Everyday entropy: science, industry, replication




Science is wonderful, but it is important to distinguish between the practice of science, which involves the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, and the industry of science, which involves taking profit from access to knowledge.  This is a lot like the difference between the practice of banking, which involves defining and circulating money, and the banking industry, which involves extracting profit from access to that money.  In both cases, as long as the system has plenty of free information, the difference is immaterial, but as the system approaches maximum entropy, the rent required to sustain the industry overwhelms the benefit of the practice, and the system collapses.

The important thing is not to try to innovate or discover new practices.  The important thing is to avoid making arbitrary copies.  The first car was, in fact, awesome – the 10 billionth car, not so much.  When Laird Hamilton tow-surfed jaws for the first time, that was awesome – a big wave day with 50 jet-ski teams in the water jockying for a wave, not so much.  Trying to innovate will yield arbitrarily novel distinctions that don’t make a difference (I’m talking about you, Windows 10), while crowding out really good ideas that are old, tried, and tested.  Avoiding arbitrary duplication makes space for both new ideas and old ideas that actually work.

People who enjoy completing tasks are very good at duplicating awesome things, and people who enjoy organising are very good at providing taskers with raw materials and assembly lines, and at first, the copies seem just as awesome as the original.  It is only after the copies start getting in each other’s way, like cars on the interstate or jet-skis at Jaws, that the not-so-awesome impact of all that duplication becomes apparent.  But by then, nobody can remember what they did before they started copying that long-lost awesome original.

The Wartime Philosophy of “Shut up and Calculate”


“Veterans of the intense, multidisciplinary wartime projects came to speak of a new type of scientist. They touted the war-forged ‘radar philosophy’ and the quintessential ‘Los Alamos man’: a pragmatist who could collaborate with everyone from ballistics experts to metallurgists, and who had a gut feeling for the relevant phenomena without getting lost in philosophical niceties5.

Leading scientists and policy-makers actively sought to continue the wartime spirit of collaboration across disciplines. The Atomic Energy Commission oversaw a new network of national laboratories to pursue both civilian and defence research. The labs featured interdisciplinary teams that mixed physicists, mathematicians and chemists with engineers of many stripes6. A similar set-up appeared across dozens of US universities: facilities straddling several academic departments, such as the Research Laboratory for Electronics and the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering, both founded at MIT by the end of 1945 (ref. 7).

The facilities hummed with surplus equipment and know-how culled from the wartime projects. Physicist Bruno Rossi, for one, studied cosmic rays after the war by adapting the sensitive timing circuits he had built at Los Alamos to measure nuclear-fission rates5.

Openly philosophical areas of physics, the intellectual roots of which stretched back before the war, became increasingly marginalized, such as grand questions about the birth and fate of the Universe, the thin border between order and disorder in chaotic systems, or the subtle foundations of quantum theory. Sometimes these were denigrated as not even being ‘real physics’ by influential physicists in the United States, although research in these areas advanced in other parts of the world10.”



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