Friday


Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization

One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.

If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.

Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.

What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.

Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.

A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.

A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.

There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.

This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.

Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.

Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.

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Thursday


Nobel prize

In a series of posts I have been outlining a theory of the particular variety of civilization that we find today, which I call industrial-technological civilization. These posts, inter alia, include:

The Industrial-Technological Thesis

Medieval and Industrial Civilization: Developmental Parallels

Science, Knowledge, and Civilization

The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization

Chronometry and the STEM Cycle

What are the distinctive features of civilization as we know it today? Different socioeconomic structures and institutions can be found among different peoples and in different regions of the world. In one sense there is, then, no one, single civilization; in another sense, civilization has become a planetary endeavor, as every people and every region of the world falls under some socioeconomic organization of large-scale cooperation, and each of these peoples and regions abut other such peoples and regions, involving relationships that can only be addressed at the level of the institutions of large-scale socioeconomic cooperation. Thus a planetary civilization has emerged “in a fit of absence of mind,” as John Robert Seeley said of the British Empire. In a very different terminology, we might call this the spontaneous emergence of higher level order in a complex system.

We can think of civilization as the highest taxon (so far) of socioeconomic organization, the summum genus of which the individual human being is the inferior species, to use the Aristotelian language of classification. In between civilization and the individual come family, band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, though I should note that this taxonomic hierarchy seems to imply that a civilization of nation-states is the ultimate destiny of human history — not a point I would ever argue. In the future, civilization will undoubtedly continue to develop, but there is also the possibility of higher taxa emerging beyond civilization, especially with the expansion of civilization in space and time, and possibly also to other worlds, other beings, and other institutions.

For the time being, however, I will set aside my prognostications for the future of civilization to focus on civilization in the present, as we know it. Like any large and complex socioeconomic structure, contemporary industrial-technological civilization consists of a range of interrelated institutions, with the institutions differing in their character and structure.

The chartering of formal social institutions is part of the explicit social contract. Briefly, in The Origins of Institutions, I said, “An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution.” (In this post I also discussed how incipient institutions precede both formal and informal institutions.) In Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I made a distinction between the implicit social contract and the explicit social contact in this way:

“The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.”

The early portion of the industrial revolution may be characterized as a time of incipient institutions of industrial-technological civilization, in which the central structure of that civilization — the STEM cycle in its tightly-coupled form, in which science drives technology employed in engineering that produces better scientific instruments — has not yet fully emerged. Formal institutionalization of the socioeconomic structures usually long follows the employment of these structures in the ordinary business of life, but in industrial-technological civilization many of the developmental processes of civilization have been accelerated, and we can also identify the acceleration of institutionalization as a feature of that civilization. The twentieth century was a period of the consolidation of industrial-technological civilization, in which incipient institutions began to diverge into formal and informal institutions. How are formal and informal institutions manifested and distinguished in industrial-technological civilization?

Anyone who immerses themselves in a discipline soon learns that in addition to the explicit knowledge imparted by textbooks, there is also the “lore” of the discipline, which is usually communicated by professors in their lectures and learned through informal conversations or even overheard conversations. Moreover, there is the intuitively grasped sense of what lines of research are likely to prove fruitful and which are dead ends (what Claude Lévi-Strauss called scientific flair). This intuitive sense cannot be taught directly, but a wise mentor or an effective professor can direct the best students — not those merely present to learn the explicit knowledge contained in books, but those likely to go on to careers of original research — in the best Socratic fashion, acting as mid-wives to intuitive mastery. Within science, these are the formal and the informal institutions of scientific knowledge.

Similarly, anyone who acquires a technical skill, whether that skill is carpentry or designing skyscrapers, has, on the one hand, the explicit knowledge communicated through formal institutions, while, on the other hand, also “know now” and practical experience in the discipline communicated through informal institutions. Both technology and engineering involve these technical skills, and we usually find clusters of expertise and technical mastery — like the famous Swiss talent for watches — that correspond to geographical centers where know how and practical experience can be passed along. One gains once’s scientific knowledge at a university, but one acquires one’s practical acumen only once on the job and learning how things get done in the “real world.” These are the formal and informal institutions of technology and engineering.

Industrial-technological civilization has brought great wealth, even unprecedented wealth, and in a human, all-too-human desire to leave a legacy (a desire that is in no wise specific to industrial-technological civilization, but which is intrinsic to the human condition), significant endowments of this wealth have been invested in the creation of institutions that play fairly clearly defined roles within the STEM cycle.

In terms of both prestige and financial reward, perhaps the most distinguished institution that recognizes scientific achievement is the Nobel Prize, awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, and later a memorial Nobel prize in economics was established. Mathematics is recognized by the Fields Medal. Apart from these most prestigious of awards, there are a great many private think thanks perpetuating an intellectual legacy, and the modern research university, especially institutions particularly dedicated to technology and engineering, is a locus of prestige and financial incentives clustered around both education and research.

Perhaps the best example of a formal institution integrated into the STEM cycle is the Stanford Research Institute. Their website states, “SRI International is a nonprofit, independent research and innovation center serving government and industry. We provide basic and applied research, laboratory and advisory services, technology development and licenses, deployable systems, products, and venture opportunities.” And that, “SRI bridges the critical gap between research universities or national laboratories and industry. We move R&D from the laboratory to the marketplace.” In a similar vein, Lockheed’s Skunkworks is known for its advanced military technology and the secretiveness of its operations, but Lockheed has recently announced that their Skunkworks is working on a compact fusion reactor.

Lockheed’s Skunkworks is an example of research and development within a private business enterprise (albeit a private enterprise with close ties to government), and it is in research and development units that we find the most tightly-coupled STEM cycles, in which focused scientific research is conducted exclusively with an eye to developing technologies that can be engineered into marketable products. The qualifier “marketable products” demonstrates how the STEM cycle is implicated in the total economy. From the perspective of the economist, mass market products are the primary driver of the economy, and better instruments for science are epiphenomenal, but as I have argued elsewhere, it is the technology and engineering that directly feeds into more advanced science that characterizes the STEM cycle, and everything else produced, whether mass market widgets or prestige for wealthy captains of industry, is merely epiphenomenal.

The economics of the STEM cycle that transforms its products into mass market widgets also points to the role of political and economic regulation of industries, which involves social consensus in the shaping of research agendas. Science, technology, and engineering are all regulated, and regulations shape the investment climate no less than regulations influence what researchers see as science that will be welcomed by the wider society and science that will be greeted with suspicion and disapproval. Controversial technologies, especially in biotechnology — reproductive technologies, cloning, radical life extension — make the public uneasy, investors skittish, and scientists wary. Few researchers can afford to plunge ahead heedless of the climate of public opinion.

In this way, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, driven by the STEM cycle set in its economic and political context, can be seen as an enormous social contract, with both implicit and explicit elements, formal and information institutions, and the different sectors of society each contributing something toward the balance of forces that competing in the sometimes fraught tension of the contemporary world. There could, of course, be other social contracts, different ways of maintaining a balance of competing forces. We can see a glimpse of these alternatives in non-western industrialized powers, as in China’s social contract. Whether or not any alternative social contract could prove as robust or as vital as that pioneered by the first nation-states to industrialize is an inquiry for another time.

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Thursday


Lund Astronomical Clock

An interesting article on NPR about a new atomic clock being developed by NIST scientists, New Clock May End Time As We Know It, was of great interest to me. Immediately intrigued, I wrote a post on my other blog in which I suggested that the new clock might be used to update the “Einstein’s box” thought experiment (also known as the clock-in-a-box thought experiment). While I would like to follow up on this idea at some time, today I want to write about advanced chronometry in the context of the STEM cycle.

What if, in the clock-in-a-box thought experiment, we replace the clock with one so sensitive it can also function to measure the height of the box?

What if, in the clock-iin-a-box thought experiment, we replace the clock with one so sensitive it can also function to measure the height of the box?

Atomic clocks are among the most precise scientific instruments ever developed. As such, precision clocks offer a good illustration of the STEM cycle, which I identified as the definitive feature of industrial-technological civilization. While this illustration is contemporary, there is nothing new about the use of the most advanced science, technology, and engineering available being employed in chronometry.

The Tower of the Winds in Athens held one of the most advanced timekeeping devices in classical antiquity; the tower still stands, but the mechanism is long gone.

The Tower of the Winds in Athens held one of the most advanced timekeeping devices in classical antiquity; the tower still stands, but the mechanism is long gone.

The earliest sciences, already developed in classical antiquity, were mathematics and astronomy. These early scientific disciplines were applied to the construction of timekeeping mechanisms. Among the most interesting technological artifacts of the ancient world are the clock once installed in the Tower of the Winds in Athens (which was described in antiquity, but which no longer exists) and the Antikythera mechanism, the corroded remains of which were dredged up from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera (while discovered by sponge divers in 1900, the site is still yielding finds). A classic paper on the Tower of the Winds compares these two technologies: “This is a field in which ancient literature is curiously meager, as we well know from the complete lack of any literary reference to a technology that could produce the Antikythera Mechanism of the same date.” (“The Water Clock in the Tower of the Winds,” Joseph V. Noble and Derek J. de Solla, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 72, No. 4, Oct., 1968, pp. 345-355) Both of these artifacts are concerned with chronometry, which demonstrates that the most advanced technologies, then and now, have been employed in the measurement of time.

antikythera mechanism reconstruction

The advent of high technology as we know it today — unprecedented in human history — has been the result of the advent of a new kind of civilization — industrial-technological civilization — and the use of advanced technologies in chronometry provides a useful lens with which to view one of the unique features of our civilization today, which I call the STEM cycle. The acronym STEM is familiar in educational contexts in order to refer to education and training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so I have taken over this acronym as the name for one of the socioeconomic processes that lies at the heart of our civilization: Science seeks to understand nature on its own terms, for its own sake. Technology is that portion of scientific research that can be developed specifically for the realization of practical ends. Engineering is the industrial implementation of a technology. Mathematics is the common language in which the elements of the cycle are formulated. A feedback loop of science driving technology, driving engineering, driving more science, characterizes industrial-technological civilization. This is the STEM cycle.

Ammonia maser frequency standard built 1949 at the US National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) by Harold Lyons and associates. (Wikipedia)

Ammonia maser frequency standard built 1949 at the US National Bureau of Standards (now National Institute of Standards and Technology) by Harold Lyons and associates. (Wikipedia)

The distinctions between science, technology, and engineering are not absolute — far from it. To employ a terminology I developed elsewhere, I would say that science is only weakly distinct from technology, technology is only weakly distinct from engineering, and engineering is only weakly distinct from science. In some contexts any two elements of the STEM cycle are identical, while in other contexts of the STEM cycle they are starkly contrasted. This is not due to inconsistency, but rather to the fact that science, technology, and engineering are open-textured concepts; we could adopt conventional distinctions that would make them strongly distinct, but this would be contrary to usage in ordinary language and would only result in confusion. Given the lack of clear distinctions among science, technology, and engineering, where we draw the dividing lines within the STEM cycle is to some degree arbitrary — we could describe this cycle in different terms, employing different distinctions — but the cycle itself is not arbitrary. By any other name, it drives industrial-technological civilization.

STEM cycle 1

The clock that was the inspiration for this post — the new strontium atomic clock, described in JILA Strontium Atomic Clock Sets New Records in Both Precision and Stability, and the subject of a scientific paper, An optical lattice clock with accuracy and stability at the 10−18 level by B. J. Bloom, T. L. Nicholson, J. R. Williams, S. L. Campbell, M. Bishof, X. Zhang, W. Zhang, S. L. Bromley, and J. Ye (a preprint of the article is available at Arxiv) — is instructive in several respects. In so far as we consider atomic clocks to be a generic “technology,” the strontium clock represents the latest and most advanced instance of this technology yet constructed, a more specific form of technology, the optical lattice clock, within the more generic division of atomic clocks. The sciences involved in the conceptualization of atomic clocks are fundamental: atomic physics, quantum theory, relativity theory, thermodynamics, and optics. Atomic clocks are a technology built from another technologies, including advanced materials, lasers, masers, a vacuum chamber, refrigeration, and computers. Building the technology into an optimal device involves engineering for dependability, economy, miniaturization, portability, and refinements of design.

JILA's experimental atomic clock based on strontium atoms held in a lattice of laser light is the world's most precise and stable atomic clock. The image is a composite of many photos taken with long exposure times and other techniques to make the lasers more visible. (Ye group and Baxley/JILA)

JILA’s experimental atomic clock based on strontium atoms held in a lattice of laser light is the world’s most precise and stable atomic clock. The image is a composite of many photos taken with long exposure times and other techniques to make the lasers more visible. (Ye group and Baxley/JILA)

The NIST web page notes that, “NIST invests in a number of atomic clock technologies because the results of scientific research are unpredictable, and because different clocks are suited for different applications.” (For further background on atomic clocks at NIST cf. A New Era for Atomic Clocks.) The new record breaking clocks in terms of stability and accuracy are experimental devices; the current standard for timekeeping is the NIST-F2 “cesium fountain” atomic clock. The transition from the previous standard timekeeping, NIST-F1, to the present standard, NIST-F2, is largely a result of engineering refinements of the earlier atomic clock. Even the experimental strontium clock is likely to be soon surpassed. JILA Strontium Atomic Clock Sets New Records in Both Precision and Stability quotes Jun Ye as saying, “We already have plans to push the performance even more, so in this sense, even this new Nature paper represents only a ‘mid-term’ report. You can expect more new breakthroughs in our clocks in the next 5 to 10 years.”

STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

The engineering refinement of high technology has two important consequences:

1) inexpensive, widely available devices (which I will call the ubiquity function), and…

2) improved, cutting edge devices that improve the precision of measurement (which I will call the meliorative function), sometimes improved by an order of magnitude (or several orders of magnitude).

These latter devices, those that represent greater precision, are not likely to be inexpensive or widely available, but as the STEM cycle continues to advance science, technology, and engineering in a regular and predictable manner, the older generation of technology becomes widely available and inexpensive as new technologies take their place on the expensive cutting edge. However, these cutting edge technologies are in turn displaced by newer technologies, and the cycle continues. Thus there is a relationship — an historical relationship — between the two consequences of the engineering refinement of technology. Both of these phases in the life of a technology affect the practice of science. NIST Launches a New U.S. Time Standard: NIST-F2 Atomic Clock quotes NIST physicist Steven Jefferts, lead designer of NIST-F2, as saying, “If we’ve learned anything in the last 60 years of building atomic clocks, we’ve learned that every time we build a better clock, somebody comes up with a use for it that you couldn’t have foreseen.”

NIST-F2

Widely available precision measurement devices (the ubiquity function) bring down the cost of scientific research and we begin to see science cropping up in all kinds of interesting and unexpected places. The development of computer technology and then the miniaturization of computers had the unintended result of making computers inexpensive and widely available. This, in turn, has meant that everyone doing science carries a portable computer with them, and this widely available computational power (which I have elsewhere called the computational infrastructure of civilization) has transformed how science is done. NIST Atomic Devices and Instrumentation (ADI) now builds “chip-scale” atomic clocks, which is both commercializing and thereby democratizing atomic clock technology in a form factor so small that it could be included in a cell phone (or whatever mobile device form factor you prefer). This is perfect illustration of the ubiquity function in an engineering application of atomic clock technology.

New cutting edge precision measurement devices (the meliorative function), employed only by the governments and industries that can afford to push the envelope with the latest technology, are scientific instruments of great sensitivity; increasing the precision of the measurement of time by an order of magnitude opens up new possibilities the consequences of which cannot be predicted. What can be predicted, however, is the present generation of high precision measurement devices make it possible to construct the next generation of precision measurement devices, which exceed the precision of the previous generation of devices. A clock built to a new design that is far more precise than its predecessors (like the strontium atomic clock) may not necessarily find its cutting edge scientific application exclusively in the measurement of time (though, again, it might do that also), but as a scientific instrument of great sensitivity it suggests uses throughout the sciences. A further distinction can be made, then, between instruments used for the purposes they were intended to serve, and instruments that are exapted for unintended uses.

A loosely-coupled STEM cycle is characterized primarily by the ubiquity function, while a tightly-coupled STEM cycle is characterized primarily by the meliorative function. Human civilization has always involved a loosely-coupled STEM cycle, sometimes operating over thousands of years, with no apparent relationship between science, technology, and engineering. Technological progress was slow and intermittent under these conditions. However, the productivity of industrial-technological civilization is such that its STEM cycle yields both the ubiquity function and the meliorative function, which means that there are in fact multiple STEM cycles running concurrently, both loosely-coupled and tightly-coupled.

The research and development branch of a large business enterprise is the conscious constitution of a limited, tightly-coupled STEM cycle in which only that science is pursued that is expected to generate specific technologies, and only those technologies are developed that can be engineered into marketable products. An open loop STEM cycle, loosely-coupled STEM cycle, or exaptations of the STEM cycle are seen as wasteful, but in some cases the unintended consequences from commercial enterprises can be profound. When Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were hired by Bell Labs, it was with the promise that they could use the Holmdel Horn Antenna for pure science once they had done the work that Bell Labs would pay them for. As it turned out, the actual work of tracing down interference resulted in the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), earning Penzias and Wilson the Nobel prize. An engineering problem became a science problem: how do you explain the background interference that cannot be eliminated from electronic devices?

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Monday


When I was a child I heard that practicable fusion power was thirty years in the future. That was more than thirty years ago, and it is not uncommon to hear that practicable fusion power is still thirty years in the future. Jokes have been made both about fusion and artificial intelligence that both will remain perpetually in the future, just out of reach of human technology — though the universe has been running on gravitational confinement fusion since the first stars lighted up at the beginning of the stelliferous era.

It is difficult to imagine anything more redolent of failed futurism than domed cities. Everyone, I think, will recall the domed city in the film Logan’s Run, which embodied so many paradigms of early 1970s futurism.

It is difficult to imagine anything more redolent of failed futurism than domed cities. Everyone, I think, will recall the domed city in the film Logan’s Run, which embodied so many paradigms of early 1970s futurism.

It would be easy to be nonchalantly cynical about nuclear fusion given past promises. After all, the first successful experiments with a tokamak reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in 1968 date to the time of many other failed futurisms that have since become stock figures of fun — the flying car, the jetpack, the domed city, and so on. One could dismiss nuclear fusion in the same spirit, but this would be a mistake. The long, hard road to nuclear fusion as an energy resource will have long-term consequences for our industrial-technological civilization.

Russian T1 Tokamak at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.

Russian T1 Tokamak at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.

Like hypersonic flight, practicable fusion power has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult engineering challenge. Fusion research began in the 1920s with British physicist Francis William Aston, who discovered that four hydrogen atoms weigh more than one helium (He-4) atom, which means that fusing four hydrogen atoms together would result in the release of energy. The first practical fusion devices (including fusion explosives) were constructed in the 1950s, including several Z-pinch devices, stellarators, and tokamaks at the Kuchatov Institute.

tokamak small

Ever since these initial successes in achieving fusion, fusion scientists have been trying to achieve breakeven or better, i.e., producing more power from the reaction than was consumed in making the reaction. It’s been a long, hard slog. If we start seeing fusion breakeven in the next decade, this will be a hundred years after the first research suggested the possibility of fusion as an energy resource. In other words, fusion power generation has been a technology in development for about a hundred years. For anyone who supposes that our civilization is too short-sighted to take on large multi-generational projects, the effort to master nuclear fusion stands as a reminder of what is possible when the stakes are sufficiently high.

The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratory.

The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratory.

I characterized fusion as a “technology of nature” in Fusion and Consciousness, though the mechanism by which nature achieves fusion — gravitational confinement — is not practical for human technology. Mostly following news stories I previously wrote about fusion in Fusion Milestone Passed at US Lab, High Energy Electron Confinement in a Magnetic Cusp, One Giant Leap for Mankind, and Why we don’t need a fusion powered rocket.

There was a good article in Nature earlier this year, Plasma physics: The fusion upstarts, which focused on some of the smaller research teams vying to make fusion reactors into practical power sources. Here are some of the approaches now being pursued and have been reported in the popular press:

High Beta Fusion Reactor The legendary Skunkworks, which built the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, is working on a fusion reactor that it hopes will be sufficiently compact that it can be hauled on the back of a truck, and will produce 100 MW. (cf. Nuclear Fusion in Five Years?)

magnetized liner inertial fusion (MagLIF) This is a “Z pinch” design that was among the first fusion device concepts, now being developed as the “Z Machine” at Sandia National Laboratory. (cf. America’s Underdog Fusion Experiment Is Closing In on the Nuclear Future)

spheromak A University of Washington project formerly called a dynomak, a magnetic containment device in the form of a sphere instead of the tokamak’s torus. (cf. Why nuclear fusion will soon become reality)

Polywell The Polywell concept was developed by Robert Bussard of Bussard ramjet fame, based on fusor devices, which have been in use for some time. (cf. Low-Cost Fusion Project Steps Out of the Shadows and Looks for Money)

Stellerator The stellarator is another early fusion idea based on magnetic confinement that fell out of favor after the tokamaks showed early promise, but which are not the focus of active research again. (cf. From tokamaks to stellarators)

This is in no sense a complete list. There is a good summary of the major approaches on Wikipedia at Fusion Power. I give this short list simply to give a sense of the diversity of technological responses to the engineering challenge of controlled nuclear fusion for electrical power generation.

Polywell Fusion Reactor

Polywell Fusion Reactor

Even as ITER remains the behemoth of fusion projects, projected to cost fifty billion USD in spending by thirty-five national governments, the project is so large and is coming together so slowly that other technologies may well leap-frog the large-scale ITER approach and achieve breakeven before ITER and by different methods. The promise of practical energy generation from nuclear fusion is now so tantalizingly close that, despite the amount of money going into ITER and NIF, a range of other approaches are being pursued with far less funding but perhaps equal promise. Ultimately there may turn out to be an unexpected benefit to the difficulty of attaining sustainable fusion reactions. The sheer difficulty of the problem has produced an astonishing range of approaches, all of which have something to teach us about plasma physics.

Stellarator devices look like works of abstract art.

Stellarator devices look like works of abstract art.

Nuclear fusion as an energy source for industrial-technological civilization is a perfect example of what I call the STEM cycle: science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates near resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term.

In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility. This process is so tightly coupled in ITER and NIF that the primary research facilities hold out the promise of someday producing marketable power generation. The experience of operating a large scale fusion reactor will doubtless have many lessons for fusion scientists, who will in turn apply the knowledge gained from this experience to their scientific work. The first large scale fusion generation facilities will eventually become research reactors as they are replaced by more efficient fusion reactors specifically adapted to the needs of electrical power generation. With each generation of reactors the science, technology, and engineering will be improved.

The vitality of fusion science today, as revealed in the remarkable diversity of approaches to fusion, constitutes a STEM cycle with many possible inputs and many possible outputs. Even as the fusion STEM cycle is tightly coupled as science immediately feeds into particular technologies, which are developed with the intention of scaling up to commercial engineering, the variety of technologies involved have connections throughout the industrial-technological economy. Most obviously, if high-temperature superconductors become available, this will be a great boost for magnetic confinement fusion. A breakthrough in laser technology would be a boost for inertial confinement fusion. The prolixity of approaches to fusion today means that any number of scientific discoveries of technological advances could have unanticipated benefits for fusion. And fusion itself, once it passes breakeven, will have applications throughout the economy, not limited to the generation of electrical power. Controlled nuclear fusion is a technology that has not experienced an exponential growth curve — at least, not yet — but this at once tightly-coupled and highly diverse STEM cycle certainly looks like a technology on the cusp of an exponential growth curve. And here even a modest exponent would make an enormous difference.

This is big science with a big payoff. Everyone knows that, in a world run by electricity, the first to market with a practical fusion reactor that is cost-competitive with conventional sources (read: fossil fuels) stands to make a fortune not only with the initial introduction of their technology, but also for the foreseeable future. The wealthy governments of the world, by sinking the majority of their fusion investment into ITER, are virtually guaranteeing that the private sector will have a piece of the action when one of these alternative approaches to fusion proves to be at least as efficient, if not more efficient, than the tokamak design.

But fusion isn’t only about energy, profits, and power plants. Fusion is also about a vision of the future that avoids what futurist Joseph Voros has called an “energy disciplined society.” As expressed in panegyric form in a recent paper on fusion:

“The human spirit, its will to explore, to always seek new frontiers, the next Everest, deeper ocean floors, the inner secrets of the atom: these are iconised [sic] into human consciousness by the deeds of Christopher Columbus, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau, and Albert Einstein. In the background of the ever-expanding universe, this boundless spirit will be curbed by a requirement to limit growth. That was never meant to be. That should never be so. Man should have an unlimited destiny. To reach for the moon, as he already has; then to colonize it for its resources. Likewise to reach for the planets. Ultimately — the stars. Man’s spirit must and will remain indomitable.”

NUCLEAR FUSION ENERGY — MANKIND’S GIANT STEP FORWARD, Sing Lee and Sor Heoh Saw

The race for market-ready fusion energy is a race to see who will power the future, i.e., who will control the resource that makes our industrial-technological civilization viable in the long term. Profits will also be measured over the long term. Moreover, the energy market is such that multiple technologies for fusion may vie with each other for decades as each seeks to produce higher efficiencies at lower cost. This competition will drive further innovation in the tightly-coupled STEM cycle of fusion research.

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Note added Wednesday 15 October 2014: Within a couple of days of writing the above, I happened upon two more articles on fusion in the popular press — another announcement from Lockheed, Lockheed says makes breakthrough on fusion energy project, and Cheaper Than Coal? Fusion Concept Aims to Bridge Energy Gap.

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Sunday


STEM cycle epiphenomena 3

Inefficiency in the STEM cycle

In my previous post, The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization, I ended on the apparently pessimistic note of the existential risks posed to industrial-technological civilization by friction and inefficiency in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization headlong into the future. Much that is produced by the feedback loop of science, technology, and engineering is dissipated in science that does not result in technologies, technologies that are not engineered in to industries, and industries that do not produce new scientific instruments. However, just enough science feeds into technology, technology into engineering, and engineering into science to keep the STEM cycle going.

These “inefficiencies” should not be seen as a “bad” thing, since much pure science that is valuable as an intellectual contribution to civilization has few if any practical consequences. The “inefficient” science that does not contribute directly to the STEM cycle is some of the best science that does humanity credit. Indeed, G. H. Hardy was famously emphatic that all practical mathematics was “ugly” and only pure mathematics, untainted by practical application, was truly beautiful — and Hardy made it clear that beautiful mathematics was ultimately the only thing that mattered. Thus these “inefficiencies” that appear to weaken the STEM cycle and hence pose an existential risk to our industrial-technological civilization, are at the same time existential opportunities — as always, risk and opportunity are one and the same.

STEM cycle epiphenomena 4

Opportunities of the STEM cycle

The apparently pessimistic formulation of my previous took this form:

“It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle.”

Such a formulation must be balanced by an appropriate and parallel formulation to the effect that it is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could decrease the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus increasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle.

However, making the STEM cycle more “efficient” might well be catastrophic, or nearly catastrophic, for civilization, as it would imply a narrowing of human life to the parameters defined by the STEM cycle. This might lead to a realization of the existential risks of permanent stagnation (i.e., the stagnation of all aspects of civilization other than those that advance industrial-technological civilization, which could prove frightening) or flawed realization, in which an acceleration or consolidation of the STEM cycle leads to the sort of civilization no one would find desirable or welcome.

There is no reason one could not, however, both strengthen the STEM cycle, making industrial-technological civilization more robust and more productive of advanced science, technology, and engineering, while at the same time also producing more pure science, more marginal technologies, and more engineering curiosities that don’t feed directly into the STEM cycle. The bigger the pie, the bigger each piece of the pie and the more to go around for everyone. Also, pure science and practical science exist in a cycle of mutual escalation of their own, in which pure science inspires practical science and practical science inspires more pure science. Perhaps the same is true also of marginal and practical technologies and the engineering of curiosities and the engineering of mass industries.

STEM cycle epiphenomena 6

Scaling the STEM cycle

The dissipation of excess productions of the STEM cycle mean that unexpected sectors of the economy (as well as unexpected sectors of society) are occasionally the recipients of disproportional inputs. These disproportional inputs, like the inefficiencies discussed above, might be understood as either risks or opportunities. Some socioeconomic sectors might be catastrophically stressed by a disproportionate input, while others might unexpected flourish with a flourishing input. To control the possibilities of catastrophic failure or flourishing success, we must consider the possibility scaling the STEM cycle.

To what degree can the STEM cycle be scaled? By this question I mean that, once we are explicitly and consciously aware that it is the STEM cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization (or, minimally, that it is among the drivers of industrial-technological civilization), if we want to further drive that civilization forward (as I would like to see it driven until earth-originating life has established extraterrestrial redundancy in the interest of existential risk mitigation) can we consciously do so? To what extent can the STEM cycle be controlled, or can its scaling be controlled? Can we consciously direct the STEM cycle so that more science begets more technology, more technology begets more engineering, and more engineering begets more science? I think that we can. But, as with the matters discussed above, we must always be aware of the risk/opportunity trade-off. Focusing too much of the STEM cycle may have disadvantages.

Once we understand an underlying mechanism of civilization, like the STEM cycle, we can consciously cultivate this mechanism if we wish to see more of this kind of civilization, or we can attempt to dampen this mechanism if we want to see less of this civilization. These attempts to cultivate or dampen a mechanism of civilization can take microscopic or macroscopic forms. Macroscopically, we are concerned with the total picture of civilization; microscopically we may discern the smallest manifestations of the mechanism, as when the STEM cycle is purposefully pursued by the R&D division of a business, which funds a certain kind of science with an eye toward creating certain technologies that can be engineered into specific industries — all in the interest of making a profit for the shareholders.

This last example is a very conscious exemplification of the STEM cycle, that might conceivably be reduced the work of a single individual, working in turn as scientist, technologist, and engineer. The very narrowness of this process which is likely to produce specific and quantifiable results is also likely to produce very little in terms of epiphenomenal manifestations of the STEM cycle, and thus may contribute little or nothing to the more edifying dimensions of civilization. But this is not necessarily the case. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working as scientists trying to solve a practical problem for Bell Labs when they discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation.

STEM cycle epiphenomena 7

Reason for Hope

We have at least as much reason to hope for the future as to despair of the future, if not more reason to hope. The longer civilization persists, the more robust it becomes, and the more robust civilization becomes, the more internal diversity and experimentation civilization can tolerate (i.e., greater social differentiation, as Siggi Becker has recently pointed out to me). The extreme social measures taken in the past to enforce conformity within society have been softened in Western civilization, and individuals have a great deal of latitude that was unthinkable even in the recent past.

Perhaps more significantly from the perspective of civilization, the more robust and tolerant our civilization, the more latitude there is for like-minded individuals to cooperate in the founding and advancement of innovative social movements which, if they prove to be effective and to meet a need, can result in real change to the overall structure of society, and this sort of bottom-up social change was precisely the kind of change that agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was structured to frustrate, resist, and suppress. In this respect, if in no other, we have seen social progress in the development of civilization that is distinct from the technological and economic progress that characterizes the STEM cycle.

As I wrote in my recent Centauri Dreams post, SETI, METI, and Existential Risk, to exist is to be subject to existential risk. Given the relation of risk and opportunity, it is also the case that to exist is to choose among existential opportunities. This is why we fight so desperately to stay alive, and struggle so insistently to improve our condition once we have secured the essentials of existence. To be alive is to have countless existential opportunities within reach; once we die, all of this is lost to us. And to improve one’s condition is to increase the actionable existential opportunities within one’s grasp.

The development of civilization, for all its faults and deficiencies, is tending toward increasing the range of existential opportunities available as “live options” (as William James would say) for both individuals and communities. That this increased range of existential opportunities also comes with an increased variety of existential risks should not be employed as an excuse to attempt to reverse the real social gains bequeathed by industrial-technological civilization.

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Thursday


STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

In my post The Industrial-Technological Thesis I proposed that our industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by an escalating feedback loop in which scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, technologies are engineered into industries, and industries produce new instruments for science, which results in further scientific discoveries. I have elaborated this view in several posts, most recently in The Growth of Historical Consciousness, in which latter I noted that I would call this cyclical feedback loop the “STEM cycle,” given that “STEM” has become a common acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and these are the elements involved in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization

Elsewhere, in Industrial-Technological Disruption, I considered some of the distinctive ways in which the STEM cycle stalls or fails. In that post I wrote, in part:

Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science… Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.

The last of the above items — failures of engineering and industrial accidents — I have further elaborated more recently in How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

This is not at all to say that these are the only ways in which the STEM cycle falters or fails. As I noted in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, complex systems fail in complex ways, and industrial-technological civilization is by far the most complex system on the planet. (Biological systems are extremely complex, but industrial-technological civilization supervenes upon biological complexity, and therefore, in the most comprehensive sense, includes biological complexity in its own complexity.)

industrial accidents

In several of my posts on what I now call the STEM cycle I have called this cycle driving industrial-technological civilization a “closed loop.” I now realize that the STEM cycle is only a closed loop under certain “ideal” conditions (I will try to explain below why I put “ideal” in scare quotes). The messiness and imprecision of the real world means that most structures that we impose upon the world in order to understand it are simplified and schematic, and my description of the STEM cycle has been simplistic and schematic in this way. The actual function of science, technology, and engineering under contemporary socioeconomic conditions is far more complex, and that means that the STEM cycle is not a closed loop, but rather an unclosed loop, or an open feedback loop in which extrinsic forces at times enter into the STEM cycle while much of the productive energy of the STEM cycle is dissipated into extrinsic channels that contribute little or nothing to the furtherance of the STEM cycle.

Not every scientific discovery leads to technologies; not every technology can be engineered into an industry; not every industry produces new scientific instrumentation that can be employed in further scientific discoveries. Industrial-technological civilization produces epiphenomenal scientific knowledge, epiphenomenal technologies, and epiphenomenal engineering and industry — but enough science, technology and engineering participate in the STEM cycle to keep the processes of industrial-technological civilization moving forward for the time being.

I noted above that the STEM cycle is a closed loop only under “ideal” conditions, and these “ideal” conditions for the STEM cycle are not necessarily the “ideal” conditions for anything else — including the development of the features we value most highly in civilization. Pure science often results in little or no technology, and only rarely does it produce technologies in the near term. Many if not most technological innovations emerge from a long process of technological development that has scientific research only as a distant ancestor. The purest of the pure sciences — mathematics — has recently shown itself to have important applications in computer science, which has a direct impact on the economy, but it would be easy to cite numerous branches of mathematics which seem to have little or no relation to any technology, now or in the future.

Many perfectly viable technologies remain as mere curiosities. The history of technology is filled with such “hopeful monsters” that never caught on with the public or never found an application that would have justified their mass production. An interesting example of this would be the Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator, designed by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd. Both were to have much more “commercial” success with the atomic bomb, though I suspect both would have rather been successful with their refrigerator.

A great many industries, perhaps most industries, fulfill and respond to consumer demands that have little or no relationship to producing new scientific instruments that will lead to new scientific discoveries. And when industries do change science, it is often unintentional. The mass production of personal computers has profoundly affected the way that science is pursued, and has greatly stimulated scientific discovery (as has the internet), but little of this was the direct result of attempting to produce new and better scientific instruments.

It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle. A permanent or semi-permanent change in social conditions (i.e., the social context in which the STEM cycle is played out) could introduce sufficient friction and inefficiency into the STEM cycle to retard or cease development and thereby to induce permanent stagnation (one of the categories of existential risk) into industrial-technological civilization.

There are, today, no end of prophecies of civilizational doom and stagnation, and it is not my intention merely to add one to their number, but it is an occupational hazard of the study of existential risk to consider such scenarios. The particular scenario I contemplate here is based on a particular mechanism that I believe uniquely characterizes industrial-technological civilization, and therefore demands our attention as it directly bears upon our viability as a civilization.

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