Monday, May 26, 2008

Methanococcus Jannaschii & other Black Swans

As The Future Catches You, by Juan Enriquez, is one of the most thought-provoking, stimulating and fascinating books I've ever read. It's one of those books I couldn't put down and, once I finished, couldn't forget. I read it several years ago, and the recent discussions about the future brought it to mind again.

One particularly memorable scene describes the discovery in 1996 of methanococcus jannaschii, a bacteria "first found in Yellowstone's boiling pools, where the liquids are as corrosive as battery acid." They have also been found near underwater volcanoes, where the pressure is 245 atmospheres, and have been around for billions of years.

These life forms, known collectively as Archaea, love CO2 and breathe iron. Oxygen is poisonous to them. They are radically different from other forms of life on earth. In fact, 56% of their genes are unlike any other species (that's a big percentage, genetically speaking). Their discovery "forced biologists to admit there was a third branch on the tree of life" (the other two being prokarya and eukarya). It's a pretty profound discovery.

Once scientists knew what to look for, they found Archaea just about everywhere. Mr. Enriquez explains Archaea "make up one-fifth of the biomass on Planet Earth." And we didn't even know about them until 1996.

Holy cow. It makes me wonder - what other game-changing discovery is just around the corner, waiting to radically transform our understanding of life, the world and everything? How much of what we think we know is actually incomplete or incorrect?

So yeah, I'm skeptical about long-range strategic planning, precisely because Black Swan instances like the discovery of Archaea are responsible for virtually every consequential historical event (that's a pattern I'll sign up for).

Check out Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan for more on this topic (or read this short article he wrote for to get the basic idea).


Gabe said...

Hope you saw the comments I posted on your The Future post. Again, I point to Semler as another example of a CEO who doesn't take any stock in Long-Range planning. If he did, his company might not exist.

Gabe said...

Oh, and my mistake...he's not a CEO, he's the Chief Catalyst.

My how business is changing! I can't wait for more.

Gabe said...

Just read the article...WOW! Much more fodder for Chaordic and for the Medici Effects, A Whole New Mind, and Intersections. I think I'll add this book to the reading list.

The Dan Ward said...

Glad you enjoyed the article - I think you'll really like the book, and check out Enriquez' book too. I love the layout (reminds me of Tom Peter's Re-Imagine, only in B&W).