As career paths of professional investors go, Katherine Collins, CFA, certainly has a diverse one. Formerly a portfolio manager and head of US equity research at Fidelity Management & Research Company, Collins later attended Harvard Divinity School before launching her own biomimicry-based research firm, Honeybee Capital. In The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies through Bio - mimicry , Collins examines how a better understanding of the natural world can lead to optimal decision making. In this interview, Collins discusses why honeybees are such good decision makers, the mechanization of the investment industry, and how preparing for uncertainty is different from preparing for risk. ... Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of natural wisdom in our products, processes, and designs. Many people think if you’re just using something from nature, that’s biomimicry. That’s not quite it. It’s the process of looking to nature as a model and a measure of our own endeavors, interwoven in every step of the process.
Human genomics is just the beginning: the Earth has 50 billion tons of DNA. What happens when we have the entire biocode? ... By 2020, many hospitals will have genomic medicine departments, designing medical therapies based on your personal genetic constitution. Gene sequencers – machines that can take a blood sample and reel off your entire genetic blueprint – will shrink below the size of USB drives. Supermarkets will have shelves of home DNA tests, perhaps nestled between the cosmetics and medicines, for everything from whether your baby will be good at sports to the breed of cat you just adopted, to whether your kitchen counter harbours enough ‘good bacteria’. We will all know someone who has had their genome probed for medical reasons, perhaps even ourselves. Personal DNA stories – including the quality of the bugs in your gut– will be the stuff of cocktail party chitchat. ... Due to satellite imaging, we can see the entire surface of our planet. There can be no undiscovered land masses. The map of the world is complete. And we should expect the same thing for genetics. DNA testing will become so pervasive it will transform the medical, legal and social foundations of society. If blanket genome sequencing takes off, it will be impossible to obscure human relationships or ignore the content of our DNA. ... One of the greatest achievements of the coming century will be the characterisation of the Biocode, not just as a list of genomes of different species, but as patterns of interacting communities. ... By 2050 we should aim to finally have a handle not only on human genetic diversity but on the biodiversity of the planet.
In the 1980s, two ecologists, Jim Brown at the University of New Mexico and Brian Maurer at Brigham Young University, coined the term macroecology, which gave a name and intellectual home to researchers searching for emergent patterns in nature. Frustrated by the small scale of many ecological studies, macroecologists were looking for patterns and theories that could allow them to describe nature broadly in time and space. ... Brown and Maurer had been influenced heavily by regularities in many ecological phenomena. One of these, called the species-area curve, was discovered back in the 19th century, and formalized in 1921. That curve emerged when naturalists counted the number of species (of plants, insects, mammals, and so on) found in plots laid out in backyards, savannahs, and forests. They discovered that the number of species increased with the area of the plot, as expected. But as the plot size kept increasing, the rate of increase in the number of species began to plateau. Even more remarkable, the same basic species-area curve was found regardless of the species or habitat. To put it mathematically, the curve followed a power law, in which the change in species number increased proportionally to the square root of the square root of the area. ... Power laws are common in science, and are the defining feature of universality in physics. They describe the strength of magnets as temperature increases, earthquake frequency versus size, and city productivity as a function of population.
An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known. ... So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300. ... At 12,200 feet, the sage of the plains gave way to the middle reaches of the mountains, and the only other vehicles were trucks from a nearby gold mine. All around us was an ocean of unbroken snowpack; without sunglasses, it hurt to even open your eyes. At 15,000 feet, according to the altimeter on my satellite phone, the air began to feel painfully thin; my vision clouded at the corners with a gray haze, and my head throbbed. ... The snow leopard is a deceptively small beast: Males are 95 pounds, give or take, and light through the back and torso. They stand little more than 24 inches tall. (Female snow leopards are smaller still.) And yet as the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen, who wrote his most famous book about the snow leopard, once noted, there are few animals that can match its “terrible beauty,” which he described as “the very stuff of human longing.” ... Save for the pink nose and glimmering green or blue eyes, its camouflage is perfect, the black-speckled gray pelt a good blend for both snow and alpine rock. ... Data from the Snow Leopard Trust suggest that the cat will bring down an animal every eight to ten days—ibex or bharal or long-horned argali sheep, whichever large ungulates are nearby—and can spend three or four days picking apart the carcass. ... life of a male snow leopard is lonelier. He might stay with a female for a few days while they mate, but after that he’ll typically return to hunting and defending his territory in solitude. In Kyrgyzstan, he is often referred to, with reverence, as “the mountain ghost.”
Avian vision works spectacularly well (enabling eagles, for instance, to spot mice from a mile high), and his lab studies the evolutionary adaptations that make this so. Many of these attributes are believed to have been passed down to birds from a lizardlike creature that, 300 million years ago, gave rise to both dinosaurs and proto-mammals. While birds’ ancestors, the dinos, ruled the planetary roost, our mammalian kin scurried around in the dark, fearfully nocturnal and gradually losing color discrimination. Mammals’ cone types dropped to two — a nadir from which we are still clambering back. About 30 million years ago, one of our primate ancestors’ cones split into two — red- and green-detecting — which, together with the existing blue-detecting cone, give us trichromatic vision. But our cones, particularly the newer red and green ones, have a clumpy, scattershot distribution and sample light unevenly. ... Bird eyes have had eons longer to optimize. Along with their higher cone count, they achieve a far more regular spacing of the cells. But why, Corbo and colleagues wondered, had evolution not opted for the perfect regularity of a grid or “lattice” distribution of cones? The strange, uncategorizable pattern they observed in the retinas was, in all likelihood, optimizing some unknown set of constraints. What these were, what the pattern was, and how the avian visual system achieved it remained unclear. ... Determining whether a system is hyperuniform requires algorithms that work rather like a game of ring toss. ... Hyperuniformity is clearly a state to which diverse systems converge, but the explanation for its universality is a work in progress.
Consider the most familiar random shape, the random walk, which shows up everywhere from the movement of financial asset prices to the path of particles in quantum physics. These walks are described as random because no knowledge of the path up to a given point can allow you to predict where it will go next. ... Beyond the one-dimensional random walk, there are many other kinds of random shapes. There are varieties of random paths, random two-dimensional surfaces, random growth models that approximate, for example, the way a lichen spreads on a rock. All of these shapes emerge naturally in the physical world, yet until recently they’ve existed beyond the boundaries of rigorous mathematical thought. Given a large collection of random paths or random two-dimensional shapes, mathematicians would have been at a loss to say much about what these random objects shared in common. ... have shown that these random shapes can be categorized into various classes, that these classes have distinct properties of their own, and that some kinds of random objects have surprisingly clear connections with other kinds of random objects. Their work forms the beginning of a unified theory of geometric randomness. ... “You take the most natural objects — trees, paths, surfaces — and you show they’re all related to each other,” Sheffield said. “And once you have these relationships, you can prove all sorts of new theorems you couldn’t prove before.” ... incoherent is not the same as incomprehensible. ... In practical terms, the results by Sheffield and Miller can be used to describe the random growth of real phenomena like snowflakes, mineral deposits, and dendrites in caves, but only when that growth takes place in the imagined world of random surfaces.
Among a segment of hardcore big-game hunters, no brand is as revered as Kuiu. The company's high-performance fabrics — bonded fleece and waterproof breathable synthetics — are pulled directly from the mountaineering world, and its distinct Tetris-like camo pattern looks more like standard-issue SEAL gear than the fake shrubbery so common at Walmart. Today Kuiu camo is as much a status symbol in hook-and-bullet culture as Louis Vuitton's monogram is among the Hamptons set. ... Based on its horns, the largest in the group looks like a shooter, but to get within range we have to hike up and over a 13,000-foot peak, then down and around the back side of the ridge where the sheep were first seen. Doing so takes most of the morning, stopping and starting to catch our breath and continually watch the movement of the rams. ... these days, hunting has been embraced by a new breed of devotees: athletic, tech-savvy, ethically minded professionals who like to play year-round in the mountains.
What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea. ... The idea of Democritus’s system is extremely simple: the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run. Space is without limits; it has neither an above nor a below; it is without a centre or a boundary. Atoms have no qualities at all, apart from their shape. They have no weight, no colour, no taste. ... Atoms are indivisible; they are the elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them. They move freely in space, colliding with one another; they hook on to and push and pull one another. Similar atoms attract one another and join. ... We know of his thought only through the quotations and references made by other ancient authors, and by their summaries of his ideas.
Whatever their aspirations, people keep right on gorging. Americans now eat a total of 76 pounds in various sugars every year, up 8% from 1970. ... That’s the problem for Big Food: It’s built on the stuff. Some 74% of packaged foods and beverages in the U.S. contain some form of sweetener ... the final factor that is pressing heavily on packaged food companies: the ever-more-ravenous appetite for “natural,” unprocessed products. ... Think of food companies’ plight this way: The finest scientists in industry have spent decades trying to find or invent a no-calorie sweetener that tastes and feels as good as the stuff extracted from pure cane. And now, after they largely failed to master that complex, arduous task, the level of difficulty is being raised even higher: This improbable concoction cannot appear to have been engineered by scientists. ... Most people in the business believe that a “systems approach”—a blending of ingredients rather than a single molecule—is the future of the natural-sweetener industry.
As space exploration geared up in the 1960s, scientists were faced with a new dilemma. How could they recognize life on other planets, where it may have evolved very differently—and therefore have a different chemical signature—than it has on Earth? James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, gave this advice: Look for order. Every organism is a brief upwelling of structure from chaos, a self-assembled wonder that must jealously defend its order until the day it dies. Sophisticated information processing is necessary to preserve and pass down the rules for maintaining this order, yet life is built out of the messiest materials: tumbling chemicals, soft cells, and tangled polymers. Shouldn’t, therefore, information in biological systems be handled messily, and wasted? In fact, many biological computations are so perfect that they bump up against the mathematical limits of efficiency; genius is our inheritance.