What swans and turkeys teach us about photonics

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DANIEL MCCARTHY, SENIOR EDITORNovember tends to remind me of “black swan” events. I blame Nassim Taleb, who coined the term in his eponymous 2007 book. For anyone who somehow managed to navigate the past 13 years — much less the past four — without ever encountering the phrase, a black swan has become commonly defined as an event that lies beyond our normal experience.

I find this definition is a bit watered down. Sampling kombucha may lie beyond my normal experience. But it’s hardly a black swan. I favor the slightly more stringent definition whereby black swans directly contradict all previous observations. They do not arise from an unpredictable future, they arise from a misinterpreted past.

In his book, Taleb offers the analogy of a Thanksgiving turkey. For the first three years of its life, everything in a domestic turkey’s daily experience reinforces the idea that the farmer has its best interests in mind. It’s amply fed, watered, and sheltered without fail.

Yet as the turkey learns in the weeks before Thanksgiving, the future can not only surprise you, it can potentially reverse a lifetime of past observations.

Stay with me. There are two critical points to make at this delicate juncture.

First, black swans are not necessarily catastrophic or even negative events. They are contextual. After a pattern of adversity leads us to lower our expectations of the future, black swans might manifest as unexpected blessings.

Second, they are humbling reminders for us to not allow past experiences to color our expectations of the future too much. That’s an especially important reminder in light of the looming U.S. election, the ongoing global pandemic, the persistent wobble in global economies and supply chains, and next year’s trade show schedule. While there’s always call for caution and concern, who can deny that the unforeseeable outcomes of 2020 might signal major breakthroughs and world-altering improvements?

Several of this month’s articles illustrate the point. Marie Freebody’s story on Earthimaging, for example, surveys the European Union’s Copernicus program’s game-changing potential for understanding and managing the earth, sea, and air around us. In another article, researchers from Tampere University and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information describe advancements in quantum encoding that could increase information capacity per photon to revolutionize future communication networks and sensors.

It is easy to view these and other developments covered in this issue as incremental or routine. But they represent the sort of steady groundwork that sets the stage for disruptive and unexpected future innovations.

Published: October 2020

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