Solar Flares: What You Need to Know: A Special from Tarcher/Penguin

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You can read the first entry with complex systems scientist Sam Arbesman here. The focus of my work and research is to explore the creation of new spaces and how those spaces enable and shape the interactions of the people that use them. These scenes demonstrate both the new shapes architecture can have with energy as a primary building material, as well as the social interactions and repercussions for people using them. Fictions with footnotes, you could say! SL : I really have no idea. I went into landscape architecture because I liked plants and biology coupled with design.

After working in that for a few years, I realized more opportunities might exist in architecture to really push the design side of the discussion. But now, my work is now as rooted in landscapes and our outdoor environments as it is in architecture. I think the greatest opportunity today is in addressing space and architecture through the lens of the landscape and crises affecting our environment as a result of climate change.

SL : World environments are changing, and simultaneously, the human body is continually being engineered, from immunization to the enhancement of our eyesight and other senses. These might seem like two separate events, but as an architect, what it means is that the materials that make up our surroundings and how the human body interacts and senses them are both in play. In the past, architects manipulated matter to make steel, glass, and concrete, which gave us new novel spaces, but the human body always remained the same.

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This is an important conversation to have because the climates and environments of our world are changing, and so are our bodies. SL : Architects work with materials that build spaces and define boundaries: things like steel, concrete, and glass. Each has its own proclivities, which effect what that space looks like, and the shapes it can take: a tall tower, an enormous stadium, a transparent, modernist house. Energy in architecture is generally seen as a fuel for simply heating, cooling, or lighting up an existing building design.

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This definition of energy also includes the social and political interactions that emerge, both intentionally and unintentionally, from those shapes and spaces. Energy is already something that kind of courses through our lives. We just need to build on it. JE : How can we conceptualize architecture as working with the energy around it, instead of confining it or keeping it out? SL : The best way to do this is to give energy shape.

Energy is essentially invisible at the moment, except in extreme conditions. When we think of energy in architecture now, we usually think of solar panels or the mechanical ducts that run through a building. But if you take street lighting as an example, you have a shape—a cone of light coming down from the light bulb—produced by a spectrum of light that creates a physical boundary.

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Simply flip a switch. It also changes its shape and aesthetics day to day: from a full moon to a new moon, its boundaries and edges look different as it interacts with the local environment. When energy can be given its own shape, new quirks and proclivities emerge that differ from what you can do with steel or glass. It can also get people excited about what we can do with energy when we have more of it available, when we can find other clean and responsible ways of generating it.

Maybe architecture should start with the streetlight and go forward from there as a new model for how we build our spaces. Start with street lighting and layer new energy systems and technologies, one on top of the other, until you have a built environment that is robust enough to flexibly accommodate diverse ways of using space. Something that is nimble, flexible and embedded with the same energy fields as the environment that it sits within. How else should energy be conceptualized and deployed by architects?

SL : There are some very talented and smart people working to find better ways to harness, store, and move renewable energy around. I think it might be beneficial to take a different approach, one that markets and demonstrates new activities, aesthetics, and lifestyles, while simultaneously smuggling into the discussion the idea of a responsibly evolving environment that requires the need for additional funding and political backing to make possible. The environments we live in, either locally or globally, have never been static, yet nearly all discussions of the environment are tied to a notion of conservation.

Maybe what we need instead right now are visions of a future environment that might not look like what we have around us today, but are more supportive of the well-being of as many species as possible going forward. JE : With all this in mind, do you think we should be training architects differently? Is there a different set of skills or perspectives that young architects should master? But the architect is the great generalist. JE : In the book, you argue that architects have a unique relationship with time. How do you relate to time and its passage in your own work?

SL : When you think about a building, you usually think about the walls that stand strong against the natural elements. Those walls are made of stored and ossified energy—wood, steel, etc. But if we go back to street lighting as an example of an architecture made from these material energies, you get a different relationship with its surroundings and time.

Unlike an architecture made of walls that mediate against those energies that make up the local environment, the shape and aesthetic qualities of the streetlight are directly informed by the dialogue between the spectrum of light coming out of the streetlight and the light levels of the site it is on. And it goes away for half the day when the sun is out. Buildings tend to be depicted with images that represent permanence.

JE : Okay, last question: What story has inspired you most? We all have a role to play. Architects need to find new ways to do things and act boldly, not scale back and retrench in the face of our the energy crisis and our other challenges. We need to invent new relationships with energy and space, not just a diminished version of our current understanding.

Thanks to Elizabeth Garbee for editorial assistance and expert co-editing! September 8, in Hieroglyph. Sam Arbesman is a complex systems scientist and writer with a PhD in computational biology from Cornell University and a BA in computer science and biology from Brandeis University.

We can measure when facts will be rendered obsolete, the rate at which new facts are created, and even how facts spread. This measurable evolution of truth, fact, and reality can have a powerful impact on our lives. So on one hand, especially in science, we want single equations to explain the world. We frequently want the same thing in our technology—think about the attractive simplicity of the original iPod.

JE: Can you give us an example of a situation where even experts were confused about an important development in their own field?

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Another example of this is a system called TCAS traffic collision avoidance system. It turns out that there are only a handful of people who really understand how this system works. JE: That reminds me a little bit of this article I recently read about Netflix , about their recommendation algorithms. Their engineers are often surprised about the types of recommendations that come up and we, as consumers, are frequently surprised as well.

SA: Absolutely.


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And this has actually led me in some fun directions. Maimonides, author of The Guide for the Perplexed.

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That we could completely understand the universe. In the Middle Ages, with more of a focus on the infinite, there was a sense that there were only so many things that you could ask questions about and actually get answers. So in the 12th century the philosopher and physician Maimonides, in his book The Guide for the Perplexed , gives a nice little list of things we could know for sure, including the number of stars in the sky and whether that number is even or odd. Or the number of planets or the number of types of animals, things like that. And in fact if you look within science and we actually now know the number of stars visible to the naked eye, although not necessarily the total number of stars.

SA: I definitely think so, and it varies from system to system. And it is a system that we ourselves have built.

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As science grows and grows, no single person can read all those scientific papers, or even the new papers within their own specialty. If you connect them all together, maybe concept A implies concept C. And we now actually have computer programs that can kind of step in and help build those links. As we specialize, people still have expertise in certain areas, but it becomes more and more difficult to see the connections among a variety of fields.

So you have naches or shep naches , when your kid gets married or they have their bar mitzvah or graduation. Having talked with a number of historians and philosophers, I have a much better sense of how these trends have ebbed and flowed over time. JE: Do we need to tell better stories about complexity? Do we need narratives that make messiness and complexity seem as beautiful and enriching as simplicity and elegance? SA: Some of this is just about expectations and mindset. Storytelling can be a powerful vehicle for inspiring people about both elegance and complexity. You can have a story that unifies everything and helps us think about the world as an elegant gestalt.

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