OnTemperature

Temperature is a word for the random vibrations of atoms or other fundamental particles. When things are in a nice equilibrium, the particles share energy by interacting with each other, and the average energy of each one is a constant times the temperature (named "Boltzmann's Constant"). But temperature as a concept applies much more widely than one might imagine; it's not just a property of objects like icecubes and ovens.

Stars in globular clusters attract each other via gravity, and over millions of years settle down into a distribution of orbits described by a temperature. Pump more energy into the cluster, say through gravitational collapse, and stars "evaporate" --- they get kicked out to speeds beyond escape velocity and metaphorically boil away. In the microscopic universe, nuclei of atoms have a spin, which gives them a magnetic field. They exchange energy with other nuclei, and so can share a nuclear temperature. These nuclear spins are in fact used to make tiny refrigerators, to cool other systems down yet further.

Blair and McNamara (in their book Ripples on a Cosmic Sea) quote physicist Bill Fairbank as saying, "An experiment can always be done better if it is done at low temperatures ..." --- to which his friend and rival Bill Hamilton responds, "... but it is always much more difficult!" Low temperatures reduce noise, the random fluctuations that make it hard to see tiny signals. But in turn, low temperatures make systems more delicate, with less capacity to absorb minor disturbances of any sort. And the most fundamental laws of thermodynamics make it increasingly hard to approach the ultimate low temperature, absolute zero, the closer one gets to it.

Are there interesting and productive metaphors from the concept of temperature that could be applied to social situations or to life in general? Do societies have a "temperature" perhaps reflecting the amount of shared cultural interaction of their members? Do individuals drop out or escape from the common ways of life when their interactions become too extreme? Can the effective temperature of a society be so low that the nation stagnates, or crystallizes and can no longer change without breaking? Do highly energetic subcultures inevitably melt and diffuse out into the larger context, or can they maintain their individuality without isolation? Are there tradeoffs between temperature and other social phenomena --- say, population density, or natural resource exploitation, or intellectual growth?

Thursday, July 01, 1999 at 18:43:38 (EDT) = 1999-07-01

TopicScience


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