International Forecaster Weekly

Unknown Unknowns

Sometimes these wildcards are medical phenomena like human hibernation that have very limited application at this point, and sometimes they are much bigger discoveries or even random events that completely change the course of human history.

James Corbett | May 17, 2014

On December 21, 2006 the BBC published a story about a man in western Japan who fell unconscious after tripping while out hiking by himself. He survived outside in the cold autumn weather for 24 days without food or shelter by falling into a state of hibernation. When he was found, his pulse was almost non-existent, his organs had “shut down” and his body temperature was 22C (71F). He was found on Halloween with no brain function, multiple organ failure, blood loss and severe hypothermia and released six weeks later having completely recovered.




Even physicians were amazed at his recovery; a British Dietetic Association representative contacted for the story, Dr. Frankie Phillips, noted that: “I find it quite incredible that he had no fluid at all [during the 24 day ordeal]. Physiologically that isn't possible.”

I remember the story vividly because it was so bizarre, so miraculous, that it seemed to deserve some treatment more special than merely committing it to memory as a factoid. Instead I saved it to my hard drive. It was the first news story I had ever saved to my hard drive, but that eventually became my standard treatment for all manner of news stories that pertain to my work at The Corbett Report. From a very strange event, a useful habit was born.

I'm reminded of the story because a similarly spectacular story just played itself out, this time at 38,000 feet above sea level. This time it was a teenager who managed to stow himself away in the wheel well of Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 from San Jose to Maui. This story is not quite so miraculous; stowing away in wheel wells, as several mainstream news stories in the wake of the incident explained, is not such an unusual event, although surviving a flight at altitude is significantly less common. According to Dr. Armand Dorian, a physician who treated a flight stowaway in 2000, sometimes “the planets align” for the stowaway, who would generally die from either hypoxia (lack of oxygen) or hypothermia. In rare cases like this most recent one, however, the effects cancel each other out: "the need for oxygen declines as the body cools. It's exactly like the concept of cryogenic freezing.... The boy's body went into a frozen state."

OK. So what? These are interesting stories, but why am I talking about them here? Well, my first answer might be to say that for any young man who grew up on films like 2001 and Alien, the idea that cryogenic freezing of humans is really possible is enough to set the imagination on fire. But maybe that isn't a serious enough answer for a publication like this.

For our second attempt at an answer, then, we could look at these stories as examples of the wildcard phenomenon. The “unknown unknowns” in Rummy's now infamous formulation (“things that we don't know that we don't know”). Sometimes these wildcards are medical phenomena like human hibernation that have very limited application at this point, and sometimes they are much bigger discoveries or even random events that completely change the course of human history.

The history of science is filled with stories of important discoveries being made through total random chance. Penicillin was famously discovered when Alexander Fleming took an August vacation from his work researching bacteria and allowed some of his dirty bacteriological samples to pile up. When he returned to the lab in September, mold had started growing on one of the dishes and Fleming discovered that the mold killed off the colonies of Staphylococcus he was studying. A great deal of research later, penicillin was born.

Willhelm Röntgen discovered the x-ray by accident while experimenting with cathode rays; a fluorescent screen a few feet from the device glowed green when the rays were activated and one week of experimentation later Röntgen had taken the first x-ray photograph (a haunting image of his wife's hand, complete with wedding ring).

The microwave oven came about when Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon found that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted when he walked in front of a magnetron (vacuum tube used to generate microwaves). After some experimentation, he invented the first microwave oven in 1945...although it was over 20 years before the technology had been sufficiently miniaturized to be offered for use in homes and another 20 years before they really caught on.

But these wildcard events are not limited to scientific discovery. In 1768, the Genoese decided to sell their claim to the island of Corsica after centuries of struggling against local independence movements, invading Turks, and other inconveniences. The French, suffering from losses in the Seven Years' War, were eager for the territory, so they took Genoa up on the offer and began the conquest of Corsica, completed one year later in 1769. That was the year Napoleon Bonaparte was born. Through the random happenstance of world events Corsica was now technically French, and that's how this native Italian speaking son of an Italian noble line who was brought up in Italian customs was able to join the French Army and go on to become the Emperor of France. Even at the end of his life he spoke French with a heavy Corsican accent that was often mocked by the French nation he commanded.

In mid-1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was parading through the streets of Sarajevo in an open-topped car when an assassin lobbed a grenade at him. The grenade missed its intended target, blasting the next car in the motorcade by accident, and his would-be assassin, realizing his failure, took a cyanide capsule that didn't work and tried to drown himself by throwing himself in a three foot deep river. The archduke was unscathed but, concerned about the people who had been injured by the grenade, insisted on going to the hospital to visit them. On the way his driver got hopelessly lost, stopped in front of a restaurant to turn around and stalled out the car. The restaurant they stopped in front of just happened to be the restaurant that one of the would-be assassin's compatriots, Gavrilo Princip, had gone to console himself with a sandwich and, emerging from the restaurant, he found the assassination target sitting unsuspectingly in a stalled out open-top car. Taking his chance, Princip shot Ferdinand dead then and there, thus completing the task. And that's how World War I started.

And of course there are the wildcard events that completely transform the world economy and the markets every generation or so. In 1857, lawyer George Bissell and banker James Townsend of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company hired Edwin Drake, an unemployed railroad conductor, to travel to Titusville, Pennsylvania, on the shores of Oil Creek, to drill for crude oil. He and his assistant met with such little success and so many setbacks that the company withdrew its support and Drake, undeterred, took out a personal line of credit so he could continue drilling with an old steam engine he had rigged up for the purpose. On August 27, 1859, just days away from having used up all his credit, Drake struck oil at 69 feet below ground. This was not just a transformative event for Western Pennsylvania, setting off the first US oil boom in the area, but for the world in general, as this was the first example of a large-scale commercial oil drilling operation and led to the oil boom that changed the face of the world economy. Unfortunately for Drake, the industry was soon dominated by the likes of John D. Rockefeller while he, having not had the foresight to buy up the land around his drilling site nor the foresight to patent his drilling technique, ended up dying in poverty years later.

Similarly the transformative event of our own era, the advent of personal computing and global networking, had its origins in mundane events. On June 5, 1943, a construction contract was signed between the US Army and the University of Pennsylvania to develop an electronic device that could be used for calculating artillery firing tables for the Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. The product of that contract, ENIAC, was revealed to the public in February 1946. Described as a “Giant Brain” it was a modular, programmable, general-purpose computer that was capable of addition and subtraction and could hold a ten-digit decimal number in its memory. It accepted input from an IBM card reader and output to IBM card punch. However impressive it must have seemed to the tech nerds of the day, there was no one who could have possibly envisioned the age of ubiquitous computing that we are currently living in, with microprocessors and other engineering marvels having progressed to the point where the average person has more computing power on their wrist or in their pocket than would have been imaginable in the age of ENIAC. Whatever hype-fueled bubbles the age of personal computing and the internet may be responsible for (the dotcom bubble, the Twitter and Facebook overvaluations, etc.), the utterly transformative impact of this technology on the world economy is undeniable.

It's at this point that you might expect me to launch into a lecture on how changes can come out of nowhere and how we have to be prepared financially and personally to roll with these punches. This is of course true, and there are some good points to be made there. But that is not my purpose today.

No, I am writing this with the hope of re-instilling the sense of wonder and the sense of humility that seems to have been sucked out of this age of know-it-alls who have seen everything and are surprised by nothing. On the contrary, the universe is far more wondrous than we could ever imagine and it is the height of hubris to imagine that the next major discovery that will completely transform our understanding of the world (or the next big event that will change the course of human history) isn't going to be a complete surprise, an accident or random event that will knock us from our horse and remind us that we don't know everything. It's easy to laugh at the “futurists” of times past who looked at the technology of their time, the blimp, and imagined a future where vast fleets of blimps ferried people across the oceans. It's much harder to realize that our vision of the future will be equally as ridiculous to those future generations.

This is an important process, because it allows us to separate what's truly important about who we are and what we are doing in this world from the random happenstance of discoveries and events. Consider for a moment that everything we think we know about the world is wrong (or at least significantly incomplete). Our conception of medicine, physics, math, history; they all will be utterly transformed by future discoveries and our children's children will not study from our textbooks. The geopolitical hotspots that pre-occupy us today, Ukraine, Syria, the Senkaku Islands, will likely not be the spot where the next major conflict actually touches off. The wisdom of today's markets, central banking and quantitative easing, lowflation, Abenomics, will be the ridicule of tomorrow.

In the end, what is it about us and the times that we are living in that are important? It is not our supposed knowledge of the world, our incomplete or completely wrong conceptions of the universe. It is the human element. The society that we are creating, and the cultural legacy we are leaving that will help to shape the next generation, whatever world they end up living in. This is what is really important at the end of the day. And in order to re-access that human element, what we really need is to regain our sense of wonder.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to re-watch 2001.