Friday, March 03, 2017

Thermodynamically Speaking

Alternative Paradigms

We got a deeply insider look at recent history last night, though fair warning by "recent" I mean towards the start of the Industrial Age in Europe. Steam power was coming on-line, changing everything, and reasoning about steam, a precursor to reasoning about electricity, was something on many a gifted mind, Sadi Carnot being one of them.

Here's what most people don't know: that Carnot's dad, Lazare, was a thermodynamicist as well, and a damn good one. I think of Kenneth Iverson and his son Eric, computer language architects, as a similar duo. Sadi, who only lived into his mid-30s, perishing we're not sure how, was in many ways advancing his father's work.

Our tour guide for the evening is by day a practicing professor of the history of science in beautiful France and boasts a brilliantly multi-national resume.  He is founder and first former head of the Research Centre for the Theory and History of Science, University of West Bohemia, in Pizen, Czech Republic.

He's been a collaborator with the late Dr. Gillespie at Princeton. Raffaele Pisano was eager that we know of their work together, and I understand why. I'm planning to bone up on Gillespie's corpus in hopes of bolstering my own grasp of science history. I attended Princeton myself. We were definitely reading Thomas Kuhn.  I worked under Dr. Rorty's supervision on the philosophy thesis on Wittgenstein, a product of my time.

Dr. Pisano is Italian by birth and heritage, lectures in French, and has enough command of English to hold forth in Portland and not lose me in that sense (I'm fine with European English).  What I learned from the talk will take awhile to put together though. I'm still working on these puzzles.  It'd be hard to say I've gotten to the bottom of anything, but I do like digging down.

We learned that the Carnot lineage really has a different look and feel from the Newtonian one, which was more ancient Greek in its callback to Axioms (Newton's Laws had that sheen).  Carnot was more into Hypotheses and deliberately eschewed much special mathematical notation in his actual treatise.

We were seeing slides of actual papers, hand-written, stuff the various archives still have on file.  Raffaele knows his way around these hard-to-access places and we sincerely respect him for that (Terry was especially effusive, knowing what it takes).

Carnot's logic made heavy use of the double negative, and much of Dr. Pisano's talk was aimed at categorizing types of logic such that Carnot's might be recognized as a brilliant specimen of one such type. This is where some in the audience probably felt out of their depth.

Given our Buddhist Ghetto in Southeast and familiarity with Nagarjuna for example, we're somewhat aware that the law of the excluded middle, and a lot of other such rule systems, may be specific to a namespace, form of life, and/or subculture.

We don't count on everyone agreeing on just "the one" system at this point in our history. Portland is cosmopolitan among its digerati and literati. ISEPP talks bring our Silicon Forest intelligentsia together, and I assure you, we're out there.  Terry has provided years of entertainment unlike anything even on Youtube.

These post Renaissance thinkers, still heavily into Archimedes and Aristotle, were newly discovering instrumentation for measuring specific physical phenomena.  How does mass differ from weight?  Deep discussion.  What is pressure?  Density?  Thermodynamics is/was especially slippery. How to relate measurements to concepts in language did not materialize overnight.

What we today call the Carnot Cycle and present with clever diagrams, volume versus pressure, was not how he was thinking about it originally. He was picturing an actual cylinder, anticipating our V8 internal combustion engines of down the road (the cycling model is a little different but at least we knew how to think about combustion cycles by then -- thanks to Carnot).  Carnot was not talking about Entropy, that concept came later.

The Carnot Cycle involves steam pushing a piston to squeeze a gas, in ways that may preserve temperature but change pressure, or vice versa.  You go around in a square phase space, alternately isothermal and adiabatic, ratcheting a machine through some work cycle, while contributing to pollution with a more highly entropic off-gas (less work-ready).

Given the solar fusion reaction we've found in the Sun (closer to Einstein, long after Newton), and picturing Motherboard Earth as a solar powered Carnot Cycle, we see how photosynthesis produces the base material for what we call "the biosphere" around our planet (per Lynn Margulis). 

How photosynthesis got started has been a topic of other ISEPP lectures, with some postulating geothermal vents underwater as providing all the necessary ingredients for mathematical operations (copying and self-propagation).  Replicating photosynthesis using some deliberately designed nano-process has been another ONAMI type goal, not sure we're there yet.

I've been probing the physics teaching community on whether any generalizations might be offered at the whole planet level, regarding Entropy.  We typically introduce Gravity with whole planets the main topic.

If Entropy has whole planet application, where in the curriculum would it be a good time to mention that?  However, thermodynamics somewhat suffered the same fate as evolutionary genetics: it got side-tracked into popular phony theories with limited staying power (Social Darwinism, Eugenics).

Textbook publishers are not eager to wade in to hot waters, lest they get it all wrong.  Economics is the sandbox in which to try out some of those memes.  The more slowly adapting wait to see what happens there.

In other words, thermodynamics is still something of a mine field when it comes to ideology / theology. You'll get a Teilhard de Chardin thing going, and then where's the math at that point?  Omega alone does not constitute much of a namespace.

We're back to game theory and cybernetics, which I'm not saying is terrible, just I don't wonder that we're slow to work our way through this part of physics.  We get confused.

Dr. Pisano was at ease throughout the evening I thought, and our group is happy to take in these kinds of esoteric diversions, think and talk about them later.

I'm sorry I missed the good doctor's appearance at Linus Pauling House on Hawthorne.  I was expecting to be there but was waylaid by urgent business and then thought coming late would be rude.

I was glad at least to hear the talk.  Much to ponder. I fell asleep later (thanks to Dr. DiNucci for the ride home) listening to Youtubes on autoplay, explaining the Carnot Cycle over and over.

The dinner was great and Terry even let us take some, not to waste any.  I just took one meal's worth, as if I'd had seconds at the time (allowed).

The chocolate dessert was uber-dense (I didn't take a second one of those).  I ate all mine, but then I'm only doing Soylent as my regular intake, so these deviations don't wreak havoc. I'm also allowed to drink wine in moderation. Our caterer had a fine one.

I don't have any wine bottle collection, not one of my hobbies.

I keep an empty Bhutan Mist (whiskey, made by troops) for conversation.