Everyday energy: phlogiston


There is a hint of phlogiston in the notion of energy as an element, or even as a thing.  It isn’t wrong, just slightly backwards.  Remember that phlogiston solved the question of “what is fire?” in a way that was like elemental fire but more scientific sounding.  “Energy” does the same thing, but in a way that is even more scientific sounding.  This is why energetics survived until Einstein finally showed that atomic theory was mathematically necessary.  But the upshot of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics is that energy isn’t a thing that goes from here to there.

As Planck noted, you shouldn’t ever talk about energy in nature, only the difference in energy, just as you shouldn’t talk about entropy, only the change in entropy.

“Energy itself cannot be measured, only its difference. For that reason one used to deal, not with energy, but with work, and even Ernst Mach, who had so much to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy, and who in principle kept away from all speculations beyond the field of observation, has always avoided speaking of energy itself.  Likewise, in thermochemistry, one has always stuck to the thermal effect, that is, to energy differences, until Wilhelm Ostwald in particular emphatically showed that many detailed considerations could be significantly abbreviated if one dealt with energy itself instead of with calorimetric numbers. The additive constant which was at first still undetermined in the expression for energy, has later been finally determined through the relativistic law of the proportionality between energy and inertia.”

-Planck’s nobel lecture

It is ironic that special relativity made it possible for physicists to continue talking about energy as a thing, because this would lead to the fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between quantum information and the position of inertia, i.e., that position is somehow subordinate to quantum information.  Also, energy theory works pretty well for mapping human scale objects, but it breaks down completely at quantum mechanics and relativity, and at these levels of detail it looks stupid.  For quantum mechanics you need communication theory, while the inertia of matter in space requires special relativity.

In linguistics, the absence of position or time in information explains why, in languages without many cases, prepositions are so arbitrary and prolific, and why cases proliferate in certain other languages.  Representing position and inertia with information leads to a certain kind of madness, which is why visual diagrams and maps are essential for construction and engineering projects where position cannot be left to the probability of understanding prepositions and cases in just the right way.

Inertia is not well defined in terms of energy, but it is the bedrock of relativity.  Energy, then, is a map that blends communication theory and inertial theory.  Because it is a blended map, it breaks down at the fine details of information and the grand scale of general relativity.  Energy theory only works really well for cannon balls confined by a strong gravitational field.

Everyday entropy: weather

James Hamilton Paterson, Seven Tenths

“‘What does the forecast say?’

‘We are the weather forecast. That’s the trouble. The farnella’s an official weather reporting ship when she’s on station, so the forecasts out here are simply based on our own data from yesterday.’

I like the idea that we are helping invent the world’s weather but can see it is unhelpful having no higher authority on which to rely. Still, the measured tones of a radio weather man repeating ones own reports might well endow them with an official quality which would suddenly make them credible as predictions. Up on deck it is exhilarating as the ship buffets into the win, shouldering clouds of water back over her superstructure. Another day denied the sunbathers, their towels unspread, their copies (courtesy of the marine society) of tom Clancy, Len Deighton, Cruz smith, unopened. The library contains dozens of these more or less identical Cold War what-ifs: unmemorabilia which after the past few years have suddenly come to seem like fossils, requiring of their readers a streak of the antiquarian, even the geologist. By contrast, nothing could be more present than this ocean leaping past and over. It raises its crests to the horizon, empty and brisk, at once a locus of sublime motion. At these hot, radiant moments the sea is transformed into prodigious and arcane machinery, liquid clockwork glinting with moving parts. In the intermittent bursts of light it looks like what it is: the planet’s gearbox mediating and transmitting the motive power of the sun.”

Everyday entropy: little big bang

Bose-Einstein Condensate Interference

Black holes lose mass by radiating photons, not quarks or electrons. They may eventually evaporate into nothing, but the particles that have fallen into the black hole are still there, they just have no mass. This would be impossible outside of a black hole, but if there is no space inside the event horizon, the particles are not so much compressed to a point as frozen to absolute zero, where their mass wouldn’t mean anything. Presumably, at some point the collective mass of particles in the black hole would be so small that their gravity could no longer maintain their event horizon and they would reemerge as something like a Bose-Einstein condensate at the point of the black hole.  With nothing holding space at bay, the bosonic compound particles would interact with uncertainty in the vacuum and revert to fermions subject to Pauli exclusion. You can imagine the chain reaction if a black hole with the number of particles in the known universe lost enough mass to become a momentum-less Bose-Einstein condensate. The momentum generated by the decomposition of bosonic compounds into fermions would look something like the big bang.  Not only that, but the initial expansion would be essentially immediate, exceeding the speed of light, because it is a matter of exclusion rather than acceleration.

Niels Bohr clearly saw that quantum mechanics involved two things in opposition, not one thing being observed, but he couldn’t tease apart information, position, and the map that made them observable.  The final proof of the reality of information, the Delft experiment, didn’t come until 2015, so you can see how it was very difficult to appreciate the distinction between information and mapping at the time.  You just have to marvel at his bedrock belief in the complementary nature of momentum and position.

Part of the problem is that we think in maps, and we think of the map of the information as the information itself.  Letters on a page are maps.  A circuit board is a map: the gates may encode bits of information, but their relative location with respect to other gates is what makes those bits useful, and together they make a map that can be used either to remember information or process it through an algorithm.  The real information is unstable and transient, so the map can’t be avoided, but it is important to remember that the map is a blend of information and location, not pure information.  Quantum mechanics shows unequivocally that information is real and conservative, but Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle shows that it can’t be stored or studied without blending it into a physical map.

To understand why information is meaningless without location, and why mapping is so significant for us, – entropic, physical bodies depend on desire food, sex and comfort – you have to remember that the information in a particle doesn’t care whether it is in the middle of an orange or the middle of the sun.  Since a quark and an electron need no physical space, they don’t feel squeezed by their proximity to other particles, they just pass information back and forth.  The information is conserved whether it is conserved in an orange or a neutron star.  The holographic universe is real and true, but it doesn’t tell us where to find a ripe orange, so it just isn’t helpful.

But it’s real, and it doesn’t need to be “saved” or imprinted on the boundary of the universe or on the particles with which it is associated. If the particles in a black hole are essentially cooled to absolute zero, their mass is stored on the event horizon until it evaporates. But since their information is still in the universe, they can take it back when they decohere. It doesn’t matter that the information will attach to different particles from the ones it came in on. That happens to Bose Einstein condensates and any other entangled particles. The information paradox is just a very long wait.

Mach’s principle may also reduce to the fact that all inertia originated with the big bang (or big exclusion), so no inertial frames exist independent of the large structures that now exist.  Mach’s principle is a great thought experiment, but look at it practically and it evaporates.  It is impossible to begin rotating without a heavy body to supply an inertial frame and block. If no inertial frame is privileged, then no inertial frame is independent either, as independence would bestow that inertial frame with privilege.  But Mach’s principle also has implications for isolationism and sustainability.  No nation on earth can define itself in isolation, nor commit to the sustainability of the planet with a closed border or a foreign policy that is inconsistent with its domestic policy.  It is impossible to develop a framework for sustainability while refugees are imprisoned in squalor.  At some point they will escape, and when they do they may retain an instinctive sense of humanity but no philosophical concept of mercy.


Everyday entropy: no brakes


Learning about energy before learning about entropy is like learning about the accelerator before learning about the brake.  If you learned to drive without learning about the brake, you would stop by crashing, which is pretty much how modern civilisation operates.

Entropy is not the solution to our problems, but we cannot hope to manage a civilisation based on energy and information without understanding entropy, given that entropy is fundamental to the theories of both energy and information, in the form of statistical mechanics and the probability of communication.  To be fair, engineers mostly know about entropy, but the organisers, the MBAs and politicians, do not, and engineers cannot hope to be promoted by talking about it.  So we drive on from crash to crash.  The Paris Accord is lovely, but turning the industrial nations into gated eco-communities will have no appreciable impact on climate change.  slowing down would be a good idea, but the Paris accord does not contain a mechanism that might work as a brake, and refugees don’t have the space or money to give a shit.


“Ancient air bubbles trapped in ice enable us to step back in time and see what Earth’s atmosphere, and climate, were like in the distant past. They tell us that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years. During ice ages, CO2 levels were around 200 parts per million (ppm), and during the warmer interglacial periods, they hovered around 280 ppm (see fluctuations in the graph). In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning, and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air.

Today, we stand on the threshold of a new geologic era, which some term the “Anthropocene”, one where the climate is very different to the one our ancestors knew.

If fossil-fuel burning continues at a business-as-usual rate, such that humanity exhausts the reserves over the next few centuries, CO2 will continue to rise to levels of order of 1500 ppm. The atmosphere would then not return to pre-industrial levels even tens of thousands of years into the future. This graph not only conveys the scientific measurements, but it also underscores the fact that humans have a great capacity to change the climate and planet.

You can also find this graphic on our “Evidence” page.”

Everyday entropy: what is a map?

A map is a symbiotic composite of information and entropy where the information is suspended in the configuration of matter. The substrate protects the information from instantaneous dispersion until the material itself decays or the key to the map is lost.  A map is a representation of relationships that contains information configured into an entropic substrate. It is a composite of information and entropy that makes the information physically accessible. A book is a map, with or without picture.

In information space, entropy is uncertainty. In material space, entropy is position. A map blends the two spaces so that the entropy of a map is uncertainty about position and the position of uncertainty.  Much of the confusion about entropy comes from this blending. The only information we can have about the position of real things is probability because there is no actual information about their location, so a map stabilises the information we have about the probability of finding any given thing in a particular location in relation to another thing.  On the other hand, the physical structure of the map, whether a picture or a vector field or set of numbers or a book, has a position of its own. In this way a map is a nesting doll of information and position or a conformal field of informations compressed into position.

The central nervous system may have no other job than making maps.  First, the nerves mapped the body to coordinate movement.  Next they began mapping their environment to add value to their movements.  Finally, they mapped the relationships between their own body and other moving bodies. And even now, the mind insists on making maps of things that are not really mappable, and places where the map serves no purpose. Consider the map of living organisms, the tree of life, which turns out to have been neither terribly helpful nor terribly accurate, but was poured over by generations of naturalists for reasons known only to them. In hindsight, the notion that animals live in one kingdom, plants in another and fungi in a third is as absurd as it is unhelpful. Lichens, corals and the bacteria in the human gut illustrate the codependence of all types of living organisms.  Where would viruses slot into the map, let alone prions?  A map of the abstract forms of life reduces their relationships to something less mysterious and more familiar, in the way that the map of social hierarchies serves no purpose other than to satisfy the mind’s compulsion to map every physical thing in terms of accessible information.

It is no coincidence that the foremost mnemonic technique is to imagine placing information in particular locations in the map of a familiar place.  Because the conscious mind is almost entirely concerned with mapping, and because information and configuration are interleaved in a map, even in the way thoughts come into existence, it is almost impossible to tease information and configuration apart intelligibly. Indeed, you cannot imagine entropy without creating a map of it, which immediately violates the separation of information and material position.  But the problem is not in the map; it is in the primacy of the information that goes into the map, the assumption that information comes first, and finally that the map solves entropy by defining it.  Creating a grid to force the city into an information-friendly configuration is rational, just incredibly stupid if you want the city to function as a city because energy can’t flow in and waste can’t escape. The grid ensures minimal flow and maximum entropy. Trying to conform physical configuration to the priorities of an information system is ass-backwards, like shoving food up your rectum in the hope that it will work its way up into your stomach to be digested.  Information, after all, is indifferent to position and direction.

It is important to remember that quantum information is real.  Quantum bits are not observations made by the measuring instruments; they are real communications from the measured particle to the measuring instrument.  The descriptions of the information – momentum, spin, charge and number – may be metaphorical, but the information itself is not a heuristic.  The information is an actual thing in the universe.  Note, then, that the information does not include position.  Position relative to the instrument depends upon additional information not found in the instrument or the particle.  It depends on mapping, starting with a map of the instrument itself, and then a map of the observatory space, and finally a map of the possible locations of the particle and the instrument in that space.  Then you can see why information about position (which must be manufactured) and information about momentum (which is directly communicated) are mutually exclusive.  Only by taking momentum information from the particle can you begin to map its location, and more detail requires more information.

This reality of quantum information was probably Bohr’s stumbling block.  Everything else in his epistemology makes sense, but he never figured out how to conceptualise the difference between knowing and being.  In reality, they are separate, but in a map, they are blended or nested, and mapping is how we understand.

“In connection with this issue of where the division between the subjectively described “self” and the physically described objectively conceived world lies Bohr writes:

One need only remember here the sensation, often cited by psychologists, which everyone has experienced when attempting to orient himself in a dark room by feeling with a stick. When the stick is held loosely, it appears to the sense of touch to be an object. When, however, it is held firmly, we lose the sensation that it is a foreign body, and the impression of touch becomes immediately localized at the point where the stick is touching the body under investigation. (Bohr, 1934, p. 99)

This illustration clarifies a point made repeatedly in Bohr’s writings that “even words like  ‘to be’ and ‘to know’ lose their unambiguous meaning.” (Bohr. 1934, p. 19)”

Quantum Collapse and the Emergence of Actuality from  Potentiality.                                    Henry P.  Stapp


Everyday entropy: time at war

Escher Stairs

Lee Sandlin, Losing the War

The war was the single dominant fact in the world, saturating every radio show and newspaper. Every pennant race was described on the sports pages in the metaphor of battle; every car wreck and hotel fire was compared to the air raids that everyone was still expecting to hit the blacked-out cities on the coasts.

But who was controlling the growth of this fantastic edifice? Nobody could say. People who went to Washington during those years found a desperately overcrowded town caught up in a kind of diffuse bureaucratic riot. New agencies and administrations overflowed from labyrinthine warrens of temporary office space. People came to expect that the simplest problem would lead to hours or days of wandering down featureless corridors, passing door after closed door spattered by uncrackable alphabetic codes: OPA, OWI, OSS. Nor could you expect any help or sympathy once you found the right office: if the swarms of new government workers weren’t focused on the latest crisis in the Pacific, they were distracted by the hopeless task of finding an apartment or a boarding house or a cot in a spare room. Either way, they didn’t give a damn about solving your little squabble about petroleum rationing.

It might have been some consolation to know that people around the world were stuck with exactly the same problems — particularly people on the enemy side. There was a myth (it still persists) that the Nazi state was a model of efficiency; the truth was that it was a bureaucratic shambles. The military functioned well — Hitler gave it a blank check — but civilian life was made a misery by countless competing agencies and new ministries, all claiming absolute power over every detail of German life. Any task, from getting repairs in an apartment building to requisitioning office equipment, required running a gauntlet of contradictory regulations. One historian later described Nazi Germany as “authoritarian anarchy.”

But then everything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war — for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers — lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.

But there was one constant. From the summer of 1942 on, the whole Allied war effort, the immensity of its armies and its industries, were focused on a single overriding goal: the destruction of the German army in Europe. Allied strategists had concluded that the global structure of the Axis would fall apart if the main military strength of the German Reich could be broken. But that task looked to be unimaginably difficult. It meant building up an overwhelmingly large army of their own, somehow getting it on the ground in Europe, and confronting the German army at point-blank range. How could this possibly be accomplished? The plan was worked out at endless briefings and diplomatic meetings and strategy sessions held during the first half of 1942. The Soviet Red Army would have to break through the Russian front and move into Germany from the east. Meanwhile, a new Allied army would get across the English Channel and land in France, and the two armies would converge on Berlin.

The plan set the true clock time of the war. No matter what the surface play of battle was in Africa or the South Seas, the underlying dynamic never changed: every hour, every day the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Europe. They were stockpiling thousands of landing craft, tens of thousands of tanks, millions upon millions of rifles and mortars and howitzers, oceans of bullets and bombs and artillery shells — the united power of the American and Russian economies was slowly building up a military force large enough to overrun a continent. The sheer bulk of the armaments involved would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. One number may suggest the scale. Before the war began the entire German Luftwaffe consisted of 4,000 planes; by the time of the Normandy invasion American factories were turning out 4,000 new planes every two weeks.

The plan was so ambitious that even with this torrential flow of war production it would take years before the Allies were ready. The original target date for the invasion was the spring of 1943 — but as that date approached the Allies realized they weren’t prepared to attempt it. So it was put off until the late spring of 1944. But what would happen in the meanwhile? A worldwide holding action. The Red Army would have to hang on to its positions in Russia, the Americans would go on inching their way into the Japanese empire, and the Allies everywhere would commit their forces to campaigns designed only to keep the Axis from expanding further. In the years between Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion the war around the world grew progressively larger, more diffuse, less conclusive, and massively more chaotic.

Those were desperate years. The storm center then was in Russia, where the German army was hurling attack after overwhelming attack at the Soviet lines. To this day, most Russians think World War II was something that happened primarily in their country and the battles everywhere else in the world were a sideshow. In August 1943, for instance, in the hilly countryside around the city of Kursk (about 200 miles south of Moscow), the German and Soviet armies collided in an uncontrolled slaughter: more than four million men and thousands of tanks desperately maneuvered through miles of densely packed minefields and horizon-filling networks of artillery fire. It may have been the single largest battle fought in human history, and it ended — like all the battles on the eastern front — in a draw.

Everyday entropy: the sea and its thresholds

James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven Tenths, the Sea and its Thresholds
The truth is, remedial work bores me. If one is a fatalist one believes that once something needs to be restored, to be caught and fought for on the edge of extinction, then in a sense it is already gone, has already been lost in the form that had meaning.
The desire to tame a threatening landscape by subjecting it to the control of language can be seen in the old Greek name for the notoriously treacherous Black Sea: the Euxine, or hospitable.  An extension of this may result in teh temporary renaming of already well-known places.  In World War I when British troops were mired into the static and murderous wastelands of trench warfare, micro-maps were devised fo rthe tiny localities which bounded their lives.  London place names were wistfully bestowed on slivers of Belgian and French farmland.  What a year or two earlier had been ‘Quineau’s acre’ or ‘Drowned-cow bottom’ were now Haymarket and Leicester Square.  This yearning domestication of threatening foreign places is a common enough trope in wartime (‘Hamburger Hill’) and came equally naturally to Pincher Martin, William Golding’s wrecked sailor.  Almost his first act on being able physically to patrol the Rockall-like Atlantic islet on which  he was washed up was to give its features familiar names like Prospect Cliff, High Street and Piccadilly.  This was in recognition that, unnamed, the place of his marooning would have remained inimial to him as well as invisible to rescuers, being quite literally off the map.
A Mozart Seamount does, however, seem particularly arbitrary in the subtropical latitudes around Hawaii.  Odder still, it is equally close to Gluck and Puccini Seamounts, just as Haydn is to Mussorgsky and Beethoven Ridges.
The centuries-long dispute about the nature of coral is rendered neither obsolete nor irrelevant by modern science.  True, there is nolonger any doubt about the organisms responsible for reef building and – broadly – how they do it.  At levels of biochemical detail, however, there is still much to learn.  Most reef-building corals, for example, exist in symbiosis with microscopic algae.  A single coral polyp looks very like a miniature anemone, its close relative.  It has rings of stinging tentacles surrounding a mouth, all of which is able to contract defensively into its stalk,.  Living within its tissues are the algae which among other things perform photosynthesis and fix nutrients for their host.  More than that, the algae enable the polyp to secrete stone.  This is a most remarkable attribute and brings a certain accuracy to the old name ‘madrepore.’  Since algae able to photosynthesise are considered plants there arises the peculiar arrangement whereby a plant and an animal combine to produce a mineral – in this case pure limestone.  The chemistry by which this is done is not yet entirely understood.  There is great complexity in teh way these symbionts interact both with each other and with the nutrients in the seawater, with varying temperature, degrees of salinity (fresh water is fatal to corals, which is why fringing reefs are always broken at river mouths), with currents and with light.  Not the least striking part of a coral reef’s equivocation, therefore, is that it imprisons at its heart a gigantic plant, while on its surface and slopes there may be few marine plants visible since herbivores such as surgeon fish and sea urchins constantly graze seaweeds back to their roots.
The swimmer among reefs likes to know such things, likes to shine torches into cracks and crevices, takes pleasure in seeing a tube worm sense his presence (smell? sound? shadow?) and retract in a flash, takes pleasure also in knowing the worm ate its tunnel into the coral limestone by secreting acid.  It is not only in detail that we experience reefs, though, any more than we experience a forest by examinign leaves and marvelling at processes of gas exchange.  Both reefs and forests may be studied closely but are experienced as environments.  So viewed, coral reefs are true borderlands, abounding in all sorts of ambiguity.  Many of these ambiguities are set up by the classificatory systems which have been used to make sense of phenomena that refuse their assigned niches.  The swimmer who daily goes down among corals to watch and listen soon becomes aware of something in this rich profusion which corresponds to the so-called ‘dark matter’ postulated by astronomers to account for there not being enough visible matter in the universe to satisfy theory.
Jim said I was a drivelling idealist, flitting about the world like a disdainful butterfly irresistibly attracted to decay, content merely to feed off it rather than do something about it.