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July 30, 2010

Azimuth

Posted by John Baez

I’d like to invite all of you to visit my new blog:

It’s about various topics that don’t fit neatly into the nn-Category Café. So far, that mainly means talking about ecological issues, and live-blogging on talks about quantum technologies.

If you like physics, you might enjoy my posts about talks at the Centre for Quantum Technologies:

Or, you might not! Maybe they’re too advanced, or too pathetically elementary for you. But if they’re too advanced, ask questions — I’ll be glad to tackle them. And if they’re too elementary, help me understand what the heck these talks were actually trying to say.

But the main long-term aim of Azimuth is to become a focal point for mathematicians and physicists interested in ecological issues. Studying the complex systems at work on our planet raises just as many fascinating technical questions as quantizing gravity or developing the theory of nn-categories. It’s not only good for you, it’s tasty! I want scientists — from young students to old fogeys — to see that there are a lot of fascinating problems to work on, and a lot of challenging problems to confront. I want to explain these issues and make the necessary information available in a convenient format. But I could really use your help. For a taste what I mean, try these posts… and especially the many comments on them:

Some people are already helping out… including friendly faces you’ve seen here, like Andrew Stacey and Tim van Beek. But we’re only getting started. I hope things will get rolling faster once the new series of This Week’s Finds begins — then you’ll see interviews with scientists who are seriously engaged with the future, coming at it from a wide variety of perspectives. But for now, try these posts:

Hope to see you there!

Posted at July 30, 2010 5:40 AM UTC

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18 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Azimuth

Wow! That’s an incredible amount of stuff for such a short space of time.

Good luck with it!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on July 30, 2010 7:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Thanks! Your ‘tetchy vegetarian comment’ started some interesting discussion, and so did David Corfield’s remarks…

Posted by: John Baez on August 1, 2010 1:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

But presumably what will make you really happy is if you attract a different crowd. You know that some of us lot will come and have a look out of curiosity, but we’re not experts on climate science. I bet the experts will be along soon enough though — or maybe some have arrived already.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 1, 2010 1:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Tom wrote:

But presumably what will make you really happy is if you attract a different crowd. You know that some of us lot will come and have a look out of curiosity, but we’re not experts on climate science.

Just so everyone knows: it’s not a blog about climate science. Those exist already. It’s a blog about how scientists can help save the planet. So I want lots of people to come. I want experts on climate science and ecology and demographics and economics and decision theory and statistics and energy technology and desalination technology and dozens of other practical subjects like that.

But I also want mathematicians and physicists who aren’t experts on those practical things, but are interested in learning about them, and thinking about useful things they can do. For example: teaching students how to think quantitatively, in an era when it matters more than ever!

I also want students who are looking for something interesting to work on.. That was always one of the main ways This Week’s Finds had an impact… starting in the days of sci.physics.research, before the $n$-Café existed, and going on to now. Students have a great virtue: they’re easily activated. They can hear about something, not fully understand it, yet still decide it’s so cool they want to work on it.

And I want all these people to start talking to each other!

I bet they’ll be along soon enough though — or maybe some are arriving already.

Some interesting new people are showing up. For example, I’m very pleased by Joe Kaplinsky’s lucid comments on the inherent virtues of carbon fuels and how we might make them without putting more CO2 into the environment.

I’m also interviewing some bigshots for future issues of This Week’s Finds. With luck, this will lure more people in.

Posted by: John Baez on August 1, 2010 2:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

I’m afraid I am a lot less optimistic than you on many fronts: both ecological and economical.

Rather than trying to find things we can do to change the path we’re on, I’ve already moved to self preservation, i.e. trying to find the best place to be for my family so that we can best handle the coming calamities. Both ecological and economical.

Posted by: Eric Forgy on August 1, 2010 3:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

“Less optimistic”? I guess that’s possible, but if you’ve been reading my diary since its inception you’ll know I’ve been deeply pessimistic about our fate for some time — and that was before the economic collapse, the big melt of Arctic ice in 2007:

and other shockers.

Over time I moved through despair to the realization that since the world is definitely not ending, any little piece of irreversible damage that we can prevent is worthwhile. In a bottleneck like the one we are going through, even relatively small actions can have large irreversible consequences. For example: there’s a huge difference between all animals of some species dying out, and all but 100 dying out. The world has gone through about 5 mass extinction events before, and there are many cases of Lazarus taxa: species or larger groups that seem to disappear from the fossil record for a while, but then bounce back. It’s quite possible their numbers were simply driven way down – but not to zero. This should give us hope.

Similarly, in human history, there’s a huge difference between all copies of a book being lost, and all but one. Consider the Archimedes Palimpsest.

So, even if disaster is inevitable, the actions we take will determine the precise extent of the disaster. We can’t simply throw up our hands and say “oh, it’s a disaster” and think that it doesn’t matter what we do.

After thinking about that for a year or two, I started feeling that if we’re going down, I’d rather go down fighting. As Gimli said in the movie version of The Lord of the Rings:

Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?

Very Hollywood-esque, not from the original Tolkien… but not without its charm.

Now, if I had a kid, I might feel different. But I’m not worried about my own personal survival, so I can afford to take this attitude.

And if it turns out I’m being overly pessimistic, well, at least I’ll have done something useful.

Posted by: John Baez on August 2, 2010 2:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

By saying I’m “less optimistic” implying you’re “more optimistic”, what I mean is that we both recognize the scope of the problems facing us. They are grim. The situation is bad both ecologically and economically. The economic situation will hit everyone first, including you and everyone reading this, very hard. If you are not worried about that, you should be.

Some of the same factors providing little if any hope on the ecological front, similarly provide little if any hope on the economic front.

I think I am less optimistic than you because I have seen no evidence that anything will change and I’m assuming the worst and trying to prepare for that. Rather than trying to change the path, I’ve accepted it. What is the expression, “Plan for the worst, hope for the best.”

Posted by: Eric on August 2, 2010 2:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

This is probably not the place for talking about this, but I can’t resist one more comment.

Eric wrote:

The economic situation will hit everyone first, including you and everyone reading this, very hard. If you are not worried about that, you should be.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I die in poverty, but I somehow doubt I’ll starve to death, so it’s hard for me to get worked up over such things and focus on designing a strategy for maintaining a comfortable life. Perhaps it’s a failing, but that’s how I am. It’s probably stupid, but I just think “heck, I’m gonna die anyway…”

I think I am less optimistic than you because I have seen no evidence that anything will change and I’m assuming the worst and trying to prepare for that.

That comment seems strangely worded to me: “I have seen no evidence that anything will change”. Things are constantly changing, and the future is made of our actions now. But perhaps you are trying to say you’ve seen no evidence that people will drastically change their way of living in a way that succeeds in averting disaster. I agree with that. I am not saying that I think we can avert disaster! On the contrary. I’m saying that when there’s a disaster, even slight actions can have an effect on what makes it through the disaster. Perhaps what we do can have the effect of saving a small piece of knowledge, lessening human suffering a bit, or preventing some obscure species of micro-organism from going extinct. That sort of thing matters a lot to me.

(If I had a kid, I’d probably be worrying about the survival of my genetic lineage. This might completely account for our difference in attitudes.)

Posted by: John Baez on August 2, 2010 3:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

One of the problems with recycling is that the carbon from food and plants we use for compost decomposes about 80% into carbon dioxide, and only less than 20% becomes an ingredient in the soil. So one needs a better composting procedure. Markus Antonietti from Max Planck studies converting carbohydrates from biomass waste into coal-like products, by an exotermic process under pressure in water.

There is an article in the special issue of Max Planck Research science magazine dedicated to energy

Posted by: Zoran Skoda on August 2, 2010 8:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

I just learned from Jordan Ellenberg that the very first issue of This Week’s Finds appeared 20 years ago yesterday!

It began with the words:

I thought I might try something that may become a regular feature

Not sure exactly what John meant by “regular”, but it became a “feature” for sure.

Congratulations, John!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 20, 2013 11:37 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Thanks, Tom!

Starting This Week’s Finds was the second best decision in my life. Calling it This Week’s Finds was not so good, although I rationalized this later by saying that no matter how often I wrote it, I always wrote it this week.

Posted by: John Baez on January 21, 2013 4:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Starting This Week’s Finds was the second best decision in my life.

I can take a rough guess as to the first, but go on: you’re asking to be asked!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2013 11:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

It was getting together with Lisa. We got married 20 years after we’d been together, and that was almost an afterthought. The important part was getting together in the first place! Before that I was a sad person, after that a happy one.

Posted by: John Baez on January 21, 2013 8:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

+1 :)

Posted by: Eric on January 21, 2013 10:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Another happy story!

Jordan has now done a whole tribute post (to TWF, not Lisa :-)).

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 21, 2013 10:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Happy birthday to “This Week’s Finds”!

I have put together a little tribute.

Posted by: Joachim Kock on January 26, 2013 11:21 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

That’s really a very nice tribute. I especially liked your eyewitness to the Wizard at work. Now there is a man who gets things done!

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 26, 2013 1:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Azimuth

Thanks, Joachim! It’s fun but disorienting to read an essay written by someone else in the format of This Week’s Finds. I was very fussy about that format, especially back when ASCII was all we had, and I’m glad that it made an impression on you.

It actually took me a long time to polish each sentence in This Week’s Finds, once I started taking it seriously. But it was supposed to sound casual and effortless.

I think I introduced astronomy as soon as it was clear that HTML was here to stay and a whopping 200-kilobyte image would not take long for most readers to download. It was a treat to the folks who couldn’t follow the more advanced stuff. My idea was: something for everyone! Each issues was supposed to start out easy and gradually get harder, with readers dropping like flies until it was just me talking to myself.

Since your essay feels a bit like a eulogy, I feel like adding: I’m not dead yet.

These days I’m not writing much on This Week’s Finds, but more than ever on my blog Azimuth and Google+. The blog is for serious stuff; on Google+ I’m mainly trying to get nonexperts excited about math and science, answering fun questions like:

• How many bits of entropy are in the biggest known black hole?

• How many bits of information could you fit in the observable universe?

and

• When is it okay to talk about mathematics at dinner parties?

Posted by: John Baez on January 27, 2013 1:24 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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