Hysteresis Everywhere

“We’ve known each other for a long time, ain’t we, Sy?”

“That we have, Vinnie.”

“So I get suspicious when we’ve specific been talking about a magnetic field making something else magnetic and you keep using general words like ‘driver‘ and ‘deviation‘. You playing games?”

“You caught me. The hysteresis idea spreads a lot farther than magnetism. It addresses an entire dimension Newton was too busy to think about — time.”

“Wait a minute. Newton was all about velocity and acceleration and both of them are something‑per‑time. It’s right there in the units. Twice for acceleration.”

“True, but each is really about brief time intervals. Say you’re riding a roller‑coaster. Your velocity and acceleration change second‑by‑second as forces come at you. Every force changes your net acceleration immediately, not ten minutes from now. Hysteresis is about change that happens because of a cause some time in the past. Newton didn’t tackle time‑offset problems, I suppose mostly because the effects weren’t detectable with the technology of his time.”

“They had magnets.”

“Permanent ones, not electromagnets they could control and measure the effects of. Electromagnetic hysteresis generates effects that Newton couldn’t have known about. Fahrenheit didn’t invent temperature measurement until two years before Newton died, so science hadn’t yet discovered temperature‑dependent hysteresis effects. The microscope had been around for a half‑century or so but in Newton’s day people were still arguing about whether cells were a necessary part of a living organism. Newton’s world didn’t have an inkling of cellular biophysics, much less biophysical hysteresis. At human scale, country‑level economic data if it existed at all was a military secret — not a good environment for studying cases of economic hysteresis.”

“So what you’re saying is that Newton couldn’t have tackled those even if he’d wanted to. Got it. But that’s a pretty broad list of situations. How can you say they’re all hystereseseses, … loopy things?”

“They’ve all got a set of characteristics that you can fit into similar mathematical models. They’re all about some statistical summary of a complex system. The system is under the influence of some outside driver, could be a physical force or something more abstract. The driver can work in either of two opposing directions, and the system can respond to the driver to change in either of two opposing ways. Oh, and a crucial characteristic is that the system has a buffer of some sort that saves a memory of what the driver did and serves it up some time later.”

“Wait, lemme see if I can match those pieces to my magnetic nail. OK, the driver is the outside magnetic field, that’s easy, the system is the magnetic iron atoms, and the summary is the nail’s field. The driver can point north‑to‑south or south‑to‑north and the atoms can, too. Ah, and the memory is the domains ’cause the big ones hold onto the direction the field pointed last. How’d I do?”

“Perfect.”

“Goody for me. So why are those guys on the radio saying the economy is hysterical, ‘scuse, has hysteresis? What’s which part?”

“Economies are complex beasts, with a lot of separate but interacting hysteresis loops. These guys, what were they discussing at the time?”

“Unemployment, if I remember right. They said the job market is sticky, whatever that means.”

“Good example. Here’s our basic hysteresis loop with some relabeling. Running across we’ve got our driver, the velocity of money, which claims to measure all the buying and selling. Up‑and‑down we’ve got total employment. The red dot is the initial equilibrium, some intermediate level where there’s just enough cash flowing around that some but not all people have jobs. Then a new industry, say cellphones, comes in. Suddenly there’s people making cellphones, selling cellphones, repairing cellphones –“

“I get the idea. More activity, money flows faster, more jobs and people are happy. OK, then the pandemic comes along, money slows down, jobs cut back and around we go. But where’s the stickiness?”

“In people’s heads. If they get into Depression thinking, everyone holds onto cash even if there’s a wonderful new cellphone out there. People have to start thinking that conditions will improve before conditions can improve. That’s the delay factor.”

“Hysterical, all right.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Elephant And Pengy

(a hat-tip to Mo Willems, whose Elephant and Piggy books helped my grandkids discover reading)

“Hey, Sy, how come my magnetized nail’s hysteresis loop is so wide? It makes sense that the end‑case magnetizing happens because all the iron atoms get lined up in one direction or the other. But why ain’t the blue up‑curve right on top of the down‑curve?”

“Why do you think it should be, Vinnie?”

“Well, the red curve’s different because you got the outside field herding the iron atoms into domains where they all point the same way and that makes the nail’s magnetism grow from zero, and then the domains that agree with the outside magnetic field eat up the other domains until like I said they saturate. But on both sides of the blue loop the domains already exist, right, so the herding’s all done. Up or down it’s only domains growing and shrinking. Seems to me that the curves oughta be the same.”

“They are, near as I could draw them. You’re just not looking at them right. Rotate it 180°, see how they match up.”

“How ’bout that, they do, mostly. What’s going on?”

“You picked up that the vertical axis represents strength and direction, but you missed that the horizontal axis also represents strength and direction. Neither axis starts at zero, they’re both centered on zero. The driver is the outside magnetic field. No strength in the middle, increasing north‑bound strength to the right, south‑bound strength to the left. Start at the head‑end‑north corner and go down branch 2. The north‑bound driver strength decreases. That relaxes some of those north‑pointing domains and the nail’s net magnetism decreases just a bit. When the outside field’s strength gets down to neutral, about at the upper arrow, the nail’s still strongly magnetized. Most of the domains remember which way they were pointing. That’s the history that makes this hysteresis. The domains stay there until the outside field gets strong enough south‑bound to make a difference. That grows the south‑bound domains at the expense of northbound ones. All that goes on until we get to saturation at head‑end‑south corner and then we run exactly the reverse sequence. For most materials, the two extreme fields have the same strength, just opposite directions.”

“Wait, you said ‘for most materials.’ Different materials have different widths on that picture?”

“Good catch. Yes, there’s ‘hard‘ ones like rare earth magnets. They have a really wide hysteresis loop you can’t demagnetize without a really strong field. That’s good for where you want a permanent magnet that you don’t want to have to recalibrate, like on a spacecraft bound for Jupiter. You’d want a ‘soft magnet‘ with a narrow hysteresis loop for something like a transformer core that has to switch polarity sixty times a second.”

<longish contemplative silence> “Sy, I just got a great idea! And it uses that entropy elephant stuff you wrote about.”

“All right, out with it.”

“OK. When the nail is magnetized, it’s got all or at least most of its iron atoms pointing in the same direction, right? And when the outside field demagnetizes it, the atoms point all over the place, right? So the not‑magnetized nail has randomness, that’s entropy, and the magnetized one doesn’t. Where did the entropy come from? Gotta be from the outside, right? Can we use this to like suck entropy out of things?”

“Right, right and sorta right. I’m not happy with the idea of pumping entropy around. What’s really in play is energy, sometimes as magnetic field energy and sometimes as heat. You’ve got the core idea for a magnetic refrigerator. Put a field‑magnetized transfer material in contact with what you want to cool, then turn off the outside field. Heat from the target flows into the material, jiggles the atoms and scrambles the magnetization. Break the contact, cool and re‑magnetize the material and repeat. The idea’s been around since the late 1800s. The problem has been finding the right material to make it work. The best stuff has a tall, narrow hysteresis loop so it can be strongly magnetized yet forget it easily. Researchers have finally found some good candidates.”

“Too late to the party, huh?”

“Sorry.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Tale of A Nail

“Wait, Sy, let me get my head around that hysteresis loop diagram. You got my iron nail starting at that red dot because it’s not magnetized yet so that’s zero on the up‑down magnetism deviation scale, right? And it’s also zero on the left‑right driver scale because we’re not laying a magnetic field on it.”

“Yup, that’s the starting point, Vinnie.”

“OK, then we turn on the outside field and if it’s strong enough the nail gets magnetic, too, and so we travel up the red line. But the line’s not straight, it’s bendy. Why ain’t it straight?”

“To keep this specific, I’ll stick to the current theory for magnetization of iron. At point zero the individual iron atoms have their personal magnetic fields in completely random orientations. What we measure outside the nail is the average of all of that, which nets out to zero. Now we turn on the external magnetic field a little bit at a time so we can measure the effect. You remember we said that the iron atoms in a magnet are organized in domains.”

“Sure. I don’t forget easy.”

“I’ve noticed. OK, that upward bend at the beginning is slow increase in the nail’s magnetization while those domains are forming up. First a few atoms in one small area orient their local fields relative to the external field. Their combined field influences neighboring atoms to join in. The process is called nucleation because those first few atoms form the nucleus of a domain. The nucleus gains strength by recruiting more atoms, making it an even stronger recruiter. The red line rises exponentially until there aren’t any more unrecruited atoms.”

“That’s the end of the upward bend, huh?”

“Mm-hm, now we enter the linear phase and a different magnetization process. Energy in the external field feeds the domains pointed parallel to it at the expense of domains at a different angle. Domain growth is roughly linear with applied field strength. That line would like to stay straight but nothing goes on forever except maybe the Universe. Sooner or later the domains start running out of room to grow into. Increasing the driver strength doesn’t produce any further effect and we say that the nail’s magnetic field is saturated.”

“That makes sense. Let’s see if I can figure the blue loop from where the head end is north. The number 2 arrow says that if we dial down the driver, that’s the outside field and we’re moving to the left, when we get to zero the deviation, that’s the nail’s field, is still going strong and we got a permanent magnet. If we adjust the outside field leftward beyond zero that kills off the nail’s field … Hey, so the backward domains are eating the forward ones, right?”

“Probably. Depends on the material. Not good to ride the theory too far without checking the experimental data but that’d be my guess.”

“OK, so we drive those little domains until they saturate with the head end south. When we dial down the driver’s field backward strength we move to the right and the nail climbs the number 3 curve. The driver field returns to zero but the nail’s still a backward permanent magnet. We push the driver and the nail to forward saturation again and we can go loop‑de‑loop. But we never go through the red dot again — either the nail’s a permanent magnet when the driver’s zero or it not a magnet while the driver’s strong but they’re never both zero again.”

“Unless we scramble all the domains by heating the nail white-hot and letting it cool away from any external fields.”

“You know what’s missing from that picture, Sy?”

I’d wondered if he’d spot it. “I’ll bite. What?”

“Numbers. Up‑down is how strong the magnet is, right, but I know my knife‑holder magnets are a lot stronger than my calendar marker magnets. And the side‑to‑side part is about how well the stuff holds its magnetism. What’s the theory that puts numbers on the graph?”

“Sorry to tell you this given your math aversion, Vinnie, but the numbers are buried in big, thick books with equations in them. Pictures can only get you so far.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Hysterical Penguin

“Sy, you said that hysteresis researchers filled in two of Newton’s Physics gaps. OK, I get that he couldn’t do atomic stuff ’cause atoms hadn’t been discovered yet. What’s the other one?”

Proposition XI, Problem VI
from Book I of Newton’s Principia

“Non‑linearity.”

“You’re gonna have to explain that.”

“It’s a math thing. I know you don’t go for equations, so here’s a picture to get you started on how Newton solved problems. Look at all familiar?”

“Whoa, looks like something toward the end of my Geometry class.”

“Exactly. Newton was trained as a geometer and he was good at it. His general strategy was to translate a physical system to a geometrical structure and then work out its properties as a series of geometric proofs. The good news was that he proved a lot of things that started us on the way to quantitative science. The bad news was that his proofs were hard to extend to situations where the geometry wasn’t so easy.”

“That’s easy?”

“For Newton, maybe it was. Who knows? Anyway, the toolkit they gave you in Geometry class was what Newton had to work with — logic, straight lines and some special curves like ellipses and parabolas whose properties had been studied since Euclid, all on a flat plane. Nearly everything depended on finding proportionalities between different distances or areas — this line is twice that one but equal to a third, that sort of thing. Proportionality like that is built into equations like here+(velocity×time)=there. See how distance traveled is proportional to time? The equation plots as a straight line, which is why it’s called a linear equation.”

“So what’s non‑linear look like — all wiggle‑waggle?”

“Not necessarily. Things can vary smoothly along curves that aren’t those classical ones. Newton’s methods are blocked on those but Leibniz’s algebra‑based calculus isn’t. That’s why it won out with people who needed answers. What’s important here is that Newton’s lines can’t describe everything. Mmm… where does a straight line end?”

“Either at a T or never. Same thing for a parabola. Hey, ellipses don’t really end, either.”

“Mm-hm. Newton’s lines either stop abruptly or they continue forever. They don’t grow or peter out exponentially like things in real life do. Suppose something’s velocity changes, for instance.”

“That’s acceleration. I like accelerating.”

“So true, I’ve experienced your driving. But even you don’t accelerate at a constant rate. You go heavy or light or maybe brake, whatever, and our speed goes up or down depending. The only way Newton’s geometry can handle variable acceleration is to break it into mostly‑constant pieces and work one piece at a time. Come to think of it, that may be where he got the idea for his fluxions method for calculus. Fortunately for him, some things like planets and artillery shells move pretty close to what his methods predict. Unfortunately, things like disease epidemics and economies don’t, which is why people are interested in non‑linearity.”

“So what do these hysteresis guys do about it?”

“Mostly algebraic calculus or computer approximations. But there wasn’t just one group of hysteresis guys, there was a bunch of groups, each looking at different phenomena where history makes a difference. Each group had their own method of attack.”

“Like your elephant thing with Anne, lots of notions about entropy.”

Typical hysteresis loop
Red — initial evolution
Blue — subsequent changes

“How’d you find out about that?”

You wrote those posts, Sy, about three years ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. Talk about history. Anyway, it took decades for the ecologists, epidemiologists, civil engineers and several kinds of physicist to realize that they all have systems that behave similarly when driven by a stressor. Starting at some neutral situation, the system evolves in the driver’s direction to some maximum deviation where increased stress has no further effect. When the stress is relieved, the system may stick temporarily at the strained position. When it does evolve away from there, maybe a reverse driver is needed to force a return to the starting situation. In fact, if the forward and reverse drivers are applied repeatedly the system may never get back to the initial unstressed position.”

“Like that iron nail. Not magnetic, then magnetic, then reversed.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Hysteria

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy, it’s Vinnie again. Hey, I just heard something on NPR I wanted to check with you on.”

“What’s that?”

“They said that even with the vaccine and all, it’s gonna take years for us to get back to normal ’cause the economy’s hysterical. Does that mean it’s cryin’‑funny or just cryin’? Neither one seems to fit.”

“You’re right about the no‑fit. Hmm… Ah! Could the word have been ‘hysteresis‘?”

“Somethin’ like that. What’s it about?”

“It’s an old Physics word that’s been picked up by other fields. Not misused as badly as ‘quantum,’ thank goodness, but still. The word itself gives you a clue. Do you hear the ‘history‘ in there?”

“Hysteresis, history … cute. So it’s about history?”

“Yup. The classic case is magnetism. Take an iron nail, for instance. The nail might already be magnetized strongly enough to pick up a paper clip. If it can, you can erase the magnetism by heating the nail white‑hot. If the nail’s not magnetic you may be able to magnetize it by giving it a few hammer‑whacks while it’s pointed north‑south, parallel to Earth’s magnetic field. Things get more interesting if we get quantitative. A strong‑enough magnetic field will induce magnetism in that nail no matter what direction it’s pointed. Reverse that field’s direction and the nail stays magnetized, only less so. It takes a stronger reverse field to demagnetize the nail than it took to magnetize it in the first place. See how the history makes a difference?”

“Yeah, for some things.”

“And that’s the point. Some of a system’s properties are as fixed as the nail’s weight or chemical composition. However, it may have other properties we can’t understand without knowing the history. Usually we can’t even predict them without looking at deeper structures. Hysteresis highlights two more gaps in Newton’s Physics. As usual he’s got a good excuse because many history‑dependent phenomena couldn’t even be detected with 17th‑Century technology. We couldn’t produce controllable magnetic fields until the 19th Century, when Oersted and Ampere studied magnetism and electricity. We didn’t understand magnetic hysteresis until the 20th Century.”

“Haw! You’re talking history of history. Anyway, to me it looks like what’s going on is that the strong field gets the magnetic atoms in there to all point the same way and heat undoes that by shaking them up to point random‑like.”

“What about the reversing field?”

“Maybe it points some of the atoms in the other direction and that makes the nail less and less magnetic until the field is strong enough to point everything backwards.”

“Close enough. The real story is that the atoms, iron in this case, are organized in groups called domains. The direction‑switching happens at the domain level — battalions of magnetically aligned atoms — but we had no way to know that until 20th‑Century microscopy came along.”

“So it takes ’em a while to get rearranged, huh?”

“Mmm, that’d be rate-dependent hysteresis, where the difference between forward and backward virtually disappears if you go slow enough. Think about putting your hand slowly into a tub of water versus splashing in there. Slow in, slow out reverses pretty well, but if you splash the water’s in turmoil for quite a long time. Magnetic hysteresis, though, doesn’t care about speed except in the extreme case. It’s purely controlled by the strength of the applied field.”

“I’m thinking about that poor frog.”

‘You would go there, wouldn’t you? Yeah, the legendary frog in slowly heating water would be another history dependency but it’s a different kind. The nail’s magnetism only depends on atoms standing in alignment. A frog is a highly organized system, lots of subsystems that all have to work together. Warming water adds energy that will speed up some subsystems more than others. If Froggy exits the pot before things desynchronize too far then it can recover its original lively state. If it’s trapped in there you’ve got frog soup. By the way, it’s a myth that the frog won’t try to hop out if you warm the water slowly. Frogs move to someplace cool if they get hotter than their personal threshold temperature.”

“Frogs are smarter than legends, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

‘Twixt A Rock And A Vortex

A chilly late December walk in the park and there’s Vinnie on a lakeside bench, staring at the geese and looking morose. “Hi, Vinnie, why so down on such a bright day?”

“Hi, Sy. I guess you ain’t heard. Frankie’s got the ‘rona.”

Frankie??!? The guys got the constitution of an ox. I don’t think he’s ever been sick in his life.”

“Probably not. Remember when that bug going around last January had everyone coughing for a week? Passed him right by. This time’s different. Three days after he showed a fever, bang, he’s in the hospital.”

“Wow. How’s Emma?”

“She had it first — a week of headaches and coughing. She’s OK now but worried sick. Hospital won’t let her in to see him, of course, which is a good thing I suppose so she can stay home with the kids and their schoolwork.”

“Bummer. We knew it was coming but…”

“Yeah. Makes a difference when it’s someone you know. Hey, do me a favor — throw some science at me, get my mind off this for a while.”

“That’s a big assignment, considering. Let’s see … patient, pandemic … Ah! E pluribus unum and back again.”

“Come again?”

“One of the gaps that stand between Physics and being an exact science.”

“I thought Physics was exact.”

“Good to fifteen decimal places in a few special experiments, but hardly exact. There’s many a slip ‘twixt theory and practice. One of the slips is the gap between kinematic physics, about how separate objects interact, and continuum physics, where you’re looking at one big thing.”

“This is sounding like that Loschmidt guy again.”

“It’s related but bigger. Newton worked on both sides of this one. On the kinematics side there’s billiard balls and planets and such. Assuming no frictional energy loss, Newton’s Three Laws and his Law of Gravity let us calculate exact predictions for their future trajectories … unless you’ve got more than three objects in play. It’s mathematically impossible to write exact predictions for four or more objects unless they start in one of a few special configurations. Newton didn’t do atoms, no surprise, but his work led to Schrödinger’s equation for an exact description of single electron, single nucleus systems. Anything more complicated, all we can do is approximate.”

“Computers. They do a lot with computers.”

“True, but that’s still approximating. Time‑step by time‑step and you never know what might sneak in or out between steps.”

“What’s ‘continuum‘ about then? Q on Star trek?”

“Hardly, we’re talking predictability here. Q’s thing is unpredictability. A physics continuum is a solid or fluid with no relevant internal structure, just an unbroken mass from one edge to the other. Newton showed how to analyze a continuum’s smooth churning by considering the forces that act on an imaginary isolated packet of stuff at various points in there. He basically invented the idea of viscosity as a way to account for friction between a fluid and the walls of the pipe it’s flowing through.”

“Smooth churning, eh? I see a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“The eddies and whirlpools I see when I row — not smooth.”

“Good point. In fact, that’s the point I was getting to. We can use extensions of Newton’s technique to handle a single well‑behaved whirlpool, but in real life big whirlpools throw off smaller ones and they spawn eddies and mini‑vortices and so on, all the way down to atom level. That turns out to be another intractable calculation, just as impossible as the many‑body particle mechanics problem.”

“Ah‑hah! That’s the gap! Newton just did the simple stuff at both ends, stayed away from the middle where things get complicated.”

“Exactly. To his credit, though, he pointed the way for the rest of us.”

“So how can you handle the middle?”

“The same thing that quantum mechanics does — use statistics. That’s if the math expressions are average‑able which sometimes they’re not, and if statistical numbers are good enough for why you’re doing the calculation. Not good enough for weather prediction, for instance — climate is about averages but weather needs specifics.”

“Yeah, like it’s just started to snow which I wasn’t expecting. I’m heading home. See ya, Sy.”

“See ya, Vinnie. … Frankie. … Geez.

~~ Rich Olcott

A Beetled Brow

Vinnie’s brow was wrinkling so hard I could hear it over the phone. “Boltzmann, Boltzmann, where’d I hear that name before? … Got it! That’s one of those constants, ain’t it, Sy? Molecules or temperature or something?”

“The second one, Vinnie. Avagadro was the molecule counter. Good memory. Come to think of it, both Boltzmann and Avagadro bridged gaps that Loschmidt worked on.”

“Loschmidt’s thing was the paradox, right, between Newton saying events can back up and thermodynamics saying no, they can’t. You said Boltzmann’s Statistical Mechanics solved that, but I’m still not clear how.”

“Let me think of an example. … Ah, you’ve got those rose bushes in front of your place. I’ll bet you’ve also put up a Japanese beetle trap to protect them.”

“Absolutely. Those bugs would demolish my flowers. The trap’s lure draws them away to my back yard. Most of them stay there ’cause they fall into the trap’s bag and can’t get out.”

“Glad it works so well for you. OK, Newton would look at individual beetles. He’d see right off that they fly mostly in straight lines. He’d measure the force of the wind and write down an equation for how the wind affects a beetle’s flight path. If the wind suddenly blew in the opposite direction, that’d be like the clock running backwards. His same equation would predict the beetle’s new flight path under the changed conditions. You with me?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Boltzmann would look at the whole swarm. He’d start by evaluating the average point‑to‑point beetle flight, which he’d call ‘mean free path.’ He’d probably focus on the flight speed and in‑the‑air time fraction. With those, if you tell him how many beetles you’ve got he could generate predictions like inter‑beetle separation and how long it’d take an incoming batch of beetles to cross your yard. However, predicting where a specific beetle will land next? Can’t do that.”

“Who cares about one beetle?”

“Well, another beetle might. …
Just thought of a way that Statistical Mechanics could actually be useful in this application. Once Boltzmann has his numbers for an untreated area, you could put in a series of checkpoints with different lures. Then he could develop efficiency parameters just by watching the beetle flying patterns. No need to empty traps. Anyhow, you get the idea.”

Japanese Beetle, photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org
under Creative Commons BY 3.0

“Hey, I feel good emptying that trap, I’m like standing up for my roses. Anyway, so how does Avagadro play into this?”

“Indirectly and he was half a century earlier. In 1805 Gay‑Lussac showed that if you keep the pressure and temperature constant, it tales two volumes of hydrogen to react with one volume of oxygen to produce one volume of water vapor. Better, the whole‑number‑ratio rule seemed to hold generally. Avagadro concluded that the only way Gay‑Lussac’s rule could be general is if at any temperature and pressure, equal volumes of every kind of gas held the same number of molecules. He didn’t know what that number was, though.”

“HAW! Avagadro’s number wasn’t a number yet.”

“Yeah, it took a while to figure out. Then in 1865, Loschmidt and a couple of others started asking, “How big is a gas molecule?” Some gases can be compressed to the liquid state. The liquids have a definite volume, so the scientists knew molecules couldn’t be infinitely small. Loschmidt put numbers to it. Visualize a huge box of beetles flying around, bumping into each other. Each beetle, or molecule, ‘occupies’ a cylinder one beetle wide and the length of its mean free path between collisions. So you’ve got three volumes — the beetles, the total of all the cylinders, and the much larger box. Loschmidt used ratios between the volumes, plus density data, to conclude that air molecules are about a nanometer wide. Good within a factor of three. As a side result he calculated the number of gas molecules per unit volume at any temperature and pressure. That’s now called Loschmidt’s Number. If you know the molecular weight of the gas, then arithmetic gives you Avagadro’s number.”

“Thinking about a big box of flying, rose‑eating beetles creeps me out.”

  • Thanks to Oriole Hart for the story‑line suggestion.

~~ Rich Olcott

Bridging A Paradox

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hi, Sy. Vinnie. Hey, I’ve been reading through some of your old stuff—”

“That bored, eh?”

“You know it. Anyhow, something just don’t jibe, ya know?”

“I’m not surprised but I don’t know. Tell me about it.”

“OK, let’s start with your Einstein’s Bubble piece. You got this electron goes up‑and‑down in some other galaxy and sends out a photon and it hits my eye and an atom in there absorbs it and I see the speck of light, right?”

“That’s about the size of it. What’s the problem?”

“I ain’t done yet. OK, the photon can’t give away any energy on the way here ’cause it’s quantum and quantum energy comes in packages. And when it hits my eye I get the whole package, right?”

“Yes, and?”

“And so there’s no energy loss and that means 100% efficient and I thought thermodynamics says you can’t do that.”

“Ah, good point. You’ve just described one version of Loschmidt’s Paradox. A lot of ink has gone into the conflict between quantum mechanics and relativity theory, but Herr Johann Loschmidt found a fundamental conflict between Newtonian mechanics, which is fundamental, and thermodynamics, which is also fundamental. He wasn’t talking photons, of course — it’d be another quarter-century before Planck and Einstein came up with that notion — but his challenge stood on your central issue.”

“Goody for me, so what’s the central issue?”

“Whether or not things can run in reverse. A pendulum that swings from A to B also swings from B to A. Planets go around our Sun counterclockwise, but Newton’s math would be just as accurate if they went clockwise. In all his equations and everything derived from them, you can replace +t with ‑t to make run time backwards and everything looks dandy. That even carries over to quantum mechanics — an excited atom relaxes by emitting a photon that eventually excites another atom, but then the second atom can play the same game by tossing a photon back the other way. That works because photons don’t dissipate their energy.”

“I get your point, Newton-style physics likes things that can back up. So what’s Loschmidt’s beef?”

“Ever see a fire unburn? Down at the microscopic level where atoms and photons live, processes run backwards all the time. Melting and freezing and chemical equilibria depend upon that. Things are different up at the macroscopic level, though — once heat energy gets out or randomness creeps in, processes can’t undo by themselves as Newton would like. That’s why Loschmidt stood the Laws of Thermodynamics up against Newton’s Laws. The paradox isn’t Newton’s fault — the very idea of energy was just being invented in his time and of course atoms and molecules and randomness were still centuries away.”

“Micro, macro, who cares about the difference?”

“The difference is that the micro level is usually a lot simpler than the macro level. We can often use measured or calculated micro‑level properties to predict macro‑level properties. Boltzmann started a whole branch of Physics, Statistical Mechanics, devoted to carrying out that strategy. For instance, if we know enough about what happens when two gas molecules collide we can predict the speed of sound through the gas. Our solid‑state devices depend on macro‑level electric and optical phenomena that depend on micro‑level electron‑atom interactions.”

“Statistical?”

“As in, ‘we don’t know exactly how it’ll go but we can figure the odds…‘ Suppose we’re looking at air molecules and the micro process is a molecule moving. It could go left, right, up, down, towards or away from you like the six sides of a die. Once it’s gone left, what are the odds it’ll reverse course?”

“About 16%, like rolling a die to get a one.”

“You know your odds. Now roll that die again. What’s the odds of snake‑eyes?”

“16% of 16%, that’s like 3 outa 100.”

“There’s a kajillion molecules in the room. Roll the die a kajillion times. What are the odds all the air goes to one wall?”

“So close to zero it ain’t gonna happen.”

“And Boltzmann’s Statistical Mechanics explained why not.”

“Knowing about one molecule predicts a kajillion. Pretty good.”

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, looking South
Photo by Rich Niewiroski Jr. / CC BY 2.5

~~ Rich Olcott

Flasks Of Money

<chirp, chirp> “Moire here.”

“Hiya, Sy, it’s me again.”

“Hi, Eddie. I thought you were done with your deliveries tonight. That was a good stromboli, by the way, just the right amount of zing and sauce.”

“Thanks. Yeah, I’m done for the day, but I was thinking while I drove home. We said that the Feds and the banks together can tinker with the money supply so there’s no Conservation of Money like we got Conservation of Energy. But then we said that it matters to keep money in local businesses instead of letting it drain away somewhere else. That says there’s only so much to go around like the amount doesn’t change. So which is it?”

“Good point. You’ve touched on another contrasting parallel between Physics and Economics. In Physics we mostly understand how atoms work and we’ve got a pretty good handle on the forces that control objects big enough to see. J Willard Gibbs, probably the foremost physicist of the late 1800s, devised Statistical Mechanics to bridge the gap between the two levels. The idea is to start with the atoms or molecules. They’re quantum objects, of course, so we can’t have much precise information at that level. What we can get, though, is averages and spreads on one object’s properties — speed, internal energy levels, things like that. Imagine we have an ensemble of those guys, mostly identical but each with their own personal set of properties. Gibbs showed us how to apply low-level averages and spreads across the whole ensemble to calculate upper-level properties like magnetic strength and heat capacity.”

“Ensemble. Fancy word.”

“Not my word, blame Gibbs. He invented the field so we go with his terminology. Atoms weren’t quite a respectable topic of conversation at the time so he kept things general and talked about ‘macroscopic properties‘ which we can measure directly and ‘microscopic properties‘ which were mysterious at the time. Think of three flasks holding samples of some kind of gas, OK?”

“No problem.”

“The first flask is stoppered, no gas can get in or out but energy can pass through the flask’s wall. Gibbs would call the confined collection of molecules a ‘canonical ensemble‘. Because the wall transmits energy we can use an external thermometer to measure the ensemble’s temperature. Other than that, all we know about the contents is the number of particles and the volume the particles can access.”

“Canonical?”

“In Gibbs’ usage it means that he’s pared things down to an abstract essence. It doesn’t matter whether what’s inside is atoms or fruitflies, his logic still holds. Now for flask number two. It’s heavily insulated so whatever energy it had inside originally, that’s what it’s got now. We can’t measure the temperature in this one. Gibbs would consider the particles in there to be a ‘microcanonical ensemble,’ with the ‘micro’ indicating the energy restriction.”

“Where there’s a microcanonical there’s gotta be a macrocanonical.”

“You’d think, but Gibbs used the term ‘grand canonical ensemble‘ instead. That’s flask number three, which has neither insulation nor stopper. Both energy and matter are free to enter or leave the ensemble. Gibbs’ notion of canonical ensembles and the math that grows out of them have been used in every kind of analysis from solid state physics to cybersecurity.”

“OK, I think I see where you’re going here. Money acts sorta like energy so you’re gonna lay out three kinds of economy restriction.”

“You’re way ahead of me and the economists, Eddie. They’ve only got two levels, though they do use reasonable names for them — microeconomics and macroeconomics. For them the micro level is about individuals, businesses, the markets they play in and how they spend their incomes. Supply-demand thinking gets used a lot.”

“That figures. What about macro?”

“Macro level is about regions and countries and the world. Supply‑demand plays here, too, except the macroeconomists worry about how demand for money itself affects its value compared to everything else.”

“They got bridges like Gibbs built?”

“Nope. Atoms are simple, people are complicated. The economists are still arguing about the basics. Anyway, the economists’ micro level assumes local money stays local and has a stable value.”

“Keeping my business stable is good.”

~~ Rich Olcott