Slight Prospect of Showers

12 Feb

We’re where the sands’ slope’s even and the tides’ speeds deceive. It’s a Saturday, and the water’s turned. Surfers, forming a shifting backdrop, aim between a pair of safety flags. Families in the foreground; instant barbecues, buckets and spades, cricket sets, windbreaks. A fine dust eddies above the dunes across the entrance to the beach. Seagulls wheel low overhead, scavenging for leftovers from fishing trips and daytrips impartially.

Another way of describing this pleasant June scene would be as a kind of chaos. At the Lilliputian level of quarks and leptons, all that activity amounts to much the same thing: an everchanging, interacting, effectively random, collection of particles, charges and forces.

To determine mathematically where any particle might be at any given moment is all but impossible. Somewhere in an atom, in a molecule of water, in a single drop on some person or thing, but always always in motion.

Yet to the trained observer, in this instance a child psychologist – but if you prefer we can substitute sports scientist, amateur watercolourist, dietician, health inspector, lifesaver, tour guide, geologist, birdwatcher, seagull, thief – patterns should begin to emerge.

Each physical level and each method of observation allows us to assign a probability as to where our little particle might be.

If our stray raindrop – which itself is odd, because no rain was forecast, other than through the mystery of chaos theory – falls upon the nose of a child playing cricket, then the rules of the game are going to circumscribe its motion, without worrying too much about the sub-atomic level.

If we were far too serious to be that familiar with beach cricket, we might prefer instead to speak of the child in terms of distance from its social group.

Or we might anticipate they’re going to have to up stumps any minute because of the incoming tide (if you know your times).

While if you’re a (smart-thinking) bird you might gauge that one of the smaller mammals would be unlikely to be able to scale the rocks to the north.

The artist would probably paint the child a couple of feet to the left because somehow it looked better.

Different rules, models, theories, patterns, themes, games, systems, environments will provide differing boundaries for our estimates and produce their own degrees of error.

Sometimes, peering too close with your magnifying glass will tell you less than taking a couple of steps back until the bigger picture emerges. The concept of “emergence” is one way of describing this self-evident separation between many layers of meaning in the physical world, from the microscopic to the telescopic, by use of different lenses. At each magnification, a multitude of smaller processes may remain largely hidden from sight, and the things we can see when taken together seem to have a life of their own beyond their constituent parts. Like a cloud. Or a beach. Or a game of cricket.

If you think of what makes up a thundercloud, you’re still not that far from the underlying physics.  A beach is more of a challenge. But it’s very hard to see what fractional charges on particles could ever have to do with a cricket team, when it’s clearly all about bowling, batting and fielding.

Let’s try.

In 1905 Einstein studied small random motions in a dynamic equilibrium – – which he was able to show were caused by unseen atoms,  using statistical mechanics.

This confirmed that the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which governs entropy, the increasing dispersal of energy in a system, was based on probability.

The implications of this for the visible complexity of life on Earth had already been foreseen by Boltzmann, his immediate predecessor in this field:

The seeming paradox of complexity – that disorder can ever lead to another sort of order – has caused enough confusion (e.g. between closed and open systems) and pet theories over the years for me to avoid using more recent references, although I don’t think the basic notion is in dispute, just what it means in practice.

But say we were to toss a coin repeatedly: the longer we carried on, the more likely we would be to see nice symmetrical patterns such as…


…. Or if we picked randomly from the first 7 letters of the alphabet, sooner or later we would hit upon…


… which is Shakespearean sonnet form. So large random sets will contain many individual sequences with a purely spontaneous appearance of being highly ordered, without any predetermined meaning. Like snowflakes, in fact.

When conditions are stable, the endless coin tosses of nature may be hardly noticeable.

In the long run, however, few things can really resist change. Given eternity, even diamonds will revert to graphite – – rather more quickly in extreme conditions.

If two or more things come into close proximity, so that they can’t decently avoid each other, there will probably have to be some sort of exchange. A polite smile, a nod in return. A reaction. If this happens often enough, it will turn out that there are some sorts of exchanges that are more likely than others; a relationship grows and a shape begins to emerge from the statistics. So from tiny atomic exchanges, new forms develop, and then those bigger forms have their own bigger exchanges which then form new contours and so on. Which things are in proximity at what time and in what way is determined by their environment.

In any period, the statistics will mean that some forms fit their environment better than others. Things that can keep themselves going as little mini-systems, or even better, that can progressively duplicate themselves, will have a far greater chance of expanding on their previous success at fitting in. This means that the possibilities in the environment left over for everything else in the same ecosystem will have changed, so in turn everything else makes their own adjustments. All these goings-on tend to take a very long time to work themselves out, and we call this evolution. (It even applies to how communication using arbitrary but repeatable and increasingly familiar gestures evolves into a structured language.)

So with a little mental effort we can imagine how the changes we see every day all around us must trace back to tiny unseen collisions and exchanges, but to follow their path backwards or forwards in time involves greater and greater uncertainty.

Supposing that, whenever we wanted to talk about something, we had to describe its story from the very beginning. If you closeted yourself away in a darkened laboratory to map out all the myriad atomic interactions that can occur, perhaps one day you would be lucky enough to come up with the structure of an individual grain of sand. But if what you really wanted to get onto was the formation of the beach itself, you wouldn’t have achieved much. It would be a lot quicker if you could just skip the nuclear physics, pull out some old nautical charts and begin with the action of the sea on the coastline. But even if you knew all there was to know about the shifting sands, you’d still be a long way off your game of cricket on the beach.

The only way you can proceed is by a series of approximations. It’s impossible to determine from bouncing particles who or what will be on your beach, or specify what it looks like, or even what time it will be.

Giving it up as a bad job, you might start again from the other direction, out in space. Now you would peer through the clouds just close enough to discern humans bouncing around the British Isles in seemingly random motion. After a while, you would notice that the beaches filled up on two days in every seven, varying in accordance with the climate. You could learn the same thing at a quite different level from a statistical study of individual coastal car parks. Either way, we would have discovered an emergent property of the system What-People-Do-In-Their-Spare-Time, without having discovered anything about the personal motivations or circumstances that brought anyone to the beach that day.

Obviously, we all know what cricket is (or if you’re American, you don’t).  It’s a safe guess to say that if we went back beyond the Stone Age, its beginnings would be unrecognisable, but sooner or later it would gradually emerge from other recognisable sorts of behaviour.

Emergence is systematic, if never quite exact. If you accept its generalisations about the present, and you give it a little time to work in, it will reliably deposit particles on the shore until they form a beach; and it will reliably deposit people on the same shore, at weekends, weather permitting. There are patterns and you just have to see them.

The system is created by the observer.

But if you now pushed one of those observers onto the beach and tried to get them to use their special way of looking at the scene to change what was going on, they might find that there were limits.

Who can we get to control a quark in a drop of water on a child’s nose? If we don’t have access to a pocket particle accelerator, perhaps we should concentrate our efforts on the child.

The child psychologist might well have the most insight here, but not necessarily be in a position to make anything happen.  Authority figures, regardless of role or sympathetic disposition, would probably have the best chance of peremptorily shifting the child.  A geologist could settle down and wait for the rock formations to change, but the incoming tide would settle the matter long before then.

Before you rush out and find yourself a professional, hire a management consultant, buy that self-help book, or pay too much attention to the latest piece of research… Yes, they’re going to carve up their analyses this way and that, and maybe they’re right about some of it too, but they will also have their own built-in limits and levels, and being able to demonstrate a consistent analysis of a scene on their own terms is by no means the same as saying that they’re also going to be the most effective or appropriate for sorting your problems out (especially if there’s a messy complexity and they see things from an overparticular angle).

What’s the answer, then? For our raindrop, many many different approaches might work – and I suspect they’d actually all take the same amount of time.  In randomised controlled trials, bribing children with chocolate achieves the fastest results (p < 0.05). Unfortunately, bribery as a tactic is largely frowned upon.

In real life, of course, change will often catch you off guard, arriving from an entirely unexpected direction, like the seagull that once swooped on our unguarded pasties. But that was on another beach, a long long time ago.

When I wrote the original version of this entry a few years back, early on in my work blogging days,  I didn’t realise how much this applied equally to the very words I was writing. Unless you’re speaking from a position of authority or can resort to bribery, trying to sneak a fresh perspective into some holiday talk is hardly likely to get anything moving. Or maybe I did realise I was wasting my time, but I figured it was better to pretend to have a purpose than to do nothing.

So if I gave up before, why bother again here? This time round I’m just trying to pass the time and make conversation, about… about…

How did consciousness ever evolve out of stardust?

If you admit that as a question, you can go almost anywhere with it, with a little humility.

‘Emergence’ starts out seeming to work like Chinese boxes, each level of understanding fitting neatly over the previous one, except after a while you begin to notice nothing is fixed, you’re surrounded by motion, and the number of possible relationships between everything and every other thing is growing astronomically. In human society, every system you think you can see overlaps with many other systems; and, if you ask enough experts, you’ll find they won’t agree how these systems work – or even what they are.

I suppose the only difference is between those who acknowledge this and those who don’t.

Understanding that understanding the problem is a problem. Anne Buchanan ‏- @EcoDevoEvo on Twitter – sets this poser:

Peter Bakker – @mapbakery – found this piece: Christopher Alexander asking what a good city looks like. “A city is not a tree” because people don’t align themselves to one branch or another, they make connections.

Ruth Malan’s Trace trails through the undergrowth of organically composable ecosystems – finding, along the way, “Complexity and emergence. Mess. Upon mess,” before coming to fairly similar conclusions to Alexander.

Ruth (@ruthmalan by the way) pointed me towards the lateral thinking of Brazilian mayor, Jaime Lerner. This article gives a good flavour of how he tried to encourage a sustainable city – – although clearly, if you read the comments, it is an argument (no, let’s make that a conversation) that itself has to be sustained. Nudge a little, talk a little.

The world is a complex system and it looks like we need to embrace it:

I hope I will, one day. For now, I’m just watching.


The sands’ slope’s even and the tides’ speeds deceive. Seagulls wheel low overhead. Clouds swirl formlessly.


5 Responses to “Slight Prospect of Showers”

  1. blinddrew February 12, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    I’m still never sure if I really understand your blogs :¬)

  2. carolkean May 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    What a great blog!! You’re a gifted writer and thinker. This is not to say I understand all the science you speak of, but that’s my shortcoming, not yours. Thanks for this!

  3. pabloredux May 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    Me neither! Entropy gets the blame for all sorts of things so I compromised by appealing to authority then skipping as many of the contested bits as I thought I could get away with.

  4. carolkean May 10, 2014 at 4:54 pm #

    Reblogged this on carolkean and commented:
    He says what I have tried to say, but so much better. I’m following this blogger on twitter, too.


  1. As You Like It (Or What You Will) | pabloredux - October 9, 2014

    […] there is the porridge that is the Monoverse and then there are scientists circling round with their subjective notions of how best to slice us up – along with our brains – into a collection of carefully labelled objects. Of the two, […]

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