Mapping Hard Science to Real Life

imageThroughout 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?

13 thoughts on “Mapping Hard Science to Real Life

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  1. Awesome post Dan. My problem is that I DO “get” quantum physics. Most people I talk to about it say they can’t “wrap their brains around it” while I love it for the freedom it gives my brain to relax and let itself be swept up in possibility…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Cheryl! “Can’t” and “don’t want to” are two different things, and I think the latter is normally at work. You’re right though, there is a certain comfort in understanding more of what is going on around us.


  2. Dan, I love this post. I must confess that I am usually most at home discussing concepts like these ones. Activation energy, entropy, quantum state, quantum decoherence, entanglement, atoms, electrons, spin, neutrinos, momentum, etc. It is because I am very poor at convincing people of the other people-things. But when we discuss fact-based concepts then I don’t have to speak too much trying to justify anything.
    I love entropy. I have contemplated this world and wondered whether it is the way it is because of us, or whether it would still be this way if we weren’t in it. I have wondered why everything has to fall apart, why the center cannot hold–as the poet said. I used to think that animals do not kill one another unless solely for food. But no. I saw a lion killing two cheetahs in the Maasai Mara. Murdering really. And buffaloes kill baby lions. And a lion cannot cubs sired by another lion. He has to murder them when he takes over the family. The elephants have erratic mood swings endanger other animals. I concluded that there is something at work here. Not the Devil. Something is here that ensures death, destruction, chaos. When I came across entropy, I knew it had to be the one. It was my Eureka! time (although I did not discover it).

    And now that you have mentioned “quantum state”, I am reminded of something I came across once. There is a site called QuantumMan. It is run by Zurich Alpine Group and it promotes “alternative medicine.” It claims that the modern symptom-based treatment is a failure, and offers an alternative treatment by “uploading medicine to your body by using quantum teleportation, an exclusive technology obtained from extraterrestrial beings”. You are required to download a “Portal Access Key” to your computer; this key “unlocks a quantum portal developed by ZAG which allows bioinformation to flow from ZAG’s quantum computer directly to the neural network of your brain, another quantum computer, via quantum teleportation.These Portal Access Keys can be purchased separately for each product.

    I laughed when I read it. I have read some crazy things but this one was the nuclear blast!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. I think I’ll skip the link to Quantum Man but symptom-based medicine might well be flawed. Actually, it seems we are more interested in making money treating symptoms than curing disease but that’s a subject of another post. I think you’re the only other person that I follow that has taken entropy seriously, It is at work in the universe, every minute of every day, something is slowly marching toward greater chaos.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think Quantum physics has been the quacks’ most favorite concept in explaining elusive phenomena. Because it is generally a hard subject they believe they can just get away with it. Have you hard of the “Quantum Jesus”. Apparently, because in quantum physics an electron can be both a particle and a wave (particle-wave duality), then the same reason can be given for Jesus being both human and God.

        Anyway, you are right about the symptom-based treatment. I classify it under abused concepts. Concepts that were once great but are now used to hurt people, turned against us.

        Liked by 1 person

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