Last week, I mentioned my class on Physics and Society, and the open blog where I have my students posting. This week, I thought I’d try something new, so I have invited one of my students, Mr. Christopher Bohl, to expand on his class blog entry here, as a guest blog post.
Christopher Bohl is a graduate student in adolescent science education at Brooklyn College. He grew up just north of New York City and received his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2007 from Tufts University. Following his undergraduate studies, he spent several years as a professional poker player, but has recently rededicated himself to the pursuit of science knowledge and education, specializing in physics.
The entry follows:
In Professor Tomkiewicz’s February 11th blog, he spoke of modeling economic growth using the growth of sourdough bread and then using the expansion of foams to fill the holes. This methodology is admittedly not something I’ve spent much time thinking of, but my recent research on income/wealth distribution has opened my eyes to this type of system modeling. Physicists have recently begun using systems of flow to describe how money moves amongst people. By thinking of wealth as a measure of people, we can think of monetary transactions as a type of flow through the system of humans, similar to how water flows through a river or electric current through lightning bolts. This model draws on the so-called Constructal Law, which holds that:
“For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.” –Adrian Bejan
We see this law in action on a daily basis – in the way that trees spread nutrients between trunks and leaves, how lungs transmute and distribute gases from the trachea down to the alveoli, or how raindrops combine on our windshield to form tiny streams. In these systems, you may note, maximum efficiency is achieved (i.e. energy use is minimized) by having one or two large structures coupled with progressively smaller and increasingly numerous subsidiary elements. This is the applied structure of Constructal Law: a few large elements and many small ones. Look around you and you will begin to notice the pattern everywhere in nature – a few huge animals and millions of tiny ones, a few huge trees and lots of tiny plants. Indeed, humans have modeled our systems in the same way, from the way we distribute water to the way we organize our roads. It is worth taking a moment to ponder whether these human systems are any different from their natural counterparts and if they too, are evolving organically in time to improve flow.
The necessary consequence of applying Bejan’s model to wealth distribution, of course, is that there are a few very wealthy people and a great many poor. At a time when wealth is more easily accessible than ever (ATM’s everywhere and an over-abundance of loans), it seems that flow is increasing and that the wealth disparity is thus being cemented. As a society, we are then left with the choice of either letting this “living” system of wealth naturally maximize flow or intervening (that is, deciding that there are more important aspects to our economy and society than simply having money move easily). We clearly have made efforts throughout history to more evenly distribute wealth in order to create social and political equality, but, as it’s been reported all over the media, this distribution has become increasingly imbalanced of late. When we allow markets to be deregulated, or “flatter” taxes to be implemented, we are removing our barriers to wealth flow and inviting a distribution that reduces equality of opportunity and, I believe, reduces our potential as a species.
Professor Tomkiewicz’s February 4th blog mentioned that the means to sustainability is to endeavor to create equality of opportunity, and I’m inclined to agree. The way to accomplish this is to not simply “redistribute” wealth then, but to fund social programs that enable people to access equal education. It’s interesting to consider this equalizing process through the lens of Constructal Law: perhaps what we need to work on is a way to maximize the flow of knowledge by removing the social constraints that make equal education impossible today. But if knowledge too can be thought of as a relatively finite system, then by Constructal Law, this means that knowledge thrives when we have a few geniuses and a great many idiots, which doesn’t seem ideal. So, I’m left wondering if this is really a “flow” that we should allow to move as freely as possible or if there is perhaps another way to model the system of opportunity that can help us learn to distribute it equally.
For more on Constructal Law now, check out: The Constructal Law of Evolution and Design in Nature, which I referenced in writing this post.