Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Try This (at home)

One day I hope to have half a dozen blogs that differentiate my various interests, so as to protect the few readers who care about me from trespassing lands that bring them no pleasure. For now, I do not have the time (my business requires still more physical exertion, than mere deskwork, and though I enjoy exerting myself, I will one day simply not be able to afford it (as it exists today.) When my business matures to that state, I will have a great deal more time and energy for other things, even when I am "busy." I imagine assigning a day or two per blog and consolidating my various thoughts (most of them occurring while I work, my work not being a particularly intellectual field.) through a blog every couple days. Something like that, to cover my interests, and provide a particular slice of myself to this delightful form of self expression. Oh, how the world spins at the finger of one's ego!

Anyhow, on occasion I wish to write about stuff like the history of science, where I realize my interest to be finally the flowering of a number of years of consideration on my part, about something of a pet interest of mine. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, so long as I can properly explain my motivation for writing about any particular subject. But it is none the less the truth that it is hard for me to realize how accustomed I have become to some subjects, commonly regarded as boring, as windows of wonder, even ecstasy. I am more than forgiving if you do not agree. Had you walked with me from the beginning, had you had the time, and a case been made for your interest, I know you would be as enthralled as I. This blog cannot retrace such experiences, with any sort of fidelity. As to the fact that it might sometimes bore you, I can assure you that you are in fantastic company.

The subject of thermodynamics is one that tends to loom, rather than chirp, like a piccolo, in the orchestra of the scientific disciplines. Maybe it is something of a bass instrument, producing sensations of longing, even as it stands back, supportive to, rather than defining of the harmonies that you discern from the audience. And this metaphor, while ignoring the basic problem with thermodynamics: its complexity in argument nearing an opacity for the casual observer; works none the less, due to the harmonizing capacity of thermodynamics to explain all manner of phenomena, from the stars to the dandelions that bring me to my knees (and cyclically to thermodynamics.)

It is not my interest here to pretend to teach you anything about thermodynamics. Not exactly. My fascination is the manner in which it came to be: the world (and communities, and individuals) that lived before it, and provided for it's birth, and the power, utility, agency, and usefulness that it represents, regardless of it's reputation on the street.

My encounter with thermodynamics is from thousands of references to it over the years, in periodicals and books. Even in literature aimed at the science world, it is often mentioned with a smirk, like a hippie might discuss acid with a ten year old. "If you haven't done it, you couldn't understand, man." Such statements make more sense than they deserve to. But that's a different discussion (though fruitful, from the world of cognitive science, and the narrative structure of human thought.)

If you haven't "done" thermodynamics, you still can understand. I basically haven't done them, and I continue, with pleasure, to walk her wild country roads, deep into the mundane mouths of wonder that I first stared upon, holding my momma's hand.

Two subjects in the last few years grabbed me by the collar and shook me regarding thermodynamics. One of them was the biology of vascular plants, especially photosynthesis, and transpiration. Engine's on two very different edges of an organisms systems. But meshed by a common mandate: to make real the mutterings of a plants genetic code. Only harnessing the difference between states of heat and cold (and harnessing the redox potentials of just about everything, ahem, under the sun.) can result in this fabulous work off anti-entropy: life.

And that's just it: we stand in life, awaiting the rain, awaiting warmth of the sun (but not only the sun, also the wind and water, warmed by it. For a winter day is hardly without the sun, the air and water are the more efficient means by which we truly encounter our home star.) Our elaborate organism's systems, break down carefully crafted structures made to eat or entrap some of the sun. The structures are not, as we are not, literally made of energy (well, deep in the workings of physics and thermodynamics, they are, but at the macro level, not so much), but they certainly have grabbed ahold of it, and embrace it in clever choke holds, so all of life might occasionally escape the entropic tilt of our physical reality. You and I and our food... all of life presents a great surprise to the laws of the universe. Such a surprise that a great deal of religions vim and vigor point best to God, by holding up his fallen creation: not our souls, not our spirit or our dreams, not our beliefs: but our bodies. The substance of faith! Pathology!

Fine by me, as I sort of feel it too. Life is unbelievable (or rather, best believable in a religious sense, ha!). But so to is a lot of other stuff. So the fun is in the trying to believe, to climb that cloudswept mountain.

The other subject is mechanics. Something I never expected to become terribly interested in learning more about (even though, as a child, I assumed blithely that I would one day work with metals, and other primordial materials of robots, and other cool stuff. For Christ's sake, listen to your childhood dreams.) Strangely enough (though it's seeming more normal to me every day) working with your hands changes your brain. You start to look at the world, somewhat like a linguist starts to hear the world, once another language is acquired. What once was a jumble of disintegrated shapes and systems, have become in the last four years for me, the parts of an elaborate puzzle, which even just glancing at throughout the day, start to fit together in your mind. I would never have guessed that my dabbling in the infrastructure of my town would have led to a similar set of fascinations with machines. I suppose the kid in me simply put his foot down and asked not kindly, "Say, are you someone who's going to listen to the common sense, that you aren't capable of certain things, or are you someone who is going to at least try a little grease monkey action." The kids tone, notwithstanding, I liked the sound of grease monkey.

Before I knew it, whereas before I could hardly bring myself to change the oil in my lawnmower (I destroyed my parents, rather expensive, Lawn Boy, as a kid by not adding oil to gasoline, a requirement due to the remarkably clever operation of a 2 cycle engine. Smoky, but damn powerful for the weight.) today I love to take lawnmowers apart and give them their due, beside the high school frog dissection, as elementary and enlightening to the inexperienced like me. To date it is a fresh miracle when I can change a spark plug (especially when it's beneath the engine of my truck, or van (!!!)) But I know what one is, and where, for example, it wont be. Like in a diesel, or a steam engine. They produce power through a different set of phenomena. And given my interest in electricity production (perhaps even doing it myself, one day) I couldn't avoid asking basic questions about what exactly the benefit of one engine vs. another was. Or what components were required to achieve a workable end, say, with a ram generator in a stream of water. Why does the water need to fall a certain distance? Why a certain flowrate? What's the difference between, say, an alternator (a motor run backwards, generating electricity for the systems of a car.) and a ram generator, and a regular motor, ect. ect. ect. Looking at the modern world the questions can seem to stretch forever. It didn't take long for me to begin to wonder about James Watt's steam engine, and the early days of internal combustion. A lot of this stuff was simply learning different different broad concepts like "energy density", which went a long way to explaining why we do the things we do to get around (and pay what we do for the pleasure.) But when I began to discuss this with some of my friends, it rapidly became clear the the most basic questions of machinery and energy came down to thermodynamics. There are a lot of details, that are basic chemistry and math. Physics looms around every corner of the subject of infrastructure, certainly electrical infrastructure. The reason high tension power lines are extremely high voltage comes down to the physics of impedance. It isn't worth going into here, but it sure is fun to talk about with people who work in the industry (while driving past maybe 800 miles of your subject matter.)

One of the things that has constantly inspired me, pushed me forward despite my ignorance, fear, and insecurity are some of the historical characters sketched with great vigor by some of my favorite books authors. I love these people. The carpenter who invented the toothpick didn't do it with a chisel, though it is tempting to wonder, how exactly it occurred to him not to go that route. Most of us sort of stick close to the margins of our circle of competence, which it turns out is not only smart, but efficient societally, and evolutionarily. So it is with a great deal of admiration that I read about the inventor of the toothpick, in the nineteenth century, forging machinery, and building with his solitary, bare, hands the necessary apparatus to take whole trees, steam them, carve veneer from them, and then turn veneer into toothpicks that have changed almost not at all in the intervening one hundred plus years. Against this leviathon of energy and competence I have to restrain myself from not hating my seeming retardation, given the host of available tools and expertise I have at my constant disposal 24/7 (even the 7/11, for a big gulp. The carpenter didn't have that!) A girl at the bar might say to me, "you can make walls of two by fours!" God bless her, I'm pretty impressed with myself as well. But Jesus! What is that next to the carpenter who invented the H2, housed in Greenwhich observatory (where sometime soon I will travel and stare at it for an embarrassing length of time.) which was the most improved of his three chronographs, the device that made possible a firm establishment of longitude, and therefore safe passage for the captains of seafaring vessels. Prior to a carpenter devising the chronograph, the state of the art in navigation was what was known as "dead reckoning." Perfect words for what often happened at sea. To some extent, not completely, but to some extent, a carpenter, someone untrained in mechanics, devised a machine, essentially a spring loaded clock of insane accuracy, which closed Mr. Davey Jone's locker. Next to this carpenters enormously beautiful H2 (which looks like a five or six inch wide, elaborately scrolled silver watch case) the McMansions built by dudes like me seem a bent plastic freakshow.

I could go on forever. And I intend to. For it isn't just inspiring to feel for these craftpersons, or instructive to realize you can do anything (today, especially.) It gets to the most essential truths of science to read into the narratives that comprise a disciplines growth. They came from somewhere. And that somewhere is not the rocks of the world, or the metals beneath a grinding mill. The Garden of eden of a scientific discipline is not the electron, or the atom itself; it is not the flower, it's pistils, stamens, bracts, and petals; it is not the allele's of abstract trait, that bend to a language unknown in any of their particulars in Linnaeus's time, not for another hundred years to be spied in an x ray crystallography; and that Garden is not even in the sun, as it warms your face, and curdles the DNA in your skin, inviting your very own body to a pathological improvisation: it is in the place science has hardly ever probed, much less described. It is in your head and heart. In the head and heart of the participants of wonder, and questions, and desire. It's so simple. And yet it is quite a challenge. How does this work?
Something as simple as boiling water, is deceptively complex. I didn't really know how water boiled. I used to stare at the pan, and see the bubbles coming violent off the bottom of my stainless steel pan. I was twenty three, and preparing dinner for my friend Tony, or myself. I think I was making pasta for Linguine in Clam Sauce. I stood there after a long day working on the farm, in the middle of the summer, with NPR babbling about the latest atrocity, which for some reason I craved to hear about. I stared down at the pan, nothing to do, really, but wait for the water to boil, and occasionally stir the olive oil, clams, and minced garlic that were contentedly pulling the skirts of their flavor into an approaching curtsy. I'd see these little waves of motion in the tap water reservoir of my metal pan, little fans of illusion, like summer heat off of blacktop (something I had a recent acquaintance with, be assured.) And I knew, "that's convection." I knew it wasn't conduction, or radiation, or some sort of optical illusion. Energy, I knew, was for some reason flowing from the hot bottom of the pan, to the cooler top. But the little bubbles that formed, and their relationship to this shimmering beauty in my pasta water, seemed frankly, unrelated. Convection was just something that happened in all fluids bounded by two different temperatures (the cool surface of the water, the hot bottom of the pan.) I should have realized that convection was actually an important part of boiling water, and very much related to the bubbles, for I knew something of the folklore of a microwave, and that was attempting to signal my pea brain into at least a fragment of a full blown inquiry. And what is that? Well, you know... When you microwave a hot cup of water, remember how before microwaves had turntables it was possible to superheat water? What does that mean? Well, it was possible to heat the molecules of a cup of water to well above the temperature where they were merely near boiling. To heat them to almost 213 degrees F. They couldn't really get there, but most folks don't realize, that due to convection, boiling water enjoys a range of temperatures inside a boiling container of water, only a small fraction of water boiling is in fact at the temperature of boiling. The rest of the water in the vessel is cooler, and that's how it sustains the second arm of the circle from the bottom of the pan to the top and back to the bottom. Once the water molecules are excited to the top of the pan, they cool at the top and return to the bottom. That actually makes it sound considerably more mechanical than it really is. The fascinating thing is that when microwaves heat water evenly, without the heat being concentrated at the bottom (or top) of a cup of coffee, no convection occurs, for there is no gradient across which energy can travel, so the continuous heating of the cup of coffee traps the energy in a randomized scattering within the cup of coffee. No current of energy "transfer" is possible. So you reach into the microwave and the vibration of your hand to the handle of the coffee cup adds just enough dislocation of the trapped and superheated molecules that a significant number of them vaporize, and seem to explode coffee all over the place. So in a sense, heating water, does not make it boil. Boiling is an emergent phenomenon (a lovely class of systems research, just lovely) of energy transfer. Complex, specific, and nearly as delicious as linguine with clams.

The above isn't to say I understand boiling. I remain enthralled by the drama my ignorance enables. I wrote the above, about boiling, to share my emotions, in a sense, about discovering something deep and profound, but also elementary, and crucially, observable by us all. This is what I love about science, and why I find it so shameful that science and math are presented as considerably harder than Football practice in August (which is ostensibly regarded as a rarified privilege. And I think it is.) The reason folks think math and science are hard is that the work is rarely presented as the narrative from which it arose. While it's certainly true that adult students will never have the time (in formal schooling) to hear the narratives of scientific epistemology, it is a tragedy to assume that you and I should not learn the yearning of ideas, and underlying concepts of the world to be known. Boiling water sings a very quiet song indeed. But you can hear it, and surely have some time as you stand above it, staring dumbly into it's swirling vortex.

All the disciplines of science have been composed by feelers as much as thinkers. Someone felt that it mattered how such and such worked. Since they felt, they then thought, and thought, then tried and tried until they felt they had something to share. You see how this is not a dry and cold process akin to the digital processes computers employ in our stead? Thinking about things is sometimes a mere obligation to a nearly abstract duty: like "just doing your job." But damn little of the wondrous world was first described by such a work ethic. The fruit that hangs at your library (and in the person of your friends, neighbors and selves) hangs with a potential energy invested it with passion and storied love.

I started this post, which I know is a bit disorganized, talking about thermodynamics. It is a credit to the scope of that field, and not my ability to stay on a subject, that some of this post has actually dealt with thermodynamic concepts: they are everywhere.

But I hope you sense that in talking about such a maligned subject to the person on the street, such a "abstract," rocket science like, field; It was my wish to share with you why these scientific disciplines should have been named "scientific shores." For it is more akin to swimming, and with a sense of exploration, perhaps even a frontier spirit, that one dips their toe into thermodynamics. There is more than it first appears to the black smoke that pours from one of a cinematographers favorite subjects: the locomotive smokestack. What you rightly consider received beauty, hides her delicate beauty in that smoke: but hear me man, she'd love you to ask her hand.

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