In prior posts, we introduced the concept of empathy as social entropy. This led to insights on the physics of social structures and the chemistry of cultural mixing. In the structures post I used entropy to explain phase change for a pure fluid, analogous to empathy change for an individual or very homogenous society. In the cultural post I used empathy to explain mixing and seperation of binary cultures, analogous to entropy and binary fluid mixtures. Now we’re to the point where we can start to transfer concepts of thermodynamics to chemical reactions and social change.

A forewarning: chemical reactions are part of the vast and complicated field of chemistry. Chemistry has had over 500 years of development. We have little idea yet what a periodic table of social personalities would look like in order to define key quantities like ph. So in lieu, we’ll start here with some basic guiding principles and the very simple case of fluid phase reactions of binary mixtures. We’ll then transfer to social space.

Le Chatelier’s Principle

In 1885, Henry Le Chatelier gave a presentation on the equilibrium of reversible chemical reactions. His key concluding principle:

When any system at equilibrium is subjected to change in concentrationtemperature, volume, or pressure, then the system readjusts itself to (partially) counteract the effect of the applied change and a new equilibrium is established.

As the Wikipedia article staits, this is a qualitative principle (sometimes called a law but is derivative of the 2nd law of thermo) that finds application in many more fields than just chemistry; biology and economics are a few. Analogies also exist for sociology and are reviewed elsewhere. The statement above has a lot to unpack, so we need a few examples.

Let’s say we have a generic reversible reaction: a+2b <->c+d. Changing the composition of one component, let’s say decreasing b, will drive a reduction in c+d to produce more b. Because this is reversible, increasing b will cause the creation of more c+d. Social analog? This one is the easy one. Have a team where a leader was just promoted out of the group? Likely one of the other team members will step up to become the new leader. Another leader added to the group? One will probably step down to fill a more needed role.

Let’s look at what a change in pressure does to our simple reaction: a+2b <->c+d. Why is pressure involved? Pressure is the result of the change in momentum of molecules striking the boundaries of a system. Reduce the number of molecules by shifting equilibrium to the right side of the equation? Reduce the pressure. But shouldn’t momentum be conserved with mass? No. The larger molecules have more internal modes to store energy, leading to higher heat capacities, and more ways to be made with higher entropy, so the speed of the molecules drops with the momentum and pressure. If the equation had an equal number of molecules on both sides, increasing the pressure would not make any difference. On a related note, entropy and enthalpy of molecules are defined relative to a reference state and standards for doing this are related to the heat capacities. In general, higher heat capacity -> bigger molecules -> higher entropies and enthalpies. You can also transfer how the volume or density is affected in similar fashion. This primarily addresses the structural/physical side of the reaction problem. We’ll get to the chemical/cultural side in a moment.

The social analog of a physical reaction? Imagine you’re doing homework with a group of people and your stress (social analog of pressure) is high because of a big exam tomorrow in another class. What are the odds you grab big hunks of your friends codes and throw them into yours to make it work versus doing it all yourself? Which is the most empathetic? You’re more likely to find problems in your friends codes and learn new ways to code when you share. Fewer independent codes are produced and your stress (P) drops. Remember the reaction is reversible, you can return the favor when one of your friends has an exam and their pressure is high. If everyone has to produce totally independent codes, for individual clients/projects for instance, the number of reactants and products are the same and changing the stress/pressure doesn’t make any difference. You’ll get what each individual can do and nothing more. Honestly, it’s difficult to find a reversible reaction where the number of products and reactants is the same.

Of couse real things are seldom this simple. A change in temperature in our simple reaction, a+2b <->c+d, is a little more complicated. This gets into the chemical/cultural issues of the reaction and the heat of reaction must factor in: a+2b <->c+d(-170 (kJ/mol)). In this case the production of c+d is exothermic (-indicates heat liberating) and the reverse, production of a+b is endothermic (heat consuming). If we increase the temperature of the reaction the equilibrium will shift to the endothermic side to reduce the temperature. If we reduce the temperature the equilibrium will shift towards exothermic to heat back up. In general, molecules like to be stuck together (more entropy and empathy) and reactions producing more chemical bonds will release more energy (exothermic reaction), even though the heat capacity of the molecule increases a small amount.

The social analogy? You’re working on a team to produce a piece of software that you’ll sell. A neighboring firm just laid off one of their software teams that function in a similar area. Your price (temperature) of labor just dropped, but your capital remains fixed. Does this cause you to sell more or less software if the price remains fixed? A surplus of products will drive the reaction equilibrium towards the reactants. You’ll end up selling more software as a result of the extra help and end up generating more capital.

While this is a simplistic treatment, it has uncovered some strong connections to other researchers. What we’re really talking about here is entropism – the neo-cultural aspects of entropy. I’m definitely not the first to attempt thermodynamic analysis of sociology problems. Le Chatelier’s Principle was the key phrase that jumped the gap. Thomas Wallace, a physical chemist and former President of Illinois State University published the 2009 book, “Wealth, Energy, and Human Values: The Dynamics of Decaying Civilizations from the Ancient Greeks to the Americas.” Wallace actually applies Gibbs energy in his analysis similar to my first structure argument. But from the tone of the abstract, he definitely doesn’t get the entropy as social empathy aspect. Regardless, it’s on it’s way and I’ll be able to report back here in a week or so. Our next task is heading towards a periodic table of people that will help us in estimating the heats of reaction.