Throughout my undergraduate education, I dreaded the thought of working as a chemist, but I still found most of the science that I was learning to be fascinating. The fact that it took almost four years and some harsh advice for me to change course, illustrates one of three fascinating bits of science that I have hung onto:
Activation Energy – The amount of energy that must be added to a system in order for a reaction to occur.
As we in the US approach the 4th of July holiday, many of us will be adding activation energy to our charcoal in the coming days. Some of you provide activation energy to your teenage child at least once a day. My favorite method was the melodious reminder that “it’s a brand new day” while my father preferred the “lights on, covers off” approach. The important thing is that after the introduction of activation energy, reactions generally continue without further assistance. Your grill will burn until the charcoal is gone and most teenagers make it through the day. The activation energy that I required in college came in the form of my advisor pointing out that a) I was much better at computer science than I was at chemistry and b) that I could make a good living in that field. I knew I wasn’t a good enough chemist, but I didn’t know how to quit being one. His advice pushed me into a career in business that has lasted over 35 years.
Entropy – A process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.
That’s one of the simpler definitions of Entropy, but I’ve always liked the way it helps me explain my desk in scientific terms. Entropy is better defined as a measure, but the concept grew from Lazare Carnot’s observation in 1803 that “in any natural process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy.” We have to apply the energy that we have toward keeping our desks clear, our cars on the road and our lives on track. My career choice was a good one for me because systems development, databases and computers in general are constrained systems. As such, I worked within the lines of unforgiving syntax, a precise order of operations and a command hierarchy that usually required ‘A’ to come before ‘B’. Those characteristics made it easy to see where to apply energy. As my career progressed, the application of energy became harder to focus. Systems design, systems planning and the management of people are less precise tasks, requiring energy to be applied across a broader spectrum.
As I was writing this post, I came across an article on the law of maximum entropy production, and it made me feel good for two reasons. First, as I’ve said before, I like that science is based on facts. It’s not the “opinion of maximum entropy production,” it’s a law. I wish more people understood that particular difference. I also feel good because this law is based on observations made in 1988. See, that’s the very cool thing about scientists, they don’t give up, they aren’t content with “what we know today” or “how we’ve always done things” and they don’t stop building on the good work that preceded them. The law states that:
“A system will select the path or assemblage of paths out of available paths that minimizes the potential or maximizes the entropy at the fastest rate given the constraints.” Example: “while an unheated cabin will cool to match the temperature of the woods around it, it will cool faster if you open a window.”
In other words, things are going to go from bad to worse unless you prevent it, and things will get worse faster if you do something stupid.
Quantum State – I can’t find a definition of this that won’t cause most of you to stop reading.
It doesn’t matter, I don’t really need to define quantum states, I only want to point out a little bit about how electrons move between states. I admit that when I studied this stuff in college, I found it difficult to comprehend. That’s probably why I got the advice to choose a different career. One thing that I do remember is that in order to get an electron to move to an excited state, energy is required. Not just any energy though, the energy has to be at the exact frequency that the atom or molecule responds to. In the lab, this fact drives instruments like spectrometers that are used to identify unknown substances. In our world, this means that motivation has to work for us individually; we can’t encourage a class of 5th graders to work harder by describing the same hypothetical future job. We can’t motivate a company full of workers with the same incentives, and we can’t inspire a nation of individuals with an unending drone of narrow party rhetoric.
Of course we aren’t singular reactions, natural processes or quantum systems – or are we?