Jere Northrop and Andrius Kulikauskas lead this Math 4 Wisdom study group

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Bridging our languages, Epistemology of Jere Northrop

Andrius Kulikauskas: I am collecting and systematizing Jere Northrop's ways of figuring things out in ecotechnology. Below are the data (examples of how he figured things out) and a preliminary sketch of how 24 ways fit together.

Epistemology of Ecotechnology

2024.02.12 Earlier version of the diagram



Watch biological systems

  • Watch biological systems and let them figure out what to do.

Growing a biological system

Using resources that currently aren't being used. Using a liability as an asset.

  • Make wastewater treatment systems that don't cost but rather produce benefits.
  • Monsanto suggested looking at phosphorus removal in Lake Okochobe in Florida. Fines for pollution were driving the dairies out of business. They processed the manure so as to trap the phosphates, creating soil and sell them as fertilizer. (#3 0:00)
  • TimberFish Technologies plant potential benefits for Westfield, New York. Incentivizing local enterprises. Critically analyzing incentive structures. (#3 9:40)

Building a system that an organism can colonize in a way that's easy to harvest

  • Field of Dreams. Growing microbial biomass - earthworms - oligocates. Noticing that they were there in small concentrates. Building the system so that they can colonize it and are easy to harvest. (#2 2:25)
  • Construct an environment which poses a question. They will work out how to function. Then you help them get there.
  • Construct an environment. See who likes to live there. Get a notion of what they like to do. Improve the environment so it helps them do what we'd like them to do. Interacting with the system.

Populating an artificial system with natural muck

  • Populating a pond by putting in a fistful of mud from the creek. (#3 25:20)

Mimicking the natural food chain.

  • Dissecting trout and finding snails in them. Snails live along plants that grow along the edge. Introduced water cress that has a huge root structure. The snails loved that. Altering the environment to favor more snails. Jere's mind is working like a catalyst. (#2 29:30)

Combining tasks and challenges.

  • Nature has no waste. Disposing waste is normally a problem to avoid polluting water. Bacteria would eat that and it would start a new food chain. (#2 31:15)

Personal growth

Observing and developing sensitivity

  • How does Jere learn? Do a lot of observation. Jere finds four leaf clovers. He does not look for them but they jump out at Jere. He developed a sensitivity. How to extend that knack in developing a working system. (#4 11:50)

Hunting the world for what matches or fits with what we have in our mind

  • Learning from his wife, artist Lynn, matching colors, hold it in her mind and find something that matches it spot on. A sense of how things fit. (#4 8:20)

Physically engaging reality and absorbing it

  • Lynn was designing a toy and looking for springs and went to an industrial store, testing the springs with her fingers. The salesman explained that engineers come in with technical specifications yet ultimately did just what she did, feeling the springs. The human body, the human being as a Godly wonderful instrument. (#4 8:20)

Having high standards

  • Not tolerating unacceptable behavior at work, which was accepted by others. (#3 Extra)
  • Maintaining principles, being respectful, progressive discipline, clarifying requirements, allowing people to evolve.
  • Focus on what is proper, correct and relevant, don't over indulge. Be respected and do not be hated.

Matching abilities with tasks

  • The challenge at the waste water treatment plant of matching employees with jobs that they were capable of doing. (#3 22:20)

Bringing conflicting views to a head

  • Making a point, and testing one's judgement, by bringing things to a head at a community forum. (#3 Extra)

Is the solution benefiting everybody? Making them more resilient?

  • Why is gross wealth inequality not good? A good solution should benefit everybody. People should not be dependent, should be independent and interdependent. Consideration for how everybody is doing. People should be able to take care of themselves first. Are people able to care about themselves? Are the resource flows making people more resilient. (#3 13:55)

Outgrowing one's environment

  • Jere did not adapt, allowed himself to fail, be filtered out. Choosing better alternatives. Choosing how much to adapt to the environment. Choosing to do something more. (#3 27:15)
  • Living in 10 year cycles. Making the most of situation in terms of learning new skills. Being prompted by an external factor to think of changing one's life. Taking the opportunity to transcend oneself. (#3 29:20)
  • Growing recognition that a social or political environment is healthy or toxic, supportive or unsupportive enough that one should be ready to leave. (#3 Extra)

Learning three-cycle

Regular lab testing

Testing samples regularly

  • Regularly chemically analyzing effluent samples, liquids and solids. (#2 12:10)

Analyzing samples in the lab

  • An artificially constructed environment. Noticing what is natural. Looking through a phase contrast microscope at flock structure of bacteria. (#2 8:35)

Analyzing different kinds of samples

  • Hired a chemist to work at the lab. She was interested in the invertebrates. Took samples of the water, the floating solids (long filaments), the solids that settled to the bottom (more globular). Microscope shows thousands of organisms. (#2 18:40)

Personal inspections

Personal on site inspection. Human body as a research instrument.

  • Walk through the plant every day, how does it look, smell it, see the clarity. Compare that with the test data. Noticing things going on in the plant that weren't part of the engineering descriptions. Started to look at the reservoirs. (#2 16:10)

Set up quality tests that can be personally inspected

  • Set up a plate with coins under eight feet of water to demonstrate the clarity. (#2 20:30)

Side effects

Note side effects beyond the scope of the experiment.

  • The discovery of pennicilin. Dirty petri dishes were made clean by a mold. (#2 23:50)
  • The bundles of worms in distribution channels to recycle solids. Collected sediment to see if it causing a problem. It was full of worms! Maintenance process. (#2 22:20)

Analyzing problems such as contaminants

  • Graduate students. Spore forming bacteria. What triggered sporulation. Genetic trigger. Looking for mutations. Finding growth where there shouldn't be any. Considering contamination agents. Analyzing the soap. Another case: Using pipets. Washing and autoclaving them. Discovered that if you heat spores it will cause mutations. (#2 25:20)

Observer's Vantage Point

Work-in-parallel with the ecosystem. Let the ecosystem's creativity solve the problems. Apply your aesthetics.

Lead with your aesthetic principles and test them

  • Fitting cells together for influent waste, for chips, for aeration, for chips... Using rectangular cells. Choosing the proportions (length) based on the Fibonacci numbers. 3 feet of chips on a water level of 5 feet. Assigning dimensions based on an intrinsically meaningful logic (the golden mean) instead of a random assignment.(#4 0:00)
  • Andrius's response: Indulge your whim, take a definite stand for the learning cycle. In a situation of ignorance, wanting to learn, apply a genuine, heartfelt aesthetic, caring principle, in the spirit of the Free Energy Principle, do what you truly want to do, what you believe. Your optimizing may or may not be in parallel with how the biological system optimizes, but more likely than chance, and yields feedback for learning. (#4 6:10)
  • The assumption that the universe external to ourselves is creative allows us to formulate a new type of design principle for solving practical problems. This principle will be to incorporate the creativity of the external reality in the problem solving process. If we can recognize and formulate a problem, we can utilize the creativity of the external environment to help solve this problem. What needs to be done is to manage the presentation of the problem to the environment and to define to some degree what will constitute an acceptable solution. (Bion Hypothesis, pg.2)
  • This situation is analogous to the management processes which we use in our human organizational structures. Governments, corporations, societies, even families and marriages, all survive through the appropriate management of our own creativeabilities. Even though we often do not fully understand how we actually do this we still recognize that the creation of new alternatives is frequently the only way to effectively manage a paradoxical or non resolvable situation. (Bion Hypothesis, pg.2)
  • Restoring the aesthetic sense: The aesthetic sense is there for all of us, but sometimes it gets submerged, driven out by bad experiences or history. However, this can be restored.
  • Goldilocks Expanded Maximum Entropy Principle. Applying the Maximum Entropy Procedure: The procedure can work to some degree at all levels of effort. However, it can be greatly enhanced by dedication, study, focus, reflection, determination, and practice, practice, practice. The more you work at it the better your understanding will be. The quality and humanity of your decisions will improve, and so will the happiness and satisfaction of your life. (RSP, p.146-147)


Four states

Six transformations

Set up genetic selection

Setting up a genetic selection procedure

  • Setting up a condition in nature that would encourage a mixed growth culture and then isolate the bacteria that does the desired fermentation. (#3 24:40)

Creating an environment for genetic selection.

  • Organizing a friendly, noncomittal, fun social environment, that would attract a variety of participants, making it possible for couples to meet. (#3 Extra)
  • Looking for an organism that could do a particular task.

Develop upstream value

Develop upstream value, especially locally

  • The business model was weak because earnings go to processing, transporting, marketing the product. Not too attractive. (#3 0:00)
  • Left Bion - focus on higher value product such as fish - convert the bio-soil into fish. Local cycles are more valuable. Local facility for fresh fish eliminates transportation and shelf life. (#3 5:50)

Divert subpopulation

Set up a selection device to divert a subpopulation

  • Freshwater snails. Running water across an inline sheet. The snails would attach themselves to the plastic sheet and deposit egg masses on the plastic sheet. Set up a screening device at the end so that small snails would go through but big snails could not. Yielding a constant stream of small snails to clean the sides and catfish would eat them. Look at what is in the natural environment and think how that could be useful and build a device, a selection procedure, to make a comfortable place for them to live and reproduce to useful levels. (#2 5:05)

Helping unwanted organisms to leave

  • A back porch was screened in. A colony of bees set up in the wall of the porch and that was great. But then they started flying into the porch, which was not good. Jere noticed that they congregated in the corner. So he simply cut a small hole in the screen so that they could get out. And there would be never more than a few bees inside the back porch because they would find their way out. This was an example of where a screen, which is supposed to keep bugs from coming in, was modified, so that they bees inside could get out. (2023.12.11 video 25:00)

Making use of natural mobility

  • If you put worms in the biofilter, they will continue to eat the microbes. The worms will reach a certain population and start to move and drop into the fish tank. We use their capabiliity, their mobility and don't have to move them ourselves. (#3 20:35)
  • Let and help vs. Make and force
  • Maximum entropy principle. Let things go where they want to go.

Make useful for system

Using the abilities of the organisms to maximum advantage.

  • Put a biofilter on top of the fish tank. Move the waste stream from the bottom of the fish tank back up, let the fish waste (nitrogen and phosphorus) percolate through the wood chips. (#3 19:35)

Make useful for other components

Make a pest into a nutrient

  • A biomass on a biofilter attracted flies. Flies would land on the biofilter. The client didn't like this. So they put a bug zapper over the fish tanks. This reduced the number of flies and converted them into food for the fish. (#3 21:05)

Make useful for organizer

Transforming tasks into entertainment

  • Grass flies would come out of the grass and get into the house. They get close to the windows. So they set up a terrarium and put a frog in it. So they and their daughter would catch the grass flies and feed the frog. So the problem became an amusement. (2023.12.11 video 33:00)

Jere's motives and values

  • Jere's motives and values become relevant. His desire to learn how things work, what the universe is like, how systems talk to each other. (#2 28:30)

Unsorted examples

  • Relation with Jere's value system. (#2 28:20)
  • Calibrating yourself and creating environments. Developing a sensitivity and paying attention to it. Talking to the trees and listening to them. (#4 10:40)

Prompts for examples

  • How does Jere pursue his interests? Why would he be interested in fish? Tapping into people's personal passions. Seeing past an ugly environment and entering a personally beautiful world. (#4 13:35)

Field of dreams. "If you build it, they will come."

Watching biological systems... and trying to let them figure out what to do ... help them get there (2023.12.11 video 25:00)

Construct an environment which poses the question. The bugs, worms, fish will work out how they can function in that environment. You look at that and help them get there.

Jere brother Jon would say: Let - help vs. make - force. If you have a job to do, rather than say, this is how you're going to do it, you say instead: Here is a problem we need to solve. I think you can do that and how can I help you.

You watch the organisms to see what they want to do. You design the systems so that what you want to do is what they want to do.

We set up an environment. We see who comes to live in it. We get a notion of what they like to do. We improve the environment so that

Maximum entropy theory. Maximizing uncertainty allows you to make the best decisions giving the information you have.

Take advantage of the organizing capability of the universe, how energy goes through a bounded system.

A problem becomes a resource. There are things that will like to eat this.

Mimicking the natural food chain.

Combining challenges or problems or tasks such as water purification and underutilized biomass.

Producing useful resources.

Developing local solutions.

Developing sustainable solutions.

Developing environmentally friendly solutions.

Developing economically attractive solutions.

Removing pollutants.

Applying and sharing best practices.

Making it easy to harvest, for example, worms.

Bringing together nutrients and organisms.

Containing a large variety of organisms.

Having a process control system.

Keeping systems isolated for biosecurity reasons.

Not to do what chemistry typically does... (Compare with the epistemology of chemistry.)

How do we function? How can we recognize the good and the right? The proposal is art. The aesthetic and creative judgements we all make. The emotional sense that we know what feels good, what makes us happy, how we want to be treated and how we should treat others.

Accountability: The spreadsheets illustrate what dollar value (GDP, total wealth, or a function of both) corresponds to a pound of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Working-in-parallel with an ecological system is possible when the system-component distinction is analogous to the person-God/Gaia (organizer-superorganizer) distinction. The latter distinction is evident when a person outgrows their environment. The system-component distinction arises when the food chain is mimicked. Consciousness, in this relation, manifests by the distinction of system, component, organizer, superorganizer. The organizer manages components and the superorganizer loves the system.

Analyze Jere's epistemological portrait

  • Foursome - levels of consciousness - system, component, organizer, superorganizer
  • Art (artificial) and natural in parallel
  • Use (superorganizer) and unused (resources)

Examples from 1989

  • A unique bioconversion system for handling extremely high carbohydrate food wastes has been developed and successfully tested.
  • An economical and more efficient modification to biological phosphorus removal in wastewater has been patented.
  • An innovative biomonitoring program for the verification of non toxic effluents has been implemented in a large wastewater treatment plant.
  • An applied philosophy for the operation of biological wastewater plants has been performing for years with spectacular results.
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