Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Welcome to My MacroHistory - Part 3

However, whatever can be said of its merit, the complexity model can - even though it should not - be seen as an exercise of philosophical navel-gazing; it enables the justification of humankind as a race, but it does not consider how our potential is exercised in terms of morality, efficiency, or efficacy (as the reasons for the human decision to ignore thorium attest); it gives no measure for the worth of our worth. Therefore, while it is a tool of progression, in its current incarnation it is too conceptual to use as a tool to actually progress. This proliferates tension when compared to the temporal-spatial contexts we have traditionally justified ourselves by, because this view has served us well enough so far. If, in the face of the future humankind is facing, the complexity model desires to supplant the temporal-spatial model, it had better become a more useful tool, quickly.

The enlightened consideration of Christian's beauty of complexity brings us tantalisingly close to the reality of our worth and purpose as humans, as the most sublime expression of the awesome creative potential of the universe that we have thus far encountered. It is a tool for positivity and progression. We are very special indeed.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Welcome to My MacroHistory - Part Two

Physicist Eric Chaisson defines complexity in terms of a thing's intricacy, interconnectivity and its quality of having many different functioning aspects and components that integrate with one another to form a quantifiable structure. Christian highlights the consequent rarity of such complexity, and also asserts that complexity gives us a 'benchmark against which we can measure this universe's creativity, its capacity to generate complex things.'
Energy is defined as being the fuel for everything that exists; the capacity of a physical system for doing work. It stems etymologically from the greek ἐνέργεια, which means 'activity or operation.' The concept of energy is expanded upon in the laws of thermodynamics, in particular the second, which Christian uses to establish a critical link between energy flows and complexity. This link measures the density of energy flow through an organism or object in order to define its complexity; the more dense the energy flow – or, the more energy required to sustain and develop (in the case of humans, through collective learning) it – the more complex it is. On this heirarchy of complexity, human society trumps the energy use of our sun by a factor of 250,000.
Christian answers the question of how we alone amongst the measured universe can achieve such a feat by bringing in the third member of the symbiotic trinity: collective learning. Collective learning is quintessentially that which makes us getting better at the job of staying alive. Human consciousness is a meme machine and is responsible for making us human. It is also the means by which we have developed speech, script, the arts and sciences, the phenomenon of cultural memetic evolution and every other demonstration of our complexity that has enabled us to extract the energy we need to continue to flourish and exist.
The story of thorium is a potent example of the relationship between collective learning, energy and complexity. Discovered in 1828, it was overlooked as a candidate for use in the rise of nuclear energy, despite being a superior fuel in every way; reactors are much safer, 1% the size, require no precautions to avoid meltdown as they self-regulate their temperature, and produce 250 times more energy for the quantity of fuel used, for 0.0002% the monetary cost. Thorium's rejection came about because the nuclear energy industry is a by-product of the Manhattan Project and subsequent nuclear arms race, and thorium cannot be weaponised. But the phenomenon of collective learning has caused us to reflect on the recent meltdown fears the Fukushima Daiichi uranium reactor in Japan has suffered, and the thorium discussion has finally begun. The complexity of the structure and technology - and indeed, the dialogue - required to construct a working thorium reactor displays an example of these ideas of complexity and collective learning, and the worth of humans is seen in the initiation of this mammoth step forward in the energy journey of humankind.

Welcome to My Macrohistory!

Hello everyone!

I'd like to kick this off by giving you, over the next week or two, in several parts a series of my reflections on David Christian's article "World History in Context".

David Christian is the erstwhile father of this discipline of World History, and while I could start by telling you how I found it, why I love it, and what I want to do with it, that doesn't seem the right context at this time.

Righto, let's go!

Humankind has always sought to define itself. The desire to draw a line between us and everything else – to be special – has shaped every level of human thought throughout the centuries. The premise that we are the centre of the universe in temporal and spatial contexts was enough, until the recent inexorable tide of knowledge we have attained chiefly through astronomy and cosmology all but washed this false conclusion away. Yet the drive to mean something did not go away. A powerful example of this drive is found in Christian's article from 2003. It presents a revolutionary new way to measure human worth.

He unwraps so eloquently a model of the significance of humanity, which I like to call 'the beauty of complexity', and its three core elements, namely complexity, energy, and collective learning, and especially the relationship between them.This setup of his is remarkable and I hope to be able to do it justice in my explanation.

Christian plainly states at the very beginning of his article 'world history is all about context'. He acknowledges that world history has no context of its own, and that the broadness of its scope makes giving it one difficult. He perceives that the efforts of cosmology, (evolutionary) biology, and astronomy that have undermined the traditional 'specialness' and led to decentralisation and devaluation of humanity leaves a question that he and I both feel is our calling, as world historians and fellow sojourners, to answer. Using data and theorems drawn from many fields (one of the strengths of the broad scope and collaborative nature of world history) we illuminate the relationship between complexity, energy, and collective learning, and with them draw a map of human worth. These are traits humankind displays in a unique way, and when viewed as a symbiotic trinity, viola! We have found what sets us apart from the rest of (what we know of) the vast and ancient universe.

Until next time, fellow travellers!