Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                          ESSAYS
25. On Zippers

system. change. transition state. activation energy. zipper. dislocations.

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  Essay 25. On Zippers.

Animation links refer to Web files. Click on blue arrows or the word ANIMATE.


The question I am interested here is how a system changes. I am coming back, therefore, to the subject of Essay 23, On the Architecture of Change.

In  Essay 24, On Myself,  I was looking for a place for myself in the Everything. I took notes of addresses of some possible dwellings, taking complexity as the avenue and size as the street, and making no demands about the architecture.

I am going to use the image of Sisyphus rolling his stone over the hill, from Essay 23 , but without Sisyphus. The stone alone will do. I only want to remind that in chemistry change happens because the energy of molecules spreads over a certain interval, so that the most vigorous of them have enough energy to jump to the top of the hill. Others take their place. The molecular "stone" behaves more like a tennis ball.

 Change in society, as I see it, happens for the same reason with mostly angry, agitated, and excited (or simply clever) people instead of molecules or due to an individual Sisyphus who manages to push the heavy stone over the hill.

I will use here some animations. They can be viewed by clicking on the link ANIMATE or on a blue arrow. The BACK button of the browser will  bring the page back.

My first animated illustration, Figure 25.51, shows change in a small simple system.  It has a small number of stable states that looks like valleys between the hills, with the height of the hill corresponding to the energy of the transition barrier. The stone  goes from valley to valley in any order.  All the valleys are about equally deep and all the hills are equally high. We should imagine  the picture below as rolled into a cylinder, so that the landscape is continuous and the walk over the landscape is random.  
I could make the illustration more realistic but I don't think this would be worth rolling my stone uphill.


ANIMATE            Figure 25.1

Figure 25.1 would be a general case, but in highly ordered systems, like the clockwork, the stone would simply go around in the same sequence.

The second diagram, Figure 25. 2, shows change in a large complex system. I start it with an initial state that can be regarded either as a Medium Bang or as a dark place of Genesis, 1:1,  "without form" but not quite void.  I do not mean here the universe.

ANIMATE Let it be light!        Figure 25. 2

Figure 25.2 should not be turned into a cylinder because it evolves by rolling the stone over a changing landscape. There is always a hill ahead, there could be a retreat back, but the stone steadily moves ahead, and the hill ahead is always new, although it can be similar to some hill in the past.

A small complex system, for example, a corporation, evolves in time, but it can also  jump between several patterns of functioning, for example, recession, new competitor,  merger, spike in demand, major lawsuit, etc.  A large complex system, like nation, goes through situations of revolt, crisis, war, legislation shift, etc.

History of France is a remarkable example of almost two century long vacillation between authoritarian and republican systems after the French Revolution, and history of Russia presents a similar example of shifting back and forth from liberalism to iron rule.  On a much smaller scale, America shifts between Republican and Democrat governments, with the dynamism of evolution overshadowing the differences.

The general pattern of the terrain can go up or down, and it is an intriguing question on what it depends.

_Figure 25.3

_Figure 25.4


I believe it depends on the production of energy (more accurately, free energy, see Essay 7, On the Smell of Money ) , but I feel not fit to go into particulars of non-equilibrium thermodynamics that are different from those of the classic one.

If the energy of a system goes up, the system becomes less stable and more capable of jumping over the transition barrier. There are two possible situations in a transition: the other side of the hill can be either deeper than the initial one or it could be the opposite.  A simple system with just one hill will spend more time in the deeper valley. 

The deeper valley is on the left.

ANIMATE  Figure 25. 5

 The deeper valley is on the right.

ANIMATE  Figure 25. 6

The problem is that in a large complex  system we never know what is on the other side of the hill. The future is unpredictable. Human mind, however, can list most of the future alternatives as falling into past patterns. It is the pattern that connects the future with the past. Naturally, the future can present a new, never seen pattern.

Those are two types of the roller coasters of change. Our clocks are lucky to ride the circular type, but we, humans, have all the fun of riding the roller coaster that we can comprehend in its entirety only when we are almost at the end.

One of the possible historical ways to make a rising landscape less steep is to decrease the buildup of energy by humans. It can be done in at least  two ways: by decreasing population and/or by decreasing physical movement that requires most physical energy. For example, as an ultimate sci-fi picture, a planet can be populated by something like motionless silicon devices feebly exchanging light signals with each other through a fiber network and producing a new device only when one of them is damaged.

NOTE: More accurately, it is appropriate to speak not about the buildup of energy but about the distance from equilibrium.  To maintain a position far from equilibrium, which is always inherently unstable, the system must consume free energy and dissipate it into heat. When the sources of mineral energy are exhausted, the general intensity of human life can go down, closer to equilibrium.

As if to foreshadow  the possible future, we call each other and send emails instead of meeting in person. Computers consume very little energy. If terrorism or fuel scarcity becomes part of life, people might travel less and less and lose interest in each other.

There is absolutely no reason to be fatalistic and pessimistic because we can imagine only what belongs to known patterns and can never imagine the radically new ones. On the new and the different, see Essay 20, On Artificial Art .

My final question is how a large and complex system can change in a radical way.

Any imaginable small change has a certain probability. A radical change of a big system consists of a large number of small changes. Therefore, the probability of such large change (more exactly, conditional probability) directly depends on the products of many fractional numbers, which is a very small number.

The reality is that the small changes do not happen all at once. The change of a large system happens locally and is spread as a sequence of stages over time. I already mentioned the theory of dislocations in Essay 22, On Errors  and the similarity of a large deformation to zipper.

My next animated illustration shows the character of change in a small system. It is difficult to separate two parts of a large system with many internal bonds.


        It is easy to split the system through an ordered  sequence of small changes:

This is the way zipper works. Each of many small consecutive stages has a high probability and, more importantly, they are lined up instead of branching out, as it is typical for events in complex systems, for example, chemical reactions, military battles,  and historical transformations.

The zipper effect has extremely important implications in molecular biology, but this is the knowledge outside our working map here.

Small systems are vulnerable because their zippers have a small number of teeth and can be easily torn apart.

A big problem arises: what is stronger in a direct clash: fluid democracy or iron autocracy?

I think that the outcome of a military confrontation depends on the strength of the armies, and all the armies are supposed to be iron autocracies.  In a non-military confrontation, I would not bet on liberalism against a violent autocracy. But the autocracy is incomparably more vulnerable than democracy where liberalism is balanced by common sense. Democracy heals its wounds, while autocracy has brittle senile bones.

The twentieth century brought to life a new kind of organization: global network. We do not have enough experience with them. The Communist network broke down after the fall of the Soviet Empire. This may suggest that cutting off the sources of energy and a blow on the head would do the same to a terrorist network.


NOTE: On the story of zipper, see Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifactsfrom Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and ZippersCame to Be . New York: Vintage Books, 1994.                                                               


P.S. (2016) A big problem arises: what is stronger in a direct clash: fluid democracy or iron autocracy? 

History of the twentieth century clearly showed that the democracy-to-autocracy transformation can run much easier that the reverse autocracy-to-democracy restauration. The current century is producing no rebuttal. By autocracy I mean not only the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Putin, not to mention scores of smaller figures, like Jacob Zuma, but even an election of an autocratic leader, whether he or she is then successful autocrat or not. It is not easy to kill established democracy, but it is much easier to throw a monkey wrench into its gears. From this point of view, the American experiment in Elections 2016 is conclusive already before the end of primaries and the national vote: an autocratic, dishonest, and self-possessed demagogue can go far when the angry (i.e., overheated), unsophisticated, and uncritical electorate hears what it wants to hear. This pattern is deeply rooted in human nature.  But the same history shows that, in a direct clash, autocracy is brittle and a few hits can break it, probably, giving way to a new autocracy. See Essay 58, All Rational Minds are Alike; each Irrational Mind is Rational in its Own Way about human irrationality. The supporters of Donald Trump are rational in their own way: they do not have a simple reason to distrust their idol until the future turns into the present.  Besides, those who put Trump in the company of Hitler and Stalin, have no reason, either. It is a pattern of belief as surrogate knowledge that runs through millennia of history and is as much a property of a nave human mind as desire for freedom and independence, wealth and power, love and respect, truth and security. For more about belief, see Essay 60, Art and Nexistence.     

The US Experiment 2016 has a new feature, however. None of the three major tyrants of the last hundred years came to power in an established democracy, all the more, as mature and lasting as US democracy.  Therefore,  there is a good chance that the minor strongman will fail. 



1. On the story of zipper, see Henry Petroski, The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifactsfrom Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and ZippersCame to Be . New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

2. Online animations of activation energy, i.e., the height of the transition barrier:





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