Musing about clouds and disruption on a large scale

I’ve had the luxury of some time off these past weeks, spending time with my family, blessed by the weather and the environment. And I thank God for giving me that time; I needed it, and it was fantastic. Blue skies, great company, great food, peace and quiet.

While I’d been “largely offline”, I was able to catch up on my reading and on my thinking, and I’ve been able to share some of that thinking with you. You may have noticed there was a brief flurry of activity on the “curation in the enterprise” front this past week.

That activity will continue.

This post may not be about what you expect it to be about. It is about clouds. And it is about disruption on a large scale. But not about the clouds you were thinking of. At least not initially.

I’d like to bring to your attention the CLOUD experiment at CERN: details of the original proposals can be found here.

More importantly, I’d like to bring to your attention the first results from their experiment “designed to study the effect of cosmic rays on the formation of atmospheric aerosols – tiny liquid or solid particles suspended in the atmosphere – under controlled laboratory conditions”.

The details have been published in Nature, issue 476, pages 429-433.

In summary, the findings of the experiment are as follows (my words, so blame me if you don’t like the construction): Cloud droplets form around seeds. It used to be thought that atmospheric aerosols, formed from trace vapours of sulphuric acid, water and ammonia, were responsible for the bulk of the seeds. Now they’re not so sure, on at least two fronts. One, the data suggests that other vapours must be involved, vapours other than sulphuric acid, ammonia and water. Two, the data also suggests that cosmic rays enhance droplet formation by tenfold or more.

It’s early days. Of course we should not read too much into the data right now, it’s early days. But it’s real data, not conjecture, and it is data based on carefully designed, controlled tests.

I’m excited, very excited, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, if the findings prove well-based, it could mean a shift from strongly anthropogenic views on climate change to a more heliocentric view. To some people, this will probably be as intense a shift as the last time human beings had to exchange a human- and geocentric viewpoint for a heliocentric one. And this time, given the wonders and marvels of modern media, people like you and I will be able to participate, even if only to kibitz. It’s not every day one gets to witness, or for that matter to participate, albeit vicariously, in such a debate. So I’m excited.

Secondly, as a result of that shift, it is possible that we may actually come closer to understanding what makes our climate tick, and what we can do to help. We may have to change our views on what causes climate change, we may have to change our views on what steps we have to take as a result, but what we shouldn’t do is change our views on the principle, that of being good stewards of this earth and this universe. As we learn more, it looks more possible that the generations to follow will actually have a future worth looking forward to. So I’m excited.

Thirdly, the way the scientific community deals with this will itself be of extreme interest to me. I was at TED Global some years ago when Elaine Morgan spoke about her passion for nearly half a century, the aquatic ape. What really struck me about her hypothesis was not the hypothesis itself, but the mere suggestion that the scientific community had, to a greater or lesser extent, closed ranks about the debate. That worried me. I’ve seen it happen with IT folk when it came to PCs, to open source, and more recently to cloud services (the other cloud). The power of incumbent inertia-bound expertise is immense and, ultimately, self-destructive. So I will watch this particular situation with a great deal of interest, since there are many in the scientific community whose passions, interests and even livelihoods rely on an anthropogenic view of climate change. So I’m excited.

Anyone who has spent time inventing or innovating knows something about the self-destruct power of incumbent inertia-bound expertise. The world does not lack for problems that need urgent solving, in terms of food, water, nutrition, dignity, health and wellbeing. What we learn from this particular experiment, in terms of how we deal with it, will help us in many more things. It will, for one thing, tell us whether we are really able to question the status quo, and to change it, while being in it. It will tell us whether modern technology, particularly in the open, social and mobile contexts, lives up to its promise as an active participant in this debate or not. It will even help tell us whether “all of us are smarter than some of us” or whether we’re getting dumber as a result of the collaborative social world we’re entering.

Where I work, being willing to take a fresh look at what we do and being willing to make changes as a result is pretty much business as usual. That’s why Marc Benioff is on the cover of Forbes and why Salesforce is ranked #1 in innovation worldwide by Forbes. Large-scale disruptions are caused when visionary people can spot the need to move from one core set of assumptions to another, and then execute in time for that disruption.

Making such deep-seated changes is not easy. I have been less than impressed with the attitude of the IT industry, over the past 30 years, to the arrival of the PC, to the arrival of the web, to the arrival of opensource/community, to the arrival of the cloud, and to the arrival of mobile. The scientific community has been unusually violent in its debates about climate change over the same period, with some signs that the historical capacity for open debate has been weakened.

I shall watch with a lot of excitement. Some trepidation. And I will live in hope not despair.

3 thoughts on “Musing about clouds and disruption on a large scale”

  1. The problem with the climate change debate is exactly that – it has become a debate, not a scientific investigation. The political concerns have co-opted the facts so much that it is actually very difficult to work out what the scientific opinion really is. And if the scientific community appear to have closed ranks about the issue, it is only because they are under siege but people who do not wish to accept the current conclusions.
    The scientific process does not lend itself to definitive answers. There are always arguments for and against every theory. But, as more and more evidence becomes available the most likely answer becomes more and more apparent.
    This is what has been happening over the last few decades and the general consensus amongst the experts is for anthropogenic climate change. Of course there are counter arguments and experiments that show otherwise, but they are in the minority and the supporting evidence is being eaten away.
    However, the media love an argument, the politicians don’t want to make unpopular decisions and people don’t like to accept blame. So the question is made to appear to still be open when, in reality, the only remaining points are the finer details rather than the fact of it.
    On the other hand, as you say science is nothing if not fickle and it is quite possible that new evidence could re-open the issue. Any real scientist would welcome that – if not too hunkered down from the attacks to notice. But it will be NEW evidence that makes the difference. As Feynman said “Reality trumps public opinion every time”. Science is NOT democratic and the opinion of most people simply is not relevant.
    I realise this is a little off topic. In general I agree with you and with this post, it is just some of the assumptions that I take exception to.
    BTW – I find the aquatic ape theory quite appealing, but I thought it was not so much dis-proven as ignored. Of course I have not paid close attention to the discussion.

  2. I’ve been (and remain) amazed that the climate debate has been so centred on homo sapiens; in a system so large, many of us do seem to have an exaggerated (I think) sense of our own importance. While the root problem of determining the causes lies with being able to separate multiple causes and ascribe compounded effects to them in varying appropriate degrees, even the 11-year sunspot cycle has to play nth fiddle to orbital dynamics. Bottom line: when Earth’s orbit most closely approximates a circle, you get an Ice Age, and when it gets stretched to maximise the difference between long and short elliptical axes, you get extra desertification. At least we can be confident that there’s no anthropic influence over where the second focus of that ellipse lies, at any time :-).

    Also, on the IT front, the assertion that “you can’t build something secure, on top of something that isn’t” is now coming back, despite many years of attempts to do otherwise…

Let me know what you think