Unexpected Consequences

The Irish potato famine was one of the great disasters of the 19th century.  The peasant population of the island had come to depend on the modest potato as a staple part of their diet.  When disease attacked the crop and it failed, thousands died and thousands more left the emerald isle to find a better future elsewhere.  Some of my ancestors were among them.  If you live in North America, it is likely that some of your ancestors were among those refugees, too.

This is the year of the potato.  The United Nations has recognized rice as one of the most important foods in the world with its international year of rice in 2004.  This year the UN recognized the second most important staple crop in the world by designating 2008 the year of the potato.  One third of the calories consumed all over the world comes from potatoes.  I should try to reduce my share of that!

Potatoes were unknown in the 15th century outside what is now Peru.  Spanish explorers found the natives eating different varieties of the tuber and sent them back to Europe.  For years people in the west were afraid to eat these plants, related as they were to the deadly nightshade.

But for the last three hundred years the world has come to count the potato as one of the most important food crops.  And it was discovered by accident, as it were, by people who were looking for something else:  gold, glory, or converts to their god. 

Recently I have been thinking a  lot about the risks and rewards of exploration.  How did Ferdinand and Isabella weigh the risks and potential rewards when they gave three small ships to the irritating Italian guy who was probably going to kill himself and his crews.  If the leaders of Europe had drawn up a Risk Management evaluation of Columbus voyage in 1492 the way we draw up Risk Management evaluations of space flight, would they have known to include the potato?   And with the perspective of five hundred years would we call the voyage a strategic success on the basis of that discovery — which has turned out to be more valuable than all the gold and silver extracted from the American continents?   How do you rate that?

Eratosthenes of Cyrene computed the size of the earth about 200 BC based on the length of shadow cast by two rods at two different places in Egypt at the same time.  He was right to within 3%.  Geometry is an exact science.  Contrary to popular belief, everybody in Columbus day (well, all the educated people anyway) knew the world was round not flat.  And they pretty much knew how big it is.  And they also knew — no great feat of deduction — that you could sail to the west to get to the east, or in other words head west and get to the spice islands, China, India, and Japan.  Everybody knew that.  And they knew one more thing.  That given the sailing speed of the ships of the day, you could not carry enough food and water to get there before you died of starvation.  And everybody was right.  Enter Columbus who had mistakenly calculated a much smaller earth.  His calculations — entirely erroneous — showed that a crew could just make it to the spice islands before they starved to death.  And all of educated Europe laughed.  No wonder Columbus was turned down by kings and courts all around Europe.  No wonder that the most backward and ill-educated kingdom in Europe was the only one to fall for his arguments. 

Nowadays, we use modern risk management.  We take possible outcome and plot them on a scale from unlikely to likely and their consequences from minor to catastrophic.  We use our best engineering and scientific data to categorize the risk.  If we had lived in Columbus day, we would have categorized the outcome (dies of starvation before reaching land) as “Probable/Catastrophic”.  No body signs up for Probable Catastrophic risks.

Just one problem.  Almost exactly where Columbus calculated he would reach land . . . he did reach land.  Just not the land he though.  Serendipity.  Discovering something that you did not expect to find when you set out out. 

How do you rate serendipity on the risk management scale?  Some place near potatoes, I expect.

I am mindful of great quotations of scientists and leaders from bygone days.  Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899:  “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”  Albert Michelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907:  The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented by new discoveries is exceedingly remote.”  Hmm, a Swiss patent office clerk would challenge that notion very shortly.

Modern risk management techniques, like commercial calculations on return on investment, will invariable tell you to stay home and not waste your time exploring, discovering.  After all there is nothing out there; at least nothing we can imagine.

Oh yeah, there is one other quotation from the same era, from Thomas Alva Edison — somebody who was always pushing to find out what he didn’t know — “We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”

Or how important potatoes would be in propelling my ancestors to seek a better life in the new world.


2 thoughts on “Unexpected Consequences”

  1. For every overly pessimistic quote about the future, it is quite easy to find an overly optimistic one, a fact that is usually overlooked. Here are just a few of the thousands one can easily find:

    “Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming soon.” — Henry Ford, 1940.

    “By the year 2000, there will be no C, X, or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary.” — Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1900

    “The man of A.D. 2000 is sitting in his study. At his elbow is a pot of synthetic coffee, in his fingers a letter delivered by rocket. Outside the sun is shining brightly, the result of climate control.” — Newsweek, September 1959

    “[by 2000 we will develop] a mthod that will let people decide, before they doze off, what they want to dream about.” — Herman Kahn, 1967

    “… the common housefly will have been eliminated by new techniques in black light, infrared magnetic waves, or perhaps bred out of existence by sterilization of the population” — Henry Still, Man: The Next 30 Years, 1968

    “[By the year 2000] the coldest weather won’t stop the home owner from barbequing on his patio, protected from the elements by curtains of heated air.” — Wal Street Journal, 1969

    “Adhesive tape will be strong enough to take care of all household repairs, and shoes will last a human lifetime [by 2000]” — Desomond King-Hele, 1975

    “[the 1990s will be the decade] in which all waste and scrap become our major resources and our natural untapped resources become our back-up supplies.” — Stanford University physicist Glenn Seaborg

  2. The problem here is that these kings and princes weren’t for the most part interested in serendipity or new discoveries. In fact, if some of them knew what they were getting into, they’d probably have not tried at all.

    Alternately, if they had implemented, back then, the paraphernalia of modern Developed World society: a republic; capitalism and modern law; universal education, the establishment of universities, the openness of the academic environment, and research centers; and intellectual property rights, then that would probably result in a far greater rate of innovation and serendipity than just exploration would.

    My point is that if you’re looking just for serendipity, there was a lot of better, often quite mundane approaches than exploration. But these other forms would have been threatening to the powers of the time. Exploration was something that was seen as expanding the power of these rulers and countries.

    Further, modern risk management would have worked just fine. Even if Columbus couldn’t reach the Spice Islands, there’s no reason he couldn’t find a safe haven before that. Three ships in good weather and barely in line of sight probably explores a strip of ocean maybe a hundred miles across. So an expedition covers a certain amount of ground. It’s a gamble, but you can rationally figure out how to increase the chances of success.

    Discovery of a stepping stone doesn’t solve the problem, but it would bring Spain closer. They could establish a base on this island and repeat the process. The payoff of a new route to the Spice Islands alone was enough to justify the gamble. No need to hope for the discovery of new continents, that’s gravy on top of the steak.

    Where does this leave us with modern space exploration? To be honest, we lack the great payoff of the Spice Islands. We just don’t have the big lure yet that will justify space exploration. That breaks the analogy with exploration on the high seas.

    It’s more like the situation when boats were first developed. At a guess, I’d imagine that boats were something that sailed or rowed out of a simple dock, stayed within sight of land, and came back by night. You can fish out of your boat, but what else is it good for? No place to go in it except sea and your village. Eventually there were more villages with docks and someone might be able to go from place to place and trade stuff. Or they might take along a bunch of tough guys and grab some loot (“nonconsensual trade” is the euphenism I’ve heard).

    This leads to the thing that bothers me here. Boats were around a long time before they became the tools of trade and conquest. It’s very possible that space development shall progress at a similarly plodding rate with the sexy Spice Island trade equivalent centuries down the road. That makes space exploration a very hard sell. The only real solution as such I can think of is merely putting more people in space so that there’s a greater chance of serndipity happening. But for that to happen, we need to have self-funding space exploration, that is profitable private enterprise in space. I’m concerned that the US isn’t doing enough to make that happen.

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