The Human Condition:

Magical Thinking and Engineering Insight – March 16, 2014

Girl with a Magic Box

The difference between fiction based on reality and that based on fantasy has much to do with the difference between what I call “magical thinking” and what could be called “engineering insight.”

Engineers know, as fantasists do not, that almost everything in the universe—and certainly everything having to do with human beings and their endeavors—is bound by limits and moves in cycles. Magical properties are endless in space and time. Physical properties are limited by principles like the inverse-square law for their extent in space and characteristics of stability or instability for their duration in time. The nature of God and the power of love may shine forever, but a broadcast electromagnetic signal dissipates in a precisely defined way over a particular distance, and inertia of a body in motion will decrease or increase depending upon its encounters with a gravity field.

Getting to the Stars

It’s surprising how much science fiction is based on magical thinking. The starship Enterprise courses around the galaxy and never stops for fuel, because it is powered by matter-antimatter annihilation, supposedly the strongest interaction in physics. Well, it may be pretty strong on a quantum level, but it’s also extremely rare. Antimatter is hard to find and synthesize and takes a considerable amount of energy just to create and then contain inside a strong magnetic field.1 So it’s an unlikely candidate for fueling starships.

Ah, but followers of the television series will explain that “warp drive” actually saves energy. Rather than crossing the entire distance between stars, a starship so equipped moves a much shorter distance, because the warp field compresses space ahead of the hull and expands space behind it. The ship travels at normal sublight speeds and still covers vast distances because of this compression and expansion. Maybe … with the right mathematics and a true understanding of the inherent structure of the empty void we call “space,” it might be possible to compress and expand that structure with a mere whisper of energy. But I’m betting against it. Bending space over distances large enough to affect a starship’s travels will probably require more energy than the amounts required to simply move the ship’s mass through unaffected space. Going the old-fashioned way will take longer but probably be more efficient.

In fact, the claims for matter-antimatter reactions and their uses remind me of the early days of atomic energy. Back in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission was expounding energy from fission reactions to electric utilities and the general public as being “too cheap to meter.” And so America and other countries began building full-scale reactors over the next dozen or so years. Only then did they discover that the energy cost of mining, processing, and concentrating uranium was a net energy drain.2 That is, it would have been cheaper and more efficient to take the diesel and other fuels that went into processing the uranium and burn them directly in a boiler, rather than invest them in making rod bundles. And then the capital costs of these nuclear plants caught up with the economic equation: building facilities to handle such inherently dangerous materials under safe conditions was simply outrageous compared to fossil-fuel plants burning mundane coal, oil, and natural gas.

If we are to cross the gaps between the stars, we are not going to do it with any kind of fuel we have to carry inside the ship. The distances are too great, and the fuel will be too heavy to move efficiently. Instead, we’ll have to do it the old-old-fashioned way: sail or surf on some kind of energy or gravity wave that already propagates outside the ship from natural causes. Harnessing the winds is the way sailors crossed vast oceans from the earliest Phoenician traders to the 19th-century clippers. Or we could gather starship fuel along the way with some variation on the Bussard ramjet or light sails driven by stationary lasers.3

Getting Through a Full Cycle

Magical thinking usually occurs anytime people get on one side or the other of a natural cycle. Back in my university days, as part of a loosening of the curriculum,4 I took a course on the future—specifically, dealing with past, present, and potential ways to predict it. One of the points I remember was a fallacy called “If this goes on …” which addresses the human tendency to pick a current trend and extend it indefinitely into the future. “It’s like this now. Nothing will change. And so it will go on and on …”

We’ve just come through a period of fallacious prediction about the housing market: “Home prices will go up and up! Nothing can stop them! We’re all going to be rich! Whee!” We went through the same thing in the late ’90s with tech stocks. The Dutch went through it in the 17th-century with the price of tulip bulbs. And we’re all going through something similar now with temperature projections and climate expectations. If this goes on …

What most people forget—and, at certain periods, everyone forgets—is that systems which have been around for a long time, like national economies and planetary climates, tend to go through cycles. They are stable. Not inert, mind you, because they all have fluctuations. And sometimes, with a bit of help, those fluctuations can be fairly wild. But the cycles tend to center on certain set points of stability, adjusted by positive and negative feedbacks.5

Systems that are not stable tend to converge on either positive or negative feedbacks without the balance of their opposites. Unstable chemicals tend to break down, each molecule releasing energy into its immediate neighborhood, which in turn upsets nearby molecules, which release more energy, and the process builds from there. It’s a chain reaction that usually ends in Boom!

Instability can go the other way, too. In corporate finance, for example, a company that needs cash quickly may issue a type of bond or preferred stock that the buyer can later convert to the company’s common stock. And, to make these bonds attractive to the buyer, the company sometimes sets the conversion at a rate that increases as the stock’s market price drops: the more the price goes down, the more stock the conversion will buy. That looks good for the bond buyer, because he or she can’t lose in the marketplace. Except that, when natural market fluctuations cause the stock price to dip, bondholders have a natural incentive to sell out and convert their holdings to larger and larger amounts of stock. This creates more shares in the market—an effect called “dilution,” because it dilutes the company’s value as represented by each original share—and drives the stock price down further. To survive, the company may issue more and more of these quick-money bonds. The original stockholders lose control. And the result is a death spiral.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s early novel Cat’s Cradle, the plot revolved around an unusual form of frozen water called Ice-9, which is solid at room temperature. The trick is not letting it touch any other liquid water, which it will then immediately freeze. Drop a crystal of Ice-9 in the sink, and it freezes the water there, followed by the water in the drain, then in the sewer, the nearby river, the ocean into which that river runs … and finally the whole world freezes solid. Of course, in a stable system with positive and negative feedbacks, local effects like this die out rather than build up.

People worry about induced genetic effects in animals and plants that have been created with induced mutations within the confines of a laboratory. If they were ever to get out, critics say, they might take over the world. But these worriers forget that chimeras are usually less hardy than plants and animals which have adapted to life in the wild. Monsters take a lot of nurturing in the rough and tumble of nature and its inevitable cycles.6

One of the hallmarks of unstable systems is that they tend to oscillate beyond the control of any positive or negative feedbacks, go out of whack quickly, and expire. If a system has been around for a while, that’s pretty good evidence that it contains opposing feedback mechanisms and will eventually find a point of equilibrium. One volatile chemical does not ignite the world like a match head. One radioactive element does not make the whole world glow in the dark. And one stock trade does not send the market spinning out of control.

The prices of houses, tech stocks, or tulip bulbs may rise to unbelievable numbers of dollars or guilders, but eventually they come back down. People stop believing, or they stop being able to pay, or the fetish good moves from being something people need and use to something speculators hoard. The market eventually collapses, stays low for a while, and then stabilizes at a more realistic price. But for a while, magical thinking holds sway.

Getting to the Apocalypse

A whole genre of science fiction has grown up around the notion of the apocalypse.7 It’s an attractive thought for many people: “If civilization falls, I won’t have to go to work on Monday, won’t have to pay off my mortgage, won’t have to obey speed limits and ‘No Fishing’ signs. Whee!” Of course, we all assume that we’ll be the ones to strap on the big guns and survive by strong-arming the neighbors, not that we’ll be a snack for the people who have studied violence all along.

So we have fantasies of nuclear apocalypses, where the bombs have shattered civilization; climatic apocalypses, where rising oceans, searing deserts, or fast-growing glaciers have devoured the land; and zombie apocalypses, where a virus has turned all the hoi polloi into brain-dead marching morons. We believe this because we’ve seen civilizations fall before. Greece met up with Rome and became enslaved. Rome met up with the Goths and Visigoths and collapsed. People suffered through the Dark Ages. It happened before, so it can happen again.

What most people tend to forget is that these fluctuations tend to be slowly evolving, local where they’re sharpest, and temporary. Rome may have been sacked in 410 AD by the Visigoths, in 455 by the Vandals, in 546 by the Ostragoths, and then in 476 when the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by the German chieftain Odoacer, who became King of Italy. But those were just the significant humiliations, when people with better arms and worse natures came inside the city walls and practiced “a bit of the old ultraviolence.”8

Actually, Rome started going downhill a hundred years before this, when Constantine split the empire and moved the active administration to Constantinople in the east. For the average Roman in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as for the average Greek in the second century BC, life was pretty normal, just lived on a lower economic plane and with less fanfare than in the stories told by their grandfathers. For a Roman of the second century BC, or a German or Goth of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, life was looking up considerably. And Charlemagne thought he was the light of the world in 800 AD, at a time we think of as darkest night.

Civilizations run in cycles, from barbarism to sophistication to decadence and back to barbarism. And usually, when someone somewhere is up, someone somewhere else is down, and vice versa. We’re living high now, but our time of decadence and decay will come—then it will be time to move on to someplace else with better lighting and a more reliable water supply.

Magical thinking is to forget the great truths of engineering and of history: Space is much larger than we think, and our energy resources are still puny. Time moves more slowly than we expect, and—catastrophes like incoming comets and asteroids aside—effects build more gradually than we can perceive. The world is a wheel, rolling through its cycles, and we can see from personal experience only part of the greater picture.

1. See Status of Antimatter and Warp Drive, When? from NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

2. The only way to make fission technology into a net energy producer is to reprocess spent fuel rods to recover the newly bred fissionable isotopes, Uranium235 and Plutonium239, and add them to the fuel in new rods. That’s the way France and Japan make nuclear work. Just stacking up spent rods as decaying nuclear waste creates a net loss.

3. See Ideas Based on What We Know from the Glenn Research Center.

4. In hindsight, not always a good idea.

5. Right now, people worry about the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human burning of fossil fuels. But the positive feedback from this minor greenhouse gas on global heat retention will tend to be countered by the negative feedback of it being absorbed into plants through increased photosynthesis. The cycle won’t run away in chaos. However, we might be helping to establish a new global equilibrium which may not be to our liking. We may also be unconsciously sustaining global temperatures in the face of a countervailing cooling period brought on by a decline in peak sunspot cycles.

6. I remember a media brouhaha about twenty years ago regarding a certain bacterium that scientists were supposedly developing which would keep water from freezing at 32°F. When sprayed on vineyards in the autumn, it would protect the developing grapes from frost damage. People were concerned this material would have a reverse-Ice-9 effect and damage the environment.

7. From the Greek apokalypsis, or “revelation.” This harkens back to Revelation of St. John in the New Testament, which speaks of the unraveling of the world, the end of time, and the destruction of humankind.

8. To quote from Anthony Burgess’s apocalyptic novel A Clockwork Orange.