Friday, August 26, 2005

The Physics of Societal and Cultural Change

Many politicians and policy makers have grand plans to drive through certain changes within a given society. But many fall into the trap of believing the change will work its way through a society or culture within brief periods of time. More often than not, policy shifts and major initiatives take much longer and require much more effort than initially planned. As examples, think of things like pushing through any changes for social security, a new government in Iraq, changes in the intelligence sector, tax code overhauls, health care reform, and almost any other policy initiative you can think of. Why?

As a physicist, I tend to think in terms of a lesson in an introductory physics course about momentum and impulse. One can think of ‘inertia,’ or a property of an object that is responsible for a resistance to a change in the object’s motion. Momentum is in many ways the inertia of a moving object, and is defined as the product of mass and velocity. Practically we can say an object that is moving wants to keep moving in a straight line at the same speed, thus keeping its momentum constant. In other words, objects want to stay the course and maintain whatever state of motion it is currently in. So how does change come about? A force is required to change the state of motion of an object. One can change direction, speed, or both, and that is a change in momentum. The magnitude of the change in momentum is called impulse. All of this can be wrapped up in Newton’s 3 laws of motion. What is most useful is Newton’s 2nd law of motion, which mathematically relates the magnitude of a force to the resulting impulse. The other factor that comes into play in the 2nd law is time. We can write it down in shorthand as (Impulse) = (Force) x (time of interaction). In other words, if we consider a constant magnitude of impulse, a large force acting on the object for a short period of time is equivalent to a small force acting on the same object for a long period of time. Keep in mind that the 3rd law of motion is summed up by the famous phrase, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

In a social context, think about an event like 9/11. This hit the American society (and even the global society) in a very short period of time. Our society changed literally in a few hours, because the force of that one tragic event was unbelievably huge. Such a large change of societal momentum (action) allowed the U.S. to invade Afghanistan with a large amount of force that dislodged the Taliban and al Qaeda in a short period of time (reaction).

What is different about something like Social Security reform? It is an important issue for our society. However, neither the administration and Republican Congress nor the Democrats have produced a plan that has placed a ‘force’ on society great enough to swing the momentum shift in either direction. The political divide in our society is so even that two essentially equal strength forces (i.e. competing philosophies and plans for fixing Social Security) which are acting in opposite political directions have resulted in a state of equilibrium. This is no different to a physical analogue of two equally strong tug-of-war teams pulling with all their might, but in opposite directions; equilibrium results and there is no impulse, i.e. no winner. Someone on either side would need to develop a plan that is radically different that will cause a sensation in society to create a large shift in policy direction, or some event would have to occur that produces an external force on society (depression, collapse of the existing system, etc) that is large enough to create a large impulse.

Continuing this series of analogies to Iraq, the “shock and awe” campaign during the U.S. invasion allowed our military to cause a rapid shift in momentum in Iraqi society, and in that phase, even though there was a small time interval involved, the size of the force was large enough for a large enough impulse (i.e. overthrow of the Baathist regime). The mistake, though, was in the second phase. To stabilize the society immediately in the post-Saddam era in a short period of time requires another large force acting on a society where, almost instantaneously, there was a political vacuum. The U.S. war planners (i.e. Rumsfeld) had a relatively small force available to maintain security. To cause a large enough change in momentum to swing the Iraqis more completely to our side with a smaller force requires a longer period of time. Obviously this is overly simplistic, for there are essentially three societies in Iraq (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish), making it very much a complex system, but in my mind the general concept seems to make sense. As time dragged on, there were other competing forces in a variety of directions that prevented a momentum shift in the direction we wanted from occurring.

I would be very interested in feedback from those with expertise in economics and military strategy about the concept of societal and cultural momentum and impulse. Economists, for example, speak in terms of equilibrium. Forces such as supply and demand would create the changes in market equilibrium (perhaps we can call this market impulse). Do real market analyses quantify the state of a market with similar analogues to Newton’s 2nd law? Is there a way of quantifying (in both cases it would be presumably be based on statistics & probabilities) military strategies with analogues to impulse, time and force? Can these concepts be used to help devise both winning and exit strategies for Iraq? At this point, I would think not because Iraq has moved beyond the point where equilibrium conditions can be easily reached. The physical analogue seems to be something like a double pendulum that has gone from a state with normal modes to a chaotic state, where the motion is random and unpredictable. Making it even more chaotic are external agents (insurgents) producing perturbing forces on the system. The U.S. entirely missed the brief time window for maintaining an equilibrium state with a smaller occupying force than many outside the administration thought we needed.


Larry Dunbar said...

Hi Vonny,
I have enjoyed reading your blog since you started it. It looks like you have been busy with your writing lately so I got some catching up to do.
As you know, when you combine momentum with an impulse what you’re really creating is force. This is because the velocity already has an element of time. When you combine another element of time, the duration of impulse, what you create is acceleration. Because force is a product of mass and acceleration, when you once had momentum you now have force.
If you combine an element of distance, the length in which the impulse is in effect, you’re now talking energy. Force = (momentum) x (Impulse), if we don’t figure the distance of the impulse, the mass has now acceleration with it so it is force. While the conservation of energy is more complicated than the conservation of momentum, the situation in the world is, as you say, is very complicated. It might be better to use the conservation of energy formula instead of the conservation of momentum formula when dealing with societies.
The great thing about using the conservation of energy formula is that until you reach the speed of light energy has two components. The energy that causes movement, potential, and the energy that is movement, kinetic. In societies potential energy could represent ideas, while kinetic can represent the resources that actually move.
Larry Dunbar

mark said...

Hey Von,

Great post ! Applying physics and other forms of systemic thinking to strategic planning will be increasingly popular in the future ( I hope).

I tried to post a lengthy comment the other day which Blogger, for reasons unknown, rejected. I'll just send you some links via email.

ps. Hi Larry !

vonny said...


Thank you for the kind words about the blog. I write when I can, and by no means am a hard-core blogger, and I wish I had more time to read others more extensively.

The quantity we call impulse is simply a change in momentum, so it is fundamentally still momentum (i.e. same units). It does give us acceleration, as you mention, and is another way of writing Newton's 2nd law: F = ma = (impulse)/(time). The reason I was thinking in terms of impulse is because it directly involves time and force. Applying a big force over a small time gives the same change in momentum as a small force acting over a long time.

What I believe strategists need to consider is how much force and how much time are required to create the desired change. When dealing with human systems, where individual and mass psychology are also relevant makes matters much more difficult than a physical system that will always follow these laws predictably (at least classical systems). But even though social and cultural systems are much more complex systems due to the inclusion of humans, I think, in principle, the physics analogy is relevant. As for energy, one way of thinking of kinetic energy is (momentum squared) / (2*mass). This means if you want to doble the speed of something, it requires not twice as much energy, but rather 4 times the energy because it is now quadratic.

I actually was thinking of relativity as well. It is interesting to note that if you get something moving afster and faster, of course it requires more and more energy. But in relativity, the faster you go the more massive you other words, more inertia that is a natural consequence of the motion. It becomes harder and harder to change momentum as you get faster and faster! Just another factor that complicates already tough problems (I hate when that happens). :-)

Hey Mark,

I look forward to any links and info you have. I think it is inevitable that physical systems can play a part in strategy and planning because the more we look into complexity and netwroks, the more mathematical similarity we find among seemingly unrelated systems. Again, the hard part is the human psychology aspect, which breaks down the physical models. It is a interdisciplinary problem to say the least, and to put in our network framework, requires powerful, consilient, and efficient modular networks to solve.

These ideas remind me in some ways of fractal structures, where a pattern is repeated indefinitely from macrocosmic sizes to microscopic sizes. The difference here is we can see similar structures and patterns between different systems (rather than size scales). Fascinating!

Larry Dunbar said...

Hey Vonny,
I understand now and your point and explanation is a good one. We do need to step back and look at what a small step the Iraq war really was for how big of challenges are ahead. Too bad Bush couldn’t have done that before, but then again vengeance is not a reason to go to war for anyway.
It has been awhile since I thought of momentum and your answer made me go back and read up on it and Newton’s 2nd law again.
(Momentum squared)/(2*mass) is a great way of looking at kinetic energy. One reason I love physics so much is how you are able to build something from nothing. If you have an area of momentum (area is always squared) and you divide a volume (mass) out of it, it is easy to see how momentum works. It doesn’t matter if you have twice the volume or just one times the volume, when you divide a volume out of an area you have length to contend with. It doesn’t matter if you have a huge area of momentum and short length or a small area of momentum and a long length; you still have and end up with the same volume. It is just easier for me to put equations in a spatial context. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it is just as hard to think of kinetic energy as a volume of something. A force at a distance is easier, but as you say you lose the point you were trying to get across.
With an equation like E=m(c squared) it is easy to see an area of velocity moving at the speed of light. Because the area of velocity is moving at the speed of light in all directions it becomes a volume of velocity. When examining the mass inside this volume (it is multiplied into the volume) it is easy to see that it no longer has potential or mass. The potential is on the outside of the volume of velocity, while the mass is inside the volume of velocity. Mass without potential is mass that can’t be detected. So does it really exist? Of course this is only a picture I use to understand something I really have no knowledge of.
While my book (Physics, fifth edition, Giancoli) went into relativity and quantum physics, my classroom instructions did not. I hope you don’t mind me asking a question about relativity. I realize your blog and interest is really a combination between physics and humanities so you don’t need to answer this.
While the mass increases volume wise with an increase in velocity, and the force increases because of the increase in velocity, does the inertia really increase? I mean the sum of the forces inside the mass is the same, so it would seem to me that the inertia of the object would remain the same. Just because the volume of mass is now huge, I would think that it would have the same impact during the same impulse as the small volume of mass, being the sum of the forces inside the mass are still the same. The large volume of mass would be a puffball while the smaller mass would be like a rock. It would depend on the area of mass that came in contact with what ever it hit :-).
Maybe the real answer lies in the word inertia. You are saying that inertia increases and, if I remember correctly, inertia is a little different than momentum. I am thinking it is more of a property of the mass itself. This is defiantly something I will need to look up thanks.

vonny said...

Hi Larry,

Relativity gives some strange results. For example, the faster something moves, three main effects result: it gets more massive, time slows down relative to some other observer, and the length in the direction of motion decreases. So instead of volume increasing, it actually decreases! Now for the really bizarre result...if a massive object, be it an electron or a person, were to get to the speed of light, Einstein's equations predict that mass becomes infinite, time stops, and volume becomes zero (meaning infinite density). Thsi also means momentum would be infinite adn it would take an infinite amount of energy to get it to the speed of light. Because this is unphysical, our conclusion is that massive objects cannot accelerate up to or beyond the speed of light. And, what's more, these effects have been tested and proven with a variety of experiments and instrumentation (such as particle accelerators, atomic clocks, nuclear reactors, and so on). Giancoli should have chapters on this with various examples worked out. The math is not too terrible in special relativity (but gets incredibly nasty in general relativity, which is where black holes, big bang, and other results come from). Quantum mechanics gets even stranger! :-)

If interested, I also have some introductory material in "Making of Modern Physics" on

blanck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
blanck said...

excellent blog! this is the internet at its finest.

since your blog seems to attempt to bring natural and social sciences together, i'd like to ask if you know of any projects that are trying to make global trends more predictive. i know there's a correlates of war project, but it doesn't seem to be going anywhere these days. i'm thinking about chaos theory or statistical analyses (think the two michael lewis books: liar's poker and moneyball) in predicting the future outbreak of war. basically, what hari seldon accomplished in the foundation series...

vonny said...

blanck -

Thanks for the kind words. The 'Foundation' idea is interesting, but as far as I know no one is in the right universe yet for having that kind of predictive power. Experts in the field of chaos, networks, complexity, etc., I have met all say we have only scratched the surface (these are relatively young fields fo study). How to put it all together and being able to obtain more exact answers is a goal, but it is far off (and perhaps may not happen...who knows). In order to get any sort of idea about complex systems is to use approximation techniques to solve the differential equations one gets. We do not know any exact solutions (as far as I know), and about the best we can do is probabilistic models. It will be interesting to see where all this ends up, to say the least!

It is one thing to have a physical system that follows strict rules (at least classical systems), but when living organisms are involved much difficulty arises since they are adaptive systems. And if the organism is part of a larger network (a node) then how one adapts affects how the other linked nodes react and adapt, and this interplay is continually happening. It is a tough problem.

Larry Dunbar said...

Hi Vonny,
I want to thank you for the links to Einstein’s writings on relativity. It is as you say, “relativity gives some strange results”. However, I haven’t found anything yet that causes me to change my mind’s image of E=m(c square), but I haven’t quite made it through the special relativity yet. As always the first thing I learn when examining new ideas (new to me) is how little a person really knows about something. The more you learn the less you realize you know.
It would seem to me that the lightwaves could do whatever they want as long as you don’t mess with their frequency. The object can shrink as much as it wants to and even a black hole may form, but to me the sum of the forces inside the mass would also change similarly as the mass reaches the speed of light. Of course I am not convinced that mass really exist, especially below or at the atomic level. Hopefully I will be able to clear this thought up eventually with more reading. Simply speaking, and as you can tell I am a rather simple guy, with lightwaves being made up of potential energy, I don’t believe their speed can increase unless their potential increases. With the potential being internal and with relativity describing two references, it would take an internal change to increase the speed of a lightwave above the speed of light. While I have no idea what the limiting factors that give us the speed of light, I am thinking it is the energy of the universe that creates these potential. Any change in the potential is dependent on the sum of the forces of the universe.
Getting back to momentum, I believe things move, except for possibly lightwaves, because there is a potential for energy, negative or positive, in the direction of travel. By creating another area of potential isn’t it possible to change the direction of momentum without changing momentum? If an area of potential is created perpendicular to the direction of travel, doesn’t that create a force vector towards the area of potential without modifying the momentum itself. This would be an example of the earth revolving around the sun. The sun’s gravitational pull doesn’t slow the momentum of the earth; it simply helps to direct it around the sun. This is because momentum is a vector so it’s direction is tangent to the radius of travel not towards the sun (travel towards the sun is curved much like the stone dropped from the train). The acceleration, due to a potential, pulling the earth towards the sun may affect time, which would give the appearance of changing the momentum, but not actually have any effect on it. Maybe like a tetherball tying itself up closer and closer to the pole. It appears to speed up (unless the chord creates a force triangle), but the time of revolutions is just getting less and less.
An example of change in direction not affecting momentum would be when the Christian Right gets embarrassed with the policies of a president. They can maintain momentum by simply changing direction. To do this they create an area of potential, let us say gay issues, and force the momentum around trouble waters, so to speak. While the momentum may loose its original direction, the original potential can build to its original or greater strength and once again pull the momentum towards itself at a latter time. So a person would have to examine the intensity of the potential energy, that the president is creating, in establishing when to change the direction of momentum.
In effect this is being done with the use of polls. Polls are potential energy because they are examining what people might do, not necessary what they have done. They show what the potential is, which creates a force vector towards or away from the potential (as I said potential energy causes movement). Force is made up of mass (could be people) and acceleration (ideas, information, or how informed the people are). The potential will show the “what” and “speed” the force is, because of PE (potential energy) is equal to –KE (kinetic energy). The negative sign only shows that when the potential increases the kinetic energy decreases given that the area of interest remains the same. Kinetic energy decreases because the speed of the mass increases. To push mass at a higher velocity through the same area of interest you have to decrease the amount of stuff through the area. Does this means that Karl Rove is a physics expert?
Now I have to figure out why the length gets shorter in the direction of travel? Maybe it is like a tsunami wave as it comes to shore. As the wave grows taller to compensate for the lost in depth it sucks the water up in front of it. Or maybe there are other possibilities like: maybe the mass compresses into itself as it reaches the speed of light, it looses its potential in the direction of travel and develops another perpendicular to the direction of travel, maybe it just looks like it gets shorter from another vantage point, or, as usual, the answer is probably something completely different. Whatever the answer is, thanks again for your direction, or the potential you created. There is strange and there is stupid, I hope I haven’t crossed the line.

Gunnar said...

I do prefer an analogy between economics and thermodynamics.

Here is the conservation of value hypothesis:
The sum of all economic values E in a closed system is constant. (Money is a form of value, too.)

Any ideas how to define the term value properly? Measuring economic capital is easy, ecological capital is a little bit more fuzzy, and what is with social and cultural capital?

Gunnar Kaestle

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