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

Social Thermodynamics: Work

When I was a junior in high school, my mom wanted to know what my summer plans were. I told her my plan was to lift weights and do football drills with fishing and mowing lawns on the side. She was not amused, “Football won’t help you pay for college. You need to get to work, make some money, and start studying.” Later that day my dad quietly told me I had a long life of work ahead of me and I should spend the summer having fun. Six months later I had a full-ride scholarship to play football.

Go no further than the 2016 Rihanna pop song ‘Work’: “He said me haffi work, work, work, work, work, work” — the monotone repetition of ‘work’ says it all. Our cultural expectation of work in America is controversial. Work is key to our national economy, personal income, and a prime source of our happiness or depression given the percentage it consumes of our daily lives. At the same time there are few to no physical guides for how we should be most effect at work aside from working harder. The more we understand when we work, and what we should work on, the better we’ll all be.

Work is a cornerstone physical concept of thermodynamics. Hence it is a natural outcome of our social thermodynamics framework. This role leads to new insights on the emerging area of ‘agency’: when you decide to take action to produce a particular effect. The framework also shows how different people will work to produce different outcomes and provides physical limits on how much work is possible. Here we go!

Work and Thermodynamics

Classical thermodynamics was invented at the dawn of the industrial revolution to explain the mechanical power production from steam and other engines. The first law of thermodynamics, also known as an energy balance, is the mathematical expression of this work. Here is the energy balance I teach in thermodynamics for analyzing a system:

Energy_into = Energy_out + ΔEnergy_stored

The energy flow into a system is equal to the energy flow out of a system plus the change in energy stored within the system. Expanding these terms while neglecting kinetic and potential energy:

Q_in + W_in + m_flow (u_in + P_in v_in) = Q_out + W_out + m_flow (u_out + P_out v_out) + (u_final + P_final v_final) – (u_initial + P_initial v_initial)

Where Q is the heat (information), W is work, m is mass flow (people/agents?), u is internal energy of the fluid (values), P is pressure of the fluid (stress), v is specific volume of the fluid (inverse of density). For a given amount of heat a given amount of work is possible subject to the changing properties of the fluid in the system. Often this equation is simplified further until:

W_out = m_flow [(u_in + P_in v_in) – (u_out + P_out v_out)]

Which says you will do work on something when you have the people (m_flow), values you need bestow onto something (u_in – u_out), and are under pressure that will be relieved by doing so (P_in v_in – P_out v_out). You can also derive equations that show how much work you have to put into a person to raise their values (See this discussion on heat capacity).

All of this math says that if you see a problem, have values/knowledge that you know will solve it, and feel some pressure/stress to do something, you’ll get to work. This doesn’t mean your work will be received well or that you’ll be effective. That’s coming in a moment. First we need a way to relate values relative to one another.

How different values do different work

We’ve all been there before. We see a problem, we know a solution, we do a bunch of work ‘solving’ the problem, only to have the solution rejected, and our hard work wasted. You’ve likely been on the flip side too. You need work done, someone proposes a solution, and you have no idea what they are talking about. Generally, different value systems do different work. Values come in many different forms and systems. To make this problem somewhat tractable I use the Spiral v-Meme value taxonomy. Here’s a summary of what each v-Meme values and how they’ll work to achieve those values:

  1. Survival: If it gets you fed, sheltered, and not suffering you’ll work on it and nothing else. Most don’t see this as a useful form of work as it affects little but the person trying to survive. For example, many can’t understand why homeless people don’t just get a job not realizing the incredible difficulty caring about anything other than survival.
  2. Tribal: If one of your tribe is in trouble you’ll work to protect them and the clan. It’s all in the family here and nobody else. Laws are foreign. Science is magic. If it gets the family/clan/gang the resources to get to the next day, you’ll do it.
  3. Authoritarian: If it increases your power/control over others you’ll work on it. Consistency? Nope. Quality is foreign and arbitrary. It’s all about you.
  4. Legalistic: If it preserves or increases the sanctity of the rules/standards everyone is following you’ll work on it. And so must everyone/everything else. Nobody is special here,,, except the person who is legally determined to be so.”Why are you following the recipe when you’ve done it a 100 times — because we always follow the recipe.” It’s all about whether everyone is safely following the rules.
  5. Performance: If it gives you a new ability that’s valued or impressive to others you’ll work on it. If you’ve been there, done that — not so much. You care a lot about efficiency and quality. With so many new things to work on in the world you don’t have time to waste! But it’s all about you and your ability to work.
  6. Community: If it increases the connections and sustainability of the community you’ll work on it. Unless it’s being consumed by one of the lower memes, then you won’t. It’s going to take a lot of talking to get the community behind this. But hey, whatever helps the community.
  7. Systemic: If you see the system is in imbalance of the above, you’ll work on whatever is necessary to restore a natural harmony in the system.

We could keep going. Remember these levels are nested layers. You can down-select but up-selection is hard. Work done by a level more than 2 removed from the current/desired level just becomes too alien or subtle to have effect. Also notice that there is a hierarchy here. A systemic person can work on any of the lower vMemes, but it’s difficult to imagine a person in a survival state suddenly mastering the performance based principles of lean manufacturing. I chose to work on my physical fitness that summer in high-school because I knew I had the performance metrics to play at another level, which would be a more efficient way to pay for college than the traditional/legalistic approach my mom wanted me to take.

To really quantify work we need to figure out the fundamental changes in real energy units required to move from one value system/structure to the next — which won’t be an easy problem to solve.

A new understanding of ‘agency’

The National Science Foundation and other organization are currently trying to develop/scaffold ‘agency’: when you take action to produce a particular effect. This is especially important in STEM majors where often societal problems are left un-remedied despite having known solutions due to a lack of agency. Agency has also been shown to be a key factor in retention of women in STEM majors. Much of this comes down to metacognition — or thinking/imagining yourself in the role you are seeking to become. Obviously, experience is key here. If you’ve done it before, it’s much easier to imagine yourself doing it again, and you have the values that you know will work for the situation. See how work works with values in many ways? You’ve got to have many value systems reinforced by experience and pressure/stress to become agentic.

Availability of work in social space

How effective you are at producing work is known in thermodynamics as ‘Availability’ or ‘Exergy’. The example I use in class is rubbing my hands together. I can do work rubbing my hands together to produce 5 Watts of heat. Can I do as much with that 5 Watts of heat from rubbing my hands together as 5 Watts of heat from a fusion energy machine? Not even close. The 5 Watts from that fusion energy machine could break down molecule chains, weld tungsten, or just about fuse or bond anything. I’d be lucky to bond bread dough rubbing my hands together. Moreover, if I’m careful not to waste it, I could transfer the 5 watts from my fusion reactor to a lower temperature and safely add 5 Watts of heat to my hands. The temperature (resources) that the heat (information) is provided at plays a key role in the number of ways and efficiency that work can be done. Is this starting to relate to the v-Meme hierarchy above?

Here’s an equation for calculating the availability/exergy of work:

X_in = X_out + X_destroyed + ΔX_stored

Unlike pure energy, our potential to do work can be wasted or destroyed, if we do nothing or act foolishly. Here’s what each Exergy term equates to:

X = m_flow [ (u – u_0) + (Pv – P_0 v_0) – T_0 (s-s_0)]

The important introduction here is the dead state (denoted with the 0). The dead state is usually the pressure and temperature at which all gradients to produce work are minimized, and the system is dead in terms of it’s ability to do work. Another way to write this incorporates the Carnot efficiency (maximum theoretical efficiency possible) of the process into the exergy equation. As the temperature (resources) you are working from approaches the dead state temperature, your efficiency approaches zero in classical thermodynamics.

This is all relative to the v-Meme level above that the problem exists at. With more resources (T) and empathy (s), you have more v-Memes you can access. But to be effective in working on a problem solution, you need to work from a value level more advanced than the level that created the problem. You generally can’t use more legalistic governance to solve problems with legalistic governance. Hence Einstein’s famous quote: Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. Now we have math that explains why. Sure you can spend energy and resources trying, you just won’t be efficient or effective because there simply isn’t work available to be done with the current value sets.

Takeaways: When and how to work

Look at your problem. Does a solution come to mind? Do you have confidence and experience? How far removed from a value standpoint is the solution from the problem? Wait for when the pressure is sufficient.

And if your work really is work, work, work, work, work, work, as Rihanna suggests, fear not, as she we’ll knows, the machines are coming. Time to work for change.

3 principles to teach all of your advisees

Students keep coming to me in search of advice, and leaving shocked that nobody told them this before. I have just 3 rules for success during your undergraduate engineering degree, but could really work in any major.

1. Get a circle of friends

It’s well known throughout the animal kingdom that animals who play with friends are smarter than those who don’t. Why? Empathy. Here’s an example: I was once trying to finish a large code for a homework assignment on the weekend, alone. The code wouldn’t run. I went through it line-by-line many times, everything should’ve been right. It wouldn’t run. I spent most of the weekend working on it. I skipped a party one of my friends was hosting. It was a big assignment. My other assignments suffered too. After I handed it in Monday I talked with a friend who said it sounded like I’d done everything right and went to the lab with me after to try to find the problem. I had a capital O instead of a 0 in one variable. And was now depressed.

What did I learn while sitting there scanning code? May’be what I’m telling you here at most. Do you need to go through what I went through to learn it? No.

Just take it from me — when you’re stuck on implementing something, you’re not learning the bigger guiding principles you’re here to learn. You’re wasting time and becoming unhappy and depressed. When you’re unhappy and depressed you’re not thinking with your whole brain. You’re dumber and you’re less likely to find the mistake = downward spiral. 🙁

When you study with a group of friends, you’re more likely having fun. You can quickly cross-check codes/implementation strategies. You get your work done faster. Which means you have more time to play. Which means you’re happy. When you’re happy you’re smarter. When you’re smarter you get your work done faster = upward spiral. 🙂

So get yourself a circle of friends in similar classes. 3-6 members is optimal for a group. Diversity helps.

2. Freedom from addiction

I once had an advising meeting with a sophomore that so impressed me, I nearly offered him a job in the lab on the spot. He was confident, extremely aware, had hands on skills,,, — and was high during the meeting. I didn’t pick up on the slight pupil dilation at the time. I didn’t see him much for a few years and then he came back for advising as a senior and confided in me that he had recovered from a severe narcotics addiction and was now leading a Narcotics Anonymous group. I was right! He was brilliant to graduate with an engineering degree with as ‘high’ of a GPA as he had while struggling with addiction.

I tell students this story not because I fear them struggling with drugs, but because addiction comes in many forms: family, sleep, money, food, computer games, relationships, hobbies, and yes even drugs. You need to have your resources in appropriate balance and get help if you need it.

There is a popular t-shirt slogan, “Engineering School is like riding a bicycle. Except you’re on fire, and in hell.” It’s a 4-year professional degree. Being a doctor or lawyer takes 8. Buckle up. Circle the wagons. You’re going to need all the support you can get.

3. “3”

The third rule comes in the third year and is 3 — you need 3 freakishly awesome engineering achievements unique to you, that you can each pitch in a 1 paragraph spiel, and are highly relevant to wherever you want to go after you graduate. Why 3? You want to establish a trend. They won’t call you a one-hit-wonder. Why not more? Because if you don’t have them in 3, you won’t have them after 5. Students tend to try to promise the sun, and end up not doing anything extremely well because they are spread too thin. Potential employers are looking for an ability to focus and get work done on a specific task.

I once had a student, the most outstanding in the college at the time (and in another major), come into my office and ask me if he should do graduate school in my lab. I asked him what his 3 freakishly awesome engineering achievements were. He said:  1. in high-school he built an electrostatic fusion reactor in his friend’s garage from plans they found online — and he showed me the videos to prove it. 2. he published a paper on radar cross-section research he conducted as a sophomore. 3. he completely designed, built, and implemented the electrical system for the first liquid hydrogen drone by a university team. He had more, that’s what he led with. I asked him what research in my lab he thought could top any of those three in the eyes of the potential employers he wanted to work for. He wasn’t sure. So he applied to his dream company (Blue Origin), was immediately hired, and was given sole responsibility over his first project. He’s now changing humanities future with spaceflight.

Not sure which university to go to? Which one will give you the best three achievements before graduating?

Not sure whether to go to graduate school? Will it improve your best three achievements?

Leading companies are no longer looking for top grads from top schools with top interview responses. Google has decisively shown this does not predict success at Google. They want the defining life experiences that demonstrate drive and abilities.

I had another student, when meeting with me as a senior lamented, “I’m a senior and I have no real experiences/achievements to show for it!” After calming them down, I said let’s work through it. I asked if they had a job. “Yes, I’m a pizza chef in the northside cafeteria, that’s not related to engineering!” I calmed them down again and asked if they’d ever had to fix anything. “Well now that you mention it, the asshole that worked before me always bent the shit out of the pizza spatula. I realized that by heating it in the oven to 4XX° I could flatten it straight again without breaking it.” I asked what the material was and why that happened. “It was aluminum, I was likely aging and annealing it.” Now he had a story of applying his engineering knowledge to achieve something.

These stories can come in many ways. Most students simply are overworked and not aware enough to spot and brand these experiences as achievements. It really takes practice to get good at this. That’s why I tell them to get a personal website and start practicing.

Follow up

Every year the students expect me to quiz them on their progress towards these three things. I end up having to nag. But I really believe my advisees end up better than average. Why? Because they write me back and thank me.

Social Thermodynamics: A Belated Introduction

This book is going to change your reality. Not what you think, but how you think it, and your awareness of change.

Go ahead and pick a topic for debate: politics, climate change, terrorism, abortion, addiction, religious reformation, weight loss.

Regardless of your stance, the lack of understanding either side is a social problem that involves understanding and change. Some problems are age old. Some are new. Some have decisive scientific consensus. Some cannot be solved by science. Even the brightest fall victim to ignorance of their peers values and views.

The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer genuinely believed that, “The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.” He made it his life’s work only to see it immediately be used in war. A contemporary example is the internet; a technology promised to connect the world, level economic disparities, and help us understand each other. We’ve all watched it be manipulated into nearly the opposite despite the best intentions of those scientists and engineers curating social media environments. Technology will not save us from ourselves.

Since the beginning, humanity has struggled to understand the values and ways others perceive reality — this is known as empathy. Empathy is key to how we steward our ever changing self and societies. Yet we’ve lacked a fundamental science of empathy. Hence, using empathy for social change has remained arbitrary and subjective.

The key question this research seeks to address is to what extent we can use the framework laws of thermodynamics to model social issues. On a collective scale, the goal is a non-arbitrary, physics-based model for estimating important – and controversial – societal challenges such as disaster aid relief, economic sanctions, when riots will occur, and scaffolding of refugees into another culture. For the individual, the goal is physics-based approaches to understanding and improving the often difficult – and somewhat magical – challenge of personal awareness enabling development of agency, empathy, and creativity.

Why thermodynamics for social problems?

“A law is more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different are the kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its range of applicability. Therefore the deep impression that classical thermodynamics made upon me. It is the only physical theory of universal content, which I am convinced, that within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts will never be overthrown.” Albert Einstein (1879-1909)

The laws of thermodynamics are unique among physical law. Rather than predict forces, as in the case of Newton’s laws, the laws of thermodynamics establish balances for what is available (1st law) and thereby limits or directions on what is possible for change (2nd law). For something to remain physical law it has to remain valid for everything humanity has observed and most especially the reality we experience.

Within our reality we know objects, which have mass. We can spot the potentials required to move those objects through space. Everybody knows that videos played in reverse are funny. But why? It’s because our brains know what we observed was not possible. To make it ok, we laugh about it. We can think and store information about those objects. Mass is energy. Energy is information. Entropy increases. All of which, at every scale from statistical atoms to the macroscale universe, are governed by thermodynamics.

Since the beginning of life as we know it, our brains have evolved to perform in this reality shaped by thermodynamics. Although we developed the laws of thermodynamics to explain the world around us, we have remained naive and even reluctant to consider how these laws control our reality within. Free will does not circumvent physical law. The ramifications of which govern the decisions we make as individuals and groups, whether we know it or not.

The most famously incorrect statements in history generally involve an unnecessary limit of what is or is not possible. If it doesn’t directly violate the laws of thermodynamics, it’s generally best to wait and see.

Why this Book?

From teaching years of introductory thermodynamics courses to undergraduate engineers, I know that thermo is a very hard topic. Finding people really passionate about thermo is rare. Moreover, the likelihood of someone becoming an expert in thermo and then switching to sociology or psychology is much rarer yet. This area is relatively unexplored for good reason.

I originally started discussing Social Thermodynamics as a series of posts on my research blog. Around my fourth post, one of my engineer friends Dave Rowe asked me a question about people’s capacity to understand a concept. While this question was pointed towards recent political elections, it could’ve just as easily been a critique of my writing. That’s when I realized, from the theory itself, how much time and resources it takes just to get others on board with the basic concepts. This is covered in the heat capacity section later in this book. In short, it’s not easy to influence the way people view their reality, and we now have math that explains why.

This became apparent in the tailing off of website traffic after I started applying the concept to random case studies that motivated me. People needed a careful buildup of the theory, and then the ability to sample from examples most relevant to them and their experiences. In short, as the math suggests, I needed a more empathic delivery to communicate the theory in as many ways as feasible. Hence the organization and style of this book.

At some point during the development it became clear that following the thermodynamic framework was leading to insights about social systems that were not immediately intuitive, but after considerable debate were likely correct. This was well beyond the point of simple validity tests. Henceforth traditional thermodynamics was generally followed simply because it worked for everything else, provided natural bounds, and told a good story. I’m sure that not all transfers will stand the test of time.

How to use this book

The first section introduces the history, concepts, and mathematical framework of Social Thermodynamics. I start with the histories of thermodynamics and sociology to show how knowledge constructs tend to begin as something magical or accidental before being developed as a process/heuristic and are eventually refined/standardized into algorithmic rule following. At the end of the first section you should have a feel for the numerous analogies between sociology and thermodynamics and an ability to apply the basic equations and properties to start an analysis.

The second section is a compilation of case studies and examples that are to be perused based on preference. Each case study is stand alone as much as possible with accompanying stories and personal experiences. Some will immediately relate. Others are best to leave for another time.

Remember the intent of this book is not to be conclusive, or to lay claim, but an invitation. The theory shows that the more people, problems, and ways we connect from this single non-arbitrary model, the better we’ll understand ourselves and the human experience. We’ll understand how and why we change. It’s a future we all want. Let’s begin!

Titan seas recreated in HYPER lab

HYPER lab member Ian Richardson recently finished recreating the methane-ethane-nitrogen seas on Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan, the second largest moon in the solar system, is the only other body besides Earth known to have liquid seas or oceans on it’s surface. For scale, Titan is about half the diameter of Earth — Titanic! A recent picture from Cassini and corresponding article from highlight the chances for new forms of life existing on Titan.

Ian worked with Jason Hartwig at NASA-Glenn as part of his NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship to create the conditions necessary to take pressure-density-temperature-composition, effervescence, and freezing-liquid measurements. These measurements will aid the design of a submarine mission to Titan around 2032.

The ternary (3 part) mixture measurements were a challenge — the solubility of nitrogen changes substantially based on the methane-ethane composition. It’s similar to the problem of carbon dioxide dissolved in soda pop, but at -288°F or 95 K.

Effervescence measurements are needed to determine if the radioisotope thermoelectric generator powerplant in the submarine will generate too many nitrogen bubbles from heat rejection. These bubbles could destabilize the sub or obstruct camera shots. To take these measurements we had to engineer a fiber-optic boroscope that could penetrate the walls of our cryostat and withstand the pressurized cryogenic environment. We succeeded and Ian was able to make the following videos of ethane-methane rain and snow.

Ian will present the results at the Cryogenics Engineering Conference in two weeks before defending his Dissertation the end of July.

I walked into the lab the other day and Ian swished a shot through the Nerf basketball hoop over the door. Carl Bunge yelled out: “Ian’s making it rain!” Yes he is Carl and it’s out of this world!

Social Thermodynamics: Stampedes, riots, and marches

Riot squads look the same in every culture — Commons

Back when I was on the University of Idaho football team I had the most interesting end to a conditioning workout imaginable. We’d just finished mandatory offensive line summer conditioning — about 16 of us 6’2″-6’8″ 280+ pound gorillas sweaty with our shirts off. Returning to the locker room in the Kibbie Dome we heard hip-hop music thumping inside the dome and saw flashing police lights. Like moths to a flame, we wondered in to see what was happening. The Dome floor had several police cars, a large military enforcement vehicle, blockades, and a line of about 50 police officers in full riot squad gear like those in the picture above. As we were standing there, an older guy yelled, “Hey! You guys want to throw shit at cops??” — moths to a flame.

It was a practice for the Quad Cities riot squadron. Two of the senior organizers were trying to behave like a disobedient riot and had evidently forgot to invite anyone else. The line parted and about 10 of us crossed to the “bad side”. Knowing that this could get ugly, but was going to be an experience, I made sure the two senior organizers were throwing stuff too. Surely the riot squadron wouldn’t injure one of their senior commanders?

We started grabbing tennis balls, garbage cans, barriers, anything at hand became a resource to throw at the line. It was fun! And they were trained! My old trick in snowball fights is to underhand one high up into the air and then nail somebody in the face as they watch the first fly up — not this group. The line, following commands, made steady, even marches down one side of the floor to corner us. We improvised blockages of various forms to disrupt the line. Eventually, one of the senior organizers formed a ring circle with us. About 8 of us sat down in a circle with our backs to each other and locked our arms and legs. The approaching line halted — some murmuring discussions — then heard the tinkling aluminum tear gas cans as they fell in the middle of us and the area around us. Not expecting this, I looked up at the senior organizer, he looked back and said, “we only had so many fakes, one of those is likely real!!!!” Instantaneous disbursement.

Sensing the game was coming to an end, one of my biggest friends decided to test the fortitude of the line. He got about a 10 yard run. As he approached the eyes went up towards his. The “target” of the line, sensing the need to act, took his shield and checked my friend across the head and chest, flat-backing him on the Kibbie Dome floor. My friend was ok, but that ended it. I left with a renewed confidence in the training of our regional riot squad. Later I found out that they were well trained, even in our small communities of less than 40,000, for a good reason. Just three years prior, about 500 WSU students had rioted after a ban on campus drinking, injuring 23 officers and landing it on the list of top 25 college campus riots.

Looking at a list of human stampedes (often associated with riots) you’ll see that the frequency, at least of documenting these events, is increasing. A stampede, crush, or riot strikes a chord with many of us, as it’s not something external, but ourselves that cause the damage. One of my friends, Kshitij Jerath, experienced a serious riot first hand during his youth in India and was traumatized enough to shape a life goal to analyze the swarm dynamics of riots. Kshitij is going to make serious contributions in this area — he actually analyzes event horizons in swarms. I can’t analyze how the event will actually play out like Kshitij’s phase-field modeling can. All I’m doing here is establishing when the properties of a group reach a point where a riot could spontaneously occur. It’s a phase change problem and our theory of Social Thermodynamics is becoming able to solve. This analysis will likely help provide properties of the social system to work with a phase-field analysis that could actually model point locations of a riot.

When I looked through the list of human stampedes one event in particular stood out: the Nigerian Immigration Recruitment Tragedies of 2014. Nigeria has a very high unemployment rate near 25%. The Nigeria Immigration Service opened 4000 jobs and held crowd interviews. Hundreds of thousands (the wiki estimates 6.5 million) people showed up to be interviewed in sweltering heat. Crowds became frustrated and unruly, and riots/stampedes occurred in at least six of the locations leading to at least 16 deaths. What is interesting about this case is that riots occurred in isolated and separate locations that were under similar conditions. This is a strong indicator that riots are not a random problem, but a statistical problem that naturally happens when the conditions are right.

Spontaneous Disassembly — The engineering definition of an explosion

Riots and stampedes are a phase change problem. Social Thermodynamics analyzes phase change in social systems using the Gibbs Energy:

g = u + Pv -Ts

where u is the internal energy or values you’re bringing to the problem, P is pressure or stress, v is the inverse of density, T is temperature or resources, and s is entropy or empathy. If the change (g2-g1) in Gibb’s energy is negative (the value for g is less after something happens then before) phase change will spontaneously occur. In other words, if g2 is less than g1 a riot could happen at any moment and just needs a catalyst/initiator. In general, phase change happens if the u + Pv terms reduce, and the Ts term increases.

The riot/stampede problem has very similar boundary conditions as our Social Thermodynamics: Explaining the Bubonic Plague and Renaissance problem: you have a high density of people in a condensed phase and a change in conditions (plague or panic) causes people to move out of the system. In the case of the plague this change happened relatively slowly over the course of several years such that a standard phase change from liquid to vapor and associated thermal wave could account for the relatively modest changes of temperature and pressure that would occur. In the case of a riot/stampede the change in conditions happens very rapidly on the scale of minutes to hours to halve or completely dissolve the density, which is much more in line with the engineering definition of an explosion: spontaneous and rapid disassembly.

There are two types of explosive phase changes that are important to differentiate: detonation and deflagration. A detonation is a pressure driven shock wave that causes the reaction to occur and moves through the explosive material close to the speed of sound. A deflagration is a thermal driven combustion front moving through a flammable material over a much larger area than a detonation. Detonations go bang. Deflagrations go whoomf.

Detonation: When human stampedes are likely to occur

In the case of a stampede, the detonation analogy is much more relevant. You have a crowd of tightly packed people (similar to a solid state as they have limited ability to move), these people are under pressure, and then suddenly a gun shot or scream cries out that sends the information through the crowd that somebody is getting hurt or killed. The values of the people in the crowd immediately drop into a survival state and the need to get back to your own comfortable space (gaseous or liquid state) is paramount but highly restricted by the rate people can move away. At the speed of sound this wave moves through the crowd which starts to run or move as fast as it can back to a comfortable density. In the case of a detonation the immediate change in phase from solid to liquid or gas takes a considerable release of energy that gets converted to temperature and pressure. In the social case, the pressure/stress is real, but the question is where the temperature/resources comes from? I thought back to my riot experience in the Kibbie dome, when you’re functioning in that survival mindset ANYTHING can become a resource (we were throwing the Kibbie Dome’s garbage cans!) In the case of a stampede, any tree, light-pole, truck to climb on can become the key resource to deal with the value problem of not being trampled. So the conditions where a stampede could happen at any moment:

  1. huge drop in values from u1 to u2, associated with people trying to suddenly survive at all costs, often initiated by a gun shot or catalyst.
  2. high packing density that has limited ability to initially change from v1 to v2, associated with the people gathered in a tight area, but eventually increases dramatically as the crowd disperses.
  3. huge drop in pressure/stress as people spread out to safety P1 to P2.
  4. low empathy for fellow crowd members going into the situation s1, resulting in a much higher empathy for the people who were hurt or killed s2.
  5. low resources T1 going in, but everything/anything becoming a resource on the way out T2.

Remember that all of these properties are related by an equation of state, if you change the pressure the density and temperature/resources will change, I haven’t developed that surface yet. It actually will make this analysis much easier as it will no longer be arbitrary how the properties change together from state 1 to 2.

Deflagration: When riots occur and how to diffuse them

Riots are more in line with a deflagration and are subject to the availability of fuel and how confined of a space the reaction is occurring within. Hence the time scale of a deflagration/riot should be longer than a stampede and is subject to the continued fueling of the rioters. The trends in the properties are generally similar with some small differences, particularly in the value term. Riots are still low empathy/resource crowds condensing together with a specific value/purpose in mind. However the need to disperse for survival is ancillary to the value of causing change and having your desires be expressed at all costs. Often, the values are socio/economic inequality (low Ts trying to become higher Ts).

Diffusing a riot situation like this is all about facilitating the phase change process in a slow and controlled fashion. Basically increasing the values (nobody needs to get hurt, we’ll work through this), decreasing pressure and density (let’s all take a deep breath and have a seat), and increasing resources and empathy (we have a meal cart coming over, let’s all sit down and talk through this). It’s the very same tactics advocated for hostage negotiation by Chris Voss in his book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating like your life depends on it.”

The value and empathy levels going into the riot/stampede are key to whether it ends badly or not. I’ve participated in friendly social statement marches, like the Women’s March and the March for Science this year. We as a society know what a phase change looks like and how we create the conditions for it to happen. We’re just not aware that we are actually following the very same thermodynamic phase-change processes all around us in nature! I alluded to this in my very first post on Social Thermodynamics — whether you go through a disruptive phase change or not is directly related to the values, empathy, and resources you bring to the problem. It’s important to remember that we’re using Spiral v-Memes as our non-arbitrary value taxonomy analogous to energy levels/modes.

What doesn’t work

The command and control approach shown by the riot squad members at the top is the non-empathetic authoritarian/legalistic way to control stampedes and riots. We can see from this Social Thermodynamics analysis that approach is more likely to exacerbate the situation than to help. At the most it simply could control the situation long enough to spread information/messages to try to build empathy/values. It’s generally not a good idea to try to control/cap off an uncontrolled reaction.

What might be even more of an issue is the leading research in this area. Malcolm Gladwell recently advocated for Mark Granovetter’s “Threshold” models for riots and change in his revisionist history podcast. Granovetter is a Professor of Sociology at Stanford that published the seminal article in this area in 1978, “Threshold Models for Collective Behavior” which Google says has been cited 4436 times! (While it may seem like I go after Stanford researchers frequently, I assure you I have no problems or connections with the institution, it’s just a coincidence.) The first two sentences of his abstract read:

“Models of collective behavior are developed for situations where actors have two alternatives and the costs and/or benefits of each depend on how many other actors choose which alternative. The key concept is that of “threshold”: the number or proportion of other who must make one decision before a given actor does so; this is the point where net benefits begin to exceed net costs for that particular actor.”

I find it challenging to believe that when getting en-trained in a human stampede most are likely to consider whether to run or not. The Spiral v-Meme value taxonomy predicts that binary decision processes play a big role in authoritarian environments, which are likely sources for riots — you’re trying to decide whether to follow the regime or oppose and the regime is trying to decide if you’re the scape-goats or the golden children. This is likely why Granovetter chose riots to apply his model to and why it has received so many citations. At any rate, we only have limited free will to decide within the bounds of thermodynamic law.


Whether we participate in a riot or not is a statistical problem subject to the values we are employing based on the boundary conditions. Our brains are wired to understand the thermodynamic processes that shape the world around us and we inherently know how to drive phase change, whether we’re aware of it or not. Because Social Thermodynamics has an embedded value taxonomy, it applies regardless of the values you’re approaching a phase change problem with. We just now have the ability to predict when things transition from a peaceful march to a riot or stampede.

Social Thermodynamics: The mathematics of creativity

Terren – Edison Light Bulb, CC BY 2.0,

Five years ago I would’ve read that title and thought I was crazy. But it’s what the mathematical model says… Creativity, almost by definition, is taught to us as something that you’re born with and cannot be developed or predicted, let alone calculated. That’s why this is going to take some time.

Please, before we get into this, take a moment and write down when, where, and how you feel when inspiration, originality, and creativity hit. We’ll need this towards the end.

Originals, Outliers, and new Paradigms

We’re not taught to be creative because ‘creativity’ is incredibly challenging to teach. We don’t know how to teach it because we don’t know the physics for how creativity works. But we have to start somewhere. So just what is ‘creativity’? Google says: “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic works.” One of my favorite books about one of my favorite educators, “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens – Frank Oppenheimer and the World he made up”, quoted Frank as saying, “Art, for it to be valid, must correspond to a plausible human experience.” Slamming these two definitions together we arrive at a definition for creativity: original and creative ideas that expand one’s view of the possible. It’s important for creativity to be relative to the individual — beauty is in the eye of the beholder as everyone’s human experience is different. Hence creativity is directly related to empathy. More on this and it’s relation to mentoring here.

I’m in a book club that has been investigating creativity for awhile. We just finished Adam Grant’s book “Originals” which is very similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”. Both books exemplify how the probability of generating creative and original ideas is entirely predictable — from seemingly unrelated factors such as the month of the year you were born, the order of birth relative to your siblings, the amount of time you’ve spent practicing, and the guiding principles of your organization. Both books are mostly right, fun, surprising, very similar in style, and a commonly shared read. They also both “cherry pick” from a host of careful studies to plaster together a sometimes shocking case for selling books. This approach is susceptible to a problem known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc — correlation does not imply causation. It’s not too hard to conflate correlation with causation in shocking ways — did you know that shoe size is a key predictor of reading ability?  Of course it is! Your shoe size increases as you get older. What both Outliers and Originals ultimately lack is a common, non-arbitrary, physically grounded framework for predicting creativity and outlying original contributions. Without that framework, creativity still seems to be magical in the sense that it’s driven mostly by being good enough and in the right place at the right time.

Engineers, much like artists, cannot rely on the luxury of random feats of brilliant design insight or being in the right place at the right time. Engineers need non-arbitrary processes, a.k.a. heuristics that reliably produce designs that perform and push, or even totally disrupt, what was formerly possible. Dr. Chuck taught me how to teach design as a process of working through the following layers:

  1. Empathizing with the need/client and available resources/externalities. Sometimes known as a client/stakeholder interview/analysis, or a literature review.
  2. Constructing a non-arbitrary rubric/model for quantifying what factors/constraints are most important and how these connect to overall design performance.
  3. Generating multiple (typically at least three design paradigms that can be assessed and refined.

After these three it’s mostly iterative design refinement and prototyping. All of the process, taught from within course lectures, can be accessed here. But it’s the third level that people typically associate with creativity or original ‘design’ thought — when an original solution emerges from the milieu.

Let’s try a simple exercise. Go ahead, write down THE FIRST color, flower, tool, and furniture that come into your head. Now click on this link to see if I guessed them. This shows the class they are not entering with the full solution space at their disposal. The question is: why can I reliably predict what 66-90% of my students, and probably you, pick for those questions given the infinite possible outcomes?

The answer comes towards the end. But first, it’s important to understand how I can get students to generate original ideas at all. Just like their solutions to color, flower, furniture, tool, the times in which we are all creative are predictable. I’ve thought about these common themes for several years now but recently realized how social thermodynamics is the common mathematical framework that controls how and when we are creative.

The Social Thermodynamics of Creativity

Creativity, going back to the original definition, is when we have an idea that expands our view of what is possible. When we have this moment of insight things change. Remember our equation for predicting social phase change:

g = u + Pv – Ts

where u is the internal energy or values you’re bringing to the problem, P is pressure or stress, v is the inverse of density, T is temperature or resources, and s is entropy or empathy. If the change (g2-g1) in Gibb’s energy is negative (the value for g is less after something happens then before) phase change will spontaneously occur. In other words, if g2 is less than g1 we’re going to have a breakthrough! There are five ways this can happen:

1. Drop in or simplification of values/internal energy (u): Sometimes it helps to simplify problems to try to realize what really matters most, or what the real problem is. The classic, “can’t see the forest through all the trees” problem. Sure, you know a bunch of things are contributing, but only slightly, clearly now this one or a couple of things are the key problem/opportunity. I’ve found that adding more constraints/values in problems tends not to increase the number of creative solutions, in fact quite the opposite. It’s only helpful if you identify a more simple and encompassing constraint that allows you to remove several ill-formed constraints/values. Once you know what matters, it’s much easier to push the boundaries of what is possible.

2. Drop in pressure/stress (P): People don’t design well when stressed. That’s why most will say their ah-hah! moments come in the shower, when taking a bath, having a massage, preparing for bed, meditating, or having beers with friends. Some will say during exercise as high performing athletes often use exercise as a form of stress release. Relaxation is different for everyone, but odds are, most of you wrote down some form of relaxation as when you have your creative insight. Why? Dr. Chuck has used the Siegel model for the brain to show how the amygdala controls exchange between brain hemispheres. Here’s a recent article from Scientific American backing up the model. If you’re relaxed, you’re literally thinking with more parallel pathways in your brain and more likely to think in the way needed to solve a problem.

3. Drop in volume (v) or increasing density: What happens when your sports team is on the ropes teetering on a loss? The coach calls a time out, and brings everybody in. Let’s figure this out. Let’s get on the same page. Let’s bounce some ideas back and forth. If anything, the increase in density of the agents just facilitates an easier exchange of resources and information, which usually helps lead to the creative insight, not hurt. This is of course provided that the increase in density is not offset by an increase in pressure, for instance if you didn’t get along with your teammates.

4. More resources (T): With more resources, we can gain access to the key widget/thing that enables entirely new ways of thinking, like 3D printing or a smart phone. What is possible has now changed. Many of my authoritarian friends are immediately thinking, “nope, creative ideas come from a lack of money, not more.” Enter a quote from one of my favorite authoritarian friends, Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we’ve ran out of time and money, it’s time we start thinking.” — What Churchill is doing here is simplifying the values/solution space, because money and time may not be the key values needed for solving the particular problem. That said, more resources are not a guarantee of creativity either, but simply an enabler. It’s a statistical problem.

5. More empathy/entropy (s): “I never thought about it like that before!” “Well now that you say it like that…” “The new camera has allowed us to observe…” That new piece of quality information that “changes everything” about the client/problem/resources/constraints. Whatever it was, it got you out of your thought rut, into a new paradigm, and new ways of thinking. It connected more things on an entirely new level. As long as that way of thinking is important to solving your problem, it’s a breakthrough. Remember that the entropy and empathy of a mixture of people and values is higher than any of the individuals alone. When you connect more values, in more ways, the odds are you are more creative.

All of these properties relate to when it’s time to take agency and get work done, versus when it’s time to talk things through. In thermodynamics the u + Pv terms are the work terms — when it’s time to exert your values onto something — not the time to get creative. When it’s time to work, stopping to think about the related existential problems gets in the way of that work. Usually well before or after your window to do work, it’s time to think about the ways it could or could’ve be or been. This is where the Ts terms related to the transfer of information (equivalent to heat) kick in. When you have time to relax and think about what happened, your hippocampus (through hippocampus indexing theory) begins running a tape of what happened and the ways it connects to the other memories and knowledge structures in your brain, which is how you form long-term memories. Work (u+Pv) and Heat (Ts) form a dichotomy that naturally counterbalance each other. Hence the origin of the sophistication vs. evolution post. Also remember that thermodynamics is a statistical problem, these indicators and properties, with sufficient numbers of attempts/people/molecules will hold, but not for every individual attempt. Dr. Chuck has an approach for trying to predict this for individuals through differential equations.

How’d I do in predicting when you are creative? Missed some? Send me your stories: jacob.leachman<at>

As you can see, the framework for predicting creativity is complicated. What’s more, with thermodynamic fluids, all of the above properties are related by a single equation of state/thermodynamic potential surface. When you change one property, you change all of the others. The question is, based on your particular region of the surface and phase you are in, how sensitive the other properties are. Pressure changes a bunch with density of liquids because the atoms and molecules are already on top of each other — not so much for a gas or plasma. We won’t have an equation of state for social systems anytime soon as quantifying all of these values for people with a single equation will be a challenge. But we have a good start using the spiral v-Meme value scaffolding as analogous energy modes.

How to be creative

Clare Graves, the research psychologist who originally developed Spiral value Memes in the 1950’s and 1960’s sought to answer the problem of what makes some more creative than others. Graves was famous for surveying about personal values and beliefs in different situations. He would then have Teaching Assistants (TAs) sort the survey participants into as few distinct groups as possible. Funny thing, regardless of the TAs, the same general groupings emerged.

These groupings became the fundamental Spiral value-Memes I write so much about. Graves noticed that at level seven, what he called the first 2nd-tier level (a.k.a. the Systemic vMeme), the creativity and validity of responses to open ended design questions increased immensely in a non-linear fashion. In other words something changed, and that something is key to this discussion.

Remember that the levels are scaffolded — your ability to get to a higher level necessitates development of a lower level. The typical classroom environment is reliably low-empathy, legalistic-authoritarian and, as a result, so are our students. They’re in class to do work, and usually under a lot of pressure, deprive of resources, and not relaxed or thinking in multiple ways. That’s why I can reliably predict what students will think on flower, color, furniture, tool. There are only a handful (2-3?) number of ways the authoritarian-legalistic vMeme allows as possible solutions. Enter Dr. Chuck’s quote, “Every authoritarian has a scape goat and a golden child.” No wonder we have a hard time really designing in a classroom.

Level 7, the Systemic vMeme is the first vMeme where awareness and acceptance of the other vMemes takes hold. Systemic individuals have experience in each of the common value systems. Of course they should be able to generate more creative and reliable solutions — they have the experience coupled with multi-paradigm thought processes. In other words, Systemic individuals know they need the ability to empathize with other’s values to solve their problems. They are also very aware individuals to know when they need to get to an environment/place where they can be creative. Building someone up to the systemic level is very hard, and takes a lot of time and resources. You can imagine a systemic person quickly being able to digress into a survival state if needed. It’s hard to imagine someone in a survival state suddenly thriving as an ecosystem manager.

But when you’re really creative — it works on many levels. The more levels it works on, the more likely it is to push those boundaries of our human experience. In many ways, the more empathetic your contribution, the more levels it will work on.

So you want to be a creative and original outlier? A real professional designer/artist/master? Here’s my quick process:

  1. Get involved in a problem/opportunity that has real resources attached. It helps if you have a specialty with good connections, or, indeed, are just in the right place at the right time. Did I mention that thermodynamics is a statistical problem?
  2. Master the rules and constraints that humanity knows govern the problem.
  3. Build a supporting community/team with varying values/experiences that you can empathize with regarding the problem.
  4. Know when the values, stress, density, resources, and empathy are in just the right balance to take agency with your new idea and solve the problem.
  5. Then relax. Let that hippocampus engage in metacognitive drift. The creative thoughts for the next cycle will come with time.

In short: empathize, analyze your resources, team up, know when to act and when to relax.

This generally follows the design method we teach that I referred to above. As Dr. Chuck says, all constructed knowledge is first magical, then a process/heuristic, before finally becoming algorithmic. We’ve now taken the magical creativity and made it a process. Once we have the equation of state, it will be algorithmic and we will  be able to quantify when creativity will happen within a margin of error. And if that has you worried about skynet, or taking the fun out of creativity, don’t be. The complexities of human systems are much greater than fluid systems, and we’re still hardly able to accurately predict the behavior of multi-component fluids.

So in the mean time, you can self-teach the creative process. Here’s a start:

Start small, build your way up.

Think about it. Do some work trying it out. Then empathize. Repeat.

Time to get creative.


Seven reasons NOT to start a research blog

1. There is no review panel or editor preventing you from making an ass of yourself, including publishing something just plain wrong.

2. You’re paranoid everyone is trying to steal your best ideas and want to be first to publish.

3. You’ll publish fewer “journal” papers because it’s already on the blog, and that’s good enough — it’s only read a few times a month anyways.

4. You’ll get frustrated by the ~100x increase in readership compared to your journal papers, but still no credit from your institution.

5. You’ll start obsessing over the number of hits, links, and time on pages based on location and speculate who it may be.

6. You’ll have to argue your research with suddenly informed relatives over the holidays.

7. You’ll start telling everyone to “read my blog,” and tell everyone else they need to start their own research blog.

Social Thermodynamics: Explaining the Bubonic Plague and Rennaissance

The burial of the victims of the plague in Tournai. Detail of a miniature from “The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis” (1272-1352), abbot of the monastery of St. Martin of the Righteous. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. (Commons)

The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, is generally considered one of the most empathy generating, and wealth redistributing events in human history. Dr. Chuck has a nice article about how this led to the Enlightenment. In a recent post on the Social Thermodynamics of Wealth Distribution, I discussed how Walter Scheidel, a renown author and Professor of History at Stanford University used the Black Death as one of the key examples in his recent book “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.” This event is one of a handful in human history where we can readily apply the Social Thermodynamics framework to. The population in Europe is estimated to have decreased by 1/3 and as high as 80% in some cities over a short period of time. Let’s break this down like a simple problem in thermodynamics to see what Social Thermodynamics tells us, and how this relates to what actually happened.

Defining a System

The first step to solving a thermodynamic problem is defining a system of what is being studied. This involves drawing a boundary where you can decide what things flow into and out of a system pertinent to the thermodynamic property balances you are about to apply. The Black Plague makes this system definition much easier. As described in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, the origins of the word “quarantine” stem from the Italian word quaranta for forty, or the number of days individuals were placed outside city walls in order to limit the spread. So if you had the plague, or died, it’s safe to assume you cross the system boundary of an Italian city wall, which we’ll use to define our system. This is very similar to the classic thermodynamic problem of a tank filled with liquid-vapor mixture that has a valve beginning to vent fluid:

In traditional thermodynamics this system definition is useful for analyzing a propane cylinder on a barbecue, the venting of a can of “dust-off”, or other rigid cylinders containing a fluid (e.g. the USS Thresher sinking). This system is useful for the black plague as it allows us to purge/vent an amount of molecules/mass on equivalent order as the number of people that died during the black plague. These molecules/people never re-enter the system, however information (equivalent to heat) about those purged still crosses the system boundary.

System Balances

Once you have a clean system definition like this, traditional thermodynamics allows a balancing, or accounting of system properties. I teach that anything in the physical universe can be balanced by: IN + PRODUCED = OUT + DESTROYED + STORED. You’ll want to review the social thermodynamics property definitions here. It is common to conduct three balances on the system:

  1. Mass/molecule balance: Mass is a conserved quantity that is never created or destroyed (which is an important difference from Social Thermodynamics, for now, we’ll say that people who died are removed from the system and that production during the plague was minimal). The balance becomes: Mass_in = Mass_out + (Mass_final – Mass_initial). For our system above the mass balance becomes: 0 = Mass_out + (Mass_final – Mass_initial).
  2. Energy balance: An energy balance is the first law of thermodynamics. Energy is also a conserved quantity that is never created or destroyed. Similar to the mass balance: Energy_in = Energy_out + (Energy_final – Energy_initial). Energy can flow across a system boundary in three ways: 1. Heat, 2. Work, 3. Mass. Hence the energy balance becomes: Heat_in + Work_in + Mass_in * Enthalpy_in = Heat_out + Work_out + Mass_out * Enthalpy_out + Mass_final * Internal_final – Mass_initial * Internal_initial. Enthalpy is just internal energy plus the pressure and density required to force the fluid into or out of the system. For our system above the energy balance becomes: Heat_in = Mass_out*enthalpy_out + Mass_final * Internal_final – Mass_initial * Internal_initial.
  3. Entropy balance: An entropy balance is the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is similar to energy in that it can never be destroyed, but it strictly produced by systems. An entropy balance is then: Entropy_in + Entropy_produced = Entropy_out + Entropy_final – Entropy_initial. Entropy can flow across a system boundary in just two ways: 1. Heat, 2. Mass. So an entropy balance on our system above becomes: Heat_in/Boundary_temp + Entropy_produced = Mass_out*entropy_out + Mass_final * entropy_final – Mass_initial * entropy_initial.

When I teach thermodynamics I do this demonstration with a can of dustoff in the front of class and a temperature sensor held tight to the cannister by a foam pop-can insulator — works like a charm.

Application of a property model

The last layer in the traditional thermodynamic property solving process is to apply a state equation for the fluid within the tank to provide numerical values for the properties used in our balances. A state equation provides numerical estimates for how the pressure, temperature, enthalpy, internal energy, and entropy are related for the specific fluid we have in the tank. I’ve developed several of these state equations used around the world for hydrogen fluids and mixtures. While we don’t have these state equations or functions yet for social systems, we generally know how the properties behave relative to eachother. In general, internal energy and entropy increase with temperature and pressure and increase dramatically (4-5x) during phase change from a liquid to a vapor. For a case as dramatic as the Black plague, having precise numerical values isn’t necessary, the density drops by half so we can clearly see if the other properties trend accordingly.


By removing 50% of the mass from the system, analogous to losing half of the population during the Black Death, the following are required by this model framework:

  1. The huge amount of mass (people) flowing out of the system causes the density within the system to halve.
  2. Energy (values) flows out of the system with this mass (loss of life), causing the temperature (resources) within the system to drop dramatically.
  3. As the temperature drops, the internal energy (values) of the molecules (people) remaining becomes limited — people are primarily concerned with survival. The entropy (empathy) of the molecules (people) remaining drops considerably as well — people do un-empathetic acts like quarantining people like animals. However this helps moderate the pressure (stress) on the system commensurate with the available temperature (resources).
  4. After the temperature has dropped considerably, a thermal gradient with the surroundings exists such that a thermal wave (heat transfer, a.k.a. information flow) begins re-entering the system over time as people see what is happening to those who were quarantined and information begins spreading from other afflicted cities. The value of this information (and associated empathy) is directly associated with the temperature (resources) with which it is distributed.
  5. Heat transfer (information flow) will continue to occur until the temperature (resource gradient) is removed. However, the fluid remaining in the container is in a substantially more vapor phase now than the original liquid phase. Molecules in the vapor phase have a substantially higher internal energy (values) and entropy (empathy) than those molecules in the liquid phase — even at the same pressure (stress) and temperature (resources) — due to the increased space (lower density) and commensurate increase in the number of ways to interact with other molecules.
  6. Even though we may locally decrease entropy (empathy) for awhile, the global net generation is positive.

After the Black Death swept through Europe, a substantial redistribution of wealth occurred as the noble class required servants, and there were few to go around. To quote an old Metallica song, there’s no point in being “King of nothin’.” Humanity needs humanity. In the review book, “In the Wake of the Plauge: Black Death and the World it Made,” we get the following excerpt:

“It can readily be seen that the Black Death accelerated the decline of serfdom and the rise of a prosperous class of peasants, called yeomen, in the fifteenth century. With “grain rotting in the fields” at the summer harvest of 1349, because of labor shortage, the peasants could press for higher wages and further elimination of servile dues and restrictions.. The improvement in the living standard of many peasant families is demonstrated by the shift from earthenware to metal cooking pans that archaeologists have discovered.”

This redistribution of resources with a suddenly more free populace substantially increased the empathy leading to the Rennaissance and reformation of the value system used in many churches and countries. To prevent the plague from continuing to spread and ravaging populations, we had to share more of our information and best medical practices freely, because they worked, and humanity emerged more connected and empathetic.

Note that we didn’t have the potential to do useful work (spreading of our values) during this traumatic event. We simply ended up generating a lot of entropy. Traditionally, entropy is viewed as a bad thing by those in power and control — it makes things difficult to control. But what really forces us to advance, fundamentally change, and become more connected as a society? Thank entropy and it’s social equivalent in empathy.

This is a neat result that gives confidence in the utility of our social thermodynamic framework to analyze societal change. In the coming weeks I’m going to organize these postings into a table of contents to begin sorting these case-studies as they continue to develop. However, there are only a handful of decisive cases such as the Black plague in human history. To really make this social thermodynamics framework useful we need to develop equation of state functions for social systems to increase precision. That won’t be easy. However, the end result, a non-arbitrary model that quantifies the amount of resources/stress required for social change, could really help humanity. Please share your ideas:

The Science and Technology breakdown — why I’m marching today on Earth Day

If you’re reading this, it’s because of science and technology.

You know someone who is not reading this, but should, and is looking around themselves at a room enabled by science and technology, thinking they’ve never benefited from science. It’s time to have a conversation with them.

It’s no longer possible to get away from science and technology. We simply no longer have the knowledge, stamina, or natural resources to go it alone as cavemen — you’d likely be dead in a month.

You have to understand that science is a process of continuously improving our understanding of the universe — created by who or what is irrelevant and unsolvable — the universe is everything we can know.

So really, if science is so important, what does the science say about how important science is? I’ve given a lecture on this for years now. Most of it derived from the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report series issued by the National Academies of Scientists and Engineers to inform Congress. So here goes:

“While only four percent of the nation’s work force is composed of scientists and engineers, this group disproportionately creates jobs for the other 96 percent.” ~Robert Solow, Nobel Prize in Economics ‘87

Go ahead and try; think about your job and try to understand what or if it would be without science and technology.

So if science and technology really is that important, how are we supporting basic science and technology in the US? Let’s go to the charts. These have been developed by the non-partisan National Academies and the National Science Foundation, who keeps records of this. First up, US R&D Spending by Source:

You’ll notice a strong upward trend. The overall output of the US, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased 7x from $2000 BILLIONS in 1978 to over 14000 BILLIONS in 2010. The chart above increase roughly 7x over that same period but in MILLIONS. The percent of our GDP spent on science and technology has declined from 3.5 % in 1978 to 2.8% in 2010. That’s a decline of 60% over the last 40 years. but it gets worse when we dig a little deeper. Notice that the majority of the increase in funds has come in Federal and Industry spending. Let’s breakdown where these funds are going. First the Federal: 

The only topics that have seen a significant increase are defense and health, which are arguably predicated by the other sectors. Think we invest heavily in Energy R&D? We spend HALF has much now was we did 30 years ago. We can solve our energy problems but it will take investment. This all could be fine and industry will take care of the rest right? Let’s see:

TRL in this plot stands for Technology Readiness Level — a non arbitrary measure of how prepared a technology is to enter society. For example, “Basic” R&D is trying to understand new physical principles, like antimatter, in order to make a technology of some kind out of them. “Applied” R&D is formulating a potential technology concept — making something in a lab that functions as a widget. “Development” R&D is all about packaging and increasing the reliability of the product for customer use. That’s not what research labs or universities do. That’s a big problem. We’re no longer investing in the basic understanding and applied research necessary to realize totally new technology concepts. Need a more applied example? Take Steve Jobs’ invention of the iPod:

You can see that:

  1. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPod, Apple was in the right place at the right time to integrate a number of basic and applied technologies together into realizing the iPod.
  2. A huge amount of Basic and Applied Federal R&D from many sources, over many decades, contributed to the technology required to realize the iPod.

Otherwise we’d still be talking into those Bell Lab handsets wired to the wall. By the way, increasing the comfort of telephone switch board operators was what motivated Bell Labs to begin research the Light Emitting Diode (LED) back in 1960’s. Our world today would be less bright without them. 🙁

Nearly all of the industry supported research labs are gone now (Google, and Amazon are notable exceptions). Universities are trying to pick up the slack. Here’s the break down of university support by source:

But you can see that nearly all increases have either been Federal, or internal through increasing tuition or alumni donations going to research. That’s an unsustainable bubble that history has shown is prone to collapse. It also means that over the same 40 year time period, the odds of getting a federal grant funded have decreased significantly and are now approaching 1 in 10, just 10%. These grants are being written by the most highly educated, rigorously evaluated, intellectuals on the planet. At roughly 30 pages each, a grant like this can easily take over a month to write. This is likely the biggest waste of human intellectual capital in history. Yet we still have to keep trying.

Some sobering statistics:

  • US consumers spend more on potato chips than the Federal government spends on Energy R&D.
  • US consumers spent $18.4 billion on Easter Candy this year. That’s nearly what the Fed’s spent on Health R&D and more than what was totally allocated for Space, Energy, Transportation, STEM Education, Agriculture, Natural Resource, and “Other” R&D.
  • US industrial firms spend over twice as much on litigation (lawsuits) as on research.
  • The biannual US Cryogenics conference I help organize will have more papers and speakers from China attending this year than from the US.

How does this relate to the March and Earth Day today? More statistics:

“The Department of Defense sees climate change as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term risk. We are already observing the impacts of climate change in shocks and stressors to vulnerable nations and communities, including in the United States, and in the Arctic, Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America. Case studies have demonstrated measurable impacts on areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and in specific cases significant interaction between conflict dynamics and sensitivity to climate changes. Although climate-related stress will disproportionately affect fragile and conflict-affected states, even resilient, well-developed countries are subject to the effects of climate change in significant and consequential ways.”

It’s too depressing to keep going, yet too scary to ignore. We currently enjoy the best standard of living in human history because of Science and Technology. But our neglect of this very Science and Technology threatens to derail this progress for humanity’s future. For humanity to have a future, we need to commit to Science and Technology to enable sustainable harmony with the Earth.

That’s my mission as an educator, scientist, and engineer. That’s why I’m marching today for Earth day. I hope you’ll join me.


Social Thermodynamics — Temperature and Wealth Inequality

I’m researching case studies to apply the Social Thermodynamics framework and stumbled upon an interesting find. Walter Scheidel, a renown author and Professor of History at Stanford University just published the book “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.” A nice summary is given in this article in the Atlantic.

Wealth inequality is closely connected to social thermodynamics through the property Temperature, which is analogous to resources. It’s time I really explained what temperature is from a thermodynamics standpoint and how it relates to societal imbalance as Professor Scheidel has presented.

Thermometer (Commons)
Thermodynamic Temperature

As covered in the wiki:

“Thermodynamic temperature… is directly proportional to the mean average kinetic energy of a specific kind of particle motion known as translational motion. The thermodynamic temperature is a measure of the average energy of the translational, vibrational, and rotational motions of matter’s particle constituents. The full variety of these kinetic motions, along with potential energies of particles… contribute the internal energy of a substance.”

Said simply, when we measure the temperature of something with a thermometer we follow the following process: We press the thermometer against the subject with unknown temperature. If it’s hotter, the faster moving molecules will transfer thermal energy to the thermometer, and the thermometer molecules will speed up in a measurable way. If the test subject is colder, the faster moving molecules in the thermometer will transfer thermal energy away and slow down in a measurable way. This occurs until the thermal gradient between the thermometer and subject is minimized, or when the two are said to be in ‘equilibrium’.

There are other insights that occur at the molecular scale. The molecules in the thermometer and subject are likely very different — they rotate, vibrate, and translate in totally different ways but they reach an effectively equivalent kinetic energy. That said, not all molecules are at the same exact energy — the molecules have a statistical distribution of speeds and temperatures that have equilibrated. Here’s a gif-annimation of a classic Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of speeds for a helium gas resulting in a mean effective temperature. From the video you see that molecules have a fair amount of attraction when far apart, repulsion when close together, and a comfortable distance described by the minimum in the curve, much like people. This property of atoms and molecules is known as the Inter-Molecular Potential (IMP) and is often described by a Lennard-Jones approximation.

As you can see from the gif, and the IMP plot, atoms and molecules interact all the time with little bias. Faster moving molecules interact and transfer energy to their slower neighbors, causing a continual distribution around the equilibrium thermodynamic temperature, shown in the next figure as the classical Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution. Bimodal and discontinuous distributions of temperatures among molecules indicate non-equilibrium states. Nature works to minimize these gradients and increase entropy back to a broad distribution among states — now we can get back to the issue of wealth inequality.

Social Temperature

Thermodynamic temperature makes intuitive sense in social thermodynamics space. The more resources you have the more values and value systems (analogous to internal energy) you need to keep track of. Higher temperature provides a higher number of accessible energy states, and broader distribution among states (entropy and empathy) you’ll have access to.

This is where things get interesting. I showed above that at the molecular scale, nature tends to minimize non-equilibrium temperature distributions simply due to interactions among molecules — faster molecules transfer energy resources to slower until an equilibrium statistical distribution is reached. This exchange is governed by a simple set of non-arbitrary laws. In social space, humans can castle themselves and their resources away from the cultural fluid in ways that atoms and molecules cannot. This drive toward non-equilibrium states is likely a key trait that differentiates biological systems — reference this article showing how life springs from entropy. This difference in life systems will likely result in more complex inter-human potentials in the social thermodynamics framework. On an ensemble scale though, the more inequality in the distribution, the stronger the potential drivers back towards equilibrium. The more extreme the inequality, the higher the likelihood that the return to equilibrium is a dramatic event.

Wealth Inequality

Professor Schiedel has identified four primary mechanisms for dramatic wealth redistribution in human history and his analysis is sobering:

  1. Mass-mobilization warfare (Think World War 2)
  2. Transformative revolutions (Think communist revolutions)
  3. State collapse (fall of the USSR)
  4. Catastrophic plagues (think Bubonic plague a.k.a. the Black Death)

All of these events resulted in a system-structural change in the cultures and an increase in empathy — the realization that we are not all that different and that indeed humanity needs humanity. This increase in empathy (social entropy) goes hand in hand with wealth redistribution towards a new equilibrium. Here’s a historical plot of wealth inequality in Western societies and an associated article in VOX. Here’s a similar piece by Dr. Chuck.

I will argue that Professor Schiedel’s conclusions require big caveats. Like many who predict the rise and fall of civilizations (many even using thermodynamic arguments), these arguments are based on our history, not our future. As we’ve increased the resources (temperature) of civilization, we’ve awakened totally new modes of interacting and being. The average thermodynamic temperature of society has increased immensely over the last several centuries. While the modes of old are still readily accessible, modern society will change phase and interact in fundamentally different ways than societies of old.

Communitarian v-Meme societies, predominantly in Europe, have implemented tax codes that limit wealth inequality. No need for catastrophe! It’s likely not a coincidence that many of these countries are considered the happiest by polling of citizens — they primarily value community! That said, it is very difficult to progress a population’s v-Meme outlook to this point — especially populaces depressed due to income inequality. It really depends on what your society is trying to acheive!


We now see the analogies between thermodynamic temperature, wealth distribution, and a society’s primary value set. Taking the examples provided we can start applying the social thermodynamics framework to see if we could have predicted the historical changes. Stay tuned!

Washington State University