Saturday, December 09, 2006

Physics is a Good Domain for Horizontal Thinking

Well, Zenpundit had a thought provoking post, about what field of expertise might be best as a vertical thinking domain that would lead to productive horizontal thinking. Among his possible choices was physics, which is, of course, near and dear to my heart. Simply because of personal bias, I would have to say physics is the best domain to start from in terms of horizontal productivity (besides, physicists are known as being quite arrogant about the range of problems, like everything, they feel trained to tackle). But when I think about this seriously, it seems to make the most sense, at least to me.

Physics deals with fundamentals. It is the branch of science that looks to understand the quantities and phenomena that literally make up everything in the universe. In order to do high-level physics, mathematics, another field of study on Zen's list, is essential. So is mathematics a more important domain as far as making progress horizontally? I guess I swing back to physics only because, in the end, to solve real problems, one must have at least one eye that can see reality. One can also look at history when Isaac Newton, not a bad horizontal thinker/visionary, had to create calculus in order to solve a physics problem: gravity. I think one of the great examples of horizontal thinking in all of history was Newton's great leap that the force making an apple fall is the same as the force keeping the moon in orbit. That is not at all obvious to mere mortals!

Because physics is a science, it tackles problems through logic, common sense, observation, and experimentation. It studies the basic ingredients of the universe, energy, matter, and forces. And, it is built around the idea of finding the relationships, or interconnectedness, between all physical quantities for any physical system, no matter how simple or complex. It is the combination of these three features, mathematical preciseness and logic, fundamentals, and interconnectedness, that would allow a trained mind to expand on and attempt to tackle the most complex problems. It is the nature of a physicists mind to think we may be capable of a true 'theory of everything.' Now that is arrogance, but may turn out to not be that far-fetched an idea!

It appears that using physics as a 'training grounds' to horizontal breakthroughs is already playing out. The most intriguing areas in human thought right now tend to deal with complex systems. How is globalization going to affect both local and global societies and economies? What are the political, environmental, military, and socioeconomic consequences of global climate change? How do geopolitical hotspots, such as the Mideast, affect the global economy? What is the nature of terror organizations? Where does religion fit into the mix as far as East-West relationships? Now, in each of these examples, complexity reigns supreme because each big question being considered consists of multiple interacting agents that make up a given system. In complexity, the interrelationships between the quantities or principles are key to understanding how the system is going to evolve. This is the essence of what physicists do, and how they are trained to think and analyze problems. And, physicists have an advantage over mathematicians...not only are physicists trained in advanced mathematics and abstract thinking, but they are also trained as scientists, and are driven to always think in terms of basing conclusions on some type of real evidence - some kind of connection to the real world.

Already, domains of study such as economics have begun using mathematical analysis techniques developed by physicists to revolutionize economic theory. Econophysics is being born. Chemistry and biology are working at the molecular and atomic level, which is the realm of the physicist. Technology is driven by nanotechnology and electronics, the realms of physicists (both classical electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics). Engineering in general is essentially applied physics. The exploding realm of computational science was given birth by theoretical physicists. And, going back to Newton, even the notion of using mathematical analysis of real systems began by addressing physics questions. Such mathematical analysis is now dominating areas such as network theory and complex systems, which includes social systems. Even modern areas of psychology, from a research perspective, are at the level of looking at information dispersal and signal processing in neural networks in terms of electrical pulses at the molecular level, which is a biophysical process.

In the end, physics, or at least a physicist's mentality and approach to problem solving, will likely lead to many horizontal breakthroughs in the future. However, I happen to believe certain issues cannot be thoroughly analyzed without some amount of historical analysis. Zen and I have had some amazing discussions over many years by taking historical features and precedents combined with technological and scientific advancements (which tend to throw off historical analogies, since the hyperspeed with which technology expands on a global scale is in fact creating situations with no historical analogs), so trying to attack some modern problems will require a mix of domains (i.e. consilient analyses), to be sure. New visions can also occur in unexpected ways, where accidental discoveries might trigger some new thought, or a creative mind that was trained in some field that is not directly related to a given problem. In the information age, some groups get it that it is imperative to build working teams of people triained in multiple disciplines, but much more of this will be needed in order to tackle the truly complex problems that affect the world presently.


Larry Dunbar said...

Dr Von,
I agree with you that physics, to me, is the best platform for vertical thinkers to work off of. In answer to Zen’s question: “If I had to go back in time, I can say I'd take far more physics the second time around. Where do you stand?” I said if I had to go back in time, I would study more of the Arts. However, this is just a personal choice, I think the best platform to work from would be physics. Actually if you want to become an Artist, I imagine physics would still be a good choice; perhaps then you would need to cross domains.

I am a vertical thinker and I am using physics to better understand the world we live in. I am also what Howard Bloom in his book “Global Brain” calls a complex seeking introvert. Although my capabilities are not as great as the ones he sites in his book, nonetheless, I am able to move about with the platform of physics at my feet, which some of those in the past used geometry. Of course to me geometry is just the proportioning of forces, which makes it actually physics, ha!

As I mentioned to Zen awhile back, vertical thinkers use the stepping-stones of ideas that horizontal thinker lay out before us to see a reality that is not our own. Perhaps that is not exactly what I said or how I said it but it seems reasonably true for now.

The worth of a complex seeking introvert is that he or she does not make external connections, but internal ones. An introvert can be just as connected to the rest of the world as extroverts, but we don’t keep track of them by a shake of a hand, but by an image in our heads. There really is no advantage except an introvert can connect more often with faster connections, because the connections are without mass. The connections are only potential connections, or what I like to call, potential energy. This kind of brings me back to physics and my study of complex adaptive systems on many scales. My study comes from reading Bloom and Bar-Yam, who I am sure you have read.

What I have decided is that these complex adaptive systems are a movement of energy and move by the laws of physics. While Bloom gives us 5 elements of a complex adaptive system, there are actually at least two more. One is a potential of either want (negative charge) or need (positive charge). Because a complex adaptive system is a movement of energy it needs a potential to move it. When a complex adaptive system is a system of need it tends to pull mass towards it to satisfy this need. It also generates diversity, because what it was doing before has created a need instead of a want. Bloom explains the transformation when he talks about a colony of spores on page 16 in his book “Global Brain”. Bloom says, “Out of hunger or sheer restlessness, the bacterial cells switched gears.” The “switched gears” he is talking about is actually a change in the electrical charge of the system, so to speak. It went from a negative charged system that had all it needed, and more, to that of a positive charged system that needed. The restlessness he describes is this change of potentials. The system changed its frequency and harmonic balance, but mostly it just moved. It displaced itself in another direction, or many directions as the ones who grew “feet” did.

When a complex adaptive system becomes a system of want, it has all it needs and them some. Because this system is successful it can either conform to those successful practices of the past, with the hopes it will continue to be successful, or it has an option of diversifying for the future. The US is still a system of want, but is changing into a system of need.

The second element that I have discovered and Bloom doesn’t really talk about, although he did talk about the potentials of need and want, is velocity. Velocity of a complex adaptive system is harder for me to explain. Velocity is not easily imagined in the theory of conservation of energy and a person would probably have to get into the laws of thermodynamics. Needless to say, I have had only marginal success explaining potential energy as an element of a complex adaptive system and velocity will only be harder.

Sorry about this rant.

Larry Dunbar

Tom said...

It should be noted that us geographers think the same about our field. The application of geographic approaches to many fields of study have provided great benefit to those fields, as well as back to geography itself. This is especially true since the evolution of high performance computing. The same could be said of physics, I would assume.

It is my opinion that geographers are good at looking for as many approaches to a problem as possible (horizontal thinking). Geography is somewhat unique in the fact that it rides the fence between quantitative and qualitative. There is a definite hard science and social science aspects to the field. Geographers tend to be very good at integrating knowledge of both into a system of understanding.

On another note, some of the best critical thinkers I know happen to be physicists. I don't know which is the moth and which is the flame; the brilliant minds, or the field of physics.

Yet another note; I should have taken more physics in school. Along with more math. I only went as far as an introductory particle physics course and algebra in undergrad. I was always interested in physics, but didn't take the time to study more of it. When it got to building mathematical models of spatial systems I understood very well, I sometimes had to work with a mathematician to build the equations.

vonny said...

I know I am late in saying thanks for the comments, Larry and Tom.

Your comments on complex systems, Larry, are the types that are driving many areas of science right now, and will, I think, for some time to come. I agree that there are many analogs in a variety of complex systems that relate back to fundamental physical quantities and relationships...the hard part is developing a robust theory that incorporates all this in a general and consistent manner for systems across domains. We will see where it leads.

Tom, we really need to get together and talk about all this! I have never even had an introductory course in geography, and am ignorant of methodologies and analysis schemes within that field. I am really interested in learning more; then we can duke it out as to which disipline is 'better.' :-) I hope all is well.