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.