Friday, April 2, 2010

Why 'physics'?

Yesterday I was talking with some of my Board members and they asked ‘so what do you really mean by the physics of poverty?’ Why ‘physics’? So I thought I would do a summary post on what I mean by this.

Over the last century we have picked apart nature, broken it down into its smallest parts and found that everything is made of the same stuff. The same fundamental particles. How can a small bunch of particles give rise to all the richness of our world? These still not fully understood fundamental particles associate to form atoms which associate to form molecules which associate to form cells which associate to form organisms which associate to form societies. And on every level they produce a myriad of outcomes in matter, cells and organisms. As we are now beginning to understand, it is the nature and structure of the interaction and association that defines what it will be, not so much the intrinsic nature of the interacting element itself. So when we consider what properties we might want from a system, be it matter or society, what we need to understand is how the elements of the system interact, the structure of their connectivity and consequently how energy flows in the system. Some physicists have known this a long time, taking this approach to understanding nature under the various names of condensed matter physics, statistical mechanics and non linear dynamics.

Consider this example – like most atoms, the carbon atom does not like to be alone. It will seek out associations with other atoms. Just carbon alone, when the pressure and heat are high, will hold tightly to four others, sharing its electrons fully in covalent bonds in a rigid lattice structure that is so constrained that it is unable to interact with new forces and energies that impinge upon it. Light energy hits against the electrons and slows down but the electrons cannot absorb its energy and the light eventually bounces out. The electrons cannot travel through the system because they are locked into rigid relationships with one another that prevent them from free movement. This is a diamond, constructed under pressure, constrained, rigid and impervious. But under normal conditions of temperature and pressure the carbon atoms are more free, they don’t form as many covalent bonds, preferring along some dimensions to associate with one another in a less constrained way and are thus able to take light’s energy and make it their own, their electrons when pushed can travel through the system in a flow of electrical energy. This is graphite, free, energy rich and malleable. So whether you end up with diamond or graphite, depends not on its elements, since its elements are the same, but on the nature and structure of their associations and the freedom with which they can interact with external forces.

As we go up the hierarchy from atoms to humans, although the possible ways to interact become increasingly numerous, one can still understand the system from the point of view of the nature of associations, how it is connected and how energy flows through it. In human networks, money is a proxy for energy on some level, so is information. So why physics? Because physics is not constrained to understanding one system alone but an attempt to understand systems at all levels and the common principles that define them. It represents an understanding of complex systems on many levels that can inform our understanding of ourselves as a deeply interconnected system.


  1. Read all your posts today. When do we get to know more in greater detail of what you are trying to do?

  2. Well, I'm still trying to work out in greater detail what I'm trying to do but will share it as it takes shape. Thanks for the question!