I did it.
I finished it.
Now it’s time to go back and write the introduction.
Let’s see… how to tell a story that helps people empathize with why and how I decided to write this book?
Tell the story!
Studies have shown that when I tell the story like this, the same part of my brain lights up as in yours.
I’m in your head!
Or are you in mine?
Oh this is going to be fun.
(And hopefully not too scary!)
The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer genuinely believed that, “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.” He made it his life’s work only to see it immediately be used in war. #Kaboom. #Up in smoke.
A contemporary example is the internet; a technology promised to connect the world, level economic disparities, and help us understand each other. We’ve all watched the internet be manipulated into nearly the opposite despite the best intentions of those scientists and engineers curating social media environments. Find someone who says social media is great and I’ll show you someone who thinks it is the beginning of the end. #palmonforehead #headondesk
Technology will not save us from ourselves. Even the brightest, most sophisticated thinkers of our society have fallen victim to ignorance of their peer’s values and views. Since the beginning, humanity has struggled to understand the values and ways others perceive reality — this is known as empathy. Empathy is key to how we steward our ever changing self and societies. Yet we’ve lacked a fundamental science of empathy. Hence, using empathy for social change has remained arbitrary and subjective. #hmmm #chinscratch
The key question this book seeks to address is to what extent we can use the framework laws of thermodynamics to model social issues. On a collective scale, the goal is a non-arbitrary, physics-based model for estimating important – and controversial – societal challenges such as when to start a small business, riots and marches, wealth inequality, and scaffolding of refugees into another culture. For the individual, the goal is physics-based approaches to understanding and improving the often difficult – and somewhat magical – challenge of personal awareness to aid in things like friendship, love, and creativity. #(lightbulb)
Why thermodynamics for social problems?
“A law is more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different are the kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its range of applicability. Therefore the deep impression that classical thermodynamics made upon me. It is the only physical theory of universal content, which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown.” Albert Einstein (1879-1909)
The laws of thermodynamics are unique among physical law. Rather than predict forces, as in the case of Newton’s laws, the laws of thermodynamics establish balances for what is available (1st law) and thereby limits or directions on what is possible for change (2nd law). For something to remain physical law it has to remain valid for everything humanity has observed and most especially the reality we experience.
Within our reality we know objects, which have mass. We can spot the potentials required to move those objects through space. Everybody knows that videos played in reverse are funny. But why? It’s because our brains know what we observed was not possible. To make it ok, we laugh about it. We can think and store information about those objects. Mass is energy. Energy is information. Entropy increases. All of which, at every scale from statistical atoms to the macroscale universe, are governed by thermodynamics.
Since the beginning of life as we know it, our brains have evolved to perform in this reality governed by thermodynamics. Although we developed the laws of thermodynamics to explain the world around us, we have remained naive and even reluctant to consider how these laws control our reality within. Free will does not circumvent physical law. The ramifications of which govern the decisions we make as individuals and groups, whether we know it or not. Even the simple act of learning is controlled by thermodynamics. Like I tell my students: once you understand entropy, it’s irreversible.
The most famously incorrect statements in history generally involve an unnecessary limit of what is or is not possible. If it doesn’t directly violate the laws of thermodynamics, it’s generally best to wait and see when someone realizes the concept. At some point during the writing of this book it became clear that following the thermodynamic framework was leading to insights about social systems that were not immediately intuitive, but after considerable debate were likely correct. This was well beyond the point of simple validity tests. That’s when I decided to just follow the classical thermodynamics framework in social space as far as I could go. There are important differences between social systems and thermo-fluid systems. Considerable future work will have to resolve these differences. The initial challenge is helping you to understand how thermodynamics can offer a new perspective on solving our social problems.
Why this Book?
From years of teaching introductory thermodynamics courses to undergraduate engineers, I know that thermo is a very hard topic. Finding people really passionate about thermo is rare. Moreover, the likelihood of someone becoming an expert in thermo and then switching to sociology or psychology is much rarer yet. This area is relatively unexplored for good reason.
I originally started discussing Social Thermodynamics as a series of posts on my https://hydrogen.wsu.edu research blog. Around my fourth post, one of my engineer friends Dave Rowe asked me a question about people’s capacity to understand a concept. While this question was pointed towards recent political elections, it could’ve just as easily been a critique of my writing. That’s when I realized, from the theory itself, how much time and resources it takes just to get others on board with the basic concepts. This is covered in the heat capacity section later in this book. In short, it’s not easy to influence the way people view their reality, and we now have math that explains why.
Many have asked why I haven’t published research papers in this area and the capacity argument explains that — it takes too much time to gain an understanding in both the fields of thermodynamics and psychology for a short paper to convey. Others have asked why I don’t do the typical academic exercise of pursuing federal grants to prove the concepts by some scientific means. I approached one program manager, my colleague and I had to fly 9 hours each to Washington D.C. to get 16 minutes of his time. He and his colleagues kept getting stuck on basic definitions before laughing us out of his office. His final request was a dismissal: return with some way of proving the concept by scientific means… That’s when I knew the federal funding route wasn’t going to go anywhere. Imagine you’re back in 1800 and trying to establish the initial theories of thermodynamics. There wasn’t a single experiment that you could do to prove right or wrong the entire premise of thermodynamics. It took decades, many qualitative books, and many researchers working in different ways around the world to build the body of knowledge and evidence required for thermodynamics to become physical law. All framework for physical laws at some point started as something magical. Eventually, over time, people develop processes and heuristics that tend to work. Finally the processes are quantified to the point of algorithmic precision and law. The fields of sociology and psychology are very much in this phase of transition from process to algorithmic law. The point of this book is deliberately to reframe the heuristics to aid in development of laws for social systems.
Since the intent is to change how you think about social systems — which is very much an empathy problem — most of the chapters begin with a personal story connecting to the chapter topic before applying the property relationships and laws to generally explain how the social system will change. This book is not a textbook and many of my academic peers may be offended by my neglect of careful citation. I felt an urgency to hurry and publish owing to the current state of social unrest in the US and the potential for the concepts to re-frame the discussion.
Remember the intent of this book is not to be conclusive, or to lay claim, but an invitation. The math of the theory itself shows that the more people, problems, and ways we connect from this model, the better we’ll understand ourselves and the human experience. We’ll have a better understanding of how and why we change. It’s a future we all want. Let’s begin!
(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: https://hydrogen.wsu.edu/dr-jacob-leachman/ )