The Wizard and the Prophet

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

[Amazon Link]

After reading a couple of his history books (1491 and 1493), I decided author Charles C. Mann was a must read. It took awhile, but here's another one, covering much more recent history and associated controversies.

The "Wizard" is Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner, often dubbed the father of the "Green Revolution", the strides in agricultural production that (essentially) ended famine as a major world problem in the span of just a few decades. The "Prophet", on the other hand, is William Vogt: today he's obscure, but Mann makes the convincing case that he's the forefather of most of the threads of the modern environmental movement.

It's—really!—a fascinating story. Borlaug grew up in rural Iowa, about 75 miles east of where my own parents grew up, at about the same time. Vogt, on the other hand, grew up in then-rural Long Island, where he enjoyed observing the local flora and fauna. Both grew up to be scientists, each enduring massive hardships in painstaking research in foreign lands: Borlaug attempting to develop strains of wheat that could be grown in Mexico; Vogt attempting to discover what was going wrong with the (at the time) lucrative guano-producing islands off the coast of Peru.

Broadly speaking, though, Borlaug and Vogt are just standins for their general attitudes and approaches toward humanity and the environment. Painting with a very broad brush: The "prophets" tend to be pessimistic, look for (and usually find) doom around every corner; favor "soft" approaches to supplies of food, air, water, and energy; preach a lot about "limits" and "sustainability". "Wizards" are the flip side: optimistic, technocratic, always (and usually finding) scientific workarounds to obstacles, and look to centralized "hard" solutions to resource supplies.

Mann is an ideal reporter on this, for many reasons. He's a fantastic writer, who can (and does) make details of guano production and wheat cultivation riveting. He's also well-versed in technical issues. You won't want to miss his discussion of rubisco, (aka "Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase") the most important enzyme you've never heard of. It acts as a catalyst for photosynthesis, so, yeah, without it there would be no you and me. It evolved once, 3.5 billion years ago. The reaction it catalyzes is agonizingly slow; just slugging along at 2-3 per second. It's also (in Mann's word) inept; the reaction is "supposed" to use CO2, but rubisco often grabs onto O2 instead, which is useless, photosynthesis-wise.

And yet, nature hasn't produced anything better in 3.5 billion years. I can't decide whether this is a point for or against "intelligent design". Yes, rubisco is slow and stupid, but if it were any smarter or faster, … again, we wouldn't be here. We might have life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Mann only missteps once, as near as I can tell, on technical issues. when he discusses semiconductors (pp 284-285). Doping silicon with a scattering of other elements cause a surplus (or deficit) of free electrons, but Mann claims this causes the crystal to become negatively/positively charged. I don't think so. Quibble.

Mann is also good because he's relentlessly agnostic on the issues that bitterly divide Wizards and Prophets. (Specifically: "On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don't know.") He is relentlessly both fair to, and skeptical of, both sides, and that makes his insights all the more credible.

What Mann can't bring himself to say explicitly: the weight of the evidence so far swings the scales in favor of the Wizards. Time and again, he rattles off the failed predictions and disastrous policy positions of the Prophets. (E.g., Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" that fizzled.) To be fair, the Wizards' record isn't spotless either. And both sides tend to be more than a little, um, pushy in implementing their policies. Both sides are enthusiastic top-down social engineers.

For folks interested in the University Near Here, Mann relates his discussion with UNH's Dennis Meadows, who was on the Limits to Growth team back in the day, a dedicated Prophet. Dennis got a little exasperated at Mann's queries. Heh. I remember that Dennis got a little exasperaated with me at times, on technical issues. No matter, I remember him fondly.