Infrastructure is a simply written (not in a bad sense) compendium of the wide array of artifacts found in our industrial civilization. While the writing tone is matter-of-fact, there is an underlying sense of admiration and celebration of these often overlooked and sometimes despised elements that create and facilitate the energy and movement of our economy and our lives.
William Cronon, the economic geographer, defined three “natures,” generally classified as: raw nature itself, processed nature, and nature abstracted. This book focuses on the middle one, that which consists of nature after humans have taken it and modified it in order to create value and improve our existence. The complexity and order of the patterns, shapes, and colors that have emerged from human processing are awe-inspiring, above and beyond the actual functions that these elements perform.
The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, applied to farming, electrical power, highways, and most anything else you can think of, emerge in visible manifestations of all sizes. The products and objects of our civilization are wondrous on account of the form they display at any scale. Each element in a system has its own functional role, and its own distinctive form. Individually, and as a whole, these become works of art.
Infrastructure is chock full of images that accompany the text, greatly improving comprehension of the items being described. This book is an amazing compilation of knowledge that anyone interested in the built environment should not miss.
Hayes is an American scientist, columnist, and author.
Theoretical ecologist Ulanowicz has subtitled the book “Natural Life Beyond Newton and Darwin.” These are the first two “windows” that describe the physical universe. Newton’s universe is “atomistic,” or mechanical. This means that the universe is built by interactions between matter—atoms and molecules. Basically, the universe is like a math equation: protons plus neutrons equal atoms, this atom plus that atom equals this or that molecule, and so forth. As such, the mathematical equations can be reconfigured so that molecules divide into atoms, and the atoms divide into protons and electrons. This is what is called “reversibility,” it doesn’t matter which direction you do the math, it works either way. Thus, in a Newtonian world, time is reversible too, since there is nothing fundamentally to invalidate the equation in either direction—there is nothing in the “natural law” that prevents matter from either assembling or decomposing.
Another principal implication of Newton’s laws is that the universe is deterministic, i.e., “given precise initial conditions, the future and past states of a system can be specified with arbitrary precision.” Again, reversibility. Ulanowicz says that this deterministic and reductionist (meaning everything can be reduced to its simplest elements, thus can be known) bent still permeates science today, in spite of general acceptance that quantum mechanics has obsolesced Newton at the micro level. In other words, most scientists believe that if they just plug in enough data, the computer will calculate and spit out a definitive answer. These are the “scientific fundamentalists.” An example would be geneticists such as Richard Dawkins who believe that genes are essentially computer code. Ulanowicz points out that this belief in mechanistic science is little different from religious faith.
The author then goes on to state that it was Darwin (not, as most people think, relativity and quantum theories) who upended time reversibility by demonstrating how organisms’ histories, which incorporate changes due to natural selection, mutations, and even chance, determine biological constructs. This opens the third window, which is what he calls “process ecology,” for which he lists three postulates. These are (using my own shorthand descriptions): 1) chance events determine material form as much as our “code” does, 2) systems can self-organize through process interactions as much as through combinations of matter, and 3) history also shapes material configurations. Natural laws, he says, can be overwhelmed by chance events and emergent order.
Interactions of processes, not laws regarding matter, are determinants of living systems according to Ulanowicz. If I understand correctly, this means that processes such as “ascendency” (the “coherent power a system can use to order itself and the world around it,” e.g., autocatalytics, combinations of propensities) and “overhead” (the inefficiencies of that system, e.g., redundancies, thus ascendency’s opposite) govern. Actually, they don’t govern—they influence.
Ulanowicz sees nature not as computational, but as dialectic. That is, nature is not a math equation that inputs data and spits out the answer. It is a process of continual interactions and feedbacks that shape natural systems toward a convergent end. MIT has just added a “School of Computation” to its five basic schools. This emphasizes the Institute’s bent toward the atomistic, scientific fundamentalist approach. By gathering as much data as possible, MIT thinks, and by inputting it into the right calculations, we can know everything, and how everything works. Ulanowicz does not think this is possible. Only one of them will be correct, and I am putting my money on Ulanowicz.
According to Wikipedia Robert Ulanowicz is an American theoretical ecologist and philosopher who in his search for a unified theory of ecology has formulated a paradigm he calls Process Ecology.
Our destiny is decided. In about five billion years, the earth will be swallowed up by an expanding Sun as it consumes fuel and becomes a red giant. Further out, hundreds of billions of years from now, the entire universe will be history. It will die in one of five ways, each of which make up a chapter in the book: big crunch, heat death, big rip, vacuum decay, or bounce. Which one it turns out to be depends on a number of cosmological factors. Actually, one of the possibilities (vacuum decay) could conceivably happen today. Last I checked, however, we’re still here.
According to Mack, the most likely death scenario is the heat death, which actually does not involve a burning up, but an increase in entropic heat as the universe’s dispersal accelerates, seemingly never to contract. This scenario is the most compatible with the general theory of relativity and the “Standard Model” of quantum physics.
Observational methods to gain insight regarding the origins and directions of the universe’s evolution are greatly increasing human knowledge. Among the most prominent is the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at Europe’s center for nuclear research in Switzerland. This type of particle collider is controversial to some who think it could generate one of the universe destruction scenarios. These devices, however, happen to be helpful in the search for knowledge and, besides, disturb the universe a pittance compared to the destruction it wreaks on itself.
The book concludes with some expressions of angst regarding the “loss” of all traces of matter, including humanity and our civilizations. Mercifully, however, Mack keeps it all in perspective by quoting at the very end those who are grateful that we are living in an age when we are able to understand all of these things. Besides, why worry since we can’t do anything about anyway, and it’s too far in the future to care?
Katie Mack is a theoretical cosmologist and Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University..