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Stewart Brand
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Stewart Brand

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Great profile of +Stewart Brand elder statesman of radical ideas and emissary from the Sixties counterculture 
Stewart Brand was at the heart of 60s counterculture and is now revered as a tech visionary whose book anticipated the web. Carole Cadwalladr met him
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Brand was the shepherd. WEC was our bible back in those days. It was the Amazon of its time and it prepared and propelled anyone who read it into the future. My favorite nugget of wisdom: "When the mail truck gets stuck in the mud, it's third class they throw under the wheel."
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The darkness of dark matter and dark energy (Priya Natarajan talk)

This is my summary of the recent Long Now talk by the Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan.

ALL THAT WE KNOW of the universe we get from observing photons, Natarajan pointed out.  But dark matter, which makes up 90 percent of the total mass in the universe, is called dark because it neither emits nor reflects photons — and because of our ignorance of what it is.  It is conjectured to be made up of still-unidentified exotic collisionless particles which might weigh about six times more than an electron.

Though some challenge whether dark matter even exists, Natarajan is persuaded that it does because of her research on “the heaviest objects in the universe“ — galaxy clusters of more than 1,000 galaxies.  First of all, the rotation of stars within galaxies does not look Keplerian — the outermost stars move far too quickly, as discovered in the 1970s.  Their rapid rate of motion only makes sense if there is a vast “halo” of dark matter enclosing each galaxy.

And galaxy clusters have so much mass (90 percent of it dark) that their gravitation bends light, “lenses” it.  A galaxy perfectly aligned on the far side of a galaxy cluster appears to us — via the Hubble Space Telescope — as a set of multiple arc-shaped (distorted) galaxy images.  Studying the precise geometry of those images can reveal some of the nature of dark matter, such as that it appears to be “clumpy.”  With the next generation of space telescopes — the James Webb Space Telescope that comes online in 2018 and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope a few years afterward — much more will be learned.  There are also instruments on Earth trying to detect dark-matter particles directly, so far without success.

As for dark energy — the accelerating expansion of the universe — its shocking discovery came from two independent teams in 1998–99.  Dark energy is now understood to constitute 72 percent of the entire contents of the universe.  (Of the remainder, dark matter is 23 percent, and atoms — the part that we know — makes up just 4.6 percent.)  When the universe was 380,000 years old (13.7 billion years ago), there was no dark energy.  But now “the universe is expanding at a pretty fast clip.”  Natarajan hopes to use galaxy-cluster lensing as a tool “to trace the geometry of space-time which encodes dark energy.”

These days, she said, data is coming in from the universe faster than theory can keep up with it.  “We are in a golden age of cosmology.”
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+Chuck Green​, a great (and fun!) 5min explanation of the universe expanding is at
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Converting rice from a C3 to a C4 plant will revolutionize agriculture

My summary of Jane Langdale’s Long Now talk:

Feeding the world (and saving nature) in this populous century, Jane Langdale began, depends entirely on agricultural efficiency — the ability to turn a given amount of land and sunlight into ever more food.  And that depends on three forms of efficiency in each crop plant: 1) interception efficiency (collecting sunlight); 2) conversion efficiency (turning sunlight into sugars and starch); and 3) partitioning efficiency (maximizing the edible part).  Of these, after centuries of plant breeding, only conversion efficiency is far short of the theoretical maximum.  The photosynthesis in most plants (called “C3“) is low-grade, poisoning its own process by reacting with oxygen instead of carbon dioxide when environmental conditions are hot and dry.

But some plants, such as corn and sugar cane, have a brilliant workaround.  They separate the photosynthetic process into two adjoining cells.  The outer cell creates a special four-carbon compound (hence “C4“) that is delivered to the oxygen-protected inner cell.  In the inner cell, carbon dioxide is released from the C4 compound, enabling drastically more efficient photosynthesis to take place because carbon dioxide is at a much higher concentration than oxygen.

Rice is a C3 plant — which happens to be the staple food for half the world.  If it can be converted to C4 photosynthesis, its yield would increase by 50% while using half the water. It would also be drought-resistant and need far less fertilizer.

Langdale noted that C4 plants have evolved naturally 60 times in a variety of plant families, all of which provide models of the transition.  “How difficult could it be?” she deadpanned.  The engineering begins with reverse-engineering.  For instance, the main leaves in corn are C4, but the husk leaves are C3-like, so the genes that affect the two forms of development can be studied.  Langdale’s research suggests that the needed structural change in rice can be managed with about 12 engineered genes, and previous research by others indicates that the biochemical changes can be achieved with perhaps 10 genes.  The genes needed for the eventual fine tuning will emerge later.

When is later?  The C4 Rice project began in 2006 at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The research is on schedule, and engineering should begin in 2019, with the expectation that breeding of delicious, fiercely efficient C4 rice could be complete by 2039.

It is the kind of thing that highly focussed multi-generation science can accomplish.
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I'm curious about the relationship between improving photosynthesis via C3->C4 gene engineering and the need of the plant for nitrogen. If you push up the photosynthesis rate does that also mean you have to provide more nitrogen fertiliser?

The point being of course that nitrogen fertiliser currently depends on Haber–Bosch processes which are (again currently) heavily fossil fuel dependent. If we're unlucky we just replace one limit with another. And if the resource limits (fossil fuels) don't get us, the pollution (nitrogen run off) will.

ps. to the previous commenter, "plonk". 
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Self-Driving Genes Are Coming

[My Edge answer at the link]

The new biotech tool called “gene drive” changes our relation to wild species profoundly. Any gene (or set of genes) can be forced to “drive” through an entire wild population. It doesn’t matter if the trait the genes control is deleterious to the organism. With one genetic tweak to its germline, a species can even be compelled to go extinct.

The technique works by forcing homozygosity. Once the genes for a trait are homozygous (present on both chromosomes) and the parents are both homozygous, they will breed true for that trait in all their descendants. Artificially selecting for desired traits via homozygosity is what breeders do. Now there’s a shortcut.

In effect, gene-drive genes forbid the usual heterozygosity in cross-bred parents. In any two parents, if one of them is gene-drive homozygous, all their offspring will be gene-drive homozygous and will express the gene-drive trait. Proviso: it only works with sexually reproducing species—forget bacteria. And it only spreads quickly enough in rapidly reproducing species—forget humans.

The mechanism was first described in 2003 as a potential tool by Austin Burt of Imperial College London. The way it works is that a “homing endonuclease gene” cuts the DNA in the adjoining chromosome and provides the template for the DNA repair, thus duplicating itself. In Richard Dawkins terms, it is an exceptionally selfish gene. Heterozygous becomes homozygous, and after several generations the gene is present in every individual of the population. The phenomenon is common in nature.

Gene drive shifted from an interesting concept to a powerful tool with the arrival in the last few years of a breakthrough in genome editing called CRISPR-Cas9. Suddenly genes could be edited easily, cheaply, quickly, and with great precision. It was a revolution in biotech.

In 2014 George Church and Kevin Esvelt at Harvard published three papers spelling out the potential power of CRISPR-enabled gene drive and the kind of public and regulatory oversight needed to ensure its responsible deployment. They also encouraged the development of an “undo” capability. Ideally the effects of an initial gene drive release could, if desired, be reversed before it spread too far with the release of a countermanding secondary gene drive.

The benefits of gene drive could be huge. Vector-borne scourges like malaria and dengue fever could be eliminated by eliminating (or just adjusting) the mosquitoes that carry them. Food crops could be protected by reversing herbicide-resistance in weeds. Wildlife conservation would be able to cure one of its worst threats—the alien invasive rats, mice, ants, etc. that are massively destructive to native species on ocean islands. With gene drive the invaders could be completely extirpated (driven extinct locally), and the natives would be protected permanently.

Developments are coming quickly. A team at Harvard proved that gene drive works in yeast. A team at UC San Diego inadvertently proved that it works in fruit flies. Most importantly, Anthony James at UC Irvine and colleagues showed that malaria mosquitoes could be altered with gene drive so that they no longer carry the disease. Kevin Esvelt is developing a project to do the same with white-footed mice, which are the wildlife reservoir for Lyme disease in humans; if they are cured, humans will be as well.

The power to permanently change wild populations genetically is a serious matter. There are ecological questions, ethical issues, and many technical nuances that have to be sorted out thoroughly. Carefully, gradually, they will be.

Humanity has decided about this sort of thing before. Guinea worms are a horrible parasite that used to afflict 2.5 million people, mostly in Africa. In 1980 disease control experts set about eliminating the worms totally from the world, primarily through improved water sanitation. That goal of deliberate extinction is now on the brink of completion. One of the strongest advocates of the project, President Jimmy Carter, declared publicly, “I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.”

Gene drive is not a new kind of power, but it is a new level of power. And a new level of responsibility.

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A good and balanced answer +Stewart Brand 
Very best to you for 2016
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Great piece in Science on Zimovs’ Pleistocene Park and restoring the mammoth steppe

Climate stabilization comes with restoring the megaherbivores to the subarctic and arctic. This is the biome that revived woolly mammoths will help bring back.

3 minute video at the link.

Article here:
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Bueno trabajos para tomar como modelo en Peru para restructurar las biomasas y los nichos ecologicos´para revertir los daños y contribuir con la estabilizacion del clima-
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Building an endowment for The Long Now

A campaign is under way to build a fund of $500K+ to create an endowment for The Long Now Foundation so it can keep being useful for the next 9,980 years (we’re 20 years old now). The fund will be managed according to a long-term investment strategy we’ve been developing over the last few years. You are invited to pitch in.

In the description of the program at the link, Long Now quotes from my book THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW as follows...

The slow stuff is the serious stuff, but it is invisible to us quick learners. Our senses and our thinking habits are tuned to what is sudden, and oblivious to anything gradual. Between the near-impossible win of a lottery and the certain win of earning compound interest, we choose the lottery because it is sudden. The difference between fast news and slow nonnews is what makes gambling addictive. Winning is an event that we notice and base our behavior on, while the relentless losing, losing, losing is a nonevent, inspiring no particular behavior, and so we miss the real event, which is that to gamble is to lose.

What happens fast is illusion, what happens slow is reality. The job of the long view is to penetrate illusion.
June 02016 marks Long Now’s twentieth anniversary. In terms of a new nonprofit, it is a pretty good run. But for Long Now it means...
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A link to the fund is here:
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"Climate scientists have long recognized the importance of forest conservation and forest regrowth in climate mitigation and carbon sequestration -- capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. But the detailed information required to make accurate estimates of this potential has remained elusive".

(Posted by +rasha kamel​)
Climate scientists have long recognized the importance of forest conservation and forest regrowth in climate mitigation and carbon sequestration -- capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. But the detailed information required to make accurate estimates of this potential has remained elusive.
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How can farmers make a living without clearing land? There has to be some balance. Much land is off limits to farmers due to government. 
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We're excited to announce that all of our Seminars About Long-term Thinking videos are now FREE to watch on our site. And we've released a free iOS app that lets you take #LongNow videos with you everywhere... Watch talks by +Stewart Brand +Kevin Kelly +Paul Saffo +Danny Hillis +John Perry Barlow +Daniel Suarez +Rachel Sussman +Peter Schwartz +Beth Noveck +saul griffith +Drew Endy and many more for free.
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For a change, agreement and appreciation. Thanks for making this happen, +Stewart Brand​. One of the true values of the Internet is making information freely available to those seeking it. And for this, The Long Now joins others, including Google (Search, Scholar, YouTube, and its many, many scanned books), the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and modern-day Robin Hoods such as +Alexandra Elbakyan's Sci-Hub (a/k/a "the Library of Alexandra") in demonstrating that knowledge is a public good.
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When chaos overwhelmed civilization (Eric Cline talk)

Last week archaeologist/historian Eric Cline gave a talk at The Long Now Foundation. Here’s my summary...

Archaeologist Cline began by declaring that the time he would most like to be transported to is the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean—the five centuries between 1700 and 1200 B.C. In those centuries eight advanced societies were densely connected—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Hittites, Cypriots, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. They grew to power over two millennia, but they collapsed simultaneously almost overnight. What happened?

The density of their connection can be learned from trade goods found in shipwrecks, from Egyptian hieroglyphs and wall paintings, and from countless well preserved clay-tablet letters written between the states. The tin required for all that bronze (tin was the equivalent of oil today) came from Afghanistan 1,800 miles to the east. It was one of history’s most globalized times.

In the 12th Century B.C. everything fell apart. For Cline the defining moment was the battle in 1177 B.C. (8th Year of Ramses III) when Egypt barely defeated a mysterious army of “Sea Peoples.” Who were they? Do they really explain the general collapse, as historians long assumed?

Cline thinks the failure was systemic, made of cascading calamities in a highly interdependent world. There were indeed invasions—they might have been soldiers, or refugees, or civil war, or all three. But the violence was probably set in motion by extensive drought and famine reported in tablet letters from the time. Voices in the letters: “There is famine in our house. We will all die of hunger.” “Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!” In some regions there were also devastating earthquakes.

The interlinked collapses played out over a century as central administrations failed, elites disappeared, economies collapsed, and whole populations died back or moved elsewhere.

In the dark centuries that followed the end of the Bronze Age, romantic myths grew of how wondrous the world had once been. Homer sang of Achilles, Troy, and Odysseus. Those myths inspired the Classical Age that eventually emerged.

Cline wonders, could the equivalent of the Bronze Age collapse happen in our current Age?

—Stewart Brand

[NOTE: These SALT talk summaries are now available on Long Now’s new publication on Medium. You’ll find photos and slides from each talk, along with further links and invitation to comment.]
Fostering Long-term Thinking
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My answer to this year’s Edge Question

The question: “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news? What makes it important?”

Of the 194 answers, mine is:
“Self-driving genes are coming”
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+Sambodhi Prem Self-driving genes make Bitcoin seem trivial. And I say that as a huge, giant fan of Bitcoin. It's like the difference between TCP/IP and hybridized pygmy wheat: Yeah, one of them changed the way we communicate and do business. The other kept a billion of us in the developing world from starving to death. 
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Breakthrough C4 rice advances

One of the most dramatic improvements in the efficiency of agriculture is coming with the bringing of C4 efficiency to C3 rice. Jane Langdale will be giving a Long Now talk on it March 14 in San Francisco.

Quote from the update at the link...

“Professor Jane Langdale, Professor of Plant Development in the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, and Principal Investigator on Phase III of the C4 Rice Project, said: ‘Over 3 billion people depend on rice for survival, and, owing to predicted population increases and a general trend towards urbanization, land that currently provides enough rice to feed 27 people will need to support 43 by 2050...‘

”Professor Langdale added: ‘The intrinsic yield of rice, a C3-type grass, is limited by the inherent inefficiency of C3 photosynthesis. Notably, evolution surmounted this inefficiency through the establishment of the C4 photosynthetic pathway, and importantly it did so on multiple independent occasions. This suggests that the switch from C3 to C4 is relatively straightforward. As such, the C4 programme is one of the most plausible approaches to enhancing crop yield and increasing resilience in the face of reduced land area, decreased use of fertilizers, and less predictable supplies of water’.

"Phases I and II of the programme were focused on identifying new components of the C4 pathway – both biochemical and morphological – as well as validating the functionality of known C4 enzymes in rice. Phase III will refine the genetic toolkit that has been assembled and will focus both on understanding the regulatory mechanisms that establish the pathway in C4 plants and on engineering the pathway in rice.“

Efforts to 'Turbocharge' Rice and Reduce World Hunger Enter Important New Phase. Tuesday, 01 December 2015. ST. LOUIS, MO – A long-term project aimed at improving photosynthesis in rice is entering its third stage, marking another step on the road to significantly increased crop yields that will ...
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One interesting thing is that (indian) corn has surpassed rice as #1 plant in China recently.  Just because it grows faster and uses less water than rice.  Corn is one of the most important C4 plants in use; with C4 rice, there would be less need to change the eating habits.
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All it takes to improve forecasting is KEEP SCORE (Philip Tetlock talk)

Last week Long Now had a talk from the author of SUPERFORECASTING: The Art and Science of Prediction. Here’s my summary of Phil’s talk:

Will Syria’s President Assad still be in power at the end of next year? Will Russia and China hold joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean in the next six months? Will the Oil Volatility Index fall below 25 in 2016? Will the Arctic sea ice mass be lower next summer than it was last summer?

Five hundred such questions of geopolitical import were posed in tournament mode to thousands of amateur forecasters by IARPA—the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity--between 2011 and 2015. (Tetlock mentioned that senior US intelligence officials opposed the project, but younger-generation staff were able to push it through.) Extremely careful score was kept, and before long the most adept amateur “superforecasters” were doing 30 percent better than professional intelligence officers with access to classified information. They were also better than prediction markets and drastically better than famous pundits and politicians, who Tetlock described as engaging in deliberately vague “ideological kabuki dance."

What made the amateurs so powerful was Tetlock’s insistence that they score geopolitical predictions the way meteorologists score weather predictions and then learn how to improve their scores accordingly. Meteorologists predict in percentages—“there is a 70 percent chance of rain on Thursday.” It takes time and statistics to find out how good a particular meteorologist is. If 7 out of 10 such times it in fact rained, the meteorologist gets a high score for calibration (the right percentage) and for resolution (it mostly did rain). Superforecasters, remarkably, assigned probability estimates of 72-76 percent to things that happened and 24-28 percent to things that didn’t.

How did they do that? They learned, Tetlock said, to avoid falling for the “gambler’s fallacy”—detecting nonexistent patterns. They learned objectivity—the aggressive open-mindedness it takes to set aside personal theories of public events. They learned to not overcompensate for previous mistakes—the way American intelligence professionals overcompensated for the false negative of 9/11 with the false positive of mass weapons in Saddam’s Iraq. They learned to analyze from the outside in—Assad is a dictator; most dictators stay in office a very long time; consider any current news out of Syria in that light. And they learned to balance between over-adjustment to new evidence (“This changes everything”) and under-adjustment (“This is just a blip”), and between overconfidence ("100 percent!”) and over-timidity (“Um, 50 percent”). “You only win a forecasting tournament,” Tetlock said, “by being decisive—justifiably decisive."

Much of the best forecasting came from teams that learned to collaborate adroitly. Diversity on the teams helped. One important trick was to give extra weight to the best individual forecasters. Another was to “extremize” to compensate for the conservatism of aggregate forecasts—if everyone says the chances are around 66 percent, then the real chances are probably higher.

In the Q & A following his talk Tetlock was asked if the US intelligence community would incorporate the lessons of its forecasting tournament. He said he is cautiously optimistic. Pressed for a number, he declared, “Ten years from now I would offer the probability of .7 that there will be ten times more numerical probability estimates in national intelligence estimates than there were in 2005.”

Asked about long-term forecasting, he replied, “Here’s my long-term prediction for Long Now. When the Long Now audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials."
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Here's another #bitcoin prediction market:
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  • The Long Now Foundation
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writer futurist environmentalist
  • Stanford University
    Biology, 1956 - 1960