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A Very Bumpy Ride

Life in the Time of COVID, Part 2

[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I called on Dr. Larry Brilliant, a leading  epidemiologist and pandemic expert with unique experience and expertise, to ask him to talk about how we could begin to think about COVID-19 and what was in store for us. Now, eight months later, in this Thanksgiving Day talk, he provides an update from the field. —JB]

We need to have a strong WHO, a strong United Nations, a strong global alliance for vaccines and immunizations (GAVI), a strong Global Fund, and all these different organelles that make it possible for us to deal with global threats. I would extend it a little bit out of my lane to say we need desperately to deal with climate change, nuclear proliferation, drought, and famine. But in the area that I know, we can't stop a pandemic without having global collaboration. We have failed to learn the lessons of Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Korea, New Zealand, Iceland—the countries that have done really well—because we don't have a strong way to take the best lessons from the success stories in dealing with this pandemic and globalizing them. This is because we deal with disinformation, and because we hold up the Swedish example even though it wasn't a good example of how to deal with the pandemic, and because we don't have a love of science in the leadership of the world, and because we don't talk to each other in the way that we need to.

Epidemiologist and pandemic expert LARRY BRILLIANT, MD, is on the Advisory Board for Ending Pandemics. He is also on the board of the Skoll Foundation and was the founding executive director of Google.org. Dr. Brilliant lived in India for more than a decade while working as a United Nations medical officer, where, in 1971, he helped run the successful World Health Organization (WHO) smallpox eradication program in South Asia. He also worked for the WHO polio eradication effort and Chaired the National Bio-Surveillance Advisory Subcommittee, created by President George W. Bush. He has won the TED Prize, TIME 100, and many honorary doctorates and is the author of Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventures of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History. Larry Brilliant, MD, Edge Bio Page 


Computation All the Way Down


We're now in this situation where people just assume that science can compute everything, that if we have all the right input data and we have the right models, science will figure it out. If we learn that our universe is fundamentally computational, that throws us right into the idea that computation is a paradigm you have to care about. The big transition was from using equations to describe how everything works to using programs and computation to describe how things work. And that's a transition that's happened after 300 years of equations. The transition time to using programs has been remarkably quick, a decade or two. One area that was a holdout, despite the transition of many fields of science into the computational models direction, was fundamental physics.

If we can firmly establish this fundamental theory of physics, we know it's computation all the way down. Once we know it's computation all the way down, we're forced to think about it computationally. One of the consequences of thinking about things computationally is this phenomenon of computational irreducibility. You can't get around it. That means we have always had the point of view that science will eventually figure out everything, but computational irreducibility says that can't work. It says even if we know the rules for system, it may be the case that we can't work out what that system will do any more efficiently than basically just running the system and seeing what happens, just doing the experiment so to speak. We can't have a predictive theoretical science of what's going to happen.

STEPHEN WOLFRAM is a scientist, inventor, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. He is the creator of the symbolic computation program Mathematica and its programming language, Wolfram Language, as well as the knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha. He is also the author, most recently, of A Project to Find the Fundamental Theory of Physics. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page


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How Humans Make the Earth Their Home


Beginning in 2012, and for many summers ever since, my team and I have been helicoptering onto the Greenland ice sheet, in this fantastical melt zone. We use helicopters to string cableways over the top of rushing super glacial rivers so that we can hang this river discharge measurement technology called Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP). We operate around the clock to collect measurements of river discharge every hour, for up to a week in duration. We have collected the world's first meltwater runoff measurements on top of the ice sheet. What we then do is simultaneously use drones and satellites to map out the upstream contributing watershed area flowing to that point where we are collecting the discharge measurements. When we know the contributing watershed area and we have the flow measurements at the bottom of the watershed, we then have a completely independent field dataset from which we can test the ability of climate models to simulate meltwater runoff from the Greenland ice sheet. And it's those models that are being used to predict the future. It's those models that are being used to estimate projected ranges of sea level rise in IPCC reports and so forth.

LAURENCE C. SMITH is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. He is the author, most recently, of Rivers of PowerLaurence C. Smith's Edge Bio Page

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We Have the Power to Destroy Ourselves Without the Wisdom to Ensure That We Don't


I've been thinking about just how bright our future could be, how science knows almost no limits to what we could achieve, to the durations that we could last, to the portion of the cosmos that we could discover and explore, and to the heights of quality in each of our lives or the types of achievements we could make. . . . It's this vision of this wonderful and vast future that's at stake that inspires me to think more carefully about the risks we face now and the ways that we might imperil all of this with our actions. What things can only our generation or our children's generation do in order to protect this seed of humanity so that we can grow into something even more amazing, to protect our present and thereby protect our future?

TOBY ORD is a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University and author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of HumanityToby Ord's Edge Bio Page


Realism Is False


. . . I want to propose that realism is false, and what we're seeing is more like a user interface or a virtual reality headset. Think about a virtual reality game of tennis. You're playing VR tennis with a friend, you both have your headset and body suits on, you see your friend's avatar on a tennis court and you start playing. Your friend hits the tennis ball to you, and you hit the same tennis ball back to your friend, but is your friend seeing exactly the same tennis ball that you're seeing? Well, of course not. There's no public tennis ball. You have some photons being sprayed to your eye by your headset, and those photons are causing your visual system to create your own perception of what you would call a green tennis ball. Your friend has a headset on, which is spraying photons to his eye, and his visual system is creating his own green tennis ball perception.

It turns out that both of those perceptions are coordinated by something else, namely a supercomputer that's sending the photons to both headsets, causing both headsets to work in coordination. . . .

All the things that we would do to say that objects really exist even when they're not perceived hold here in virtual reality. . . . That doesn't mean that the tennis ball exists and has any physical properties when it's not perceived; it just means that there is some objective reality.

DONALD D. HOFFMAN is a full professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author, most recently, of The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our EyesDonald D. Hoffman's Edge Bio Page


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The Causal Theory of Views


An event has a view of the world. First, let me tell you what I mean by a view. A view is the information about how it fits into the rest of the world that that event has. That includes who its parents are and what the energy and momentum was that was propagated to it. My view of the world is, I look out and light comes up from the past and I see a pattern of colors, which come from photons of different energies striking my eye. That's my view; it's a property of a moment. That contains all that I, as an event, know about how I fit into the rest of the world.

Now, if you know the things that I just said were real—the events, the causal relations, the distribution of energy and momentum flowing—I can tell you what the view of each event is, but I can also flip it around. There's a dual description in which I just say what the views are and that's the whole description. So, I just say there's a view, and that view is and hears a kind of picture. You see the sky, a two-dimensional sphere around you, and there are some colors, which are photons coming in of different energies—that's the view. I can hypothesize that all that exists in the world is views and a process that continually makes new views out of old views. That's what I call the causal theory of views.

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist who has been, since 2001, a founding and senior faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His main contributions have been so far to the quantum theory of gravity, to which he has been a co-inventor and major contributor to two major directions, loop quantum gravity and deformed special relativity. He is the author, most recently, of Einstein's Unfinished RevolutionLee Smolin's Edge Bio Page

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The Paradox of Self-Consciousness


I have been trying, under the banner of "new realism," to reconcile various philosophical and scientific traditions. I'm looking for a third way between various tensions. There's more to a human being than the fact that we are a bunch of cells that hang together in a certain way. Humans are not identical to any material energetic system, even though I also think that humans cannot exist without being, in part, grounded in a material energetic system. So, I am rejecting both brutal materialism, according to which we are nothing but an arrangement of cells, and brutal idealism, according to which our minds are transcendent affairs that peep into the universe in one way or another. Both are false, so there has to be a third way.

Similarly, between postmodernism, which denies objectivity, and various trends in cognitive science, which also threaten objectivity without fully undermining it, there has to be something in between. Similarly, for continental philosophy—European traditions, broadly construed—and analytic philosophy, which means philosophy at its best when practiced in Anglophone context; there has to be something in between. That space in between is what I call new realism. 

MARKUS GABRIEL holds the Chair for Epistemology, Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn, where he is also Director of the International Center for Philosophy. Markus Gabriel's Edge Bio Page


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Communal Intelligence


We haven't talked about the socialization of intelligence very much. We talked a lot about intelligence as being individual human things, yet the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is our possession of human language, which allows us both to think and communicate in ways that other animals don’t appear to be able to. This gives us a cooperative power as a global organism, which is causing lots of trouble. If I were another species, I’d be pretty damn pissed off right now. What makes human beings effective is not their individual intelligences, though there are many very intelligent people in this room, but their communal intelligence.

SETH LLOYD is a theoretical physicist at MIT; Nam P. Suh Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; external professor at the Santa Fe Institute; and author of Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos. Seth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page

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The Nature of Moral Motivation


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Rethinking Our Vision of Success


How do we understand that our 100,000-fold excess of numbers on this planet, plus what we do to feed ourselves, makes us a tumor on the body of the planet? I don't want the future that involves some end to us, which is a kind of surgery of the planet. That's not anybody's wish. How do we revert ourselves to normal while we can? How do we re-enter the world of natural selection, not by punishing each other, but by volunteering to take success as meaning success and survival of the future, not success in stuff now? How do we do that? We don't have a language for that.

ROBERT POLLACK is a professor of biological sciences, and also serves as director of the University Seminars at Columbia University. He is the author of The Course of Nature, a book of drawings by the artist Amy Pollack, accompanied by his short explanatory essays. Robert Pollack's Edge Bio Page

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