Science and science fiction have a complicated relationship: one often informs or inspiring the other, and sometimes ideas that start in one category drift into the other. Such was my thinking last week when I wrote about a new book titled Design in Nature.
The book’s author, Adrian Bejan, is the father of a principle called the Constructal Law. Constructal Law, in short, teaches that structures evolve to better transmit energy, or flow. According to Bejan, river basins, tree branches, and even our own bodies and social institutions are governed by this principle. When I wrote last week’s post I likened Constructal Law to Star Wars’ the Force: it’s all around us and determines the design of the universe. The comparison amused me, and apparently it amused Bejan as well. Imagine my surprise when I heard that this great thinker wanted to speak with me! I was more than a little bit intimidated by the prospect, but soon learned that I had no reason to be so.
Bejan and I spoke for a good half hour, and I’d like to share our conversation with you. I should mention that our connection wasn’t great on my end, and if there’s any error or misrepresentation here then the responsibility lies with me rather than Bejan.
Here’s part one of the interview:
How did you come to the idea of the Constructal Law?
I was not looking for anything! The law found me. I was actually in the right place at the right time because I knew thermodynamics, and I knew really well then that there was something missing: a principle governing the occurrence of design. Nobody pays attention to this because we make fantastic machines with the incomplete thermodynamics that we have.
The accident that triggered this whole thing was a conference in France where the banquet speaker was Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize Laureate and a much respected man. In his speech he stated that flow systems – he calls them structures – such as river basins, trees and lightning are the result of throwing the dice – literally, that’s what he said! That was in conflict with my own activities at the time. Back in the mid 90s I was configuring cooling architectures for computers. In this modest struggle I was really inventing on my work table tree-shaped configurations for sucking heat out of a box. These “trees” on my work table and in my publications of that time were based on a principle of deriving heat through the easiest paths of greatest access out of the box, and so when Prigogine said that trees happen through chance, I said that this was not the case because they happened on my work table out of principle.
I was making my designs not by copying nature, in fact that is the complete opposite of what I did: I was inventing trees by invoking a principle. So this conflict with this famous man and my modest work table taught me that the principle that I was invoking was, in fact, capable of accounting for the generation of design everywhere, including those examples mentioned by the speaker. I knew now that what was missing was covered by this intuitively easy idea: the kinetic Constructal Law. I was scared, that I had the task of explaining not to engineers, but to to physicists, biologists, sociologists and particularly to philosophers of science, a law of physics that comes from an engineer. This is kind of weird and unusual!
So things that we would assume at first glance to be pure chance aren’t necessarily that. Is there a real difference in order and chaos, or is it all illusory?
The two words are complete opposites: chaos is basically throwing around junk and saying ‘I cannot make sense out of this.’ When I hear “Chaos Theory” I want to scream. There is also Turbulence Theory and Complexity Theory, and Network Theory. These are all words that sound scientific but they are statements of having given up.
You cannot predict these things that are so complicated, you see? So these words and what they’re describing are just code languages for the things out there. These domains are not predictive; at best they’re descriptive. The real questions are why turbulence happens, why networks happen, why complex things happen. Why are chaotic things all around? The answer is that it’s not just chaos, random features or non-determinism that happens next to the obvious, which is patterns or designs. The answer is that it takes both for something to flow most easily from an area to one point, or from one point to an area.
An example of this is the river basin: we have the water, which is the tree-shaped arrangement of many channels, a few large and many small. There’s a hierarchy; it’s predictable. You call it order? I agree. However, for this flow to really evacuate the entire area the tree must have areas covered by seepage through wet mud. You cannot see this seepage. It’s wet mud, and it’s under the ground and it’s three dimensional and probably flowing through sand and through the galleries of earth worms. Nobody knows!
The answer is that the random, the seepage flows hand in glove with the pattern. It takes both. It’s a long answer to your question, but there’s actually no conflict between them. Without both of them, the water would not be flowing out of the plains, the air would not be getting out of our thorax, and on and on. In the case of respiration, the pattern is the arrangement of our air tubes, and the other thing, the equivalent of the river’s seepage is the diffusion that happens across the tissues that contain the alveoli. People don’t see it, but that flow is necessary to completely fill the volume of the lungs.
Do you worry that your theories could be misused in some way? That people could look at this and see the hand of God and use this to justify things like Creationism?
No, I’m not at all interested in these things. My excitement comes from the fact that I have a principle that is intuitively easy and obvious and palatable, and this law of physics is helping everyone to organize his or her thinking better, whatever that thinking is. I’m hoping that after reading this book people will first be elated that design in nature is a phenomenon of physics and no longer an enigma, and then that it is a very useful thing to know why design happens and in what direction it is destined to evolve.
The Constructal Law proclaims that the direction is toward configurations that flow more easily for greater access. The Constructal Law is about anything, not just water or animal mass, or ideas being communicated through the internet. It is in fact about how the flow system is acquiring its design, and how that design is morphing in time. So to answer your question: No, I’m not worried.
That’s it for part one. Check back tomorrow for part two!