Posts filed under ‘science’

How the Slacker Brain Conserves Energy

I heard this piece on NPR the other morning describing an experiment in which people asked to memorize numbers of varying lengths (some memorized two numbers; others memorized seven) were offered the choice of a snack on the way to recite the numbers.  One snack was healthy, and the other was not.  The study found that those whose brains were consuming energy in trying to memorize the longer number were unable to resist the temptation of the unhealthy choice of snack, whereas those who weren’t burning as much mental energy in memorizing only two numbers did resist the temptation.

It turns out, Jonah explains, that the part of our brain that is most reasonable, rational and do-the-right-thing is easily toppled by the pull of raw sensual appetite, the lure of sweet. Knowing something is the right thing to do takes work — brain work — and our brains aren’t always up to that. The experiment, after all, tells us brains can’t even hold more than seven numbers at a time. Add five extra digits, and good sense tiptoes out of your head, and in comes the cake.

The concept of “psychoenergonomics” (of managing mental energy) offers insight into what is happening here:  because the energy in their brains was directed toward the rational part of the mind, it wasn’t in the part of the brain that helps with resisting such temptations.


30 January 2010 at 5:19 am 1 comment

Deleuzian Thinking

I just posted over at my other blog called “The Electrate Professor” an entry on “How Concepts Function” which talks about “Deleuzian thinking” as being focused more on what thinking does than on what thinking is.  Rather than copy/paste, I thought I would just create the links to send my vast audience of readers directly to that post… I hope this isn’t cheating.

31 March 2009 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

Reinventing the Sacred

I’m always reading so many books at once that I am reluctant to start another one…. But there are so many to be read, and they all sit around staring at me, asking “When?”  Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

One that falls into this category, Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, looks like it might be one of the most important books on the planet, and those are always calling for my attention.  The book flap says that it “proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically  based world view.”  Kauffman wants to redefine God to represent the “natural creativity in the universe.”  As a complexity theorist, Kauffman’s work on thermodynamics and life leads him to conclude that there should be a “fourth law of thermodynamics” that recognizes how life seems to oppose entropy.

The concern of this book is to make an appeal that unites disparate religions and belief systems in a common, shared understanding so that we as a species can begin to take control of our collective destiny–and the destiny of the biosphere which we are close to damaging beyond repair.  In his concluding chapter, Kauffman writes:

If these lines of discussion have merit and stand the test of scrutiny over time, we will transition to a new view of ourselves, our humanity, and this, our world that we partially cocreate.  In this view, much of what we have sought from a supernatural God is the natural behavior of the emergent creativity in the universe.  If one image can suffice, think that all that has happened for 3.8 billion years on our planet, to the best of our knowledge, is that the sun has shed light upon the Earth, and some other sources of free energy have been available, and all that lives around you has come into existence, all on its own.  I find it impossible to realize this and not be stunned with reverence. (282)

It is this last sentence that strikes a chord with me.  All the science I read about leads me to this same “stunned reverence.”  This leads me to think of the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism:  “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  This principle invites me to learn as much science as I can, not to ignore it as so many other denominations of Christianity do.  Kauffman offers a way of integrating the most current theories of science into a coherent religious framework, one that can serve our planet at its time of greatest need–when we need to grow up as a species and take responsibility for our actions.

3 January 2009 at 7:13 pm 1 comment

The Thermodynamics of Life

I finished reading an important book called Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life by Eric D. Schneider & Dorian Sagan.  This book introduces the emerging scientific field of “non-equilibrium thermodynamics” (NET) and, specifically, its sub-discipline they call “the thermodynamics of life” or “biothermodynamics” (i.e. the thermodynamics of biology).  One of its purposes is to correct  a neglect of the physical (that is, the “physics-al”) causes of life, neglect resulting from a primary focus on biological, genetic causes; because Darwin’s concept of natural selection cannot account for some instances of emergent complexity, the “missing link” in their view “is the energy flows studied by NET” (317).  They begin by showing how life-like processes exist even in non-living systems (what Manuel DeLanda has called “non-organic life”), and that the common denominator between such “non-organic life” and “organic life” is the energy flowing through these open systems:

NET systems organized to reduce ambient gradients and funnel their energy into our own growth, we are like nonliving NET systems that increase their complexity in areas of energy flux.  Just as the matter of life (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous atoms)  has been found distributed throughout the universe, so the process of life (local pockets of increasing organization) is not unique.  We are connected to  other energy-flow systems that have functional organization (302).

After the cursory historical overview of classical thermodynamics and its history, Schneider and  Sagan introduce different physical phenomenon (BZ reactions, Benard cells, Taylor flow, whirlpools, etc.)–what he calls “physic’s own ‘organisms'”–before  launching into a star-to-ecosystem survey of how energy flow organizes organic life.  Evolution itself is invoked as central to this process:  “Selective advantage will go to those autocatalytic systems that best increase energy flow through their system, those that do so better than their competitors” (254).  Such behavior is so pervasive that one scientist, Stuart Kauffman, suggests that the phenomenon deserves to be called the fourth law of thermodynamics, for “the biosphere….is engaged in lawlike behavior of increasing complexity” (91).

All of this points to the growing realization that the origin and sustenance of life in the universe is not a super-natural phenomenon but completely natural.  In other words, “no God need apply”:

Although they may sometimes seem to be organized by an outside force, no ‘agent deliberating,’ as Aristotle put it over twenty centuries ago, is needed. . . . all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being. (xvii, 6)

There were times in reading this book that I was reminded of Deleuze’s concept of the “abstract machine,” especially when the authors spoke of how living things link up with each other to exploit energy flows, as in this long passage worth quoting in full:

We, like all living beings, perpetuate ourselves and our communities but never with complete efficiency or total recycling.  We, from the cells within us to the organizations in which we as “individuals” function, are semi-independent thermodynamic systems.  Like all open complex systems, we require gradients.  But since we, like all the rest of life, are open centers of flow, not Platonic ideal forms, we link up in various ways.  Primates, birds, frogs, and aquatic mammals vocalize.  Organisms sense each other molecularly, for example, by smell. . . . Bacteria link up to propel each other, feed with and enter each other, and take in each others’ genes; this sometimes leads to new species.  Dense cell populations become multicellular organisms.  Evolution shows us a nature that routinely flouts taxonomists’ carefully drawn boundaries.  Drawing and shifting, organisms combine to use free energy in increasingly efficient and expansive ways. (146)

Ultimately, this is a book about energonomics (the concept of “managing energy flow”) insofar as it directs us–not only as individuals but also as nation-states–to emulate the wisdom of natural systems:  “To survive sustainably we need to live like climax ecosystems” (296), seeking “a steady state of minimal entropy production” (80).  Doing so will require that we learn the lessons this book has to offer:  the knowledge that life is a manifestation of the thermodynamics of energy flow, and as such should be lived with an awareness of all that this implies.  This book has many lessons and interesting details, so I will likely return to it in future posts.

30 November 2008 at 6:27 pm 3 comments

A Poetics of Energy Flow

I just chose the winner of the 2008 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Contest:  William Keener’s Gold Leaf on Granite.  The poem I chose as the example for the announcement page is one titled “Take This Page,” a poem that embodies the awareness of energy flow, of “emergy” (embodied energy), that my concept of energonomics tries to express.  I will post the poem in its entirety:

Take This Page

Look past
the distraction of words,
our endless procession
of letters.

In the presence of white,
touch the page itself,
this rectangle,
this empty room,

a place for meditation,
if we ignore
the black scuff marks
on its ivory floor.

Let natural light
reflect the textures
of felted fibers,
cotton and flax,

egg shell, bread dough,
wool and bone,
the pressed shirt,
the linen shroud,

smooth, uncreased,
a sheet of paper deep
as any world we enter
through a book.

With the whorls
of our fingertips
we can read beneath
the watermarks,

between the laid lines,
faint patterns
left by the mesh
where pale pulp dried,

the cellulose in its slurry,
the wood chips, sawdust,
splinters, bark,
the cambium, the core

of a tree giving ground,
a legion of trees, a forest,
the billion leaves
they gird on every year,

their green machinery,
the sugars in the sap,
oxygen, carbon, lignin,
every molecule made

with heat, the photons
charging through space
from the flares of our sun,
its fiery hydrogen

burned into this room,
written into this page,
this book,
this volume of light.

This is a powerful poem for many reasons.  I especially like the syntactic build-up at the end of the poem:  you can feel the energy building as you are swept along by the syntax, as the poet leads us from the page that we are reading to the pulp of the page and through it to the very photons flowing from the sun that made possible the life of the tree which we have translated into “this book/this volume of light.”  The poem is wonderful insofar as it introduces and embodies all of these complex scientific concepts without burdening the reader with jargon or complicated language.  It brings us to an awareness of our basis in energy–it reminds us that we are beings of energy, that all, ultimately, is energy.

Congratulations to William Keener for having the clarity of mind and simplicity of insight to recognize and capture these truths in a truly beautiful way.

1 October 2008 at 8:34 pm Leave a comment


I picked up a book of Loren Eiseley’s essays at the local library book sale.  It is a kind of “new and selected essays” titled The Star Thrower.  In one essay titled “Man the Firemaker,” he speak of man as being “a consuming fire”: “Man…is himself a flame.  He has burned through the animal world and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own” (23).  His mastery of fire was a kind of management of existing energy sources (an “energonomics”), as Eiseley points out:

Fire shortens the digestive process.  It breaks down tough masses of flesh into food that the human stomach can easily assimilate. Fire made the difference that enabled man to expand his numbers rapidly and to press on from hunting to more advanced cultures. Yet we take fire so much for granted that this first great upswing in human numbers, this first real gain in the seizure of vast quantities of free energy, has to a remarkable degree eluded our attention. (22)

My Fireman poems play with this same metaphor.  They invoke not the modern-day fighter of house and building fires but “Man the Firemaker,” the fire-manager, beings of energy descended from and children of the sun itself.

27 September 2008 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

The Brain is an energy hog

A U.S. News & World Report cover article titled “What Will Human Beings Become?” addresses how the evolution of the human species is becoming more rapid and talks at one point about the brain itself:

The human brain…is likely to change even more in the future. Our niche in nature, says Stephen Pinker, an experimental psychologist at Harvard University who studies the evolution of language and the mind, is the ‘cognitive niche.’ In research published last year, Wray [an evolutionary biologist at Duke University] identified genes that control glucose metabolism in the brain as among those most recently evolved.  Those changes may have been essential to fueling the human brain’s growth to a size twice that of our nearest cousin, the chimpanzee.  ‘If you make a big brain, it’s an energy hog,’ Wray says.  ‘It’s like putting a V-8 engine in a tiny little car.’

17 September 2008 at 9:49 pm Leave a comment

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