Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Reverse engineering

I finally got round to reading C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures". It's a 1959 talk about education and about a problem, at University level: the different cultural worlds inhabited by (a) science and technology (b) the arts and humanities.

It's difficult (speaking for humanities students of my generation) to read this talk without remembering the jeers of F.R. Leavis. Snow's naive self-importance and tendency to over-rate his own expertise,  are both very apparent. But sometimes it takes stupidity to bring up a topic that others are too smart to go near. Think of it as a transgressive text.

At one point Snow reports asking various arts specialists to describe the second thermodynamic law; none of them could tell him anything about it. And yet, he comments, from a scientist's point of view that's about as basic as asking "Have you ever read a play by Shakespeare?"

It's a fair cop. I didn't know what the second law of thermodynamics was, but (with the help of Wikipedia), I do now. Not that I understand the maths.

But I do get that it's about accounting for the non-reversibility of processes: why an ice cube in a glass of water turns into a colder glass of water, but not vice versa. Why you can add milk to your tea, but not take it away.

Because simple physical processes such as these are inevitably involved in more complex processes, those complex processes are irreversible too. It may be that such irreversibility, based strictly on the second thermodynamic law and its mathematical concept of entropy, is of a trivial nature, I don't know. But it's apparent that many complex processes have the same quality of irreversibility. A baby's perfect silky skin becomes an OAP's wrinkles, but not vice versa. A plant cannot become the seed it once was: it can only make new seeds. And above individual lives, history too seems to have an irreversible direction; that was always so, even before literacy and technological advance. The directionality was there, even when it certainly wasn't "progress". The extinction of the Greenland Vikings after the commencement of the little Ice Age was also a testament to directionality; so are tyrants, epidemics and Krakatoas.

Yet swimming against the tide often seems the right way to go. Religious texts express it. Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). The Tao Te Ching is a guide to rediscovering the primordial Tao that gave us birth and flows through all things: in effect, discarding the empty hurry of the ego that we have learnt subsequently. But this doesn't mean reversing our history. We need to become, not the child we were (then we'd just end up here again), we need to become as a child.

So what about lowering emissions?
It's always easier for doers to do than for undoers to undo. Doing even gets easier, as the distribution channels are already in place.  So industry keeps finding new uses for fossil fuels, for the same reason that doctors keep promoting new reasons to prescribe existing drugs; they are already on the pharmacy shelves. When we look back at the formidably entrenched operations lined up in support of more carbon emissions, all armed with "what I have I hold" and abetted by the natural self-seeking of humanity, then it's easy to despair. These circumstances are the work of history, and we can't unpick them. Lowering emissions has come not from sabotaging capitalism but from better technology; from engineers. But educators make a difference too. And educators need activists; because you can't teach something effectively if no-one is visibly concerned about it.

How fossil fuels are sold.

[Image source: Nectar email, May 2019. Sainsbury's Energy, supplied by nPower, supplies an energy mix that's more than averagely low in renewables and high in CO2 emissions. So the advertisers pull out all the stops when it comes to encouraging the aptitude of Middle England to couple financial prudence with staunch dismissal of the fads of do-gooders. The team of joyful and reassuring models are a human shield for an anti-human product.]


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