Wednesday, May 22, 2013

WWII : Constructionists vs Commensalists

Reductionism, still the philosophy of today's Popular Science, has admittedly had a lot of glass-half-filled success in the last few centuries.

It has totally succeeded in burrowing down below the surface of reality to the tiny objects at the base of all energy and matter ; reducing big macro objects that we can directly see and touch down to zillions of incredibly tiny objects we can only assume exists by way of indirect evidence.

But while Reductionism can explain how these tiny objects interact, more or less, it has totally failed to fulfill the real purpose behind all of its efforts : to construct new , better-built, versions of macro reality based on what we have learned about the tiny building blocks that make it up.

It turns out, to use today's Net jargon, that the so called laws of physics do not actually 'scale up' ( or 'scale down') all that well.

What we know about tiny quarks does not help us at all to account for the unexpected behavior of slightly bigger objects like the atoms in various phases of condensed matter, such as in solids and liquids for example.

To use a life-sized example of another scientific failure to scale up, this one from WWII logistics, we need only to look at the total failure of the German fuel truck on the Russian Front, after doing so well in Poland and France.

A sturdy army truck like the famous American deuce and a half can go pretty well everywhere a railway can't and so is the best means to get fuel to a fast moving invading armoured army.

But it burns a whole lot of fuel itself to get its few tons of fuel to the front.

But over distances of about one hundred miles from end of rail, it still is the best single way to get fuel to tracked armoured vehicles well out ahead of the slower ,wider, line of rail-supported advance.

But move the distance required to be travelled up to 800 miles out (and remember 800 more miles back in to get more tank and truck fuel) and the truck is a flop and a disaster.

Any truck trying to move up behind an aggressively invading armoured army that has been fighting an equally determined enemy , one who leaves nothing but scorched earth behind, is sure to be travelling over miles of badly damaged, badly overcrowded, muddy or dusty potholed roads and bridges.

The truck's gas and oil consumption soars as its miles per hour slows to a crawl. It can expect major damages from bad roads at least a few times on its 800 mile trek out and back - requiring the services of equally gas-guzzling repair vehicles.

Effectively, the truck is soon consuming more petro products on its two way trek than it can deliver to the tanks. (Remember, it must haul all of its own fuel and oil on itself, for the trip out and back, leaving ever less room for tank fuel.)

This wouldn't happen in peacetime, where the roads between Berlin and Moscow would be in excellent, fuel efficient, shape and where fuel and oil can be picked up at filling stations on route as required.

Once the cargo was delivered to Moscow, a return cargo is picked up to take back, to cover costs.

But war trucks 'dead-head' back, unless they can be used to safely carry lightly wounded men back to rear base hospitals.

Hitler's gambit to take over the world failed in 1941 when his physics of truck transport failed to 'scale up' to the world of real life.

Similarly the fact that chemistry had constructed totally new molecules of dyes and plastics out of little atoms didn't mean human chemists could construct molecules of penicillin just because the fungi could do so naturally.

Penicillin's formula was not the formula for nylon, 'scaled up'.

In biology, the ham-fisted efforts of human-sized geneticists to construct genes they wanted by massive doses of x-rays failed to work as well as the elegant way the tiny bacteria transformed each other with tiny but efficient HGT (horizontal gene transfers).

I am not dismissing the value of human railways and human chemical plants nor do I expect to see skyscrapers made by bacteria : I just insist along with (Martin) Henry Dawson, that there is a niche for everyone and we all are best at activities scaled to our own size and niche.

Reality can not be reduced to tenured human particle physicists at the top and quarks at the bottom (Reality reduced to Professors and Plasma),  with all of the rest of the stuff in between just useless feeders, not wanted on the voyage, yesterday's booster stages, enroute in Man's journey to the stars.....

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