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Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab Jake Leachman’s Posts

Summary of Summer 2017

The HYPER summer 2017 cohort. From left to right: Carl Bunge, Kjell Westra, Kevin Cavender, Eli Shoemake, Ian Richardson, Me, Sierra Bishop, Rachel Johnson.

The summer of 2017 will be known as the summer when we put all the pieces together. We finally have assembled all of the facilities to complete the entire Design-Build-Test cycle for cryogenic systems entirely within the HYPER lab. To my knowledge, we may be the only cryogenic or hydrogen laboratory in the US with distinct spaces for all three parts of this cycle. I can’t wait for next summer.

Rachel Johnson and the CLEAN bench system

In this research position I was responsible for the implementation, and continuous improvement, of four Cougar LEAN (CLEAN) manufacturing stations.  The CLEAN system uses modular aluminum frame tubing for component fixturing and modification. I chose to design and manufacture a custom lighting fixture for the workbenches in the lab with the help of a partner. This was a challenge because the light fixture needed to be easy to manufacture and aid student efficiency at the workspaces. I utilized a design-matrix-method process with multiple iterations and diligent communication with clients. A prototype fixture was iteratively improved prior to mass production. The result was a light fixture that created modularity with the existing workbench and enhanced working environment.

Wesley Bolliger and his cool PET films

The HYPER Lab this past summer gave me the opportunity to run a cryogenic permeability test as a Material Science undergraduate. Each specimen was a separate piece of PET film sandwiched in a knife-edge CF flange with a teflon o-ring for sealing and copper gasket to prevent the film from breaking under heightened pressure differentials. Helium was run through this film into a mass spectrometer at various temperatures and a set pressure to obtain the steady-state leak rate, which was then converted into a measurement of permeability consistent with other literature for comparison’s sake. Running this experiment required time management between measurements, familiarization with units of permeability, experience with constructing and deconstructing a novel leak rate measuring setup designed for cryogenic operation, understanding of the cryocooling machinery used to reach the low temperatures, ability to troubleshoot operational failures, and the creation of a standardized procedure and safety manual. Three of the film measurements followed a standard cooling curve with a plateau towards the end of the leak detector’s resolution. The other two runs with usable data ended up deviating from this behavior, showing signs of what we have theorized to be quantum tunneling.

Mathew Hunt and the hunt for safety

Hi, my name is Mathew Hunt and as an undergraduate at Washington State University my first real design project began in the fall of 2016 within the Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Laboratory at WSU’s Pullman campus. Under the direction of Dr. Jacob Leachman, I was tasked with designing safe and efficient compressed gas bottle storage within the lab’s work bay. The project challenged both my theoretical foundations in engineering statistics and CAD modelling, as well as my ability to navigate national standards. The system has the capability to store up to nine K sized compressed gas bottle cylinders, as well as one large nitrogen dewar. To ensure the safety of students and those who work in the lab, all the bottles are secured individually with their own chaining system as to remove the ability for any compressed gas bottle cylinders to tip over. This complies with CGA standards 3.4.4 and 3.5.3, as well as NFPA standards and When transporting gas bottles a handling truck is placed conveniently within the vicinity of the system and complies with CGA standards 3.2.3, 3.2.5, 3.2.6 as well as NFPA

The final design was built in SolidWorks, and a full finite element analysis with simulated loads was conducted before final construction. This allowed for all design iterations to be made while minimizing potential labor and material costs.

Sage Pratt — The Sage of fluid management

This summer I worked primarily on designing a manifold to direct and control the flow of gaseous hydrogen through the storage end of the system in accordance with the NFPA 2 and CGA G-5.5 standards. This includes pressure relief, manual and automatic shutoff valves, provisions for inert gas purging, on vent systems for the GH2 buffer system and the LH2 Dewar. I drafted P&ID diagrams in Autodesk AutoCAD Plant 3D and used EES code to size the vent system in accordance with CGA G-5.5 Section 6.2.1 before ordering over $1000 worth of parts and tubing from Swagelok, McMaster-Carr, etc.  As of now we have received most of the necessary components and have sketched out a mockup of the manifold using scrap copper pipe. I plan to begin the final assembly of the manifold and vent system soon.

Jasper Haney and our handy new machine shop

Jasper led the project to build our new machineshop in TFRB 113. He refurbished a Bridgeport-style manual milling machine with digital readouts and installed a new coldsaw. The big change though is the new plexiglass wall that separates the machining area from the assembly space. This wall creates a natural buffer layer to promote increased safety.

Kevin Cavender locked it in with Lockheed-Martin

Kevin built a wonderful computing machine — our computing cluster. He then used the cluster to complete Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) studies of a cryogenic hydrogen vortex tube. It paid off. Lockheed-Martin’s cryogenics group in Santa Barbara, CA picked his resume out of the stack an d offered him a great job. Shortly after accepting, Kevin found out he had one a prestigious NASA STARS fellowship to do a Master’s thesis. As he said to me, “I would’ve done a master’s thesis to get this job, but I got it anyways.” Well done Kevin!


Jose Ramos and the quest for LN2

During the transition into my final year at Washington State University, I worked with a small team in the HYPER lab assembling the cold-end apparatus of our H2 liquefier. The cold-end assembly consists of a custom vortex tube, heat exchanger, and Joule-Thompson valve. With the addition of recycling and compression to the hydrogen gas, we have the ability to simultaneously cool down hydrogen gas to cryogenic temperatures, and recycle the hot gas output by the vortex tube for additional cooling. Assembly of this apparatus proved to be far more interesting than I had originally thought. Many of the components found packed in between the heat exchange required custom fabrication in our lab to suit our specific needs. After assembly of the heat exchanger, vortex tube, and Joule-Thompson valve were complete, leak tests were conducted to ensure the integrity of the build. Before stepping into H2 testing, we fabricated a test bed and ran nitrogen through our system at a quarter of our operating pressure (350 psi) and measured temperature drops across the inlet and cold-end outlet. Keeping tabs on inlet and outlet temperatures will allow me to tweak the flow ratio on the hot and cold end of the vortex tube in future testing for a more efficient cooling process.



Social Thermodynamics: Hate and Terrorism

Ok, get ready for the haymaker right.

Jab. Jab. Jab. Here it comes!

Duck. Come back with a quick right.

What just happened?

Holy shit. I knocked him down!


It was my freshman year of college. To ‘toughen up’ the offensive lineman on the football team, we had mandatory boxing matches in one of the racquetball courts. We had head gear. A coach facilitated. All of the defensive lineman loved to watch. Somehow I, the underweight freshman, got paired to box with a Senior from Southern California who had the current best NFL bench press test — 225 pounds something like 30 times in a row. It was the first time that anyone had been knocked down, let alone a freshman against a senior, so it was now his moral obligation to pummel me.

We don’t need to delve into the details. But to make a long story short, the next week I gave a talk to middle schoolers on the importance of staying away from drugs, alcohol, and violence with a BIG black eye.

I’d always been terrified of hurting people growing up. I was over 6′ tall in the 6th grade. People would run up and hit me because I wouldn’t move or blink. A gentle giant. After all of my conflict mediation training, I wasn’t one to hate much of anything or anyone either. About the only thing I’ve really ever hated in life was a sandwich a family member in Alaska made for me from stale white bread, bologna, butter, and 4″ green onions he’d grown in an old bathtub in front of his house —  chemical terrorism.

I’ve known hate though. Growing up in Northern Idaho during the 80’s and 90’s, you could find hate if you looked for it. A few days after the Charlottesville white supremacist protest that left several people dead, I had the experience of sitting next to one of the participants on a plane. He was the real deal — iron eagle tattoos, shaved head, green military tactical hat, aviator shades, and death metal music. I know the music because after the plane taxied to the runway he put in his earbuds and I could still here the words to the music through my noise-deadening headphones. Think he’s hard to reach and empathize with now? Wait 10 years when he can’t hear you.

It’s hard to express how much hate he spewed. He swore after every announcement by the white pilot, or the cute white stewardess who had just started her training. He wanted to pick a fight with someone, anyone. Which was why it was all the more surprising to me when he pulled out his tablet and started playing a game where a Unicorn runs around in something like candy-crush. May’be it was a coping mechanism.

Hate is real. Terrorism is real. Much like violence and murders, it’s slowly going away, and not fast enough. Knowing the social dynamics to place hate into context will help us act effectively when we see hate and need to respond.

The value challenges of hate

Our value v-Meme taxonomy is just the starting point. Let’s go through the levels with specific respect to hate:

  1. Survival: depriving others of food, water, and shelter.
  2. Tribal: our tribe has always been at war with the other tribe. Read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
  3. Authoritarian: Fascism, supremecy, anything that increases your power over others.
  4. Legalistic/Absolutistic: Anyone not following the rules. One religion/constitution necessitates fighting another.
  5. Performance: Anyone cheating the system or trying to limit gains.
  6. Communitarian: Capitalist pigs that will destroy the planet.

As we go down the list, it becomes harder and more contrived to find good examples of hate. Once you get to systemic, and realize the necessity of most everyone in the system, it gets really hard to hate. But these values sets alone don’t necessitate hate. Being more than two levels removed, per Dr. Chuck’s intuition, just means you have trouble communicating values to someone else — hate is something different.

Hate is an intense, passionate dislike for something. We don’t inherently dislike something or someone we don’t understand. But it’s not hard to teach us to hate it if we don’t understand something. All it takes is a friend to say that whatever it is, it’s against us. Then you fake it till you make it. Remember that the v-Meme levels are not opposed, but orthogonal (90°) to one another. And if we have no way to connect with the values of something, we have little capacity for the topic, and the math says it will take a lot of resources, and time, to change that. Lower down on the v-Memes it’s really easy to think anyone and everyone opposes you and your values.

Combine this values challenge with our bell-shaped curve grading system in education. When you realize 20% of the population is exemplary and 20% of the population has a diagnosable disorder, and there are 5 grades (20% As and 20% Fs), you can see how we do so much of this to ourselves. Teach someone that they don’t get it over and over again, that they are not valued or contributing, that they are not as important as the minority, and you’ve got a recipe for hate. Those who were abused continue the cycle of abuse.

The Nelson Mandela quote rings true, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” But why is it easier to love?

Hate and the anti-empathic

We’re born to empathize. Otherwise babies would never mirror that beautiful smile and laugh or play with others. But why are those filled with hate so difficult to empathize with? If you thought you were at war with someone else’s values, would you connect with them? The values of hate are locked in by teaching the anti-empathy cues of conflict: 1. Stonewalling — refusing to mirror or acknowledge, 2. Sociopathy — disrupting the empathic connections of other groups and individuals in order to isolate them, 3. Psychopathy/gas-lighting — re-construing events to create doubt and cause others to question their recollection of events.

This presents a problem. How are we supposed to help others not hate, to a happier life, to understand them and their cultures to ultimately enrich both of us, if they deliberately disrupt our empathy channels for connection?

Fixing hate

Changing hate fast is as challenging as wealth-inequality. It likely takes a traumatic event associated with extreme neural plasticity. Given the value conflict proposition of hate, forcing or contriving traumatic events is not advisable, as you could permanently ingrain stonewalling if discovered. But we can be ready to help when nature naturally causes it to happen. Just like all of our other social phase change problems, G = U + Pv -TS. when nature simplifies things to survival and ratchets up the stress and density, better be ready with resources and empathy.

Changing hate slowly, and persistently is much more pragmatic. Hate happens. Outlawing is merely suppression, but boundaries are essential. The strongest way to build foundational, core empathy values is in childhood. Want to solve generational war? Mix the children. Get them playing together before parents can imbue incompatible values and anti-empathy tendencies. Then rely on the combination of neural plasticity and empathy to place the different values they are taught into appropriate context.

We also need to change the performance metrics of our educational system. Everyone has value to our communities, the challenge is finding and cultivating it. I’m not saying everyone is equal by any means — we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But, in general, the more empathy we have for others, the harder it is to hate.

Social Thermodynamics: Empathy for Autism Spectrum Disorders

I heard a loud BANG!

The lights flickered.

I heard a scream. “OH MY GOD NO!!!! JAKE HELP!”

I ran upstairs into the kitchen and immediately smelled smoke.

I looked around. My mom was holding my sister down in a chair.

On the other side of the kitchen a black circle surrounded an outlet with a burnt fork lying in front of it.

My sister, two years younger than me and in the 7th grade, had just tried to hurt herself, badly.

Somehow, despite my social issues, I was always the prodigy in school. My sister, a year behind, was always in my shadow under a burden of high expectations. She had been diagnosed with a reading disorder, a developmental disorder, and eventually Asperger’s – a label that was eventually lumped into the Autism Spectrum of Disorders (ASD). Her act of burying a fork in an electrical outlet was a cry for help, a plea for connection, to be understood, the desire for what she could not attain: empathy.

Defining the Autism Spectrum

The National Institute of Health has a primer on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The primer lists several of the traditional restrictive symptoms associated with the spectrum:

  • “Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Having a lasting, intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts.”

The primer also provides the following list of strengths:

  • “Having above-average intelligence – the CDC reports  46% of ASD children have above average intelligence
  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
  • Being strong visual and auditory learners
  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art.”

Autism spectrum disorder symptoms pertaining to social issues are also provided, I added the empathy pyramid categories in parentheses:

  • “Making little or inconsistent eye contact (mirroring)
  • Having a tendency to look at and listen to other people less often (rational/mirroring)
  • Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection (emotional)
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations (rational)
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond (rational)
  • Using words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with that person’s way of communicating (rational)
  • Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said (emotional)
  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions. (conscious/rational)”

My sister is brilliantly gifted. She sees colors, flavors, shapes, and sounds on an entirely more advanced level than I can. I’ve often described her as a Macintosh (computer) in a PC world. Social situations stress her to the point of agoraphobia. This combination of beauty, tragically limited by our society, is perhaps what enables her to produce stunning art. One of her earliest and favorite pieces, a watercolor self-portrait, is relevant to this chapter:

Alone — Water color on canvas (used with permission)

One of my friend’s once described people on the spectrum as having “a brilliant processor, but a crummy detector”, which works if the detector is related to social issues.

Understanding Autism from both Values and Empathy

I’ve had brilliant academic friends tell me that if I want to advance my engineering and science research, find graduate students on the Autism spectrum. They said this for good reason. My sister, like most on the spectrum, is capable of sophistication that most of us cower before. If I had a well defined problem, and the tools mostly established, I would get far and away the most sophisticated and quality work out of someone on the spectrum. As society has evolved more sophisticated work, and if you believe our genetics help prepare us for the future, it’s only reasonable to expect an increase in percentage of autism spectrum individuals.

A complex taxonomy of values v-Memes exists, and the question remains how this relates to those on the spectrum. Remember that the values are stacked, which doesn’t mean some are better than others, they are all needed in appropriate balance: 1. Survival, 2. Tribal/Familial, 3. Authoritarian, 4. Legalistic/Absolutistic, 5. Performance, 6. Communitarian, 7. Systemic. Remember the symptoms from the NIH — folks on the spectrum have serious skills in sophisticated rule following and tend towards the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme. What’s more, if the rule following pertains to auditory/sensory behavior, such as art, folks with ASD likely have superior performance abilities. Imagine the piano world without Glenn Gould — the autism spectrum can be a very, very beautiful thing.

A troubling trend over the past decade has been the association of autism spectrum individuals with mass shootings. Autism spectrum individuals, like the rest of us, have needs for authority, power, and control. If power and control is a strong v-Meme in an individual, and the empathy detector is broken, you’ve got a recipe for tragedy. Starting early in life by giving ASD individuals control over the empathic caring and nurturing of pets is both challenging and important.

Asking ASD individuals to curate Community, Systemic, and other group based tasks is likely challenging, but not impossible. How to develop ASD individuals is the question.

Changing Individuals with ASD

Empathy in ASD individuals is a long-term investment. The Gibbs energy function for phase change adds insight to the challenges of developing those with ASD:

G = U + Pv – TS

For phase change to occur, indicated by G2 – G1 being negative, there needs to be a fall in values (U) and stress (P), coupled with an increase in density (1/v), empathy (S), and resources (T). ASD individuals already have a very fine tuned value focus, don’t handle stress or groups well, and are empathicly challenged. Change will be slow, if at all, over the course of a lifetime. They will likely be very consistent through time, even if they can be mercurial in the moment.

Looking back on this equation, and all of our efforts to change my sister, to force her to understand, were often futile and usually ended in frustration. The thing that needed to change was me and my understanding of her and how she excelled. Most of this happened over time while I was away in college. During this time a psychologist, who is nothing short of a hero, volunteered for over a decade to empathize with my sister. Now, she turns to my sister to help her empathize with new clients.

Over time, now in her thirties and living alone, my sister has learned how to be happy and empathic. She is one of the most empathic individuals I know towards the caring of her pets, and the few friendships she has developed. While she still struggles in stressful social situations with strangers, she is doing beautiful art, that regularly changes my view of reality.

I had serious reservations about writing this with my sister as a focus. When I brought this up with her, her response was simple, “If I can help or contribute in any way, I’ll feel valuable.” Helping everyone find value is probably the greatest empathy challenge of society and one that often starts in ourselves.

Social Thermodynamics: The Phase Change that led to ‘Kind of Blue’

Shit. Screwed up the note.

Try the other pattern.

Another sour note. SHIT.

I’m not going to pull it off. That’s it. I’ve had enough of this…

(insert sound of record player screeching to a halt)

It was zero hour Jazz band during my senior year in high school. It was 7:10 am. If you’re not familiar with jazz, it’s meant to be played after 9 pm. Jazz is uniquely performance-based in value v-Memes — once you’ve mastered the scales, rhythm, and your instrument, you’re suppose to improvise. Seriously. You have the freedom to solo however you want within the bounds of the chordal progression accompanied by only the drums, piano, and bass. A solo is uniquely empathic — if someone drops a glass at the end of the bar you can run with it as material for your solo and your audience will love it. Me? I liked the non-conformist attitude of jazz. I was really too busy with sports and other things to get any good at it. Besides, Performance + Improvisation + Empathy + 7:10 am = not happening + cruel + unusual.

So there I was, 2nd chair trombone, proceeding to bone it in front of the student teacher and my friends.

Nobody was awake. I couldn’t play the notes.

That’s when I decided to take a shit — in musical sense.

With the trombone slide (the thing that controls the note pitch) all the way in I started shaking it on it’s way out, playing the whole way.


The student teacher got an awkward look on her face like someone had farted.

My friend in the front row turned around and said, “What was that?!”

That’s when one of my cool friends who played first chair trumpet did something I’ll never forget.

He screamed, “OHH YAA!!!!” and proceeded to belt out a mimic of what I’d done, entirely in key, and cool.

i can still hear it after 15 years.

The rest of the band followed suit and burst in with the mimicking — all out shit storm.

The song we had been playing was gone. The band was hijacked. We’d become something more, together, and we could feel it. The head band teacher came out of his office fired up, “Ya!!! You guys came to play!”

Such is the vibe when phase change happens to unsuspecting high school jazz band members. But even the pros succumb to phase changes from time to time.

Miles Davis’ masterpiece album ‘Kind of Blue‘, released in 1959, is widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time. The album established what became known as “modal jazz” — what some have called the primary contribution of jazz to the philosophy of music. I must admit, no matter how often the teachers played it to the class, I had no idea why everyone liked ‘Kind of Blue’. It was different, and I didn’t understand the significance until much later in life.

The Phase Change that led to ‘Kind of Blue’

My favorite jazz album is Stan Kenton’s ‘Cuban Fire!‘ released in 1956. ‘Cuban Fire!’ much like the name implies is incredibly hot, intense, and sophisticated. High screaming trumpets like Maynard Ferguson and others had incredible “heavy lifting” just to perform the pieces of the list and often had to be interchanged among songs. It was almost unplayably sophisticated. Not much room for solos either. Kenton could force the bounds of what was possible, he was white (which mattered at the time) and well financed. For over a decade this was the epitome of jazz — until things changed.

In 1945, composer George Russell was talking with a young 18 year old trumpet player named Miles Davis. When Russell asked Davis what his musical aims were, Davis replied, “to learn all the changes.” Russell inferred the response as newer and broader ways to relate to chords, as Davis was already an accomplished soloist. Shortly thereafter, Russell was hospitalized for 16 months with tuberculosis. It was during this time that he developed the core of his theory, which he later published in 1953 as “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” The tome efficiently lays out the art and science of ‘tonal gravity’ and blends methods for associating scales, including minors, to traditional chords.

Through the early to mid 1950’s Davis had solidified an ensemble focusing on the jazz style known as ‘hard bop’ — an extension of rhythm and blues. But during this time, Davis had become increasing frustrated with the loss of freedom associated with the increasing complex chord progressions in ‘hard bop’. Russell’s ‘Lydian Chromatic Concepts’ offered an escape from traditional major and minor key relationships in the form of improvisation based on chord and chord changes. As one writer put it, “the musician’s palette of melodic colours is considerably wider. The harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix.” With pressure mounting, new values to act on solidified, the potential for new modal  connections emerging with a connected band, the conditions were prime for phase change. G = U +Pv -TS

‘Kind of Blue’ is brilliant in it’s simplicity. Just 2 saxophones, base, drummer, pianist, and a trumpet (Davis) completed the ensemble. Pianist Bill Evans kept notes of the preparation which included only sketches of scales and melody lines for improvisation. Davis gave them little to no time for rehearsal. The group only needed two recording sessions to complete the album and at least one of the songs was played start to finish, live, for the first time. But if you listen to any of the songs, you immediately here the modal tones played by Davis — it was all that was needed. The band was connected and understood the theory. No need for sophistication. Instant phase change and history. Perhaps the last great act of jazz.

The Sophistication versus Evolution trends of Music

Pick any genre or period of music history and you’ll see a trend towards increasing sophistication before evolution to a new, fundamentally different way of playing. Atonal modality like Davis’ has modern connotations with ‘Drake’ trying to break free of the pop sophistication.

Sophistication versus evolution can even be seen within albums and individual musical scores. ‘Tannhauser’ and other operas use increasing density of notes, intensity, and simplicity to transition to more beautiful choral transitions when the main character has a transcending realization.

One of my friends once told me, “never play your high note in public.” In many ways this makes sense from a sophistication versus evolution perspective. We know when you’re played out. Time to start looking for change.

Frank Oppenheimer once said, “Art, for it to be valid, must correspond to a plausible human experience.” Even music, it seems, knows the conditions for social phase change and can communicate this without saying a word. The chords and melodies were always there, we just couldn’t see the connections or ‘all the changes’ as Davis would say.


Social Thermodynamics: That look in your eyes — Knowing when you’re in over your head

I said a friendly “hello!” He shot me a look. I saw the sparkle in his eyes. I tried again, “hello?” No reply as he marched on. I turned to my wife and said he must not speak English. Then I heard him say, “look, there are the garnets!”

He was on a mission. Now was not the time for chit chat. He had work to do.

We’d spent 2 hours in 90+°F heat at the nearby National Forest garnet pit. I was with my 4 year old who, by some stroke of luck, says he’s a scientist and loves crystals. Thankfully, in one of the scrap pieces I tried to throw out, my son found a reddish circle that used to be a garnet. I told him it was. He was happy. Otherwise we would’ve been skunked and a piece of smoky quartz would’ve somehow become a garnet. He skipped while singing a garnet song he made up on the trail back from the pit.

We passed a number of people, very old, and young on their way into the pit. They all had that same look — a glimmer in their eyes that looks right through you without seeing you. I’d seen it many times before — someone crossing the threshold to enter a casino, an alcoholic with an un-opened bottle of Scotch, grabbing a trey at the start of the buffet line after a football practice, prom night.

The “Star of Idaho” the world’s largest star garnet. (Commons)

This is the look someone gets when their values became clear and they’re ready to get to work. Any distraction, chit-chat, or empathy of any shape or form is a wasteful distraction from the mission. They can hardly mirror, let alone recognize emotions in others.

They’re gone. Zombies.

While it’s easy to associate this look with addiction — it’s not necessarily. Experienced or not, that kid at prom night still has the far away look. The educated and in-experienced on their way to the garnet pit were hardly addicts. Yet the same look.

Why we work — revisited

Remember the chapter on work? Classical thermodynamics says we work when we have values that are ready to be acted on. Generating entropy/empathy wastes that potential to do work. But look at our Gibb’s energy equation for phase change:

G = U + Pv – TS

It’s hard to imagine us working for something that doesn’t result in increased resources (T) or empathy (S). Even in the case of the garnet pit, you’re digging to find that piece that is either worth money, a pretty necklace, or a story. When we accomplish our mission, realize the fruits of our labor, we’re happy. The second law of thermodynamics says no process is perfectly efficient so we’ll generate some understanding one way or another.

But what happens when we hit the jackpot? Or much more likely, when we fail?

Hitting it (too) big

We work and, sadly too often, play the lottery for the potential for change. Rags to riches. Yet, a popular statistic is that 70% of lottery winners go broke within just seven years.


Why does every teen star seem to end tragically washed up?


Back in our inequality of wealth chapter we covered how molecules distribute energies that we measure as temperatures. Another way to look at this is the entanglement of molecules. As the temperature rises, so does the entropy and number of modes an atom or molecule can interact with others. The same generally applies to resources and empathy. The key difference being the inability of atoms and molecules to castle themselves away from others.

A pile of resources is only a resource to you if you have the necessary values and connections (empathy) to fully utilize the resource. Lottery winners, and tragically teen stars, often have neither. They get used.

Knowing when you’re in over your head

Isn’t exactly a science, yet. Much like most of the this book, knowing whether you are in over your head involves both a values (structure) problem and a connections (empathy) problem. Getting ready to get to work and roll the dice? Ask yourself two questions:

  1. What will I do with a successful result and do I have enough experience to be confident with myself? This is the v-Meme question. If you’ve performed at a v-Meme higher than required, you can likely down-select and get the job done. Up-selecting, a.k.a. “fake it till you make it” takes resources, and there is a great amount of uncertainty whether you have enough to teach yourself and connect in time in order to succeed.
  2. Do I have the connections? When in doubt — find a partner. Do you have the connections/empathy of a network that really cares about you, your success, and has enough transferable experience? Not all experiences are transferable. But a strong empathic understanding of someone tends to help smooth the transfer.

Remember it’s a statistical problem.

What to do when someone else has that starry-eyed look

This is an important problem that connects to addiction and date-rape. What do you do when someone you care about gets that starry-eyed look and surely will be in over their head? Get empathic:

  1. Mirror: get on their level and look them straight in the eye. Say I see you and I need you to see me back.
  2. Emotional: Identify and connect with them emotionally.
  3. Rational: Tell a relevant and credible story that relates to the situation. Provide rational alternatives.
  4. Conciencious: Apply these in the right order and weightings to enact positive change over a longer time-scale.

And if you still see those starry-eyes and can’t get them to see you after this, get out of the way and get help if it’s that important.

My dad once had a cougar stalking him while hunting. He turned around and saw the starry-eyes. We’re evolved to know it when we see it for a reason. He knew right away what that Cougar had in mind — and it wasn’t about empathy.




Social Thermodynamics: Rethinking Education

It was around eight in the evening. She came to my dorm room in a panic. She was scared. She had no idea what most of the material on our chemistry exam at eight the next morning was about. Fear not. I had it together. We got to work… and boy did we. When we got the exams back the next week, she got an A, and I got a C.

I wish I could say that was the only time I was bested by one of my proteges. After something happens often enough, you realize you may have a natural gift — I took the hint. Like most of my family I was doomed to the purgatory that is education. Watch the movie “Ground Hog Day” with Bill Murray after this book and you’ll see the movie in entirely new ways.

Believe me that I’ve aced my fair share of exams over the years. My problem was usually overthinking things. In the absence of explicit structure for a problem, I’d think of multiple ways the problem could’ve been asked better to achieve the desired result. When instructors tried to structure the problem, I’d find problems in how it was structured and get stuck. I’d spend considerable time writing qualitative responses to quantitative exams. Instructors hate that. Now that I’m older and I have to write exams, I realize that I was my own worse nightmare.

Now that I have a four year old going through preschool, have extensively coached youth in sports, and taught many college level classes, in many ways, I’ve seen the similarities and shortfalls of our systems. Social dynamics can help us to increase the efficiency of education.

“Our Educational System is Broken”

Saying our educational system is broken is like ridiculing a toddler for inability to learn calculus. The European system of education is likely the most effective pedagogical system in human history. No other system has influenced more countries and people at more ages. Look no farther than an inner-city school to know that we have serious problems appropriately placing this system into context.

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” is the most watched TED talk in history. He makes a great point that the European system was used to circulate orders to follow around the globe. Let’s place this into the Spiral v-Meme value spectrum to establish context:

Survival: If you’re trying to survive, you’re in fight or flight and not able to learn much.

Tribal: What the Europeans faced as they traversed the globe. It’s a natural phase and you’ll still see cliques in most schools, even in advanced nations. The tribes were rounded up, sometimes at gun point, baptized, and educated.

Authoritarian: The sage on the stage model was a core part of the European system. Somebody had to be in charge. Somebody had to say what the rules were and why we had to follow them. I’m just glad we’ve moved away from spankings.

Legalistic/Absolutistic: The rules we all must follow. Science-based evidence was a natural outcome.

Performance: Master the rules and you can start generating new knowledge by applying them in ways nobody has before.

Communitarian: If done well, you’re now prepared to contribute to community and society. Better hope we’ve taught you how.

Systemic: Some end up stewarding a balance in order to sustain the educational system.

From this progression it’s pretty easy to see our educational system is decidedly heavy on the Authoritarian-Legalistic/Absolutistic-Performance v-Memes within the meme stack. Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning, the dominant epistemology model applied to education reinforces these values, and is shown below. The six standard layers include: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Synthesizing, and Evaluating. There are many variants and “domains” that have increased the sophistication of the taxonomy to try to handle community and systemic value problems. The problem is these values are fundamentally orthogonal to the legalistic-performance transition that Bloom originally developed the taxonomy for.

Bloom’s Taxonomy as a rose. By K. Aainsqatsi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So you can see the problem with our educational system is simply one of narrow scope, a.k.a. “can’t see the forest on account of all the trees.” Authorities specializing in education have made the matter worse to an extent. Developing studies that absolutely prove something works or not are, almost by definition, authority-legalistic-performance in v-Meme stack. Good luck trying to get an education study published that doesn’t extensively utilize Bloom’s. — The purpose of any meme is to reproduce itself.

The more we try to clamp down on and control our educational system, the more it disrupts the flexibility and connections necessary to empathize. The less empathic our schools become, the harder it is for someone in a gang to understand the importance of the system. Threatening them at gun point kindof, well, misses the target. How can you get the students out into the communities as part of class with so many wavers to sign? Besides, how are you going to measure whether they are learning sociology when all they are doing is talking with people? When you get two or more levels removed from a v-Meme, the values you are communicated start sounding alien.

Montessori and the Structure versus Empathy conundrum

“My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.” Preface to From Childhood to Adolescence by Maria Montessori, 1948. The core premise of the Montessori system for pre-K-12 education is empathy to allow autonomy of the individual in order to drive personal phase change.

The Montessori method, pioneered by Maria Montessori from 1897 through the 1950’s in Italy, is one of the most extensively studied educational systems in human history. The system “had the largest positive effects on achievement of all programs evaluated” in a review of pedagogical methods and especially outperformed other programs in the areas of mathematics and science. If the study data is not enough, how about a personal anecdote: I attended a Montessori preschool, so did Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — just sayin’.

Many are familiar with the system. But here’s a quick review of the basics from the Wiki:

  • Mixed age classrooms, with classrooms for children ages 2½ or 3 to 6 years old are by far the most common
  • Student choice of activity from within a prescribed range of options
  • Uninterrupted blocks of work time, ideally three hours
  • A discovery model, where students learn concepts from working with materials, rather than by direct instruction
  • Specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators
  • Freedom of movement within the classroom

Other characteristics include a high degree of order, children work on mats to keep themselves contained, everything in the classroom has a place, and all of the children actively clean up after themselves to maintain the classroom. It’s not uncommon for parents to say, “I’m not paying you to have my kid do dishes!” But you can see the community-sustainability values.

Maria believed that the children would naturally play with whatever was most interesting to them at the time. This immediately empowers the child to decide if something is over their head or not, and allows them to self optimize to the classroom environment. This of course requires a highly developed system of scaffolded learning exercises.

“Today it is not by philosophy, not by discussion of metaphysical concepts, that the morals of mankind can be raised. It is by activity, by experience, and by action… All the points noted put the finger on the impossibility of enclosing education within the limits of a room where the individual at work is inert, perpetually dependent on the teacher, separated from the rest of mankind. This is true even for small children… all facilities ought to be provided to create some form of work that may permit the students to get a start toward economic independence, so that they may be entirely free to study and able to find their true position according to their just value.”

Maria Montessori understood the challenges of both structure and empathy of the individual at an incredible level. From autonomy of the individual, to mentoring of younger students by older.


The traditional Gaussian grading system distributes grades in a bell shape around a 75% of work completion. If you got everything, you got an A, half gets an F, and a bell-shaped distribution between. We apply this system to determine who goes to the best colleges, who graduates from college, who is selected for graduate school, who is hired into the Academy, and who is promoted to full and eventually regents professor. No surprise 20% are good enough to go onto college, 20% are good enough for graduate school, 20% get tenure…. you see the pattern. Now think of everyone else who didn’t make the cut. Are they really less capable of contributing to society? Is a society that marginalizes such a high percentage fundamentally sustainable?

The Montessori system doesn’t grade. Montessori teachers develop students towards mastery — understanding a concept from every angle. How do they determine whether a student understands? They watch the student doing the exercise and ask a couple of questions while they are doing the activity. Check. Do some students excel exceptionally? Absolutely — allow them to specialize.

Scoring, like our Gaussian system for grading implies, works great for sports and other games that were invented with scoring as the intent. Removing scoring from children’s t-ball is as pointless as grading in school. Moreover, Campbell’s law states that, “Anytime a metric is used for social progress, the more it is susceptible to corruption and manipulation pressures, hence it ceases to be an effective metric.” GPA is nearly played out. Google and others have moved away from it as a benchmark.

We all need to perform in roles that contribute to society. Which do you think is a better motivator: the threat of a B, or the threat that the gazebo you’re building in the park caves in? Which is a better preparation for community and society?

The Classroom

The current fad in STEM education is problem based learning in very large (>100) classrooms enabled by clickers. Clickers are a pricey ($50) button that students turn on in a classroom to register responses to in class multiple choice questions. The responses will display in real time. Nobel leaureate Carl Wieman is quoted as saying, “It’s really what’s going on in the students’ minds rather than who is instructing them. This is clearly more effective learning. Everybody should be doing this. … You’re practicing bad teaching if you are not doing this.”

Clickers and responses like Wieman’s are important efforts to try to fix the totally non-empathic one way dumps typical of many classes, yet still miss the point. It’s not about the student’s head or the instructor’s — it’s about both. Empathic connections are two way. Forcing students to use the non-empathic clickers, robbing them of the facial cues and association to their responses diminishes the empathy of the entire class.

Technology should play only an ancillary role to trust, confidence, and empathy in the classroom. I’ve always used a simple hand raise, leaving an “unsure” response at the end so everyone still participates. It helps others find those who think similarly, or differently. It’s this multiple ways, yet still connected, that helps the most reach a point of understanding.

The Big Picture

Sir Ken Robinson famously associated our educational system for one that produces “automobiles” instead of people — our mass-manufacturing, control-based approach to solving the needs of society. Unchecked for so many years, no wonder our institutions are associated with prisons. They may be more cost effective than the Montessori system or other community-focused approaches. But in the end, the toll of having an apathetic non empathic society is much greater. It’s time for change.


Social Thermodynamics: The Solution of Friendships

I immediately felt the chill on my chest. My bare feet felt the damp concrete. The door shut behind me.

Make it quick. I started towards the door at the other end of the walk.

That’s when I heard the long whistle.

I froze.

“Looking good Jake!!”


For some reason that evening, Chelsea needed me to empty the garbage. I was ready for bed and all I had on were my shorts. I’m a nice guy. Our best friends, who rented a house kitty-corner from us, indeed, were taking an evening walk when I came out. My response to them was truth, “I told Chelsea this would happen.” They got a kick out of it. So did Chelsea.

Really great friends, like ours, don’t come along often. Finding really good friends as individuals is hard. Finding really good friends as a couple, where the individuals get along with the individuals of the other couple, is a much harder problem. Keeping this relationship really close over a lifetime — wow.

So really, if Social Dynamics explains everything from love to creativity, then it should offer some insights on what takes friendship to the next level and how we keep it together over a lifetime.

Conflict Resolution in Human Evolution — Commons By Athos
The Solution of Friendships

Much like the social dynamics of love, friendship is both a structure (value) problem and a connection (empathy) problem. The Gibbs energy argument for phase change leading to friendship is practically identical. Just because you work with someone and value similar things, like going to boat races, doesn’t mean you’ll hit it off as friends. While similar values are a good start, it remains to be seen whether you can connect to understand each other’s sarcasm and other nuances. The converse is also true — you may really be able to connect with someone but have fundamental, and even insurmountable, core value disagreements.

In thermodynamics, a fluid mixture is described as “miscible” if they form a homogenous solution and phase change doesn’t cause them to come into or out of solution. This only happens if a couple of criteria are met: 1) similar phase envelopes, and 2) high entropy of mixing. What this basically means is that for two fluids to stay together, they have to change phase in similar regions of temperature, pressure, and density, while generating a considerable entropy (# of ways) they can interact when mixing. With this amount of complexity, some fluids never mix (oil and water) and are called immiscible, some fluids that are not strongly attracted can still be mixed with the correct conditions (CO2 and water), and some fluids always mix well (ethanol and water). Parallels with friendship naturally emerge.

Chelsea and I got married right before we moved across the country for graduate school. We were so lucky that the families of two of my three best men from our wedding were moving too and would only be a few hours drive away. One of the first nights after moving was spent on our friend’s porch, watching a real Midwest thunderstorm. We spent many holidays and weekends with our friends — which helps build empathy and align values. Sadly, a few years later, we moved again. We really had no idea when we’d see them next. Seven years later I got a call that they were in the area. We picked up right where we left off, just like ethanol and water — which were present at the meeting.

One of my closest friends recently moved away to a neighboring city, along with a raise and additional stress on the job. While the large spatial change didn’t disrupt things too much for our friends in Wisconsin, in this case it mattered. While still good friends, we’re not on the same page as much as we used to be. Much like CO2 and water, a change in conditions allows us to start fizzling out of solution.

We’ve also had those friends where no matter what I or we did, or what we had in common, for some reason we just could never really get started. It’s tough to really no why. Oil and water.

Then, there have been cases, only a couple, where things went bad, fast.

Managing Conflict

In 5th through 8th grades I was selected by my teachers to participate in an experimental peer-conflict mediation program that had just started in my school district. The premise was simple — teach students how to resolve conflicts among their peers and you’ll have less conflict. But the program went beyond that — trained student ‘mediators’ would facilitate conflict mediation sessions in a structured environment sometimes in the playground or in controlled rooms, even after fists led to blows. A quick aside — this program may have had the biggest influence on me of any in my lifetime.

Looking back on the program now, I only remember fragments of the conflict mediation process, but those I remember are all about empathy:

  1. Start by agreeing to come to a solution and respecting the confidentiality of the discussion.
  2. Have each party tell their view of the story. Stick to the evidence of the situation and how it made them feel. Help them label the emotions. Don’t allow projection — saying someone else did something, or the word “you did”. All you can know is what your senses observed.
  3. Repeat the story you heard, labeling emotions, and working to find commonalities between the stories and parties. (Party 1) it seems like you are (insert emotion), (Party 2) are you also (insert emotion). Also try to identify problems and opportunities.
  4. Empower the parties to develop a solution to the conflict.
  5. Record and repeat to ensure understanding. Have the parties shake or hug to close.

Many of these same techniques are applied by former FBI International Crises Negotiator Chris Voss in his recent book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating like your Life Depends on it”. You can see the empathy scaffolding layers of 1. mirroring, 2. emotional, 3. rational, 4. cognitive. The conclusion: we’re less likely to conflict, or come out of solution, when we’re empathic to each other.

Over the years I saw a number of interesting behaviors in these meetings related directly to cutoff empathy. Stonewalling — refusing to make eye contact or converse with another. Sociopathy — trying to disrupt the relationships of others. Gaslighting — intentional manipulation of someone else’s recounting of events. Here’s an article reviewing 7 stages of gaslighting. Most of these behaviors directly correlate to an empathy level. When you see them, things get difficult fast. On rare occasion I had to bring in one of the professional advisers as, sometimes, you draw a high conflict person with lots of experience.

I should note that although stunningly effective in person,  I have not had much success with these techniques in social media environments. Probably because of the low empathy communication channels.

In the end, conflicts are relatively short-timescale events and society is relatively effective at handling these now. It’s the longer time-scale conflicts where we need work.

Childhood’s End

“It starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals round the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.” — from Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

The quote above by Arthur C. Clarke in  his masterpiece “Childhood’s End” comes when the parents realize the children are now interconnected, and not coming back. If their was a literary analogy to global empathy enabled by future social media, this is it.

I’ve noticed a strange connection to those I played with as a child. Sometimes even decades apart, having shared the childhood experience together matters. If you want to resolve conflict between cultures, mix the children, provide a support structure, well before the calcified and incompatible values of adults are imposed. My friend Chuck Pezeshki once said something beautiful when I cornered him about optimism for the future. He said, “I’ve always had an incredible faith in the neuroplasticity of children to synthesize evidence from reality.” Mix the children and your problems won’t last more than a couple generations — just long enough for those children to share power to change together.

When we do build in empathy in core programming we realize we’re not all that different. It’s widely known that no evolved democracy as ever attacked and  started war on another. We can keep it together. When we do, a lot more ways to life are at our disposal. That’s an end to Childhood we can all hope for.

“I understand.” Said the last man. –Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.



Social Thermodynamics: The Future of Universities is…

(Deep breath. Exhale. I’ve got this. It’s a solid talk. They cheered in the practice last night.)

“Please welcome, Dr. Jacob Leachman!” (applause)

(Wow the lights are a LOT brighter. My knees feel like springboards. Opening lines…)

(Ok, advance the slide. Didn’t advance. Advance the slide again. It’s not working. Point the advancer directly at the control table. Ok, barely.)

(Damn. Everything worked during practice. It’s not last night, but it’ll work.)

(Now play the video… long pause. F***! The video crashed the computer. Nope, it’s playing, just f***ed up.)

(Ok, that was enough. They’ll stop me and have me start over. Getting close to the end now. Anytime… Nope.)


Hence my first TED-x talk aptly named, in retrospect, “The Future of Universities is…” For those of you following on-line you can watch the extensively edited version for yourself here:

The premise of the talk is simple — Universities have ran with a model for education that’s now over 150 years old. As technology and society continue to advance, we’re approaching a phase change that’s fundamentally challenging the model. However, there are clues to how this change will evolve already within the university and in an unlikely place: the financial and engagement juggernaut that is collegiate athletics. I’m not talking about the games athletics plays, I’m talking about how they play them — in open collegial competition with peers supported by their communities. When we do, students have awesome, career defining experiences that we all want to watch. Until we academics figure that out, athletics is likely to keep sucking up more university and alumni donations. Check it out.

Many of the students that participated in the competitions and teams I setupwent on to dream jobs as a direct result of their experiences. Many still write me regularly and thank me. The statistics show that compared to my regularly classes, it’s these team-based intensive experiences that lead to follow on discussions. These are indicators of what I’ve learned to know as the “University Experience”.

“The University Experience”

Back when I was an undergraduate engineer, one of my mentors asked me, “Jake, what do you think the University is about?” I told him the degree. He sighed and proceeded to change me forever, “It’s about the University Experience — a fundamental change in how you act and behave that creates an expectation to use your new values and connections to help society.” A fundamental change. A right of passage.  A definitive experience.

But really… Is packing us all together in a dorm or house, ramping up the pressure with a singular goal of a degree/title, with the promise of higher pay and more connections really indicative of phase change?

Let’s break it down with the Gibbs energy — the classic property describing phase change.  Remember, if the change in Gibbs energy (G2-G1) is negative, thermodynamics says phase change will spontaneously occur.

G = U + Pv -TS

U: In the university your objective is simple — get a degree. Get value to add back through work for society. Often I see new freshman come in wanting to help the world in a myriad of ways only to realize the difficulty of getting very good at just one thing. U2 is definitely less than U1 coming in.

P: You don’t have all decade to doddle. It’s a competitive environment for grades. GPA is still the supreme metric. The only thing between you and that A is some old dude in a cardigan. But he’s smart, cantankerous, and had plenty more like you over your lifetime. You don’t know what he’ll ask on the exam. Stress through the roof. Want relief? Graduate.

v: Pack you into the dorm, apartment, house, or classroom. You’ll need eachother to survive. Volume goes way down at V2 as density goes way up.

T: “All you need to do to make money in life is get a degree.” — say too many college recruiters. While true to an extent, you can see this is one of many things that need to happen. Yet this dangling carrot is enough to enlist the masses. The promise of T2 being higher than T1.

S: Nowhere else are you going to experience more diverse views, skill sets, and diverse ways to address problems than Universities. Everyone remembers their college room mates. Especially when they need a job or connection later in life. S2 higher than S1.

Is the University Experience conducive to phase change? Do we really do our time, sweat, and tears to eventually emerge from our scholarly chrysalis, unfurling our diplomas, magically changed into a beautiful graduate? When done right it might be physical law.

What hinders this phase change? Having to keep the competing values of family and job together while you get the degree. Grade inflation such that anyone can drift through — or bell curve grading such that only 20 % succeed. On-line classes where you don’t actually come together to meet. Unbearable debt when you graduate. Sticking to the books and never connecting with your peers. Remember that phase change can still happen despite some of these occurrences (remember that thermodynamics is a statistical process).

Given the current trends, it’s no wonder the Academy is under attack. We’re loosing our definitive role — our ability to positively change society. Not only is this playing out on the individual level, but, as my TED-x talk alluded, at the entire university level. As the pressure continues to mount, the driving forces for universities to evolve will increase. The question is whether this change will be for the better or worse.

“The Future of Universities is…” — revisited

As soon as I finished my talk, one of my good friends pointed out that I didn’t get into the underlying structures and mechanisms for why the athletics model is better. He was right. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough time to get into it. Let’s break it down as the dual value and empathy problem starting with the current v-Meme stack of US Universities:

Tribal: Go _______! Every university that I know of has a magical mascot and fight song. The Greek and Dinner club systems are another hallmark of this v-Meme.

Authoritarian: This is the classic mode of instruction. A “sage on the stage” professor telling the students what to do and how. We’re thankfully, and finally starting to get away from this lecture model. However, every group within the university still needs “somebody in charge” and a chain of command to follow.

Legalistic/Absolutistic: Every discipline has it’s classic texts that provide the best processes and procedures. Pass the exam. Right versus wrong. Universities typically require following the chain of command and state codes.

Performance: This usually comes in the form of a “Capstone design” exercise where students have to demonstrate they can perform on their own for a real client. In science and engineering this happens once in 4 years. In the performing arts this can happen as often as every 4 days or months — no wonder they really perform.

Communitarian: If you do well as a student you get invited into a professional community and resources for your group or organization to steward.

Systemic: If you do really well you gain control over a group and have to steward the diverse elements of the system for it’s continued existence.

Remember that an organization as big and diverse as a University has an incredible value v-Meme stack, and it’s the distribution among these v-Memes that matters. If you had to weight the percentage of time that most of us work on which values, probably 66% of our effort is expended at the Authoritarian-Legalistic/Absolutistic level. This makes sense as the physical system structure is a tree-like hierarchy. The internet has allowed many forward thinking IT companies to move into flatter-system structures at the Performance-Communitarian-Systemic levels. This is troubling because few examples exist of organizations that were able to evolve away from tree-like structures — they usually have to die off and be replaced by new organizations that began with flatter management systems. We’ve known about these issues for a long time but seem unable to adapt. As prescient childhood development sage Maria Montessori wrote of the Academy in her 1948 book:

“The desire to work as little as possible, to pass the exams at all costs, and to obtain the diploma that will serve each person’s individual interests has become the essential motive common to the students. Thus academic institutions have become decadent as the progress of culture has transformed man’s existence. True centers of progress have been established in the laboratories of the scientific researchers. They are closed places, foreign to the common culture. The general decadence of the schools noted in our day does not come from a lessening of the instruction given to the students but from a lack of concordance between the organization of the schools and today’s needs. The material bases of civilization have changed to the point where they announce the beginning of a new civilization. In this critical period of human history, the very life of men needs to adapt afresh. And it is here that the problem of education is to be found.”

So, avoiding the question of how for now, what would a modern university with a performance-communitarian-systemic dominant v-Meme stack look like? A heavy dose of real world experience is the key. In short, you would get up in the morning to work on the fundamentals, by the afternoon you are designing/building/improvising, and in the evening networking with community/constituents/clients. Specific examples applied to my institution/department are here and here.

Real-community/world clients is the hallmark of what is known as problem/experiential based learning and a struggling trend in education. No longer are we doing arbitrary exercises in some textbook that have been solved 1000’s of times by competing students. If we are going to expend collective effort as a class, we will accomplish something for our community taxpayers and constituents by doing so. Students can’t float through a class, everybody has something real that needs to be delivered — and perform — in order for the team and university to succeed. Bell-curves are no longer essential — you either deliver to specification or not. By returning this value to our regional companies and patrons, they are more likely to fund and partner with us. Students are more likely to be engaged as they empathize with the needs of real people they are connected to. Students end up being specifically trained in the ways our companies need them trained. Professors become master matchmaking coaches. This system evolves, and is naturally size-constrained, by the company and community constituents.

Many whom I describe this future to immediately point to the lack of regional and state support for institutions. To some degree it is a chicken or the egg problem. The vast majority of institutional support is indeed coming from the federal government, which often exacerbates the community connection problem. However, if we had strong regional partnerships we should have a stronger support base and network to win increasingly competitive federal grants. The more we rely on these federal grants and student tuition as our primary resource streams, the more un-sustainable and disconnected our university becomes to the region and constituents with which it serves. No wonder everyone just goes to MIT to get their problems solved. When you don’t have connections, you just pick number 1. It’s an empathy problem.

The More Empathic University

Imagine a future where students are sought after in high-school based on their actual performances and skills in real world activities and offered scholarships to apply those skills to real-world problems. A university recruiter asks what problem the student wants to solve in the world, looks at what opportunities/projects are in the pipeline, and builds a team, often years in advance to address the problem. That team could solve just the problem for a regional company or constituent, or compete to solve grand challenge problems against other institutions. The drop out rate of students funded in collegiate scholarships is much better than the student body at large.

Professors, now as coaches, get out and recruit students. They tell stories of real achievement in the face of adversity instead of hanging more journal papers that nobody reads on a wall. They really need to know their team. Professors know the company clients and train students to specifically get into the pros. Professors become names discussed at the dinner table after major accomplishments.

Companies will realize that universities provide better return on investment due to volunteer support. Even graduate students are cheaper. It’s not as far out of a concept as you’d think. European graduate students are often directly funded by local industry or consortium.

Looking back at our Gibbs Energy equation for phase change. The future of universities is likely to drive that transformative experience even more than our current approach. The focus is clear: succeed. The pressure is real, not fabricated. The teaming is more intense. The resources are more likely to flow in during the junior and senior years. Connections will be forged on many levels. Empathy will be the key to the Future of Universities. We need to start the dialogue on every level. Exchange people and roles. Understand each other. And fast.

Is the K-12 feeder system not prepared to deliver students for this new future? Collegiate athletics crowd-sourced it’s entire feeder system. No surprise, most athletic conferences now have their own TV channels. When the conditions are right and we promote, instead of inhibit, phase change spontaneously occurs. We just have to accept that the future is not what we are doing now, there are other ways of being.

Social Thermodynamics: The first and last questions

The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time
when humanity first stepped into the light…

(man asks) “How can the net amount of entropy of the
universe be massively decreased?”…


–“The Last Question” 1956, A short story by Isaac Asimov

I keep waiting for an engineer at Amazon to program Alexa with that response.

Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. Many consider him the greatest science fiction writer of all time. He falls under the genre of “hard science fiction” in that most of his literary inventions have an underlying physical-chemical mechanism, requiring minimal magic. One of Asimov’s triumphs is “The Foundation Trilogy”. Although Asimov is quoted as having based the story on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, it generally follows the same Spiral value v-Meme progression used in this book. It may not be a coincidence that this was around the same time and region as Clare Graves’ pioneering research that created the v-Memes. Asimov’s “I-Robot” was pioneering for the field of artificial intelligence and proposed seminal rules for robotic interactions with society.

Asimov’s personal favorite piece “The Last Question” is a short (~20 minute) story focusing on a key result of the laws of thermodynamics that is a philosophical hallmark of our existence: how will the Universe, and humanity, end? Conversely, if thermodynamics can explain that, then the natural extension is to question what the laws of thermodynamics say about humanity’s beginning. Obviously, these are controversial topics closely tied to religion and, as a forewarning, I’m agnostic to the God debate. This is only about the laws of thermodynamics. Why those are the laws of the universe is an entirely different debate.

What your view of the 2nd Law says about you

The common interpretation of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is that the entropy of the universe always increases. Entropy is often synonymous with disorder. I often use the example of my garage or office to introduce the concept of entropy — I start work in a very orderly workspace, as work is done, things become disordered, and eventually it becomes difficult to do any more work.

The concept of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and a limit to the amount of work you could produce, was developed in the early 1800’s by Saudi Carnot while trying to make a better steam powered locomotive. In this instance, entropy was waste, the thing limiting the power of an engine, inefficiency. And you can’t get away from it. Entropy happens in all processes, whenever a potential gradient for energy is acted upon. When you consider engineering as about reliability and control, it’s easy to understand why most of us view entropy in such a limited and dismal way.

On a personal level, one could come to the conclusion that we have a limited amount of useful energy and need to carefully limit our entropy generation. The legend is that one of the pioneers of entropy moved to Egypt and wore thick coats to minimize entropy generation through exchange of heat… only to die of kidney failure as a result of the dehydration.

To make matters worse, in the 1850’s, William Thomson a.k.a. Lord Kelvin, applied the concept of entropy to the Sun and the universe. Kelvin was concerned about the lifetime of the sun. His theory, that the entropy increase of the sun and universe would dissipate all energy gradients until nothing could exist, became known as “Heat death of the universe“. The time frames on which this would occur varied greatly. If you assume the sun is some kind of chemical fire burning in space — we don’t have much time, may’be 100’s of years. There are hypotheses that the Third Reich used this knowledge as justification for attempts to rule the world in light of the limited time we had left. The discovery of nuclear processes and radiation extended the eventual heat death many, many orders of magnitude, something like 10^100^100 years. That said, the concept of Heat Death isn’t going away any time soon, which was why Asimov was able to use it as the mechanism for his story.

From these origins of law, power, and control, entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics was anointed the evil limiter of power and progress. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.” -T.S. Eliot. Sigh…

Think about it another way. What if Saudi Carnot really had succeeded in developing a perfectly efficient, zero entropy generation steam engine? Or for that matter, what if Nature had evolved a perfectly efficient horse? Would everyone still be riding horses?

What if entropy never caused us to age? Would neanderthals have overpopulated the earth millennia ago?

Without entropy, would the earth have been overran by the first algae that sprang from the primordial goo?

Can life even exist without entropy?

What you can see is entropy, contrary to those concerned with power and control, may be the very virtuous property that governs sophistication versus evolution to new and un-imagined ways of being. How you look at entropy says a lot about how you look at the world and what you are valuing at the particular moment. Context is essential. Entropy can be a very wonderful and disastrous thing, at the same time.

Life(?) in the Energy Cascade
The Great Red Spot of Jupiter’s energy cascade — NASA

“Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on until viscosity.”

— Lewis Richardson

We’re going to start this at the bottom and work our way up. Life exists in many sizes and ways throughout the universe. If the Laws of thermodynamics were not independent of scale, they wouldn’t be physical law. In recent years, the “Quantum Thermodynamics Revolution” is attempting to merge the fields of quantum mechanics and the 2nd Law. Quantum mechanics is mirroring, something; up or down, connected or not. Go back to my garage example. Instead of looking at the resulting mess as disorder, think about it as a puzzle or crime scene. The tools and parts lying around are connected and tell an important story of what happened. In quantum mechanics this is known as “entanglement” — the state of one particle cannot be described independent of others. Context, path, and history now matter. The more ways a particle is entangled, the higher the entropy. The more entangled a particle becomes with others, the more story it has to tell, and the more difficult it is to control or predict the outcome.

Entropy, at the atomic scale, is closely related to viscosity due to the ways entanglement can occur. As Lewis Richardson’s poem alludes, when turbulent eddies become sufficiently small, momentum is dissipated as thermal energy, which is directly related to entropy. Recent attempts to predict transport properties, like thermal conductive and viscosity, from traditional thermodynamic properties have focused on density and entropy as key model inputs. Once in the viscous realm, the properties of the fluid, like viscosity, help determine the spectra of turbulent eddies the will emerge from an event.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a hurricane eddy of epic proportions — 1.3 times larger than the diameter of the entire earth! Think about the scale of energy dissipation. The Great Red Spot is believed to have spontaneously emerged around 200 years ago and is slowly shrinking. The stability of the storm is impressive. Go whitewater rafting on a river and you’ll see stable eddies of impressive proportions, but those are just yearly and ebb with the flow. The question becomes why these eddies remain so stable for as long as they do. The answer comes from the dominant energy drivers that create the eddies in the first place. If the energy flows are similar, you’ll get similar behavior. Neptune has it’s own giant spot.

I was in Norway earlier this year presenting some of my hydrogen work. During a hike outside of town I began noticing similar plants — pines, alders, service berry, elderberry, in similar places as my home in the Pacific Northwest. The geology and weather of Norway and the Pacific Northwest have very similar geographical position relative to the ocean currents that drive weather patterns. It makes sense that the energy flows are very similar. As this thought emerged I noticed a neat grassy hump nearby and thought that if it was in the Pacific Northwest a robin would be searching for worms on that spot. A moment later a yellow and brown bird flew down, hopped like a robin, then grabbed a worm. The structures of the flow and the energy cascade created the opportunity for a bird of that size and behavior, but did not dictate the color, which is likely a cultural thing.

Definite analogies exist between the cascades of physical structures and biological organisms. Differentiating between the two is important. In 2014, MIT Biophysics Professor Jeremy England made a radical hypothesis: life spontaneously emerges due to thermodynamics. “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” said England for Quanta magazine. England’s simulations have shown that when you take a random assortment of chemicals, and provide external forcing functions (think electrical charge, momentum, thermal gradients) to the system, self-organizing structures emerge somewhere in the system that self-optimize for entropy generation. England set up the traditional Gibbs Energy to promote a phase change conducive to life-based organisms. Whether this is indeed life, or simply a physical structure like the Great Red Spot, is still in debate. Science writer Philip Ball ran with the concept and published an inspiring piece “How Life (and Death) Spring from Disorder“.

When Structure Becomes Life and Society

With enough self-organizing, entropy producing, structures spontaneously emerging in the history of our planet, it’s only natural that at some point the ability for these structures to self-replicate emerged. With enough self-replicating structures, an obvious next step is Darwinian evolution — how NASA broadly defines the criteria for life. With enough time, to further maximize the entropy production potential, organisms became aware of self and others. Hence an aware organism asked the first question, “why am I?” Thus leading to the last question, “why must it end?”

Somewhere in that progression empathy emerged. Just like the entanglement of quantum particles, organisms became entangled. A plant emerged with something like a flower that attracted insects that helped replication. Plants and animals developed an ever more entangling reliance on others until a cascade of life-forms emerged. At some point a plant emerged with a flower so beautiful that something called a human said it would replicate this plant all over the planet. At some point the human decided the flower represented what they called a culture.

We spontaneously emerged. Given the random chain of events and required conditions, it was inevitable, and exceedingly rare. Now we, as a culture, are asking ourselves how long we can keep it going.

I’m not the first to try to use thermodynamics to predict Societal changes. Sociology Professor Kenneth D. Bailey in his book “Social Entropy Theory” used traditional thermodynamic arguments to conclude that society was doomed to chaos. Physical Chemist, and former president of Illinois State University, Thomas P. Wallace’s book “Wealth, Energy, and Human Values: Dynamics of Decaying Civilizations from Ancient Greece to America,” took a similar dismal view. Looking around at the problems of contemporary society it’s easy to take such a view. Neither made the connection of entropy as empathy, nor the role these play in sophistication versus evolution. Is the end of civilization possible? Absolutely. Just like the heat death of the universe argument, our future is only dire until we realize the new possibilities and ways we couldn’t see before. Show me an academic, and I’ll likely show you someone consumed with power and control. But as we’ve seen, that’s a very, unnecessarily, dismal view of entropy.

Empathy, a form of entropy itself, emerged to promote entropy production. Empathy, unlike purely structural/physical entropy, entangles us in the chemistry of what we call culture. Entropy can be a very beautiful thing. When we really understand entropy and empathy, may’be we’ll finally be ready for Asimov’s ultimate last question.


Social Thermodynamics: Let’s Get Political

The car took a turn up a windy road into the mountains. From the back seat I got that sinking feeling in my stomach knowing I was likely going to be sick. My boss, who happened to be very conservative, was in the driver seat with his wife in the passenger seat next to him. Then the question came, “So Jake, what are your feelings about women in power and administration?” — Definitely gonna be sick.

(Time out)

I grew up with a stubborn, very blue-Democrat mother in stubborn, very red-Republican Idaho. My father, much like his, built his relationships on trust and therefore never liked any politician. I’ve had to be pretty independent as a result. Being independent never really felt ok until I took a class on science and politics from John Wiley — National Academy member and former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin — when he said something along the lines of, “I’ve learned to be independent out of principle. Science is about studying Nature. Nature doesn’t know politics.” I’m likely independent for life.

(Back in the car)

I really liked my boss. But being afraid of where this was going I needed a way out — and the button on the window crank failed to launch an ejection seat. “Well, in engineering I haven’t really had many examples of women administrators.” Which was true. Only about 20% of engineering graduates are women and the drop out rate once women are in the field is tragically high. But I knew how to finish this, “The only real example of a women administrator I know is (the person who connected my boss and I, who he liked) and she’s great!” He agreed. “Look! A dear over there!” We’ll leave this at that.

What I’ve learned from my friends in both Democrat and Republican circles is that the majority of us can’t consistently define just about any political philosophy. We don’t have a shared understanding of how to contextualize political ideals (aside from red versus blue), let alone understand how they change. This makes objective discussions difficult. The current political atmosphere of low-empathy social media exchanges is only making this worse. To know the importance of understanding political ideologies, look no farther than the Jonestown tragedy. Psychopathic minister Jim Jones convinced 900 Americans to found an isolationist community of ostensibly socialist ideals in South America, only to tragically kill them in a mass suicide/murder. Real lives are lost by this political confusion.

If this theory of social thermodynamics is really as universally applicable as it’s turning out to be, then it can shed light on our political spectrum and hopefully help us understand when political movements emerge, and stick around. And, spoiler alert, if you think I’m going to advocate for your particular party relative to others, please…

Our political compass is (usually) broken

At the most fundamental level, politics is a dichotomy. You are either for or against something. Voting yes or no. Voting for one and not the other(s). Right or left. Blue or red. It’s no surprise that many political spectrums use individual versus collective values as a primary axis. But we all know that a simple dichotomy isn’t complex enough to describe all of the political idealogies. This is where things started to get complicated.

Many attempts to create a spectrum of political ideologies use a classic oppositional geometry of at least two dimensions, similar to a compass, hence the term ‘political compass’. The compass below was developed in 1969 by David Nolan, a politician and activist, who, (no surprise!) founded the Libertarian party in the US.

Nolan Chart — Commons

But even this is not complex enough to handle all of our values and even the most complex Nolan Charts find people jumping around based on issue. How can we use the compass to encompass even more values? Or, for that matter, make it a useful tool for cross-cultural comparison? In 2003, Political Scientist Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan applied the World Values Survey — a multinational survey of cultural values developed and applied annually by Sociologists since 1981 — to apply the political compass to nations.

Ingelhart values-based political compass.

What’s neat about this analysis is the geo-spatial groupings of cultures with similar value sets. Also, the connections to spiral v-Memes start becoming apparent with survival/tribal cultures in the bottom left, authoritarian/legalistic cultures in the middle, and performance/communitarian cultures at the top right. There is a lot to think about on this graph. So let’s take a minute. As countries in Africa continue to modernize, what direction do you think they will go? Up and to the right is a safe bet. The same is likely try for the countries up and to the right. The key problem with this graph is the axis labels and it’s ability to track world cultures into the unknown future. All of the spiral v-memes are orthogonal value sets — they are not opposing — they simply act in a totally different direction (90°) to the other value sets. This is why Beck and Cowan chose an open ended ‘spiral’ to geometrically represent v-Memes. It’s just too complicated to represent in a 2D graphic and have it stand the test of time as we continue to evolve. But to describe the Spiral or Ingelhart’s compass in casual dinner discussion? That’s a tall order. Let’s see how we can break it down.

The Spiral v-Meme Taxonomy of Politics

A word of caution before we begin, most political philosophies are too complicated to stereotype into a box or label and there are exceptions to each of these. Thermodynamics is inherently statistical. However, we can generally see how some of the dominate political movements correspond to spiral v-Memes:

  1. Survival: I’m not aware of a culture or system of governance that has been sustained over any period that is only concerned with survival.
  2. Tribal: Native American tribes are an excellent example. My local Nez Perce tribe would have a Chief, the role of the Chief was not to command the tribe, but to be the voice of the tribe. If the Chief started ordering tribe members around, they simply were no longer the Chief.
  3. Authoritarian: Fascism, feudalism, autocracy, and some forms of communist/socialism fall into this category if the members of the society follow primarily magical values without scientific or performance based evidence and are led by an authority figure consumed with absolute power and control. Communist/socialism, like the form advocated in the Jonestown tragedies, used egalitarian values, without supporting resources or evidence, to ensnare participants for consolidation of power and control.
  4. Legalistic/absolutistic: Federalism, democracy, legalism, Constitution party, unions, and to some degree libertarians. Political movements that use the rule of law and the judicial system to prevent authoritarian abuse. Using laws to create boundaries for the Liberty and freedom of individuals to work within. However, at the extreme this legalism can also become limitations to freedom and is subject to corruption and manipulation pressures.
  5. Performance: Capitalism, meritocracy, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians. Maximize performance based on evidence and data within a simple set of rules that have been mastered. Corporate lobbyists work to further the interests of performance based groups like businesses. Limitations are over-success leading to monopolies and resource depletion.
  6. Communitarian: Socialism, Marxist communism, environmentalists, and libertarians to a degree. Use long-term sustainability values to limit the size and resource depletion of business monopolies. Use the power of the collective to reduce economic and environmental strain on individuals. The key is having a successful business/resource stream and informed performance based individuals to support the community. Limitations are a lack of acceptance and empathy to non-communitarian ideological followers. Many Socialist movements do not have sufficient supporting performance drivers to sustain the movements and quickly digress to tribal/authoritarian behaviors.

The two-party dichotomy should allow Republicans to associate with the individual v-Memes (1,3,5) and Democrats to associate with collective v-Memes (2,4,6). In general this holds. The Republican and Democratic parties have flexibility to adjust the respective v-Meme stacks to the pressing needs of society. This allows allows for a natural individual versus collective shift that, in-part, explains the natural oscillation between parties. Where the US has run into problems is the ideological ‘conservative’ versus ‘progressive’ labels. This labeling falsely associates the scientific evidence-based individuals in society with the Democratic party and resulted in the Republican party villainizing academic ‘elites’. This results in a digression of v-Memes away from performance based on data and evidence on both sides of the individual versus collective dichotomy, which isn’t good for the future.

How Political Movements Emerge and Change

All of the v-Memes, and the associated political idealogies, are nested layers and form the foundation for emergent new layers. Emergence is something that spontaneous occurs when the conditions are right. It’s analogous to a phase change problem, and we’ll come back to this. For example, capitalism probably emerged naturally near Macedonia with the acceptance of laws for language, math, and money.

Let’s try a quick exercise. If you had to list the most socialist cities in the US, what’s the top 5 you would choose? Don’t try an internet search for this. People try to cursory classify socialist cities as those with the highest percentage of income tax. Given the complexity of the value stacks, it’s pretty clear why this one metric is insufficient. What did you come up with on your own? San Francisco? Seattle? Boulder? Madison? Boston? Regardless of geographic location, the common themes among each of these cities is a strong higher education presence that enabled a strong high-technology industry to emerge in the surrounding area. Madison has the second largest free zoo in the country (behind the national zoo in D.C.) for a reason — wealthy donors that love their community. It’s likely false that our higher education system imbues individuals with socialist values. It’s something that naturally emerges with the advent of new technologies, enabled by performance-based data and evidence, and resulting resources that flow into the region.

The spiral v-Memes were constructed deliberately to be open ended to handle whatever new value sets emerge into the future. Level 7, the Systemic level values all of the v-Memes in appropriate balance, commensurate with available resources, to enable this emergence. What this also says is one-size-fits-all approaches to our large and diverse country are likely non-optimal. The current national Health Care debate is a prime example. A single-payer system like Canada and in parts of Europe, is a socialist approach that would likely be quite welcomed and successful in the socialist regions of the US, however would likely seem alien to many less resourced areas.

The Health Care debate is a simple application of our model for phase change. I had a very conservative, life-long friend, suddenly advocate voting for democrats as a result of the debate. His wife and child have pre-existing conditions and would lose health care if the Republican versions of the bill passed. A negative change in Gibbs Energy (G2-G1) explains this shift:


His values (U1) risked dropping to a survival/familial v-Meme (U2), his stress (P1) went through the roof and he needed to bring it back down (P2), and hence he started looking for new ways (S2) and more resources (T2) to alleviate the problem.

The Take-Aways

Our political ideology spectrum is complicated and representative of our value spectrum. Broad labeling of people and individuals in non-empathic environments like social media over simplifies the problem and is making matters worse, fast. The progression of political mapping approaches points toward the spiral v-Meme approach as being both complicated enough while structured appropriately to handle most value problems in the past, present, and future. It shows that most political ideologies have a time and place, the problem we often face is understanding what, when, and how.

And, with any luck, the next time we’re stuck in a car having a philosophical conversation with our boss, we can have a good discussion about politics we’ll both learn something from.

Washington State University