lectures


In his new lecture for the Long Now Foundation, Geoffrey West asserts that part of the problem humans face is that we tend not to understand exponential growth. An economy growing at a miserable 2%, for example, is still growing exponentially. And economic growth is still largely a measure of the acceleration of entropy–how much faster are we turning resources into pollution. He advises figuring out ways that periods of slow or no growth OK, because it will have to be.

Exponential growth really is counterintuitive. Here’s the way he describes it:

Imagine you are going to grow a test tube of a bacteria, starting with one bacterium at 8 AM and ending with a full test tube precisely at noon. The bacteria grow by doubling–a kind of exponential growth–each second. So at the end of one second we have two, after two seconds we have four, after three seconds we have eight, and so on. That being the case, at what time will the test tube be one-half full?

Right. Precisely one second before noon. And two seconds before noon it’s a quarter full. Three seconds is an eighth, four seconds a sixteenth. At 11:59.55 AM, the tube is only 1/32 full. Imagine being a bacterium in the tube at five seconds to noon. It would seem more crowded than usual, but look at all that space to go, and we’ve been doubling like this for almost four hours! There may be a problem in the next few days, but certainly not in the next few seconds–exponential growth is probably also counterintuitive for bacteria.

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This was from the lecture “The Mismeasure of Man” by Ralph Horwitz at Stanford. It’s a nice way to distinguish between a few different ideas about our relationship to reality.

1) “I call them how they are.” This umpire believes that he has direct access to reality. In his mind, he just watches what happens and makes the call appropriately.

2) “I call them the way I see them.” This umpire acknowledges the limitation of his senses. He knows he may make a call that doesn’t reflect reality accurately because of his lack of direct access to reality.

3) “They ain’t nothing til I call them.” This umpire thinks he defines reality. Horwitz paints this one as the most arrogant, and he probably is. Whether or not this umpire thinks he has direct access to reality, he knows that he is the person who can say what we call a particular human/bat/ball interaction.

It shows a certain amount of self-awareness to be able to say what the third umpire said, which I admire. It is a kind of awareness that is necessary (though not nearly sufficient) for those of us with the inappropriate power to define the situations of others to give up that power. That is, no matter whether our power comes from race, gender, money, or whatever, we can’t give it up until we understand that we have it.

A note on gender in this post: Horwitz used the title of his lecture as a way to get in an apology about how much more research is done on men than women. He also used male pronouns for his umpires. Thinking that there are probably umpires of all genders, I tried to use “they” instead of “he,” “she,” or variations on “he/she.” It felt like bad writing so I went back to “he.” No offense meant, and if you want to take a crack at it, send me what you come up with.