Category: Science

John Cobb and Jennifer Grancio

Spiritual Bankruptcy, by John Cobb, was the focus of several posts, beginning 9/25/22. One Cobb sentence lingers with me: Being religious tends to confirm existing patterns of behavior or even those of ancestors rather than encourage drastic innovation.

I thought of Cobb when I heard Barry Ritholtz interview Jennifer Grancio, CEO of investment company Engine No. 1. Grancio’s company sees sustainability as essential for long-term profitability. It’s just common sense, but some corporations don’t think enough about the long term. It made me wonder if I helped my congregations think enough about the long term.

Cobb and Grancio come from different perspectives to share a common theme, described in Wikipedia’s article about Cobb: A unifying theme of Cobb’s work is his emphasis on ecological interdependence–the idea that every part of the ecosystem is reliant on all the other parts. Cobb has argued that humanity’s most urgent task is to preserve the world on which it lives and depends….

Engine No. 1’s first project was Exxon Mobil, which Grancio and company believed had not addressed long term issues facing a changing oil and gas industry. They successfully elected three new directors to the Exxon board, noting … the changes it has made … including maintaining capital allocation discipline, setting more aggressive GHG emissions reduction targets, and increasing resources for its Low Carbon Solutions business unit.

From “Can Engine No 1 lead Wall Street to ‘beyond investment as usual’?” by Billy
Grider, Climate & Capital Media, April 13, 2022

This digital age

The underlying theme for Tuesday’s meeting about how to deal with rapid technological change was this: It’s a great time to be alive! Just as the industrial revolution brought greater complexity, this digital age brings a similar thoroughgoing change, with pluses and minuses of technical specialization. Some jobs disappear while others are created.

My friend Ernie named seven ethical issues for us to consider. Here are two: (1) workers displaced by smart machines; and (2) growing inequality. These require creativity regarding education, work and income. How do we educate for breadth and depth, while adapting to rapid change? How does our system of work adapt when machines generate much of the world’s wealth?

One change I’ve noticed is the increasing number of people in university teaching roles who are Professors of Practice, including Joyce Vance (University of Alabama School of Law), Ben Jealous (University of Pennsylvania School of Communication) and Andrew Weissmann (New York University School of Law).

From Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, by Ben Jealous, 2022


Our monthly meeting, pre-pandemic, was for lunch and discussion. Now, we meet for 60 minutes via Zoom. Yesterday’s 20 attendees came from Alabama, North Carolina (2), Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas (the home of yesterday’s presenter).

The group began many years ago as an informal gathering of laity and clergy, skewed toward older adults. Yesterday, one attendee was 92, one was 91. We have a strong 80s contingent. We’re living into our somewhat whimsical name, the Elders.

The largest group by vocation is clergy, mostly United Methodists, but yesterday’s group included two Baptists and an Episcopalian. Present were educators, engineers, counselors, a psychiatrist, an attorney, a financial advisor, and a military retiree.

We’re exploring the privilege and challenge of rapid technological change. How can we collaborate from our various disciplines for a healthier, more humane planet? I’ll share more in coming posts. Click the link below for a brief book review.

From a Kirkus Review of The Power of Crisis, by Ian Bremmer, 2022

The more you know…

I think it was my mother, but I can’t be sure. It’s a version of a thought attributed to Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” The version I internalized in my childhood was: “The more you know, the more there is to know.”

Aristotle’s version implies some humility, which is a virtue, but the version I learned opens the Universe to further exploration. It implies that knowledge is cumulative, that one data point leads to perhaps numerous other data points. The Universe is expansive.

Today, I’ll be part of a meeting where my friend Ernie will lead part two of a discussion about recent rapid advances in science and technology, specifically the impact these advances have had on our ability to adapt to changes they’ve brought about.

A few weeks ago another friend, Burton Flanagan, shared with me his book, The White Rose, about a resistance group in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. The group was unknown to me, but on Saturday I read about the group in a Minnesota newspaper article.

The more you know…

From “‘The More You Know’: There’s More to Know,” by Megan Garber, The Atlantic, December 16, 2014

100 years ago

My dad’s birth was among the events of 1923. Among the 1923 forecasts about life in America in 2023 was this prediction by Charles Steinmetz: “The time is coming when there will be no long drudgery and that people will toil not more than four hours a day, owing to the work of electricity.” He visualized that every city would be a “spotless town,” also due to the work of electricity.

Those predictions were compiled by University of Calgary faculty member Paul Fairie, who noted that aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930) predicted that by 2023, “gasoline as a motive power will have been replaced by radio, and that the skies will be filled with myriad craft sailing over well-defined routes,” which the Minneapolis Journal deemed “an attractive prophecy.”

The last time the US House of Representatives needed more than one ballot to elect a Speaker was in 1923, when Frederick Gillett (1851-1935) was re-elected on the ninth ballot. After serving three terms as Speaker of the House (1919-1925), Gillett served one term in the US Senate (1925-1931).

From “What happened when the Speaker of the House was NOT chosen in the first round of elections,” by Terry Moseley, The Daily Mail, January 3, 2023

After the “longest night”

What a privilege to be alive during the era of lunar exploration and the James Webb telescope! These technologies amplify the beauty of this oasis we call Earth. The ancients intuitively understood this blessing from ground level. Jeremiah spoke of the God who lights up the day with sun and brightens the night with moon and stars, who whips the ocean into a billowy froth.

Two millennia before Jeremiah, around 3200 BCE, some people built a tunnel to direct the sun’s rays at the winter solstice to a special “passage tomb” at Newgrange, Ireland, 66 kilometers north of Dublin. Today, it’s a popular, year-round tourist site. Each December, a lottery is held to allow a small group of people to participate in a special sunrise winter solstice celebration.

Newgrange is one of the more fascinating places on Earth. Several short videos provide a glimpse into this historic tribute to ancient mystical ingenuity, including a 2 1/2 minute clip from National Geographic, others from Irish Central, and an essay by Ciaran Vipond with a brief video.

From “Winter Solstice at Newgrange–Inside the Passage Tomb,” a 2 1/2 minute segment of an interview with Professor Tom Ray of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, by RTE, the Irish public broadcast service.

All belong

An oasis is a clarifying space. Our swirling world of competing values and ideologies generates much noise and confusion. Sabbath is a “time out” for rest and refreshment. Oasis is a physical sabbath, a sanctuary, a Garden of Eden where clarity appears.

I’m grateful for the bits and pieces of sabbath, of oasis, I’ve experienced in 72 years. Today, as I begin my 73rd year on Earth, I’m particularly grateful for finding a new sense of home, of peace on earth, and goodwill toward all people–an oasis.

I’m grateful for a faith community that doesn’t embrace conformity to culture, that seeks to be an inclusive space for persons to grow, to ask questions, and to live into their God-given, grace-shaped identity, expressed in Sunday’s prayer of confession:

God of mercy, a million times a day we have the opportunity to be gracious, to assume the best in others, to give the benefit of the doubt. A million times a day we could choose the better way, but so often we don’t. Fear and greed kick in. Assumptions and insecurities take the wheel. Comparison and critique lead the charge. Forgive us for forgetting that all belong to you. Give us the courage to love even bigger than before, and the wisdom to choose a better way. Amen.

From “Earth: Our Living Planet,” a 2 1/2 minute video by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, The SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye, Scientific Visualization Studio, November 28, 2017

Humbly confident adaptability

How can we use technology for ethical, healthy purposes while limiting its destructive uses? The daunting nature of rapid change can keep us humble while we muster the confidence to face the future with adaptability that is purposeful and flexible.

John E. Kelly III, in Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late, describes three eras of computing: (1) a tabulating era (1900s-1940s), with single purpose mechanical systems to count, sort and interpret data; (2) a programming era (1950s to 2007) of computers, the Internet and smart phones; and (3) an emerging cognitive era, with the capacity to write multiple algorithms that could teach a computer to make sense of unstructured data … and thereby enhance every aspect of human decision making.

Three examples: (1) the rise, fall and re-purposing of IBM’s Watson; (2) Nick Saban’s complex “process” that adapts to changing excellence in athletic acumen and skill; and (3) the Internet of Things (IOT) via the “cloud,” a word for connected data storage systems. The insurance industry is excited about self-driving vehicles because this technology will be safer than human drivers. I’m excited because it may get here before the kids take away my keys,

From “How Champions Think: Coach Nick Saban and the Process Thinking Mental Model,” by Ryan Duffy, Knowable, April 4, 2022.

Addressing the problem

Thomas Friedman: …if it is true that it now takes us ten to fifteen years to understand a new technology and then build out new laws and regulations to safeguard society, how do we regulate when the technology has come and gone in five to seven years? This is a problem. (Current example: SBF and FTX.)

We go to school for twelve or more years during our childhoods and early adulthoods, and then we’re done. But when the pace of change gets this fast, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning.

Eric Teller, per Friedman: If we could “enhance our ability to adapt even slightly… it would make a significant difference.” He then returned to our graph and drew a dotted line that rose up alongside the adaptability line but faster. This line simulated our learning faster as well as governing smarter, and therefore intersected with the technology/science change line at a higher point.

In sum, said Teller, what we are experiencing today, with shorter and shorter innovation cycles, and less and less time to learn to adapt, “is the difference between a constant state of destabilization versus occasional destabilization.” The time of static stability has passed us by, he added. That does not mean we can’t have a new kind of stability, “but the new kind of stability has to be dynamic stability.” (More tomorrow.)

This is a real problem

Yesterday, I spent an hour with a group of friends online to consider some exciting (and sometimes scary) advancements of technology and learning. I came away from the meeting with much to ponder and several books added to my reading list.

Topping the list is Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late, which has a graph that condenses the opportunities we discussed in yesterday’s session. Friedman borrowed the graph from Eric “Astro” Teller, head of Google’s X project and grandson of physicist Edward Teller.

Per Teller: …even though human beings and societies have steadily adapted to change, on average, the rate of technological change is now accelerating so fast that it has risen above the average rate at which most people can absorb all these changes. Many of us cannot keep pace anymore. … This is a real problem.

This graph helps me understand our recent struggles with change in the spheres of politics and religion. Tomorrow’s post will include a companion graph that offers some help from Eric Teller via Friedman about how to deal with rapid change.

From Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas L. Friedman, 2016