Stuff we don’t know…

“There are three things that are too amazing for me,
    four that I do not understand:
19 the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a young woman”
– Proverbs 30:18-19

That writer a few thousand years ago couldn’t fathom these things. How is an eagle able to soar, when other birds are madly flapping their wings? How does that legless snake slither around with such speed and ease? How do ships stay afloat, let alone make their way in the face of wind and waves? Today we think we understand: that eagle is riding a thermal. The snake’s scales act like so many ratchets favoring motion in the forward direction. Ships are buoyant, and even the slightest bit of a keel makes it possible to tack into the wind.

But we don’t yet know everything. Recent news stories suggest it might be time to update this list of stuff we don’t understand from the Book of Proverbs. Here are my 21st-century nominees to replace the first three (you can add your own):

The makeup and nature of the universe. That fuss about the Higgs boson? It merely opens the door the slightest crack to the bigger mystery. Given that all those protons and neutrons and electrons that we thought were the building blocks of matter total up to no more than 4% of creation, what’s the nature of the rest?  Hundreds of thousands of years of human experience and all we’ve got is 4%? And what about that 75% or so that doesn’t seem to be matter at all but “dark energy?” Where are those folks who not that long ago were saying that “physics is a solved problem?”

The basis for valuing the $800 trillion of accumulated financial instruments in the hands of our seven billion people. Economists and financial analysts are now telling us that all that paper we hold…all those mortgages and the complex interest-rate derivatives and everything in between…those stocks and bonds and options and their rise and fall…have values determined not by any market as such, not by any real foundation, but rather by a number plucked out of the air by small clique of bankers making up London interbank offered rates (LIBOR) just to win a bottle of champagne? Everything’s predicated on a fiction? A rate that doesn’t actually exist? Concocted by people and institutions who have a vested interest in that lie?

Our real global wealth, as measured by our assets. Not our income, our flow of goods and services, as measured by GDP, but rather the sum of our manufactured-, human-, and natural capital (this latter including land, forests, fossil fuels, minerals, etc.). The June 30 issue of The Economist provides a nice piece on this, based on a report just released by the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. Given the present state of the economics, the human contribution appears to be the biggest for most countries. The natural resources, except for countries with extraordinary natural assets and small populations, like Canada and Saudi Arabia, are small in percentage terms. The economists admit, though, that the natural assets are (surprise!) hard to price. [One key to that pricing? A better understanding of the Earth as resource, victim, and hazard…and the only way to get that understanding? Sustained investment in Earth observations, science, and services.]

It took half a century and billions of dollars of research to isolate the Higgs boson…and we could do no better than those birdwatchers who never get an actual glimpse of the bird itself, but only hear its characteristic cry. Suppose it takes equally long to get a handle on the value of the world’s natural resources. The day may come when you and I learn to our chagrin that they were…or worse, had once been… more valuable than we’d realized. Just to pick a number (like those LIBOR folks) maybe something more like 75% of the total wealth…not unlike all that mysterious dark energy in the universe.

And as for that fourth puzzle…the way of a man with a maid? Probably still as great a mystery as it ever was…

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