determined funding envelope. Scientists found that such inclusion strengthened the science itself as well as the direct societal benefit. Their experience is encouraging scientists working on other missions to follow suit.

This spirit is captured in the SMAP Handbook:

“A rare characteristic of the SMAP Project is its emphasis on serving both basic Earth System science as well as applications in operational and practice-oriented communities. The NRC Decadal Survey identified a number of possible domains of applications with SMAP science data products. These include weather and climate prediction, agricultural and food production decision support systems, floods and drought monitoring, environmental human health assessments, and national security applications. The SMAP Project and the SMAP Science Definition Team developed formal plans to engage application users from a diversity of settings and institutions. A SMAP Early Adopter program was launched to facilitate two-way exchanges of needs and capabilities between the community and the Project. The approach to applied science is described in a dedicated section in the SMAP Handbook.”

The successes of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program hold two lessons: (1) first, there’s no dearth of low-hanging fruit in applications. Societal benefits are instead limited more by existing funding levels for such work. (2) We would likely greatly reduce the cost and accelerate the progress of harnessing science for practical use by recognizing and treating science application as an object of research and study in and of itself.

Want an analogy? Consider the Human Genome Project. Mapping the human genome was pursued along two distinct lines. The first was a brute-force method, using technologies available early in the project, at a cost of about $10/gene. The second explored ways and means to accelerate and reduce the cost of the sequencing process itself (reaching a goal of something like $1/gene) and only then turning to the mapping. The first approach more than repaid its investment. But the second approach has made it possible to economically map individual human genetic differences, as well as the genomes of countless other species, unlocking even more riches. Mapping the human genome for the first time cost about $3B; today the cost is less than $1000. This is transforming the prospects for healthcare much as the Global Positioning System has expanded the possibilities for and applications of geolocation.)

Such attention to the discipline of science application more broadly will add to the store of human riches – what the economist Joel Mokyr has described as “our free lunch.”


[1] An important disclaimer: the views expressed here are just that – views (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW homepage). Moreover, they’re solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the conclusions of the ASAC or other ASAC members.

[2]In general, ARLs 1-3 encompass discovery and feasibility; ARLs 4-6 address development, testing, and validation; and, ARLs 7-9 focus on integration of the “application” into an end-user’s decision-making activity.

[3]The 2007 National Research Council report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (referred to in this report as the “2007 decadal survey” or “2007 survey”)

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Technology transfer: remedial reading.

Thanksgiving provided me time for family (never enough!), but it also gave opportunity for some remedial reading[1] bearing on the process by which scientific and technical advance are harvested for societal benefit. There’s much food for thought in these two books; wish I’d read them earlier. The first, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, by the economic historian Joel Mokyr, dates back a quarter of a century. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.The second, Congress’ s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), by Peter D. Blair, is more current (Palmgrave/Macmillan 2013).

Some background: you might recognize technology transfer by one or more of its aliases: applied R&D, technology valorization, the transition from research to operations (or, more simply, as R2O), and so on.

The Wikipedia entry for technology transfer starts off this way: “Technology transfer, also called transfer of technology (TOT), is the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies, methods of manufacturing, samples of manufacturing and facilities among governments or universities and other institutions to ensure that scientific and technological developments are accessible to a wider range of users who can then further develop and exploit the technology into new products, processes, applications, materials or services. It is closely related to (and may arguably be considered a subset of) knowledge transfer. Horizontal transfer is the movement of technologies from one area to another. At present[when?] transfer of technology (TOT) is primarily horizontal. Vertical transfer occurs when technologies are moved from applied research centers to research and development departments.

Technology brokers are people who discovered how to bridge the emergent worlds and apply scientific concepts or processes to new situations or circumstances.”

This scrap of Wikipedia text nicely describes the activity and the players, but doesn’t capture its true significance for humanity as a whole. Continually adding to the store of human understanding, and harnessing that new knowledge to meet growing human needs more efficiently and cheaply, while at the same time reducing onerous labor, is not “nice-to-have.” It underpins our economic growth. This constant innovation is the means by which we postpone the Malthusian gloom-and-doom scenario[2]. It is fundamental to our continued existence on this planet.

Joel Mokyr’s book (worth study in its entirety – and many thanks to the colleague who brought this book to my attention) hints at these existential stakes. He speaks of innovation as the means by which societies “get a free lunch.” He takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through world history, showing how innovation has ebbed and flowed from place to place and from time to time. His richly referenced work makes it clear that continuing innovation can’t be taken for granted. A people’s culture and values (religion, interest in learning from others, high regard for mechanical ingenuity as well as academic accomplishment, propensity for risk-taking, willingness to assume individual responsibility, emphasis on public education, protection of free speech and much, much more) play a major role in shaping the pace and nature of progress. Mr. Mokyr illustrates by comparing the rate of innovation in (1) the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome with that of the Middle Ages, (2) China vs. Europe, and (3) England vs. the rest of Europe at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps most chillingly, he makes repeated references to what he calls Cardwell’s Law (see, for example, any of the links here): “no nation has been (technologically) creative for more than an historically short period.” That ought to ring ominous for any nation comprising no more than 4% of the world’s population, which nevertheless wants to remain “the indispensable nation” for the 21st century, after already laying claim to that title for more than 100 years.

Which brings us to Peter Blair’s book. Let’s suppose a country wants to beat the odds – wants to develop and sustain an innovative culture, with all the attendant benefits to its national and personal wealth, national security, and its place in the world. In that instance, it’s not enough to see technology advance and application as priceless. Individuals, corporations, universities, and government at federal, state, and local levels must exert discipline and rigor in its pursuit. The United States had just such a mindset following World War II. Looking at the role played by technology in winning the War – including but not limited to the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin – the country decided it couldn’t depend upon luck to provide such innovation again. It would make a policy of fostering scientific understanding, technological advance, and the application of that science to national aspirations and goals. The United States established the National Science Foundation and took other measures to increase the level and rigor of investment in R&D. In the 1970’s Congress took the policy a step further. It established the Office of Technology Assessment to anticipate the positive impacts and unintended consequences of science and technology and systematically guide where and how the Nation placed its bets. The road was found to be rocky and the political support proved ephemeral. But that doesn’t mean the United States can afford to stop trying. We don’t have unlimited resources; funding for science and technology has to be prioritized at the same time it is nurtured.

Mr. Blair does an extraordinary job of documenting all this. He provides a crisp, highly readable account of OTA’s history (including its de-funding in 1995 by a single vote in the Congress). Equally important, given that the stakes in technological advance and application are so critically important that the United States can’t afford to “wing it,” hoping to be lucky, Mr. Blair lays out several alternatives for Congress going forward. These include: expanding the purview of the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, once again re-funding and standing up OTA itself (the enabling legislation is still in place), and/or making more aggressive use of the National Research Council. Mr. Blair knows whereof he speaks. From 1992 to 1996, he served first as OTA’s energy research program manager and later as Assistant Director of OTA and director of its Division of Industry, Commerce, and International Security. Presently, he is executive director of the NAS/NRC Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences.

To review: (1) tech transfer (aka R2O) is pivotal to mankind’s prospects, and (2) most effectively meets society’s needs when governments get the public policy framework right. The executive branch and the Congress each play a pivotal role. The sheer numbers of executive-branch employees – hundreds of thousands – leads to establishing and functioning of lots of pockets of energy on R2O. But America looks equally to Congress for the needed leadership. To meet these expectations, Congress could use some form of ongoing in-house analytical capability at its end. That’s a little harder to achieve in a total employee base numbering only 20,000.

But R2O isn’t a spectator sport. If you’re a reader of this blog, chances are good you’re an R2O player. More about that in a follow-on post.


[1] Seven billion people are writing a lot of books while our backs are turned.

[2]Note the emphasis on “postpone.” Sustainable development is an oxymoron, as discussed in earlier LOTRW posts, and in the book Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, available from the AMS or from Amazon.

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Weekend thoughts, on Advent… and on R2O.

“…long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” – John Sullivan Dwight[1]

“…Theophilus’ work on technologyunderlines an important aspect of Christianity, namely, that the application of human industry was no longer sinful or reprehensible… Technology itself served a divine purpose of demonstrating God’s wisdom and hence was a legitimate activity…” – Joel Mokyr[2]


Thanksgiving is now past, bringing us to the first Sunday of the Advent season. This is the time of year when the world’s two billion self-identified Christians look back to the first coming of Christ and Christmas, and look ahead to a second coming at some future date. It’s in the nature of our globalized, co-mingled, well-stirred society that many of the world’s remaining five billion people will be celebrating in some form as well.

Advent looms large for me this time around, because Downtown Baptist Church (212 S. Washington Street, Old Town Alexandria) is in the early stages of a pastor search. In the interim, they’re looking for the occasional pulpit supply, and I’ve been asked to fill in this coming Sunday, December 7, at the 9:30 and 11:00 services. I eagerly accepted; it provides a chance to reflect a bit on what it means for “the soul to feel its worth.”

Some context: Economists have long been willing to put a price on a value of a human life. They have a variety of ways of doing this… basing it either in terms of (present-discounted[3]) future earning power, or how much extra hazardous-duty pay people demand for dangerous work, or other risks people voluntarily accept, for example.

That’s for a life. What about the worth of a soul? And just what is the soul, anyway? Most of us would probably say it is the deepest, fullest core of our being, integrating in some way heart and mind and strength. But while some of us might see this as eternal or transcendent, extending beyond our physical death, others would differ.

You and I, and all our contemporaries, have never known a moment of our lives without the Christmas story, and it’s a safe bet we place a pretty high value on our souls, however conceived. But put yourself in the mind of a middle-Easterner prior to the time of Christ. There was (as yet) no Christ, nor was there any likely prospect of one. The God of your tradition had offered blessings for obedience but curses for disobedience. From what you knew of your own shortcomings and of Israel’s history it was clear you were living under the curse. Reality on the ground pointed to sin and brokenness at every level. Daily life and labor were exhausting, unfair, brutal. You lived under foreign oppression. If God loved anyone, that love was reserved for a few elite Pharisees, at least by their telling. And as it was in this life, so would it be in the next one. You might be forgiven for feeling your soul was worth very little.

This is the world that Christ entered, bringing a lot of good news. Some 2000 years later, we’re still basking in that glow. But that’s next Sunday’s discussion. For now, let’s turn now to another question:

What on earth does this have to do with R2O? Quite a bit, actually. Initially, that might not appear to be the case. The task of harnessing advances in research understanding to realize societal benefit would seem a matter solely for scientists at the one end collaborating with engineers at the other. The rest of us are relegated to bystander status. We’re simply waiting with hands cupped to receive the bounty. From breakthroughs in medicine. In computing. In energy and transportation technology. Improved weather forecasts and climate outlooks, etc. No apparent room for faith or spiritual matters there.

But step back a bit, and it’s easy to see that societal uptake of R&D depends a lot on social behavior at individual and group levels. How we think and act as individuals and groups – how we collaborate, our receptiveness as individuals and institutions to new ideas, how we weigh risk versus opportunity, and more – all play in.

Step back a bit further, as Joel Mokyr and others have done, and it’s possible to see that the advance of technology and innovation is not consistent across disciplines or societies and nations, but varies with cultures and values, and with the passage of time, whether over a few years or a few centuries. The Mokyr quote doesn’t do fair justice to his thoroughly researched and exhaustively documented study of what’s needed to foster R2O. Indeed his purview is far broader, and merits a thoughtful study in its entirety. He compares the vitality of medieval technology advance with the limited progress made in classical Europe; he notes that China held an early lead worldwide in both numbers and technology, but appeared to stagnate after about 1400, while the west not only caught up but sped by. He investigates the root causes for the quick British start relative to the rest of Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the course of these comparisons he and the other scholars he cites have concluded that a diverse array of factors determine whether R2O and innovation more generally thrive or languish. The list includes war, centralized political control versus competing nation states, the primacy of other interests, and much more. But religion and faith rank near the top. He cites in particular the role played by several monastic Christian orders in seeing labor not as penitence but as sacred activity. He adds that during later Medieval times and the early Renaissance this emerging monastic view helped break down the boundaries separating the literate and working classes, and notes “the importance of contact between the educated and producing classes for technological progress seems too obvious to need additional emphasis.”

We’ll be delving into this and other aspects of R2O technology transfer and innovation in following posts. Those of us who are scientists or engineers and want to see our R2O bear fruit might do well to pay attention to the aspirations and core values of our host society. Are we members of the larger public? We’re far, far more than passive bystanders to the R2O process. Our attitudes and actions will determine its effectiveness for good or ill. We might examine ourselves to see how our faith in a higher power, or lack thereof, and other cultural values are fostering or limiting the advance of science and innovation.

In the meantime, did you catch the point about those Benedictine and Cistercian monks from long ago? According to them, and many who have followed, our so-called secular work – the stupefying, relentless, exhausting, all-too-aptly-named daily grind – is sacred and meaningful, despite appearances to the contrary.

It’s Advent. This month, whatever your persuasion, let the soul feel its worth.


[1] Lyrics from the stunningly beautiful Christmas hymn O Holy Night (you can choose practically any version and not go wrong). The lyrics are not wholly due to Mr. Dwight, who provided a liberal translation (one of several extant) from the original French poem by Placide Cappeau.

[2] A footnote on a Benedictine monk who authored the treatise De Diversis Artibus, from 204 of Mr. Mokyr’ 1990 book, The Lever of Riches, Oxford University Press.

[3] Here’s an early treatment of present-discounted value idea, excerpted from Leviticus 27: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekelfor a female, set her value at thirty shekels; for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels; for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver; for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels, and of a female at ten shekels.

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