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


“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


<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