Friday, March 1, 2013

Fermi Problems

Driving in to work, I notice at a red light the car in front of me has snow slowly sliding off the trunk. The snow patch will, before it slides completely off, break. Question, how far can the snow patch slide off the end of the trunk before it breaks? This is a Fermi problem. You want other examples? How many piano tuners are there in the city of Chicago? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie-pop? Things like that.

Before the age of twenty-five, I wouldn't even know how to formulate the problem. That was, as I recall, my biggest frustration in physics class. I could do the math just fine, once I knew the equation. It was figuring out what the equation was, what the terms were, that drove me buggy. So, with the snow problem the things to worry about without actually having any hard data would be, the tensile strength of slush, the total cross-section of the patch, the total area of the patch, frictional coefficient of a wet hood, angle of descent, constant of gravity, weight of slush. Things like that. I won't work it out, but that was the kind stuff I could not even begin to get straight. And then, maybe around the age of twenty-seven, that all got easy. 

What happened? Well, I figure, like a yeasty rising loaf, my prefrontal lobes finally hit the front edge of my brain pan. My brain had matured. About fucking time. And too late to affect my shitty grade in physics class.

So, in that great chain of being that is our technology and culture (the two are synonymous), thinking about source networks for stuff and people, I wonder, as a Fermi Problem, just how far back do we have to go? I mean, when you consider it, if the Big Bang was really something from nothing, do we have to go that far back for your toothbrush or trombone?

If not, then what? What about the most basic sources of the source resources? Clearly, one could start with supernovae, to get elements beyond iron, but do we need to go that far back? And is that really a concern? After all, given existence, time, space, and hydrogen, it should be easy to trend out to star formation, heavy elements, planets, blah.

So, when do things get interesting? Not to say that a lifeless universe isn't interesting, but, hey, when it comes to technology, credit where credit is due, and the materials we use that are of non-biological origin are pretty much limited to the Stone Age. Things like granite, and flint, and that's about it, I suppose. But everything else ultimately has a biological culprit behind. Yes, even iron and precious metals. Ore from banded iron deposits is there due to oxygen (or lack thereof), and oxygen in our atmosphere is clearly of biological origin. Why, even metals such as gold and silver are concentrated in the crust due to a series of actions involving tectonic plate movements and subduction. The invagination of Earth's mantle with materials like water, carbon, calcium: things that act as a flux to make thing slippery down there, is all attributable to life - so far as we know. (There is suggestion of tectonic actions on Venus and Mercury, but, honestly , not likely).

So, it looks like we need to go back to the First Singularity - organic life. And see, that takes us back to the Hadean, when things are very hazy indeed. But come on, now? Really? We have to go back four billion years to get the true cost of a candy bar? And if we count the origin of life as the first singularity (in other words, trying to trend from just non-biological processes without counting on the game changer called life = all bets are off), what the subsequent singularities?

Honestly, probably the really big game changer has got to be the Eukaryotic Revolution, or as I call it, the age of acquisitions. Basically, with the advent of internal commensalism, you've got what amounts to free R&D, what with the design-build-test cycle considerably enhanced, shortened, and (ah-ha-hah) the first bug built in as a feature. And perhaps the first of example of rapid prototyping and open source (perhaps). Regardless, through hindsight, the arrival of multicellular creatures and metazoans and then visible animals and plants was almost a foregone conclusion.

This is all more than mere partnership. This is a case of mutual surrender, a form of trust and the sharing of paired weaknesses that is unprecedented. It is a form of exposing the belly a billion years before the metaphor could actually even occur. This is what the term community is about.

But I digress, we are still some eight hundred million years before present. Do we really need to go back that far in the resource chain? I kind of think yes, but give me a few days to decide.

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