Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                          ESSAYS

                                              Essay 51. Potato as Food for Thought

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Essay 51. Potato as Food for Thought





This essay continues previous explorations  in simplicity and complexity.


How everything emerges and what happens afterwards?

Today I feel closer to answering this question than almost 30 years ago when I began to think about it seriously. The question itself seems to have lost its  arrogance.

My short answer is: evolving complex systems (life, mind, society, language, culture, science, technology, economy, etc.) emerge from extremely simple structures (configurations) that can be crudely represented as points (generators) connected with lines (bond couples) in certain order. Configurations are the skeletons of everything commensurable with human experience. Whatever can happen to such structures amounts to either breakup or formation of bond couples. Systems containing such structures can be more or less stable, depending on the stability (strength) of their bond couples.

Unstable evolving complex systems can exist if they are supplied with energy, dissipate part of it as heat, and retain the difference to maintain the unstable labile order. I call them exystems. (from X-systems; X stands for ECS: Evolving Complex Systems). Sooner or later they die anyway, i.e., lose their instability, altogether or in parts, but the spread between sooner and later is enormous.

Biochemical systems are, probably, at the lowest level of evolving complex systems. They satisfy  the description in the previous two paragraphs. Social structures, languages, cultural institutions are examples of the upper middle levels.

Most probably
, life emerges in unstable labile chemical systems by gradual, step by step, growth of complexity. At the dawn of life, periodic processes (fluctuations of temperature and light, tides, seasons, and natural catastrophes) keep the initial simple systems unstable (off equilibrium) until they find the way to use solar radiation to do that on their own. This is possible exactly because life originates in simple systems capable of growth and complexification.  Search in small systems is more efficient than in large ones.  An exystem must be small to emerge.

While for the physicists who thought about emergence of life the complexity of living structures was a mystery (the probability of the self-assembly of  life as we know it is zero), there is nothing mysterious for a chemist in a stepwise increase of complexity. The mechanism of energy utilization for maintaining a chemical system in an unstable state is also well known. It is a very simple chemical trick used by all life forms.

Remarkably, we can observe the process of emergence in all detail while studying history of human institutions.  All Columbus needed to discover America was money. All nature needed to discover life was molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the "pocket change of living cells" coming from the $1000 bills of food molecules (John Balmier). Plants make it from the little grains of gold—photons of light—with which the Sun showers the Earth.


The unstable systems search for stability, i.e. move toward a steady state (minimum of entropy production). The search means breaking up some bond couples and locking others. This can be achieved by growth: making more new bonds between atoms than losing old ones. While still unstable, larger systems are more stable because the changes are mostly local and do not destroy the entire large system. The unstable systems can grow, modify, and repair themselves. Stable configurations tend to remain in their stable state without change or are destroyed  by strong impacts. Growth, therefore, may increase stability. 

What are the upper limits to growth is an open question since the Club of Rome first asked it in Limits to Growth (1972), but they certainly exist. 

Life exists in a narrow interval of instability (edge of chaos, as some say). It is unstable enough to change, grow, and move, but stable enough to have a genetic blueprint of itself.

After life emerges in chemical systems and enters evolution, it leads to all evolving complex systems we know and to new and yet unknown ones. This is why chemistry and its abstract generalization in the form of Pattern Theory (Ulf Grenander) are essential for understanding how everything emerges and what happens afterwards. 

It is impossible to know EVERYTHING, but the basic concepts of chemistry and Pattern Theory open a way to understanding it as a whole. In the understanding of human matters pattern is the counterpart of a mathematical formula in the movement of planets, atoms, and subatomic particles. We probably understand the world because we think in patterns.

My short answer is long enough, but its explanation could be much longer. The evolving collection of essays at complexity and simplicity is only a low evolutionary form of an exploration of this confusing subject. EVERYTHING is still waiting for a young enthusiast who would pursue fun and glory in the sky with more zeal than tenure and beach house on earth. Nevertheless, in this Essay I am trying to give if not the shortest than the next to the shortest presentation of the entire topic. In order to do that I start with a tiny speck of EVERYTHING: a couple of unordinary books.


In his two latest books Michael Pollan has presented to a wide audience a cornucopia of interesting ideas and observations, among them four  ideas of general significance.

BOOK 1: 
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (Random House, 2001)

IDEA 1 :  Plants use humans as much as humans use plants

Thus, as much as the gardener manipulates a plant, trying to enhance its desired qualities, the plant (potato, apple) manipulates the gardener to solicit his care.

This idea immediately attracted attention of readers because of its dog-bites-man appeal. The typical plant is an epitome of immobility and passivity. Moreover, the typical plants have no eyes and, most probably, no senses. 

The book with the catchy title, masterfully composed and exquisitely written, did not disappoint the readers. I had made a note of the author's name and was looking forward to Pollan's next book.  It did not disappoint me, either.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (The Penguin Press, 2006),

The second book seems even richer than the first. Three of author's ideas, although less flashy than IDEA 1, attracted my attention. My interpretation, however, may not necessarily coincide with the author's intent. 

IDEA 2:  The growing supply of energy increases complexity of its consumption

The growing surplus of corn production in the USA  resulted in the emergence of new industries. Among them, production of whiskey and industrial farming of animals. While these facts are well known, Michel Pollan treats them as a pattern of a very general nature. In my interpretation, a quantitative growth of production of a single plant results in increasing variety of other products that count as energy source for animals, humans, and their machines.  The non-trivial aspect of this obvious fact is the emergence of the hard to define complexity, for which we do not have a single measure. It arises from the growth of a single measurable physical value: weight of produced corn.

IDEA 3:   The growing complexity of supply creates instability and uncertainty of demand

Along with the growing complexity of industries and their products, a counteractive trend emerges. A great complexity of food supply overwhelms the consumer and creates choice bottlenecks, through which food industry in developed countries pushes its enormous variety down the consumer's throat. A new type of complexity, very much reminiscent of weather, emerges: waves of food fads, i.e., alternating approbation and disapproval of various products, in a rather chaotic manner. A whole new business of food fashion and anti-fashion emerges to steer the traffic of food to and from the shelves and toward the affluent eater's table.

The business of advertisement and counseling is typical for the affluent society overwhelmed with complexity of choice. This happens with all consumer goods.

The "omnivore's dilemma," or anxiety of abundance, is also a pattern. We can see it in the entire area of consumption: with gadgets as well as information. We see it also in food for thought and soul.

I simplify my life with Consumer Reports with all their shortcomings. The giant of Google has grown right before my eyes, fatting its calves on the endless prairies of information and it is now looking for companies to munch, too. The area of information is in the constant flux: the newspapers as we know them are the next to go. The countless blogs would require several lives to read them all, but with little nutrition.

IDEA 4:  All food comes from the sun

Sunlight, exchanged for the coins of ATP, brings the grass from the soil, the cattle feed on grass, the chickens pick up grass, seeds, and insects, the food digested by the animals and birds fertilizes the soil, and humans feed on animals and plants.

This highly consequential idea is by no means original, but Michael Pollan illustrated it in a fine way by his description of truly organic farming that utilizes maximum of solar energy.

A chemist immediately notices that minerals (for example, compounds of potassium and phosphorus, probably, also of nitrogen) are missing from this picture. They are carried off the soil with food and must be replenished. In order to launch a close to perfect cycle of matter, all plants, animals, and humans should live and die on the farm. 



This is how Michael Pollan remembers the moment when IDEA 1 emerged in his mind:

        I realized that the bumble bee and I had a lot in common.

The bumble bee feeds on the plant and pollinates it. The author interacts with the plant  in the role of a gardener who feeds on the plant and modifies it to his tastes. As the insect  and the plant form a  single system of mutual dependence, so do the gardener and the plant. In the language of abstract systems, the bee and the plant are interacting components of a system as much as the gardener and the plant are components of another system, overlapping with the first over the plant. All three are components of a larger system.

"When I talk about these plants cleverly manipulating us, I'm obviously using figurative language. We dont     have a very good vocabulary for talking about how other species act on us,about their agency. We see the     world as if were the thinking subject, and then youve got that subjects object. And so, you know, I pull         the weeds, I plant the potatoes, I harvest the crops. But this is just a limitation of our language." (source).

Having emphasized the reciprocal relations between the gardener and the plant,  Michael Pollan seems to hold back.

I part here with Michael Pollan's brilliant books that uniquely convey the amazement the old naturalists felt for the wonders of nature. I use his four ideas as an introduction into my next attempt to explain (first of all, to myself) how everything emerges and what happens afterwards. The second part is the easiest to answer: history. The first part, however, is more intricate: out of simplicity. 

If so, there is a chance to find a "good vocabulary"
and language without limitations, at least, give it a try. And, by the way, arent we in fact both thinking subjects and thinking objects? 

We say that the gardener desires certain properties of the plant. Why cannot we say that the bee desires certain properties of the plant and the plant desires certain properties of the gardener?

The anthropomorphic terms desire, goal, purpose, love, hate, fear, joy, anxiety, despair, satisfaction, manipulation, use, domination, submission, will, hope, etc. relate to humans and systems of humans. Are they the artifacts of the language or signs for something applicable beyond human matters?

We have been endlessly arguing about similar questions since the appearance of modern robots and computers, i.e. for more than half a century. Do they or do they not? Can they or cannot?  We certainly attribute memory to them, and even acknowledge that it is better than our own. But, unlike the blueprints of exystems, it cannot mutate.  In this sense, computer is not alive. In this sense bureaucracy is dead.

What about desire? For the last twenty years, on a growing number of occasions I have had fleeting feelings that my computer, and especially my current Dell computer with Windows XP, has a desire to infuriate me with its unpredictable and unexplainable behavior. I punished it by turning off its energy supply and rebooting, which seemed to work, although not always. I begin to think that the only reason behind that was the desire of Microsoft to push another operating system down my wallet, but the next moment I suddenly realize that there is no proof that Microsoft is human and can desire. It is a corporation with humans as one kind of components: a system as much driven by economic hunger and prone to entropic decay as a human body driven by hunger and subject to aging and death.  It uses me by making me use its products. My computer uses me, too, with the purpose of propagating the species Fenestrae micromollae .




Weather (which I linked to Pollan's IDEA 3) has often been used by scientists as an epitome of complexity within the framework of ordered chaos.  A whole wave of books and articles on chaos and complexity arose and subsided between the late 1980s and 90s. Practically each of them mentioned a butterfly in Hong Kong creating a hurricane over Florida, with some geographic variations.

I find no use for the butterfly, but the phenomenon of weather may help us understand the phenomenon of history. I prefer history to a more ambiguous term: evolution. The latter is used in natural sciences to denote any gradual process going through a series of identifiable steps. It applies also to a particular case of origin and evolution of life, society, or paper clip. The term has a whole spectrum of meanings. On the contrary, history is usually understood as history of humankind from cave people to kings and slaves and further to the demise of the kings and the redemption of the slaves. Human history includes the histories of all man-made things, ideas, and institutions, as well as the history of the entire Earth under the impact of humans.


The view of planet Earth as a single system in which everything is connected was passionately expressed by Russian geochemist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (Владимир Иванович Вернадский, 1863-1945). Vernadsky, who remains well remembered and esteemed in America, and kind of cult figure in Russia, regarded Earth as result of three waves of evolution that started at different times but have been running concurrently since: geosphere (minerals and fluids) , biosphere (life), and noosphere (human matters). The latter is the stage at which humans begin  to change the entire planet by means of rational activity (which our posterity may deem irrational). But this subject deserves a separate and closer look.

By history I mean not a particular history of something but a fundamental property of exystems.

The author of the hyperbolic metaphor known as butterfly effect was meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He first introduced it as a butterfly in Brazil causing a tornado in Texas. Some suggested he responded to somebodys image of  seagull wing causing the change of world weather. A link was also drawn to Ray Bradburys story A Sound of Thunder (1952) about the traveler to the past who stamps a butterfly and back in his time finds history changed.

In The Butterfly and the Tank (1938) by Ernest Hemingway, about deadly consequences of a prank, human life is a fragile butterfly under the tank of war, quite like a mobile home under the tornado. 

The history of the butterfly effect itself is an example of emergence and subsequent evolution of a small component of human culture. Geographic variations play the role of mutations. The butterfly effect, in terms of Pattern Theory (see next section), is a pattern of "large consequences from small causes"  and the variations are regular configurations embraced by the pattern.

A butterfly may or may not cause a tornado. But the original story of Ray Bradbury, itself with roots in H. G. Wells The Time Machine, which I trace far back to the Sumerian cuneiform dream books, seems to imply a more rigid chain of cause and effect. Therefore, somewhere in the history of this metaphor a more significant mutation occurred.

The weather in the little State of Rhode Island today has no direct relation to the weather a year or a century ago. Even though an exact prediction is not possible, the prognosis partially depends on the weather yesterday and even more on the weather an hour ago. It also depends on the weather within 200 miles west, north, and south of Rhode Island and is still sensitive to what happens at 2000 miles in those directions. The rain comes from the West, hurricanes from the South, and the freezing cold from the North. Hardly anything comes from the East

The weather today also depends on climate and the climate has a history. The history of climate may include one time catastrophic events, like volcanic eruptions. Climate also has unique long range events, such as the emergence of oxygen in the atmosphere, attributed to the growth of algae and plants, last ice age, and something we do not even know. 

History happens on a different scale as compared with weather. It is unique and irreversible.   Thus, the shrinking of the ozone layer and its subsequent partial restoration as result of the ban on chlorofluorocarbons around  1990 was a short time unique event. It has confirmed the idea of Vernadsky that any history on earth is ultimately global. 

I would use a metaphor of a ballroom dance competition (only because it impresses me more than any sport except soccer) to illustrate the difference between the weather and the climate or everyday human life and human history. We could also look at a dog show, but dance has a pronounced two-dimensionality, which the dog show has only to a limited degree.

If the weather can be compared with a dance on a floor, in which the movement patterns may repeat and the exact positions do not, history is the entire sequence of performances that can happen only once in the competition and never repeat again. The difference is that the program of the competition is known in advance, while history is not (unless you believe King Solomon).  Nevertheless, everyday life, i.e. the weather of our existence, can be predicted in many instances for a long time ahead. As far as a competition with elimination is concerned, although the program is known, the exact sequence of events that will go to the annals of ballroom dancing is unpredictable. 

Another detail will add more to the comparison: this year ballroom competition has only a limited bearing on the next year results.  In human history what happened four or fourteen hundred years ago may have more influence on tomorrow than what happened yesterday.

I believe that in human matters the best way toward understanding how everything emerges and what happens afterwards is to avoid definitions and use illustrations. The reason for that is the property of history which I call novelty. As soon as we invent the typewriter and learn to use it, the computer comes and knocks the typewriter off into the dustbin of history. As soon as we invent a floppy disc to store what we type, flash memory without moving parts comes and we fill up the garbage dumps with floppy disks.  The dazzling, extravagant, or elegant French kings, ruthless Chinese emperors, and solemn Russian czars leave the global stage now populated by their theatrical and cinematographic shadows. The crowd on the global stage pushes aside the mighty America through economic and political novelties the significance and consequences of which are fiercely disputed, while even climate and weather stir up a global controversy. This is history and it happens only once, unlike a movie that we can rewind or run fast forward.

One might note that science also moves ahead through changes in theories and paradigms, but this exactly what it means to have history. Science has its history. History does not have its science.

he problem with human matters is that history knows no reproducible experiments. Theoretical science, in spite of the initial enthusiasm around the systems theory, can tell us very little about the fate of humans on our planet.  True, this little is extremely important, but it was said by physicists.

In order to exist, life on earth, society, economy, and even culture (just look at what is happening to the struggling Public Radio and classical music in America) need a source of energy in the currency of money. The main long term source of energy for evolving complex systems on earth is the sun. The mineral or nuclear fuel is a temporary source not just because its resources are limited (the limits are, strictly speaking, not known) but because the products of its burning or fission put limits on the growth of energy consumption.

This is an inverse omnivores dilemma: how to get the one and only resource—money—for an overwhelming variety of desire.  This is the problem of omnispender.



Potato,  Solanum tuberosum , a plant with delicate fragrant flowers,  is one of the heroes of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire.

        "So the question arose in my mind that day: Did I choose

to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?

In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the

exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its

knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog." (page xv).

It is also one of the characters in Pattern Theory.

The cover of Ulf Grenanders Elements of Pattern Theory  (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Baltimore, 1996)  displays a potato (Figure 1).

The small squares on its surface are areas selected for the analysis of color.

Figure 2, borrowed from the book (p. 139), shows examples of potato shape. Those on the right have some irregularities.

I will try to describe here a very simplified and de-mathematized interpretation of what the mathematics of potato is about.

The problem is how to distinguish between  a regular potato and an irregular one.

The regularity of US politics is an intriguing subject. It is often discussed whether the Iraq War follows the pattern of the Vietnam War. 

First, we have to decide what is regular and what is not. The concept of regularity can be applied to anything variable: shape, human behavior, diagnostic microscopy,  financial transactions, X-ray and MRI images, food, and literary styles. Those properties are entirely dependent on our judgment. Of course, the concept of regularity evolves with time in each area, which is best illustrated by food, fashion, and style. 

Figure 2 
presents shapes of four real potatoes, two of them with sprouts, from pictures processed by a computer and reduced to contours.  



To address the problem of regularity, let us start with a potato shape which we consider regular beyond a shadow of a doubt and call it template. In other words, the template is the embodiment of potatoness, as the best-in-show dog exemplifies the standard of the breed. Certainly, more than one tuber can claim to be ideal potato, but if we have disagreements, we can always vote.  We can also regard the potato template as a superposition of different suggestions with the number of votes for each.  

Next, in order to create a space for all regular potato shapes, and not just the template, the following mathematical procedure is used.  We start with the template, which is a closed curve, and find transformations of  the curve that generate other curves but  preserve regularity.  We can do without the exact mathematics and I would only mention in passing that, at least for the curves, this is the subject of group theory, a very abstract area of mathematics.

Obviously, rotation and scaling up or down (Figure 3A to 3C) preserve the shape, although the scaling may have its limits: a pea-size potato is certainly irregular. We have to set the limits of regularity. 

Regularity is entirely in the eye of the beholder. This is one reason why I emphasize we.  I do not do that if a property is in the eyes of mathematics. Mathematics does not set standards of regularity.  Once regularity is set, mathematics enforces it.

Next, local variations of curvature (how small? how local? we decide) do not encroach on the potatoeness.  Some areas are convex and some are concave, there are dimples and bumps, but on a smaller scale than the entire well rounded potato. This also applies to human body, but the fashion standards do encroach on humanity and, I suppose, hurt millions of women.

Next, local variations of curvature (how small? how local? we decide) do not encroach on the potatoeness.  Some areas are convex and some are concave, there are dimples and bumps, but on a smaller scale than the entire well rounded potato.

In our example, it is the requirement that the configuration is closed, i.e., cyclic. For institutions, decisions, and classifications the tree-like connections without cycles are regular.

The curve in Figure 3D is slightly different from the template 3-1.  This is something trickier to standardize in order to entrust computer with a camera to decide whether a particular potato in the focus is regular or not. To do that we have to develop a mathematical representation of potato shape, Figure 3E and 3F.

We start with a crude representation of the curve as a polygon (Figure 3E)  and refine it by increasing the number of sides (3F). By tracking the polygon in certain direction, we deal only with the length of a side and its angle, or just the angle between the neighboring sides.  The sides simply do not have anything else.

We admit that the sides of the polygon can vary at random within certain limits, and we set the limits of local variation. Of course, the polygonality must be preserved as part of potatoeness and the contour line should be closed.

This completes the analysis of potato shape. Instead of the awkward potatoeness we can now start using the term potato shape pattern. We can also measure a deviation of a shape from the template. We can deform the template at random and still remain within regularity. We can synthesize a lot of shapes. But all that is mathematics of equations.  In human matters we can rarely do it, although Ulf Grenander and his colleagues advanced this direction for various biological and medical images and not just potato.


To define pattern, we need several things.

1. Generator space, i.e. list of small indivisible components of a structure.

Generators are minimal, atomic elements of shape or any other representation: molecule, social formation, skeleton, corporate structure, terrorist network. The generator space, infinite in the case of potato, consists of all oriented lines that form the sides of the polygon. The potato shape generators differ angle. Each has two "hands" to form a chain.  Generators can have a certain bond space: a limited number of bonds with restricted ability to couple with other bonds, quite like atoms of chemical elements. Other generators may be less rigid in their ability to connect. Generators, the atoms of EVERYTHING, are discovered in the process of analyzing reality.

. The local rules of bond formation between generators.

The generators of potato shape connection have two potential bonds each and they can connect consecutively, with no unconnected bonds left.  The connection is called bond couple. Figure 4 shows two generators gand  gand the way they form bond couples.  These generators connect at any angle. This is not always the case. Atoms in molecules have narrow limits for the angles between bonds, while the generators of corporate structure do not have angles at all because they do not exist in geometrical space.

A set of generators connected by bond couples in a certain way is called configuration. Thus, molecules can be regarded as configurations of atoms.

3. The global rules of connection between generators (could be absent).

shape-generators4. Similarity transformation.

It is the transformation or a sequence of transformations that generates  a regular transformation from another regular transformation or the template. It may include random choices i.e., casting a random number. 

For two-dimensional objects, relevant for human and computer vision, similarity transformation often can be expressed mathematically. In other cases the mathematical (analytical) form of the transformation is difficult, impractical, or impossible. For example, I cannot imagine any equations describing transformation of the configuration of the Vietnam War into the configuration of the Iraq War or, for that matter, the general patterns of victory and defeat. I do not even know in advance whether they follow the same overall pattern, although they certainly follow some partial patterns.

More exactly, the Vietnam War alone is not a pattern but a template. Together with the Iraq War it can lead to a pattern, to which the Gulf War, apparently, does not belong.

Configurations of history are, as a rule, singular and unique. The basic ideas of Pattern Theory, however, are neither analytical nor numerical.  

are the jury for the potatoes, but who is the judge for human matters? 

It may seem that the choice of template is also a necessary component of  pattern, but this is not so. We need a template for the purpose of selection against a standard, which can be arbitrary.  In computer vision the template serves the purpose of image recognition. Natural selection does not follow a template; it creates, modifies, and destroys it.  We can speak about the template of a mammal, but only in very general terms. In science and law a verbal definition serves as template. In human matters the consensus regarding the definitions is an exception.

We can do without a template by simply comparing two configurations and measuring an evolutionary (or historical)  distance between them.  This principle is well known in evolutionary genetics and  image recognition. 

This is the right time to give another reason why I emphasize human presence (we) in the choice of template. I attribute a very subtle and hard to catch  property to Pattern Theory: unlike physics, it is open to novelty.  When physics encounters a new phenomenon it has to change itself, as it happened with quantum theory. Pattern Theory requires a human participation in the choice of generators, rules of connection, similarity transformation, and global regularity each time it encounters an object.  It is involved in human matters by its very nature and if friendly to human presence. If a novel pattern is detected, no conceptual correction is needed. 

I can give only a negative tentative definition of novelty: a novel object is impossible to recognize correctly.

In this way, which may seem an imperfection as compared with a graceful physical theory, Pattern Theory is always ready to analyze and embrace a new phenomenon and register its pattern, as well as recognize an old pattern.  It is fit for complex evolving systems. On the contrary, any graceful physical theory is applicable to an area of the world that has the same laws of nature as million years ago and will have the same laws for at least a million years. 

Pattern Theory does not need to define its area of application. It fits anything that can be represented in terms of points and lines, which is most of Everything. Mathematical formula is a configuration, too.

For the above reasons, Pattern Theory is not a theory in the sense a physical theory is. It is a tool of understanding rather than prediction. We cannot build a bridge over a river with Pattern Theory, but we can build bridges to both past and future.

In what sense PT is a theory, what it can do, and why do we need it? It will be more appropriate to ask that after it attracts more people outside its current academic sphere still limited by computer science. Until then I would draw a parallel between patterns in human matters and mathematical formulas and equations in physics.  Pattern Theory is, so to speak, the physics and chemistry of understanding the world by humans, computers, and aliens.  Why physics? Because it can be quantitative. More important, it can measure instability as irregularity. But what does it have to do with chemistry?


In order to explain what chemistry is I would need a lot of space. Chemical textbooks are murderously large and heavy. But with pattern ideas already presented I can do it quite briefly.

Chemistry for non-chemists is Pattern Theory of configurations with atoms as generators. This is not what chemistry for the chemists is about, but it is certainly one of its aspects. A molecule is a configuration. There are similarities between some molecules and they are expressed not by mathematical equations, but by fragments of structure. Thus, all molecules with hydroxyls (like methanol, ethyl alcohol, ethylene glycol, and isopropyl alcohol
—all household products—manifest similar chemical properties along with differences. Acetone is different and there is another series of molecules with properties similar to acetone.

This kind of similarity transformation
—change anything but a certain block of structure—is something alien to the perception of images. But it is akin to the perception of ideas. No wonder because shapes come from the Euclidean space and ideas have no material existence. Molecules, however, take an intermediate position. They are material objects in Euclidean space, which matters for many chemical problems, especially in biochemistry, but they are also ideas about how one molecule differs from another regarding the connections between the atoms.

To illustrate this neglected  side of EVERYTHING, Figure 5 compares three similarities.


Of course, all three columns contain representations, not "real" objects. The difference between reality and its mental representation, however, is the oldest unsolved problem of philosophy and we shall eschew it.

Chemistry answers a series of questions; one of them is what happens during a chemical transformation.

Chemical reaction is a rearrangement of bonds between atoms of one or more components. It is a transition from one, initial, configuration to another, final. Usually (I omit a lot of detail) the chemical transformations are reversible. The final configuration immediately starts transition back to the initial one.

It all goes toward (more detail is omitted: it can go sideways)  the so-called chemical equilibrium in which the mixture of the initial and final configurations has minimal energy. (I omit even more detail here). If there is no such minimum, no chemical reaction will run on its own because anything in nature can run only down the energy slope. Unless something pushes it up.

From this crucial "unless" life emerges: there is a way to pump energy into the system and keep it in the high energy final state, preventing from rolling down toward equilibrium. This is what life is from the point of view of physics. Not accidentally life emerges from a chemical system: chemistry can provide a mechanism for that.  This is the absolute square one of life and it can be achieved in rather simple systems without proteins and DNA.  A biologists would not see anything alive in such systems, but they open a way to systems of growing complexity and ultimately to the life forms as we know it.

The key word is ATP: adenosine triphosphate, a very simple thing (Figure 6) , which plays the role of money in the economy of living cell. The ultimate source of ATP in plants is the sun light. (IDEA 4 of Michael Pollan's book). ATP is the currency of energy  and all living cells use the same dollar bill of ATP. Animals, however, print their biodollars with the energy of not light, but food.  The entire majestic complexity  of living nature and crazy complexity of human society have  evolved on the available source of energy (IDEA 2).  As result, natural history and, much faster, human history became a history of instability and continuous and contentious search for a greener pasture (IDEA 3).



Unlike energy, instability is not a universally accepted, defined, and understood property outside physics and mathematics. In my eyes it makes it an ideal substitute for energy, which is a universally accepted, understood, measured, but highly tainted by physics concept.

My personal problem with energy and probability is that both are the most fundamental concepts of science and, as anything truly fundamental, they cannot be defined to the satisfaction of all who dwell on this foundation. They can be defined for particular systems. I am interested in EVERYTHING and for me stability/instability embraces all of Everything. Moreover, since human matters are in the focus of my attention, stability is better understandable intuitively than energy.  

Without going into details, when energy of the system increases, especially, in an  non-uniform, local manner, its instability goes up and stability goes down, which means that the probability of the state with higher energy is less than the probability of the state with a lower energy.

High stability means that the system cannot be expected to change in near future, but we have no idea when. High instability means that change is coming, but we have no idea when. In mathematical statistics probability and energy are related for well-defined systems: the higher energy, the lower probability. But in human matters we never deal with well-defined systems. One reason is that we do not know what people think, but there are plenty of other reasons.
One of them is that we never encounter closed systems in real life. An open system cannot be defined without some substantial knowledge about the larger system that encloses it.

We talk about stability, stabilization, instability, and destabilization regarding such poorly defined systems as markets, fashion, weather, economics, politics, war, tastes, careers, family relations, and love life.  It is also known in human matters as stress, tension, anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration. This justifies in my eyes the use of instability instead of practically synonymous energy and probability.
Energy is for inanimate matter of for a well-defined part of life, as in biophysics.

When we deal with the sun light and mineral fuel as the source of physical energy for our civilization, we can measure it in physical units only. We can predict with certainty that any instability of the energy supply will cause instability of our entire life, as it happens on small scale after a hurricane or tornado interrupts power supply to our homes.

In chemistry, we use energy instead of instability. The great blessing of chemistry is that chemical experiment today is simple (small kitchen counter will do), usually fast (most results overnight), low cost, reliable, reproducible, and scalable. This is why the chemists get their answers from experiment rather than from equations. Besides, no equation can produce the material sample in a vial. Moreover, we do not need to know the absolute values of energy and can operate with differences.



The most important question we can ask regarding large complex systems is not what can happen to them — anything imaginable can indeed happen — but when will it happen. Most things that we imagine, like hitting the jackpot in lottery,  will never happen during our lifetime.  The answer is: it is what can happen faster that most probably will happen indeed.

Transition state is the fleeting, unstable, irregular configuration between the stable initial and final ones. It is always very unstable in chemistry because it is irregular. If the transition states were stable, anything that happen in the world would immediately slide down to the most stable equilibrium and freeze there. That will be the true end of the world. The transition state limits the speed of a transformation from one stable structure to another, see Figure 7.


To avoid repetitions, I refer the reader to other web pages of this site.  See Essays 8, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, and 49 and pdf files Molecules and Thoughts, Transition States in Patterns of History, The New and the Different, History as Points and Lines , as well as almost all the other files in complexity.  Transition state in chemistry is well presented on the Web. 



Pattern Theory of transition states has not yet been developed, but it is obvious that they can be naturally accommodated.  Computer experiments with pattern simulate transitions between two regular configurations through an intermediate irregular one.

Figure 8 is a visual metaphor of a transition state between two regular images.


I believe that full-blown  chemistry of patterns in human matters is the most exciting goal for an adventurous exystemologist. Alas, a grant is by no means guaranteed. But you can do it just for the fun—and maybe glory—of it.  The concept applies to reorganized institutions, reforms, wars, politics, electoral campaigns, decision making: to EVERYTHING.


Sometimes a historical change is quasi-reversible: while complex configurations do not repeat, patterns do. For example, the formerly stagnant history of Soviet Russia now offers patterns of change. The old authoritarian patterns, however, come back.

When we speak about butterfly effect as a pattern "large consequences from small causes," how can we measure the size of consequences and causes? 

The most general measure is instability. It can be compared with the waves of a stormy see. The stormy periods alternate with quiet stretches. History of any nation looks like waves of instability
—revolutions, wars, invasions, calamities, fast growth, radical reforms—alternating with periods of quasi-equilibrium, peaceful development, gradual progress, or gradual decline.


Figure 9, taken from History As Points and Lines (Figure 21-7 ), is a typical example of history as weather. Any point of the wavy line stands for a certain social configuration. Some of configurations of history are given in the book.  They would look less naΓ―ve if drawn by professional exystemologists.


Figure 10, which is a modified Figure 23-1 from Points and Lines, presents the first wave of Figure 9.  Obviously, the alternation of ups and downs in a sequence of events repeats on different scales in a sequence of events. I call it quasi-fractal structure of history (Essay 49: Terrorism and its Theorism , Appendix 3). I repeat here the two figures from Essay 49,  see Figures 11 and 12 (3 and 4 in Essay 49). 

The word quasi points to the main distinction of history: configurations never exactly repeat, quite like the shorelines, but in time, not in space.  The map of history is never finished and a new Columbus is always welcome.

The broken red line represents the overall trend. But the trend of what?  Instability is just energy, modified to fit EVERYTHING, and especially human matters.


I see in Technos a new super-kingdom of  life or, to be more exact, a separate evolving complex system, on par with living organisms and human society. I am sure that today Vernadsky would separate  it from the noosphere, but he died in 1945.

As animals diverged from  plants and humans later diverged from animals, the things have been diverging from humans since the appearance of digital code, the thingish equivalent of genetic code.

Here we come back to Michael Pollan, a writer with interests comprising a very big chunk of EVERYTHING. I believe that Things use humans as much as humans use Things. I believe they desire each other as much as plants and humans.  They can also hate each other. I believe that the belt of the suicide bomber is the killer as much as the bomber himself.  More important, Things can compete for resources, and not just space, energy, and matter: the most strained and hopelessly limited resource in our times is time itself.

I believe that the Things with stored digital blueprints are the newest really big historic evolutionary
cigar- , peapod-, lens-, or torpedo-shaped trend after the Industrial Revolution (Figure 13).  They have been moving to the same position of domination that the humans are used to in relation to organisms and things. They take good care of those who takes care of them. They are our gardeners.

The peapod in Figure 13 (compare with Figure 10) symbolizes a historic period with events inside.  We can see today only its present end. Can we foresee its distant end?


This is, of course, too much for this Essay.  I have been writing about this troubling for me subject mostly in simplicity, but this time I can refer to the third section of my  spirospero site:  poetry in English.


actorsTo say that I desire a candy as much as the candy desires me would be simply a statement of our belonging to the same system. Economists and businessmen know that very well. But what is desire from the point of view of a chemist? For a chemist the world is not just pictures from putty balls and toothpicks: it is a process.  I am not familiar with psychology of action and this is pure my guesswork.

My desire to possess a candy and my attempt to get hold of it includes four participants, Figure 14.    Two of them are "real"� material objects: myself and my goal.  Two others are my ideas of myself and my goal. 

The process  consists of several stages.   First, I perceive my goal, next I evaluate it against my context (current state, long time preferences, recent history, long time history, negative factors), and then I actually decide whether I really desire to achieve the goal, and if so, I act. The success may be guaranteed for a candy, but not necessarily with more complex goals requiring more resources of energy and time.

In Figure 15 the stages are:


1. Myself and the goal are the only components of the system.

2. The image of the system appears on the border between myself and the goal.

3. My image of myself joins the system in the context.

4. The image of myself connects with the image of the goal: I imagine possession.

5.  I reach toward the goal.

6A. The image of the goal does not contradict the physical state: success.

6B. The image of the goal contradicts the physical state: failure.

A pattern chemist sees more.


Depending on various external and contextual circumstances, I can interrupt the process at any stable stage.  Whether I move from stage to stage, it depends on the instability of the transition state between the stages.  For the entire pathway from perception to action, the instability profile looks as in Figure 16.  Whether it goes to the very end depends on the relations between minimums  and maximums along the way.  Personal relations, professional life, and especially love are full of chemistry of this kind.



The above is part of the picture in my mind,which  Michael Pollan's epic tribute to the grass under the sun illustrates. We can see from a new angle the wars for land, of which human history  mostly consists. They were waged, literally, for the place under the sun, only more for grass than for humans. Grass was the first energy resource used by humanity for conquering distance on land—on horseback—and   conducting even more wars. Grass and grain were the oil of Middle Ages, tapped right from the sun. Our Western civilization started, in Africa and Asia, in areas where grass for food could grow well along the great rivers. 

History is a record of human bonding to land under the sun, their subsequent infatuation with dead Things growing with roots immersed into dark oil, and gradual emergence of the life of Things, with their own digital genome and the pending emergence of the digital mind.  

What is going to happen next?  Global bonding of humans to each other? Global beehive? War of Things for parcels of our personal time? Dehumanization, dematerialization, numerization, digitalization? Divorce between humans and Things?  Growth of a human-thingish Leviathan? Exhaustion of resources and the end of the peapod of the Industrial Revolution?


What is going to happen?

What can happen faster.

Some questions

1. What do we gain, if anything, by regarding history in the exystemic framework?

2. Buildings and idle machines may need maintenance, but not a constant intake of energy. Why do we need to supply energy to maintain order in an exystem?

3. Why would a system in steady state move to another steady state? What is the driving force of change in exystems? Why are they inherently unstable?

4. Do we really need historical stability?

5.Why are we obsessed with growth? What are the hidden consequences of growth?

6. Can we predict anything in history?

I plan to expand this Essay at complexity.
The ideas of Essays 51 to 56 are developed in INTRODUCTION TO PATTERN CHEMISTRY

   ( or http://spirospero.net/patternchemistry-parts1to3.pdf    and  http://spirospero.net/patternchemistry-part4.pdf )

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