Living in the Age of Small-world Networks
I have shared earlier in my blog, my fascination with Calculus that I studied as part of my engineering education and later applied while working in missiles. Mathematics is the language of science and the medium of expression for abstract ideas. You can’t understand any phenomena beyond a point without comprehending the unseen part of it and for those, mathematical functions are your lamp posts.
I recently read two books of the American mathematician, Steven Strogatz (b. 1959) – “The Joy of x” and “Infinite Powers.” These brilliantly written books explain well how indeed the world works – both, the natural universe, and the man-made world. There are simple laws and patterns at the core of the apparently complex world and properly understood, they instill a sense of peace and confidence in facing, or rather, enduring the reality.
If you understand the health problem well, especially chronic illnesses, you know how to live with them without being frightened and keep doing your best in the situation. If you understand the way big money moves markets, climate operates the weather, and social tensions are brewed and festered by the seekers of political power, you are not only less surprised, but also better focused on what you can do to safeguard your own little interests without being overwhelmed.
In “The Joy of x”, published in 2012, Strogatz writes, “Math is everywhere, if you know where to look. We’ll spot waves in zebra stripes, hear echoes of Euclid in the Declaration of Independence [the phrase “all men are created equal”], and recognize signs of negative numbers in the run-up of World-War I [the area between the opposing armies’ trenches was known as “No Man’s Land”]. And we’ll see how our lives today are being touched by new kind of math, as we search for restaurants online and try to understand – not to mention survive – the frightening swings in the stock market.”
In “Infinite Powers”, published in 2019, Strogatz writes, “For reasons nobody understands, the universe is deeply mathematical. Maybe God made it that way. Or maybe it’s the only way a universe with us in it could be . . . our universe obeys laws of nature that always turn out to be expressible in the language of calculus as sentences called differential equations. Such equations describe the difference between something right now and the same thing an instant later or between something right here now and the same thing an instant later or between something right here and the same thing infinitesimally close by. The details differ depending on what part of nature we are talking about, but the structure of the laws is always the same.”
Computer science is rooted in mathematics and those programmers who do not take mathematics seriously, do not flourish beyond a point. The mathematical way of thinking that means abstract reasoning, critical thought, and logical deduction, is imperative to succeeding in computer science. The art of reading, comprehending, formulating thoughts, and communicating with abstract language, come naturally with learning mathematics. The popular term, algorithm, is basically an abstraction of a process. Once it is established as parameters, it can be studied how it is repeated, modified, and even applied to solve other problems.
Recently, Mahesh Ramanujam, Former President and CEO (2016-2021) and COO (2011-2016), U.S. Green Building Council visited me. During his tenure there, Ramanujam helmed the accelerated expansion and implementation of LEED, the world’s premier green building certification and rating system. A computer engineering graduate from the Annamalai University (1993), Mahesh now enthusiastically leads the charge for a “zero emissions” world. We had a long chat.
As outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the commitment to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, translates into a reduction of the current levels of emissions by 45% by 2030, and to reach zero emissions by 2050. This can be possible only through a complete transformation of how industries produce, people consume, and the movement of goods and travel in the world.
But, as Ramanujam views it, that timeline doesn’t offer the sense of urgency required. In many ways, Ramanujam says, “Things are moving in exactly the opposite direction – and scaling change needs to meet a series of challenges.” Of course, he’s referring to the fact that urbanization is on a roll; thermal power stations are being added, and roads are choked with traffic, exhaling greenhouse gases. A rather utopian term that has gained traction of late is a decarbonized economy, or more accurately, a low-carbon economy (LCE). Renewable energy, nuclear power, biofuels, and energy efficiency are the new engineering hotlines. Low-carbon economies are, indeed, a precursor to the more advanced, zero-carbon economy. But who is going to make it happen? Why should an industry invest in clean technology?
Idealism alone will not work. Ramanujam believes that a proper understanding of the scaling is necessary, that people, planet, and profit can exist in tandem and not despite one another. Firstly, it must be economically beneficial for a business to go in for lower to zero emissions. And secondly, there must be a cost to doing business as usual, one that ultimately renders the polluting industries unviable.
This is where carbon credits come in. According to the National Indian Carbon Coalition, “A carbon credit represents ownership of the equivalent of one metric ton of carbon dioxide that can be traded, sold, or retired. If the organization produces fewer tons of carbon emissions than it is allocated, the organization can trade, sell, or hold the remaining carbon credits. When a credit is sold, the buyer is purchasing the seller’s allowance of emissions.”
Sounds great, right?!
But the challenge is how these credits can be accurately measured and traded. The answer lies in Mathematics. An average car generates 5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. It used to be 10 metric tonnes earlier, which has lowered down to 3 and below in emerging fuel-efficient models. Users of these cars must purchase the equivalent number of carbon credits from a reputable source. An hour of flying generates a certain quantity of carbon dioxide. Money should be paid to forest growers and farmers to sequester carbon in the soil. Solar and wind energy parks offset the energy produced using fossil fuels. All these businesses – energy, automobile, aviation, agriculture – are fundamentally small-world networks. Their nodes may not be connected to one another, but the neighbors of any given node are likely to be connected. To a keen eye, all is visible, measurable, and transactional – and according to Ramanujam, these prerequisites are what lead to market transformation.
As things stand, the carbon market is merely a concept. The current landscape is disorganized, archaic, and lacks incentives. Ramanujam feels that carbon markets riding onto a public and decentralized database, such as the blockchain, can provide a global infrastructure data layer, and force polluting companies to either pay higher prices for carbon credits or seek more environmentally friendly approaches to their business practices. He also says that, “Using crypto and carbon metrics will provide a cohesiveness to an otherwise fragmented effort at a zero-emissions future. “
I tend to agree. A journey of thousand miles begins with one small step and it is time to take that step, instead of sitting in inaction.
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