Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Wanderers 2005.10.18

Rick Grote took us through an overview of classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, in preparation for his review of Into the Cool, a new book by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan (and which mentions some Wanderers in the acknowledgments).

A core thesis of the book is that life capitalizes on thermal gradients, gets work out of them, is itself work (or organized play, as the case may be). Of course the 2nd law prevents 100% efficiency i.e. there's always leakage in the form of heat such that no standalone machine ever wins immortality for itself.

Another thesis: just noting our Earth is an open system, and therefore not currently bogging down under the 2nd law, doesn't "explain" life's amazingly inventive gradient- exploiting ways, any more than the brute fact of ocean waves "explains" the phenomenon of surf boarding in California.

Grote, a chemist and engineer, found Into The Cool persuasively written and full of interesting info, such as the graph relating successive generations of ground cover to thermal efficiency: small, short-lived, energy-inefficient ecosystems give way to slower, bigger, more thermally efficient ones (e.g Oregon's old growth forests).

He also found insightful the focus on metabolism (eating) over sexual activity, as a signature of primitive life. However when it comes to sheer complexity and pattern formation out of chaotic conditions, non-life is pretty good at that too (the book is pregnant with examples). Life seems destined to explore at the edge of chaos, is always taking risks, flirting with disaster, in terms of becoming overly-complex and experiencing a break down.

On the down side, Rick doesn't much like the aphorism "nature abhors a gradient" as she seems to create and depend on them just as surely as she erodes them away. He also didn't find the tie-ins to preferred social policies scientifically persuasive, even though he shares many of the same policy goals.

Temperature differentials are what separate living ecosystems from an entropic desert, and life seems intent on keeping it that way (an uphill battle), by creating new gradients, new possibilities for interesting work, even as she/we/it burns through existing ones. Even if we're all headed for an ultimately entropic state, as many writers suppose, life has a way of drawing things out, postponing the inevitable for as long as physically possible.


After the end of Rick's talk (2 Hi-8 tapes, recorded using my Sony TRV240), I projected Gerald de Jong's Fluidiom project (Java app). Apparently the digital life people come in for some withering criticism in Into the Cool (which I haven't myself read yet), especially in connection with Stephen Wolfram style cellular automaton studies. Gerald's approach is more like Roger Gilbertson's (muscle-wire robotics), and uses tensegrity-inspired elastic interval geometry (Kenneth Snelson, R.B. Fuller, Cary Kittner, Sam Lanahan, Karl Erickson, Russ Chu, John Braley et al).