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Monday, September 29, 2008
Public Policy ... Science ... Society ...

Here’s an interesting image that I came up with the help of good old Photoshop. The top image is a close-up of a leaf; your basic plant life, with its veins and cells. The bottom image is the same image after some color transformation and contrast modification. Note how it looks a lot like a map of a modern suburban development, with main roadways and side streets and cul-de-sacs. The modern philosophy is to get away from the classic boxy grid of straight-line streets and let the roadways “cooperate” with the natural terrain.

What’s the point? Why, the point comes from chaos theory, from the classic insights derived from fractals. Fractals are those crazy drawings which look pretty much the same no matter how far you zoom in on them. The overall patterns keep repeating themselves whether you are looking at the whole, or at a tiny magnified piece of the whole. Despite the change of scale, some things stay the same. So, we see that an aerial view of a suburban development, and a microscope view of a tree leaf (which may well have come from that suburban development), show patterns that repeat themselves.

Very interesting! I’m not sure just how far you could continue this trend; at the extreme micro end, everything blurs into quantum fuzziness; and at the extreme macro end, it’s clumps and “filaments” of galaxies and vast regions of space with no “normal matter” at all (although there’s still zero-point energy and dark energy, perhaps also dark matter). Perhaps, however, there is still some sort of pattern, a more abstract pattern that is harder (or impossible) to visualize, that holds at all magnifications levels throughout the universe.

I hope that some super-bright physicists and mathematicians are working on that.

Speaking of green, here’s an interesting article from our friends “across the pond” about the recreational travel habits of those who are most concerned about global warming and its environmental effects.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/24/ethicalliving.recycling

It’s about a recent research study showing that people who make the most intentional effort to “live green” (by recycling, buying a Prius or riding a bike to the store, cutting or eliminating meat consumption, using mini-fluorescent light bulbs, etc.) are most likely to take frequent long-distance flights. And their carbon share from those airline flights well exceeds the savings they achieve by their other life-style changes.

Obviously, green-living is still mostly a pass time for the affluent. And the affluent are more likely to require airline travel in their careers. But they are also more likely to fly for vacation purposes. Just a few long-distance flights can swamp out the yearly benefits of living green at home. This supports the allegations of hypocrisy and ultimate futility that are lodged against Al Gore and those who imitate his manner of showing concern about global warming.

My take on all of this: It’s still a good thing for people to become more aware and more concerned about global warming, and the more “little things” that are done, the better. But yes, a person cannot rest on his or her environmental laurels after ridding their homes of incandescent light bulbs and non-hybrid vehicles. Global warming is a huge monster of an issue, and most people are not fully aware of just how big the problem is and how damaging our western lifestyles are. (And how catastrophic it will be if the masses in the developing world adopt our lifestyles, as they are increasingly doing in China and India). As this study shows, even the people who have become concerned aren’t being completely honest about their overall “carbon footprint”, and what sacrifices might be required to reduce it to “sustainable” levels.

I have heard Al Gore’s response to this criticism; he makes up for all the CO2 created by his huge house, his big cars and his frequent jet-setting by giving lavish donations to activist organizations that buy carbon-credits in the market (thus increasing the number and scale of carbon-offset projects like forest restoration and power plant modernization). I think that’s good; I make similar donations, but on a much smaller scale (sorry, but my income and net worth don’t match Mr. Gore’s). But the bigger problem remains: if humankind is going to avoid huge disasters maybe 100 years down the road, a whole lot of people today may soon need to stop doing things that they really like to do, or cut back quite a bit. Carbon-credit funded efforts may not be nearly enough. This really may hurt the “average Joe” (and average Juan, and average Subrahmi, and average Lin-Tsu). Obviously, that idea would not be politically popular.

The scientists aren’t absolutely sure right now just how bad the problem is, what will happen if we let it continue, and how much we need to do to stop it. Mainstream science seems in agreement that global warming is happening, and that there’s a real chance of future disaster. But there are conflicting reports as to what will happen, when and how likely it is to happen, and how much we need to do to stop it from happening. I recently read an article from a credible source saying that global warming may be slower than we think; some places on earth certainly are heating up, but others may be getting colder (e.g. Antarctica). However, another recent article said that greenhouse gas levels over the past few years have held to the high-end of the UN study’s scenarios, indicating that we’re on track for the worst-case events (e.g., significant rises in sea levels).

So, if the affluent “greenies” want to take the next step in their quest to save the world, they might need to give up their jet-setting vacations and big homes and other comforts of wealth. If they want to be true prophets who achieve “street-cred” amidst the unwashed masses clamoring to gain or protect their Big Macs and central air conditioning and cars of their own, the affluent may need to make some unpleasant lifestyle choices. (And yes, I know that this applies to me also; my circumstances are rather modest by American standards – I haven’t been on an airplane in over 10 years – but are very posh by world standards.) This is the kind of crisis that might not be taken care of through improved management and infrastructure tweeks and developing technology, as past environmental challenges have. This one might get really interesting over the next couple of decades. I won’t be here to see it all played out, but young people ought to keep an eye on this.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:19 am      
 
 


  1. Jim,
    I think you are 100% correct in that the leaf looks like a suburban development and that they both look like the classic fractal. Yet, if I understand the “fractal” correctly, it is the growing point, the place to look for the “new”–be it life, knowledge, etc.

    However, I have lately become interested (in one of the things I read that catch my attention tangentially) in what it is dark matter is going to turn out to be.

    I find myself asking: What if it turns out that we eventually realize that we have been arrogantly ignorant in thinking that we knew so much about the universe and have missed dark matter?

    If I were a young person studying in the field, I’d pursue anything about dark matter–something we hardly know anything about.

    And on another tangent: Wouldn’t it be a kick if eventually it turns out that there are “aliens” “out there” who have learned the secrets of dark matter?

    However, I must say that regarding UFOs, which almost always come up when one mentions “aliens,”–or perhaps sometimes come up–I wonder: Has no one noticed that in almost every case where UFOs have been seen there is some air base nearby–either air force, army, etc.? My hunch is that most UFOs seen by people are something that the air force (I use the term in the most general sense) is working on.

    Perhaps all the chaos in the world and our society is evidence of the world being on the verge of a totally new “world”–one we have not even dreamed of. The fractal may be exactly the image for the current times.
    MCS

    Comment by MCS — October 7, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  2. Jim,
    I think you are 100% correct in that the leaf looks like a suburban development and that they both look like the classic fractal. Yet, if I understand the “fractal” correctly, it is the growing point, the place to look for the “new”–be it life, knowledge, etc.

    However, I have lately become interested (in one of the things I read that catch my attention tangentially) in what it is dark matter is going to turn out to be.

    I find myself asking: What if it turns out that we eventually realize that we have been arrogantly ignorant in thinking that we knew so much about the universe and have missed dark matter?

    If I were a young person studying in the field, I’d pursue anything about dark matter–something we hardly know anything about.

    And on another tangent: Wouldn’t it be a kick if eventually it turns out that there are “aliens” “out there” who have learned the secrets of dark matter?

    However, I must say that regarding UFOs, which almost always come up when one mentions “aliens,”–or perhaps sometimes come up–I wonder: Has no one noticed that in almost every case where UFOs have been seen there is some air base nearby–either air force, army, etc.? My hunch is that most UFOs seen by people are something that the air force (I use the term in the most general sense) is working on.

    Perhaps all the chaos in the world and our society is evidence of the world being on the verge of a totally new “world”–one we have not even dreamed of. The fractal may be exactly the image for the current times.
    MCS

    Comment by MCS — October 7, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

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