2013 Wolf Prizes

The coming of the new year always heralds a new group of Wolf Laureates. The Wolf Prizes were established in 1976 to “promote science and art for the benefit of mankind.” Since their establishment, the Wolf Prizes have become an important award recognizing significant contributions to various fields of scientific endeavor. In the physics world, the Wolf Prize is often a stepping-stone on the way to an eventual Nobel.

This year’s Wolf Prize in Physics was split between Juan Ignacio Cirac and Peter Zoller for their work in quantum optics and quantum information theory. Particularly cited was their joint work in 1995 on a practical model of a quantum computer implemented with trapped ions. This model has been the basis for much of the current experimental work in quantum computation.

It’s hard not to see the significance of this. Much in the same way Peter Higgs’ proposal of a supermassive boson led eventually to the recent successes at CERN, Zoller and Cirac’s work paved the way for not only quantum computation – a field that is both intellectually exciting and perhaps eventually of great practical use – but laid the path to a much deeper understanding in one of wildest frontiers in the field of physics.

The Wolf Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Robert Langer for his work on biodegradable polymeric materials for drug delivery. I have to admit I did a double take when I read this because, after all, drug delivery has been a ubiquitous rationale in materials science for the past 15 years. Everyone is doing drug delivery! Whole academic departments have reorganized themselves around biomaterials, with drug delivery being a major focus. But when you consider that Langer’s work pioneered the area, it is unsurprising that he is being recognized with this award.

I particularly appreciate that the Wolf Foundation awards a prize in Agriculture. I think that we underestimate the importance of agricultural science to world at large, even with the attention being paid to it these days. What I found very interesting is that Jared Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, shared the prize for his research into the relationship between human society and agriculture. Diamond, a 1990 MacArthur Fellow, also received the National Medal of Science for his work in this area. The gentleman with whom he shared the prize is Joachim Messing, who has made great strides in crop plant genomics, including establishing the Rutgers Plant Genome Initiative.

While I’m not going to dig too deeply into them, there was also a joint prize awarded in Mathematics to two American mathematicians, Michael Artin and George Mostow, for their contributions to geometry and Lie group theory as well as a prize awarded in Architecture to Eduoardo de Mouro, a Portuguese architect.

The 2012 MacArthur Fellows

The MacArthur Foundation has announced the names of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows! This year’s group is a pretty exciting bunch. I was interested to see the number of folks on the list working at the edge of art, science and culture, including Uta Barth and Maurice Lim Miller. The two fellows that interest me the most, mainly based on their area of expertise, are Maria Chudnovsky and Sarkis Mazmanian.

Dr. Chudnovsky is a professor of operations research and mathematics at Columbia University and studies graph theory. I’ve seen a lot of very interesting papers in the past few years where the specific tractability of analysis that you get with graphs has been used to elucidate phenomena from failovers on communications networks to growth dynamics in social media. Dr. Chudnovsky’s work is fundamental in connecting the specifics of graph theory to other branches of analysis.

Dr. Mazmanian is a professor of biology at CalTech. Regular readers of this blog and my Google+ stream will understand why I’m excited about this guy. His area of study is the interaction between host organisms and their beneficial microbial symbiotes. This area of research and the underlying premise that at least in humans, we can treat our bodies as an ecosystem rather than an organism promises to shape medical research outcomes for the next half-century.

I’m grateful to Ed Darrell for breaking the news when I was sound asleep!

What kinds of geniuses are we developing?

I just re-read Jonah Lehrer’s Wired article about geniuses. Still particularly struck by the call-out quote: “The US is good at generating geniuses. The problem is that they’re all athletes.”

Since I tend to follow Nobel Prizes, Wolf Prizes, and MacArthur Grants rather than the NCAA Final Four, I can intuitively grasp this. What does it say to our children when we obsess more over a basketball tournament than we do about who is going to get a MacArthur Grant? I’m not going to make dire predictions about the shallowness of our culture or use catchphrases like “dumbing-down” or anything else that might make me appear to be older and more crochety than I really am.

What I will say instead is that children reflect the values they see exhibited, and while it may take a genius to discover quantum dots or self-assembly, it certainly does not take any special genius to appreciate these concepts and to dream about what they might mean and how they might be applied.

Panel on sustainability and innovation

I’ll be on a panel tonight at Asheville Green Drinks entitled “Does Social Innovation Support or Stifle Sustainability?” There are a host of really great people on the panel, including my buddy Ian Wilker, a social media expert of great insight.

Those of you with an eye towards precision will immediately ask “what does social innovation mean in this context.” I’ll go ahead and stick a stake in the ground on this question and say that social innovation is a lot more than “Facebook+Twitter.” Social innovation, by my definition, is when one or more different types of innovation (technological innovation, market innovation, cultural innovation, design innovation, etc.) is highly leveraged by the power of a social network.

Even though Metcalfe’s Law was first articulated in 1980 (or 1993, depending on how pedantic you want to be), we have only really brushed the surface of how pervasive it truly is. It is possible to frame technological development in terms of progress as a function of largest polity in existence – from the rise of hunter-gatherer tribes to the first cities, to the multi-city civilization of the Sumerians. As the number of people in the network grew, so did the capacity for innovation of all stripes.

Once the telegraph, then the telephone, air travel, and eventually the internet made the world to become smaller, or rather, grew our networks larger, our capacity for innovation increased commensurately. The innovations the proceeded from this, I argue, were necessary to understand the different facets of sustainability and to develop strategies for getting there. One example of this was the Viridian movement, from which ground grew Worldchanging.

My argument Friday night will be that social innovation is absolutely required if we are to develop a civilization that is sustainable in all facets.  I think this is the case is because I am increasingly of the opinion that a lot of the necessary innovation for sustainability lies in the realm of design and cultural innovation. These innovations happen most rapidly when you build a critical mass of passionate people with similar ideas, a task that I believe requires social innovation.

Renewable Energy 101

This Friday, I’m going to be speaking at Asheville Green Drinks about renewable energy. The event starts at 6 pm and I’ll start talking at around 6:30. The blurb about my talk is up on the AGD website already, but I wanted to write a little bit about why I’m giving this presentation.

Talking to lots of people has made me realize that it is easy to be overwhelmed by the quantity of information out there about renewable energy.   Energy production and consumption is a complex topic and it is made more complex by those who have the most financial interest in the field tossing out truths and truthiness, often out of context, in order to solidify their position. And without some kind of base level of knowledge, its impossible to think critically about the news and propaganda that’s flying around in the media.

What I want to do is to give a quick overview of the state of the art in renewable energy – pros, cons, myths, and challenges. In addition, I’m going to talk about the size and scope of the “energy problem” that the world is facing and why its of utmost importance that we solve it, rather than deferring it or succumbing to it. I’m going to talk about why energy is the only true measure of wealth and how access to energy is a human rights issue. And, I’m going to end up by giving my perspective on what the ultimate solution will look like.

Its shaping up to be an exciting presentation.

Liberalism and bankruptcy

I get simultaneously amused and frustrated by the anarcho-capitalists with whom I interact when the discussion comes to economics. Most of them have enough economics learning to parrot back choice segments from The Wealth of Nations and to discuss the Tragedy of the Commons. Of course, they will immediately tag any sort of collective ownership and use scheme  as a potential Tragedy of the Commons, even when the potential for such misuse is vanishingly small, but so it goes. What is frustrating, though, are their ideological assumptions about incentives and the free market.

A recent article in The Atlantic served as an excellent illustration of this point. In the article, Megan McArdle points out that the most selfish (i.e. most libertarian) bankruptcy laws serve to make everyone worse off and that having society defray the cost of failed entrepreneurship serves as an incentive to more entrepreneurialism, which makes everyone better off –  including non-entrepreneurs. Further, she lays out simply and elegantly why the current regime of tightening bankruptcy laws to “stick it to irresponsible” do little to prevent people from running up too much debt and a lot to disincentivize people from taking rational risks.

I think this is particularly timely as we see a rise in more socially networked entrepreneurs – a sign that we are growing to understand that collaboration is as much a part of capitalism as competition. As this transition occurs, I suspect that a distinction will grow between folks who run up tens of kilodollars in consumer debt and folks who run up tens of kilodollars in debt trying to start a business.

What have you changed your mind about?

In the title of this post is last year’s Edge.org question to a group of noted intellectuals. I just got my copy of the book and have eagerly jumped into it. The premise is quite interesting to me; in the past decade, we’ve been drilled over and over with the importance of “staying on message” and keeping things soundbite-simple, even when reality is more complex, more nuanced, and more interesting.  Hearing from this group of people on their grappling, not so much with the specifics of their changed views, but with how to communicate those nuances to an audience in a short essay is both interesting and enlightening.

Charity?

For a long time, I’ve struggled with Habitat for Humanity as a charity. On the face of it, the premise seems pretty worthy: help folks find affordable housing. Over the years, as I’ve thought and researched the subject, I’ve reached the conclusion that on the whole, Habitat for Humanity is likely making life worse for the people it is trying to help.

First and foremost, it appears that Habitat focuses on single family detached dwellings in suburban and exurban subdivisions. While this may not be true of all Habitat affiliates, it appears from my research on local Habitat affiliates and the national website to be generally true. I see this as a cruel prank of sorts on the future homeowner. At a time when it is becoming less and less affordable to live so far outside the city center and less desirable to become more dependent on a car for living, Habitat is offering to folks the false promise of economic independence and middle class lifestyle.

Many writers and publications have taken on this subject, including The Atlantic Monthly and Worldchanging, and the implications are pretty clear. The rising cost of living in suburbia are slowly making these areas unlivable for the people who could just afford to live there. People, like those who are being ‘helped’ by Habitat for Humanity will fare far worse, since they could not have afforded to live there at all.

The opportunity costs that Habitat incurs are high as well. By spending the money and using the land to build low-density housing, they prevent those resources from being used to build more efficient, high-density housing that could have a larger effect on the overall housing market in a region. If Habitat were to make it more affordable to build up the population density in former suburban areas, they could essentially drive the growth of livable, walkable neighborhoods, something that could possibly also make the difference in the cost-effectiveness of public transportation as well.

Further, Habitat focuses on traditionally-built homes. As far as I could tell, no Habitat affiliate makes any particular effort to build highly energy efficient homes. This is a further disservice to the people whom they are trying to help. I would have thought, in particular, that in areas with extremely depressed home prices (e.g. Detroit) Habitat would be working hard to buy and renovate marginal homes to make them more livable and efficient. I saw no such evidence of that on the Detroit affiliate’s web page, at least.

Considering these missed opportunities and disservices, I truly wonder how Habitat continues to attract donors and volunteers. Certainly, there are many opportunities for them in this economic downturn and housing crisis if they can change their model to address them. It may be more difficult for them to make these sorts of changes due to their affiliate structure, but by the same token, that structure might provide a way for particular affiliates to lead the way on their own.

Designing for a Green Society

I just read this piece by Alex Steffen on the WorldChanging blog and highly recommend it. The key quote from the piece, in my opinion, is this one:

[I]f we’re going to avert ecological destruction, we need to to not only do things differently, we need to do different things.

What he’s saying here is something that I’ve pointed out to my colleagues in the innovation community: sustainability is not about making things with less stuff, or that last longer, or that aren’t toxic, or even that can be infinitely cradle-to-cradle recycled. Sustainability requires us to invent things that make it possible to live more sustainably. If the things, the stuff, that we have and use make it easier to live sustainable lives than to not do so, then we will live sustainably.

Its not an easy problem to solve, for the same reason that truly groundbreaking innovation is not easy. It is pretty straightforward to imagine a novel solution for a market that already exists. It is much harder to invent a new market. I think that the kinds of products that will help people live sustainably are products for a market that doesn’t exist yet. Our business strategists don’t know how to value them, so our market analysts can’t compute a return on investment, so no investment is made. And truthfully, our scientists and engineers don’t always have the global perspective necessary to understand what types of solutions are necessary.

The point of Steffen’s article was to underline the importance of community in making these changes in our systems. I think that it is also important to understand the systems themselves. As we grow in our understanding the network of interactions and dependencies in our economy and our society, this understanding will allow us to break out of unsustainable patterns and replace them with ones that are equally understood, but are sustainable to the best of our knowledge. And because we’ll be building from a base of understanding, we’ll be able to look at them in a rational fashion 40 years from now when we understand the ways in which the new patterns are not sustainable.

It may be that at first, these more-sustainable patterns will be obvious. Things that folks like Steffen have been telling us for years, like community gardening, reducing sprawl, and increasing bike transport. But as with everything else, the low-hanging fruits will be quickly exhausted. At that point, progress will only be made by deeper understanding. It will be interesting to see how the tools for gaining that understanding develop.

Dennett and modern positivism

Philosopher Daniel Dennett contributed an essay to the John Brockman edited collection What Are You Optimistic About? about the role that modern information technology might have on the growth of rationality and consequently, an increase in secularism and atheism. The essay, like most of the essays that Brockman solicits, is thought-provoking. Alas, the first thought it provoked for me was something along the lines of, “Clearly, Dennett has no faith in humanity’s ability to be stupid with greater speed and efficiency than before!”

The existence of technology will no more prevent religious fundamentalists of either the Muslim or Christian stripe from acting irrationally, anymore than the technology of the first Industrial Revolution caused an expansion of Enlightenment rationality as the 19th century positivists believed.