Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                                                      ESSAYS
 Essay 55. The chemistry of money

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                 Essay 55.  The Chemistry of Money

          chemistry of what?


Money is the most common area of everyday human experience. It is hard to believe that we could differ on money issues, yet even the professionals disagree. One of possible reasons is that money has been evolving, like any other life form, and never before as fast as today. Another reason is that by money we mean different things, from one cent coin to the ultimate meaning of life and to the root of all evil.


When I read about economics, money, and inflation, I can learn to some extent how economists see the world of money—and they shout and whisper about it in a pandemonium of voices—but I am still entitled to my own point of view. Since I was born into the world of money (not to be misunderstood!), to talk about money is my birthright. Moreover, I spent long stretches of time in Soviet Russia when money mattered very little, and my vision could be sensitized by life without money as it would be by life in darkness.  


This Essay completes the triad  POWERGROWTHMONEY, my personal sacrifice on the altars of the three most cherished gods of our secular Pantheon. 


A lot of related thoughts are scattered over other Essays. The issues related to Pattern Theory, structure, novelty, transition state, kinetics, catalysis, energy, stability, complexity, and the generality of chemical vision are repeatedly discussed in complexity.


The voyage into the realm of money is for me a dangerous lonely adventure. I have to suppress my fear of making fool of myself. I have no companions to plug their ears with beeswax. To hear the authentic and unadulterated money song, I tie myself to just three sources, none of them written by an expert in the subject. 


Source 1. Mark Hammond (philosopher) , A Heideggerian Phenomenological Investigation of Money , The Edwin Mellen Press,2001 .


I had run into this book (which is Volume 51 of  Problems in Contemporary Philosophy) by pure accident and it was an exotic, disturbing, but  rewarding reading. I learned why philosophers used to avoid the subject of money,  how money is involved in the future evolution of humans, and about the suffocating effect of money on modern philosophy. I better understood—without any affection—Heidegger, a dark figure of modernity. Hegel, who had looked high above his head, accepted the world, as much later did Francis Fukuyama, who was just looking around in his office, and so did Heidegger, looking under his feet.


The book reinforced my belief in the value of philosophy (see Essay 29). It also directed me to the next and most important source, the centennial anniversary of which is well worth celebrating.   


Source 2. Georg Simmel (sociologist), The Philosophy of Money , 1907 (second edition, translation: Routledge, 1978)


The style and even the look of the first chapter reminded me of various solid objects from paperweight to blind brick firewall. I thought that Simmel’s unique The Philosophy of Money would be a tombstone to long gone times.


Simmel’s paragraphs could go for three pages uninterrupted. Yet very soon I saw a multitude of windows opening in the brick wall to let  the brilliance, inspiration, and imagination out, as in the section Exchange as a form of life, where the author, among other subjects, investigates the economics of a kiss with full freshness of a witty piece in The New Yorker. Then the brick wall would close again until the next outburst of intellectual vigor. The last three quarters, more lively and essay-like in style, made me completely forget the density of the text, and if I saw bricks, they were of gold.



Reading Simmel, I could feel the consistency of Simmel’s concept and its closeness to my own chemical vision. I often felt that his book was, in fact, a natural philosophy of money, i.e., the attempt to be as close to observable reality as possible for such a mystifying subject. I would even call him “materialist:” he received his doctorate in 1881 for his thesis "The Nature of Matter According to Kant's Physical Monadology".  His example with over-cooled water that turns into ice at a slightest touch (p. 269), makes me think that his interests were truly all-encompassing. He believed in the absolute unity of nature, from physics to intimate love, which he occasionally substantiates as a philosophical principle: disparate things are united in human mind. He wrote as much an encyclopedia of money as a sociology of individual, however paradoxically this sounds. He himself noted that telegraph would be absolutely useless for a lonely individual (p. 129). I admire his idea that only when you pay with money, you are really free (p. 285). Having said that, I insist that when everybody pays with money, nobody is free. Freedom is priceless because, along Simmel, freedom means being yourself: but what a small prison cell!


Source 3. Jack Weatherford (cultural anthropologist), The History of Money, Crown Publishers, also Three Rivers Press,1997.


This compact, lively, and focused  popular book rises fundamental questions about the modern monetary system, but I suspect that today nobody knows which of numerous answers is true.


There is a large number of excellent Web sources on money, but I have managed to stick to my choice. Once, however, I was almost seduced by David Hume, who wrote in 1752:


Manufactures, therefore gradually shift their places, leaving those
countries and provinces which they have already enriched, and flying
to others, whither they are allured by the cheapness of provisions and
labour; till they have enriched these also, and are again banished by

the same causes. (David Hume, Of Money )


The concise and far reaching description of globalization tells me that, regarding money, nothing is outdated and my three sources are as good as other three hundred.


Both Simmel and Weatherford convinced me that the very essence of modern money emanates from our trust in an institution, whether it was the Bank of England, or is Federal Reserve, or the Government (which we in America never trust), or, in the future, the Western civilization itself (which we do not have guts—or wits—to defend).  Electronic money, which Simmel, speaking of telegraph, anticipated, means the end of the world as we know it because it privatizes the power to interfere in private and corporate lives, formerly in the hands of the Law and Order, to unprecedented but still not known extent. What Simmel only vaguely anticipated, when he made qualitative distinction between big money and small money, was the power of money in politics. Mark Hammond ends his book with a warning from a different, more troubling, but in essence similar perspective that elevates interference to the rank of control.

I will further recur to Simmel’s eloquence to adorn my own reflection, but I wish I could  someday  expand more on the above books. The last one is for wide audience, with some extravagant gastronomic excursions, but I am afraid the first two are for intellectual gourmets only. Both bear the imprints of authors’ complex personalities. Anyway, I enjoyed laboring through them. 


I feel sorry for people addicted to tourist travel, which is nothing but an enhanced reality TV, while there are whole new continents of novelty and excitement, easily accessible from a comfortable chair, and, oh, so enjoyably hard to cut your way through their intellectual jungles. You need to really sharpen your mind blunted by travel agencies.

All right, I am taking back my words. You need a rest from the grueling toil for money and what can be a better rest from earning than spending?


I need to start with an introduction regarding my understanding of science in general and chemistry in particular, but I will be brief.


SCIENCE (in less than 200 words). I distinguish between simple and complex systems. The science of simple systems—moving point, hydrogen atom, protein molecule, reflexes of a mollusk, behavior of large crowds—could be itself complex, hard to understand and use, but it achieves a high degree of exactness, consensus, and predictive power. The science of  Complex Evolving Systems, which I call exystems—geology, climate, life, mind, society and all its outcrops, history—might be more accessible to laypersons, but it is neither exact, nor consensual, nor predictive, at least not as much as exact sciences.


But how much? I think that we might be successful in using scientific method for exploring the borderlines between what we can know and what we cannot.


We might well find that the area of relative predictability, the oikoumene of certainty, is quite large and it hides even an island the size of Greenland, still as much bare. I would give the island of the not yet existing science of evolutionary novelty the name of neology (although it is used in linguistics) and I even believe that the all-embracing economics, a hybrid of science and fiction (which justifies the Nobel Prize), could be the right quadrant of knowledge to accommodate it.  That will do for SCIENCE.


CHEMISTRY (272 words, but we are already on the money). It is a science about transformation of structure. This immediately brings us to the way chemist sees money, so to speak, with closed eyes.  Here it is, my mental frame for the picture of money, in which Ba is buyer, Se is seller, and Me is merchandise (not money!). But where is money? Money is invisible. It is abstraction, like energy E or temperature T.


Figure 1.
                  Change of ownership

           Figure 1.  Change of the structure of ownership. 
            Ba: buyer, Se: seller, Me: merchandise

Chemistry studies the change of energy during transformations of structure and derives from it timed predictions, or at least explanations, about the outcomes.  It tries to tell us tells us when something happens.


The CHEMIST is somebody who answers, among others, the following questions:


          1. What is the initial structure? 

Usually it is known, and if not, it can be analyzed.

          2. How can the structure change? 

There are often several most probable ways and a lot of improbable ones.

          3. What is the fastest change?

The fastest transformation may produce the main result, at least in the short run.

          4. What is  the final result? 

It is usually a mixed bag, but the main result or two can be approximately predicted.

          5. Is it possible to push the transformation in only one desired direction?

Very often, yes. Thus, life exists because the enzymes accelerate only one transformation each, out of enormous number of possibilities.


The swiftboating of John Kerry during the election campaign of 2004 (and other tricks) worked as an enzyme, too, accelerating  George Bush toward the classical mixed-bag outcome sorted out by the Supreme Court.


From this we can see that chemistry is not just about molecules (Ulf Grenander likes to say that mathematics is not just about numbers).


That will do for CHEMISTRY.

NOTE: I do not advocate application of chemistry to human matters. I advocate the inclusion of chemical ideas into a general framework of complex systems, in a way similar to the use of physical ideas in economics through econophysics. As it is becoming clear, econophysics is much more general than its applications to economics. The same can be true for chemistry of evolving complex systems. Besides, the border between physics and chemistry is fenceless. The indigenous concept of chemistry is not so much structure as individuality, which is the central and treasured concept in human matters.  The crowds are the subject of econophysics.

Energy comes next. This is a complex, tangled topic, dangerously so in times of energy crisis, when it is exploited by politics. There is a lot on the Internet, but one excerpt will do the job of cutting the Gordian knot:


ENERGY (in 17 words).


        "The fact is, no one knows what Energy is! Get that! No one knows what ENERGY is!"

                             Dave E. Watson


That will do for energy.



I strongly and completely seriously recommend this source for both young and seasoned non-tech Vikings of neology because it contains the best popular introduction into energy that I know.  FT stands for flying turtle. The entire  FT EXPLORING  site is great.


 That will do for ENERGY, but only for a beginning.  Energy makes things happen (many people said that), but one basic question still remains: happen WHEN?


The first hint of the answer had come from physicists only around 1930, after which chemistry began taking its modern shape.  


WHEN (Slightly over 180 words)


The question WHEN? is typically chemical.  The aspect of chemistry dealing with timing of events is called kinetics. But kinetics, although rooted in physics, is an indigenous chemical subject, closely tied to mechanisms of chemical reactions. Its generality is obliquely illustrated by the article Chemical Kinetics in Wikipedia, which does not contain a single chemical symbol. Take any good non-postmodern novel: it shows, step by step, the way from the beginning of a some unusual events with a bunch of humans to their not quite expected end. This is what is called mechanism in chemistry.  A description of a historical battle, reign of a king, or revolution by a historian are presentations of mechanisms, too. 


I see general kinetics as the main foundation of neology. Its main ideas come just from common sense, but one sounds more technical: the stable initial and final states in a chemical reaction—as well as in making a life decision, conducting market transaction, running a revolution or reform—are separated  by a transition state which is more unstable (improbable, stressful) than either of the outermost states and therefore is short-living and transient bottleneck of the entire process. Hamlet is a play about transition state and pure human chemistry.  


There are two basic situations, shown in Figure 2.


The lower the transition barrier, the more probable the transformation of I into F.  For statistical ensembles, as in large volumes of molecules, consumers, voters, or traders, it translates into the speed of the overall process. We can say the same about the reversal of  F into I , but only about molecules. In real life, you can return a dress to the department store, but not if it is stained, you can vote for George W. Bush, but not revoke your vote in horror. Returning a consumed turkey sandwich is out of question.  



Figure 2. Transaction

                  Figure 2.  Transition, transaction, transformation, change, exchange, life



That will do for WHEN.


If we come back to Figure 1, I hope its invisible part will be now seen: the buyer, the seller, the merchandise, let us say, a new car, are the same right after the deal, but the value of the car has dropped in an instant (or will drop soon), and the wealth of the buyer and dealer has changed, too, quite like energy in a chemical reaction. The structure of ownership is radically changed. For if nothing changes, nothing happens, and if something happens, there must be a preferred direction of things under the sun.


Next, I am going to give a chemist’s account on money, but first:





The tradition of Montaigne’s Essays requires a personal openness. I compared myself with Odysseus not for the purpose of appearing heroic, but rather because of  the superstitious wish to belittle myself in view of the enormous difficulties of the subject. Economics and finances have never been within the scope of my interests. I am looking for some protection.


In Essay 54 I acknowledged the influence of Erwin Schrodinger on overcoming my fear of looking foolish. Another supporting hand is extended by Mark Hammond, who added the following to Heidegger’s remark on the perils of philosophizing:


For philosophizing to occur, we must, of necessity, stand on the verge of error. Although standing on the verge of error applies to everyone who tries to speak the truth about something, our case is slightly different. For, asking questions which the tradition has yet to ask, ensures that we will constantly be standing on the verge of error.        (Mark Hammond, A Heideggerian … etc. , p. 13.)


Am I really philosophizing? Apparently so because I do not expect monetary rewards from my occupation.


In short, philosophers in Antiquity saw philosophizing not as a job one did and could be paid for, but as a way of being.  (Mark Hammond, ibid., p. 71).


I am simply going home. God, give me if not money then energy.  Speaking of…



Money can be in the form of God knows what (economists are still uncertain) if it is electronic.


From under my fingertips, a series of electric impulses goes to Amazon.com  and somebody there, not human at all, takes it as $43. “It” subtracts $25 of my earlier reward certificate. Moreover, “it” sends me not another series of flickers, but a new reward of $25 in the mail, which is good only for books at Amazon, but not  for groceries at Stop&Shop. The mutual sniffing over and exchange of flickers between Amazon and my credit card bank goes somewhere behind my back. Anyway, I am pleased to have earned money (is it money?) by buying the books by Simmel and Weatherford. This is the new world, in which money is morphing so fast that economists cannot catch up with it. Of course, I am pleased by earning through buying because I am a simple animal whose primitive psychology is well known to the economists of advertisement.


Money and its carrier—paper or paperless bits of information—are two different things, but it is the visible money that overrides any abstract association with the word money. The reward certificate is also money with strings attached, and it would not be of any difference if it was just a number in computer memory, which it is. It is a strange money with a personal history, quite like a human being, and it even has a name: my name. Same can be said about the credit card: it works for me because it has had a life of its own. With the card, it seems, I reach into the future, but in fact, I live off my past. The flash memory stick with URLs, account numbers, and passwords is yet another form of money carrier, naked and unprotected from assault and theft. But all that is still not the powerful invisible substance of money.


We believe that money is something we can touch. It is the opposite with chemistry, the science of the invisible: we do not think about real atoms and molecules, which are the stuff of chemistry, unless it is absolutely necessary. The majority of chemists have never touched a single molecules or atom. A few could do it with a complicated instrument. The chemists deal with the  structure, relation, and interaction of atoms and Georg Simmel saw society in this way. My act of exchange with Amazon.com corresponds to the collision of molecules in chemistry. This is how theoretical physicists find their way today into the better paid economics: market is similar to a chemical flask and, maybe, to a supercollider.

Physics, but why not chemists? Market erases individuality and structure and turns all participants into coins of the same currency, which is completely un-chemical. But physicists can play such games.  


Obviously, there are two related but different things called money. One is money as information and the other is money as energy.


The Internet can make money as untouchable as molecules or the wind that filled up Odysseus’ sail. Nevertheless, e-money  performs exactly the same function as coins and bills. Moreover, the verbal promise to pay, a gentleman’s word, can perform the same function, especially if witnessed. It seems that the advent of e-money elucidates the specific function of cash money, which is nothing but a piece of information, whether touchable or not.  Through the Google goggles, it looks like that the perception of cash or quasi-cash money as information has not yet entered the financial mainstream and is rare even on the periphery, but it was expressed at least as early as 1997, and most probably earlier. 


Money as coin, bill, reward, credit, etc., is information about and agreement between indefinite two, particular two, or one indefinite and one particular sides.

Text Box: Looked at another way, money is
                        energy. Flows and stocks of money reflect and
                        determine flows and stocks of economic energy.

This is not, however, the money that a philosophizing chemist could be interested in. Chemistry provides a basis for biochemical coding, but does not deal with information. Neither should I.


The other money does not need any coins and records. It is something that:


can exist in various forms,

is normally conserved in transaction, but can be lost (dissipated, degraded)

can be created in a cyclic process, using a source of energy

is difficult to measure, but easy to compare

can be transformed into physical work and back

needs a socio-economic machine for creation and transactions

sets the preferred direction of spontaneous events



This looks very much like energy, and if it looks, moves, and quacks like energy, it is energy. For more about parallel between energy and money, see APPENDIX 1.


Regarding the preferred direction of spontaneous events, Ludwig von Mises put it very simply:


Every action is motivated by the urge to remove a felt uneasiness.


Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter  XIV. THE SCOPE AND METHOD OF CATALLACTICS,  Section 1. The Delimitation of Catallactic Problems.

Text Box: QUOTATION: Economic life is
                          increasingly concerned with information.


Money for a chemist is a form of energy. For a biochemist, ATP, adenosine triphosphate, is the energy carrier in living systems, the main coin in circulation. See Essay 51.


We do not know what energy is, but we know how it changes. In order to take energy out of the narrow physical usage, I prefer to use the term instability instead of energy, but stress would be even better. What we need is a term more general than both physical energy and socio-economic energy. This is how I would define it:


High energy (high instability, low stability, high stress) means roughly that something is about to happen, although we may not know when, and low energy (low instability, high stability, low stress) means that a change is unlikely, although we do not know for how long. 


This is what Dave Watson, Kimberly Baker, and others mean by saying that energy makes things happen. An additional advantage is that although there is no “unenergy,” “inenergy,” or “negenergy,” we can use both stability and instability, whichever is more convenient, because there is only one scale for both. As far as money is concerned, it not only makes things happen but beats energy by buying it. Well, we can also beat money down by making it.


Chemistry approximates values of energy for a complex structure by adding increments for simple fragments of structure and their irregular interactions (see APPENDIX 2). Simmel, as if he were a chemist, explicitly suggests a summation of  relative values of desire for both sides in the act of economic exchange. 


The chemist tries to evaluate the overall change of stability of a complex chemical system by adding all expected changes, atom by atom, or bond by bond. Sometimes it is just a guesswork. The lucky circumstance is that most atoms and bonds do not change during a chemical transformation. This is not so for a system like stock market, where changes can happen every minute at millions of points. The lucky circumstance there is that the majority of traders are simple unstructured creatures with a few statistically predictable properties, quite like molecules of gas. Nevertheless, both chemists and market analysts see only an approximate picture and are quite able to make mistakes. The difference is that chemists remember mistakes, record them in publications, and learn from them, while squawk-boxers, stump-screamers, and TV-gurus live by the moment (I might be wrong) and try to forget or hide their mistakes, which nobody remembers, anyway.  


NOTE: There is a proprietary (StarMine) system of rating the accuracy of analysts’ estimate of earnings. The system shows only relative performances of analysts. “According to StarMine, consensus earnings forecasts are accurate to the penny only a small fraction of the time.” (from Forbes ;  StarMine, bought by Reuters , was a partner of Forbes). What about  accuracy to one million? Where is the borderline between prediction and knowledge? Still, there could be a chemistry between an analyst and a company.


I have already discussed  the basics of chemical and meta-chemical kinetics all over complexity and simplicity , and transition state is well presented on the Web. In a few words, the differences in stabilities of initial, final, and transition states are evaluated or approximated by the increments of structure change around the focus of change.   Speaking of structure…




If not, chemistry would have nothing to say about money.   See APPENDIX 2


It turns out, if we think about the data in Appendix 2, that structure is a much more  abstract concept than chemical structure. This subject is of a high generality and of no direct importance to either economics or chemistry. In essence, it can be reduced to two points: 


1. The direction of events in a system, whether simple or complex, is determined by the change in total energy (stability) along that direction, in comparison with other directions. The direction with the highest drop wins, at least, in theory.

2. The change in total energy (stability) is a balance sheet for all local and global increments of the points of change.  Each time one sees a formula with the  sum  sign   like the one below, taken from a work on economics, it is just a balance sheet.


Therefore, the structure represented as points and lines is just  a map of all local entries: points and lines, each with its increment into energy or stability. A chemist compounds  a balance sheet for molecules, and anybody who studies the behavior of social and economic networks does the same, for as much as possible.  


Structure is a measurable value that is a sum over its components.  An accountant, unlike a chemist, sociologist, engineer, and architect,  does not need to imagine anything visible as structure.



I am pleased to give the floor to Georg Simmel himself.  I am going to refer to him often because his book is a unique encyclopedia of money from a non-economic perspective and because he provides a reference point and background against which the evolution of money can be traced. Simmel was a keen observer of life behind the words, clothes, and makeup. He looked deep down to the bones to which the muscles of wealth are attached.


I completely share Georg Simmel’s philosophical apology of relativity, the thoroughfare of his book. We do not have any absolute scales for social values because society is a complex, large, and labile structure. Chemistry, the science of structural complexity, deals with relative values like energy and stability, too. 


Simmel notes that an object has an economic value only if there is some obstacle to possessing it. He calls this obstacle distance.


Certainly, iron would not be an economic value if its acquisition encountered no greater difficulty than the acquisition of air for breathing; but these difficulties had to remain within certain limits if the tools were to be manufactured which made iron valuable. (Simmel, p. 72).


Further, he uses barrier on par with distance. Moreover, he mentions the intermediate stages between the desire and possession.


In the first place, as we have seen, demand is not distinctly conscious unless there are barriers, difficulties and sacrifices between the object and the subject. In reality we exert a demand only when the enjoyment of the object is measured by intermediate stages; when the price of patience, the renunciation of other efforts or enjoyments, set the object in perspective, and desire is equated with the exertion to overcome the distance. (p.91).

 sour grapes

The decisive fact is that practical economic value is never just value in general, but is by its very nature a definite sum of value; that this sum results from the measurement of two intensities of demand; that the form that this measurement takes within the economy is the exchange of sacrifice and gain; and that, consequently, the economic object does not have—as seems at first sight—an absolute value as a result of the demand for it, but the demand, as the basis of a real or imagined exchange, endows the object with value. (Simmel, p. 92)


Of course, there had been no modern chemistry when Simmel wrote his book: it emerged between 1930 and 1960. I interpret not his actual intent but the agreement of his vision with generalized chemical kinetics that speaks about height instead of distance. This agreement seems to me striking, but if there is chemistry in love, we should not be surprised to find chemistry in the love of money.


For the object in demand becomes a value of practical importance to the economy only when the demand for it is compared with the demand for other things; only this comparison establishes a measure of demand. Only if there is a second object which I am willing to give away for the first, or vice-versa, does each of them have a measurable economic value. (Simmel, p. 91)


It is out of question for me to engage in extensive mining of Simmel’s gold, but it is really amazing how modern evolution of money confirms his vision. 


One example. The space, der Raum, so important for Simmel’s picture of economic life and sociology in general, is not the vast open expanse, but more like the test tube used to bring the reagents together. The transportation, communication, and Internet  have made economic space so topologically connected and so metrically tiny that every buyer is, ideally, within the reach of any merchandise and its seller.


Simmel makes it clear that distance is something that requires an effort to overcome, while, from a different perspective, one may see modern economic space as incredibly big. In the latter case, big relates to the size of the marketplace. Simmel, however, was thinking as a sociologist and for him the individual space was a kind of topological neighborhood. I would illustrate his distance with the 14 year long toil of Jacob toward marrying Rachel or the rich of “intermediate stages” journey of Odysseus toward the reunion with Penelope after his 20 year long absence.


If Simmel was acutely aware of the money as energy, and not just physical energy, he was in search of a word for what we today call without hesitation information. He called it “symbolic representation.”


The institution of money depends upon it [symbol] inasmuch as money represents pure quantity in a numerical form, regardless of  all the specific qualities of a valued object (p. 150). 


He struggles to express the power and immateriality of information in a broader aspect:  


The thought that has been once expressed can no longer be captured again by any amount of power in the world; its content is irrevocably the public property  of all who apply the mental energy necessary to recall it. By the same token, however, once it has appeared, it cannot be stolen again by any amount of power in the world. Once expressed, the thought remains indivisibly bound up with the personality as a constantly reproducible content in a manner that has no analogy in the economic sphere (Simmel, p. 412).


Gradually, economy would “capture” information and put a price tag on it. By that time power would be measured in money, too. In totalitarian systems, the old-fashioned power of the stick would be able to “steal” information and even burn it in a book pyre. The split between hardware and software and their separation from human touch has been one of the biggest evolutionary novelties in history. 


It would take too much space to discuss here Simmel’s concept of structure, which is entirely chemical—it is based not on statistical parameters but on individuals, their bonds, and interactions—and  makes him in my eyes the first econochemist. In his own words:  “Society is a structure of unlike elements.”  This is pure chemistry. See APPENDIX 3.


Simmel has been well remembered by sociologists as the founder of social network analysis. After a century, during which economics has become the science of everything, Simmel has been re-discovered by economists.  See, for example, Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: Some Points of Relevance for Contemporary Monetary Scholarship, by Richard E. Wagner.


Is there anything new under the sun, or, better, is there anything old?  Speaking of…



The fluid chemistry of money is inseparable from time. Money was the first—and still unsurpassed since its invention—technical means to control events distant in time and space. The money pouch carried a squad of invisible jinn that would do the job in faraway places without the owner moving a finger.  Money was the first—and only—machine for teleportation and telekinesis. It was also the first—and unrivaled—time machine. Money created the first—and also unsurpassed—alternative to violence. Unfortunately, a stimulus, too.  Money expanded the footprint of a single individual and became the size of his—or the number of her—shoes.


While we can move in space in all directions, time is a one-way road with many pitfalls. With a few coins in the belt the traveler had good chances to reach the destination.


All maps of the future lie, mislead, or make no sense. The great paradox of neology is that they are all true. This is something that only chemists can understand. The unwritten principle of chemistry is that all possible chemical reactions in a given starting mixture—there could be millions of them—are possible and running concurrently. Only very few, however, run fast enough to be noticed. 


Prediction of  the future is one of the oldest (but not the oldest) professions. Can we spruce it up? To stretch the mini-skirt down to the knee-length? Make it reputable? Can we put any rational platform under the chemistry of human systems? 


The shape and position of the instability curve in Figure 2 is completely arbitrary.  We cannot plot it even in chemistry, except for very simple cases. It should be perceived only as a visual metaphor for representing the transition in an  X-systems. All we know are the relative heights of three points: initial, transition, and final ones. We can compare them in chemistry very accurately.


We never know anything for sure about the future and often even about the past and present. We can judge the future of complex evolving systems in terms of likelihood, not probability. Probability deals with well-defined systems, while future is never well defined. In well defined (closed) evolving systems, we can list all possible states, at least, in principle. In poorly defined (open) evolving systems we can always expect the unexpected, i.e., novelty. Probability of something that has never happened or even happened twice is for me like the division by zero.  Probability is about something that has already happened many times.


The states of the system can be (1)  more or less known,  (2) imaginary or expected,

(3) intermediate between (1) and (2). Our knowledge deteriorates with the span of the projection into the future, exactly as the beams of the headlights.


Seen from the present, future states of the system, realistic or hypothetical, can appear more or less stable. High stability means that the change is unlikely. Low stability suggests a probable change.  There initial state (I) of the system is usually better known than the subsequent states.  There is a partially known, or expected, or desired final state (F) of the system.


If final state F is more stable than I, the transition will be more likely than if F is less stable.  And vice versa. This is a typical example of Simmel’s relativism.


The concept of transition state attempts to answer the question: how likely is the transition from the initial  stable state to the final stable state, regardless of whether the latter is real or imaginary?


Kinetics answers the question in the following way: between F and I  lies the transition state TS which is less stable and more unlikely than either F or IThis is why not everything that can possibly happen, indeed happens.  The change in X-systems can be reversed, but rarely.    


The change with a lower transition barrier happens faster than the change through a higher one.


What happens between I and F is called mechanism of  transformation.  Sometimes we know the mechanism, sometimes we do not. It is usually short, fleeting, and, unlike clockwork, confusing.  In terms of Pattern Theory, it is irregular. 


Social chemistry, not yet existent, could use the above ideas for explaining social and economic change post factum, as well as for estimates of likelihood of future trends and events, but always with a margin of unexpected novelty.  There could also be expected novelty such as development of some big technology or a collision with an asteroid.


The above outline is clearly and completely relativistic.  We can approximately compare two states or pathways, but cannot extract any absolute kinetic knowledge from a single state or pathway.  Obviously, our mind can do the job of evaluation and prediction without any conscious evaluation and comparison. We call it intuition.


What social chemistry tells us is what we already suspect: people with lack of imagination should never be national leaders (and yet we elect them and they inadvertently fail).  As for intuition, I will not be surprised if the same principles are experimentally proven for the work of mind. The society of thoughts or, better, Marvin Minsky’s  the society of the mind, has an economy based on glucose, oxygen, hemoglobin, or ATP as money.  Today it can be visualized, as in the curious  Visualization of Brain Activity during a Monetary Incentive Delay Task.  

See my own  takes (1 and 2) on the competition of thoughts in the mind and on consciousness as a small hall of fame of the instant winners.

The word theory for a natural scientist implies that a theory can be proved, disproved, or improved. Different theories in natural sciences converge with time. I am instinctively against this term in social sciences and humanities I prefer to speak about understanding, framework, paradigm, viewpoint, platform, foundation, and principles. . The novelty of evolution leaves place for diverging, fuzzy, and incomplete “theories.” But no theories.


The rest of this Essay consists of a few selected snapshots of money taken with a chemical filter from different angles. Unbound by money and respectability constraints, I will try to apply the above dry principles to a little more full-bodied picture of economic transaction.






A lot of important but technical detail is involved in reasoning that generalizes thermodynamics over the evolving complex systems, including the market phenomena and human behavior in general. I have no choice but to ignore it here, all the more, many topics are beyond my understanding and very few are agreed upon by professionals.


Too much is expected from mathematical approach and physical theory, but much less from the chemists. Nevertheless, the way chemists talk about transition state is, probably, the most transparent, however narrow, window into the subject that has a long and rich history and itself is evolving.


There is a big body of publications on econophysics and a growing body of criticism around econophysics, occasionally derisive and cynical. I believe that econophysics is a right way toward understanding evolving complex systems in general, but it deals with statistical ensembles, i.e., crowds instead of individuals.  


As an example, I can mention only in passing the works of  Sorin Solomon and Peter Richmond who demonstrated the origin of power laws (Pareto distribution of wealth is an example) from multiplicative behavior, i.e., procreation, the fundamental property of biological systems. It deserves a closer look elsewhere. It continues the direction started by Manfred Eigen in the 1970's, although I am not sure the authors are aware of that. (Peter Richmond, Sorin Solomon, Power Laws are disguised Boltzmann Laws).


The main limitation of econophysics comes from (1) statistics, (2) equilibrium, and (3) reversibility. Apparently, this excludes not only the government and huge investment funds from the picture, but the world itself, with its wealth, misery, inequality, absurd, turmoil, heroes and villains, as well as the irreversible course of history.  Yet if patterns are recurrent and reversible, there could be some generalized physics, in which I am by no means expert, however.  


NOTE (2016). Can we have a unified picture of the world? I believe we can if we develop an approach that synthesizes generalized versions of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, social sciences, and humanities into a discipline that none of the professionals and grant funders in the listed sciences would recognize as his or her own area of expertise. Pattern Theory, Human thermodynamics,  pattern chemistry, pattern history are, in my view, first attempts  to look at the world as a whole and understand how it works even if we are unable either to calculate and control its trajectory, like we can do it with a little space probe, or agree on where should the world go.        


The buyer and seller are individuals. They do not make up statistical  ensembles in a single transaction with strong psychological undercurrents. Desire and need fluctuate and if the negotiations decrease the Simmel’s “distance” enough, one fluctuation will do the job. This state of uncertainty, vacillations, and the final impulse to buy or sell is familiar not only to all stock traders but also to all shoppers and even the garage sellers, as well as those who contemplate marriage or divorce. Instead of distribution in space, as with the size of corn kernels, we deal here with distribution in time.  Still, although the personality profile could be partly compiled from a series of trades (or marriages and divorces), no single deal has any kind of statistics. It occurs in a very small social system, quite like quantum events with a small number of possible states.


Physicists, however, are the smartest people on earth and their trade is evolving. They could ultimately develop quasi-quantum econophysics, for very small systems, of which the Oval Office or Federal Reserve Board Room could be an example. That would be their contribution to cognitive sciences, econochemistry, and even philosophy still mulling over consciousness and free will.  How would it look? Like a big MAYBE YES, MAYBE NO, but let us vote.

Oval Office        Fed board room

Figure  3. Small econophysical systems of great influence: Oval Office and Federal Reserve Board Room

The power of physics is not even in self-questioning, which is the general sine qua non of science, but in the unstoppable maniacal drive toward the ultimate reasons of things. 


Today there is market for anything and science is also on the market. When physics—and science in general—gets entangled in economics and politics, kilodollar becomes as much a physical unit of measurement as kilojoule.  Would that be a good deal for science?     Speaking of…




The instability of any single state, for example, the initial one, is meaningless unless we compare it with another state.  There is no absolute measure of desire with a desirometer, although we can compare one desire with another.  What Simmel calls the buyer’s “exertion” toward possession is measured by the difference between the instabilities of the initial state and the height of the instability in the transition state. The final state can have the instability (dissatisfaction) either higher (bad deal)  or lower (good deal) than the initial state and it can in turn become the initial state of the next transaction. Simmel’s  “distance” (barrier) is the uncertainty which the buyer (or seller) must overcome to either roll over toward the deal or fall back to the initial state. For a deal we have to add the instabilities for the buyer and the seller in each state. For the sake of simplicity I will talk only about the buyer, although there is an asymmetry between them (see text after Figure 7).

The question arises: what makes the exchange system in the initial stable state roll over  the barrier?


The energy “makes things happen” because energy is what changes when systems go from one state to another. From instability to less instability is the preferred direction of natural events, although in the phenomena of life it can go the other way. This is one of the topics to which the above Note on Econophysics refers, and there are some subtleties.


The answer is simple for molecules: their energy (instability) is distributed along a kind of an asymmetrical bell curve (more exactly, Maxwell-Boltzmann curve, see APPENDIX 1). There are molecules that possess, for a short moment, the sufficient energy to reach the top of the barrier, from which they can slide either back or over the top. There are buyers that have enough realistic desire and means to reach the top, and we have to conclude that, because of the uncertainty, only a part of all potential buyers with the same desire and means will be able to pass over it. There is a very good reason to approximate the market by physical methods, as econophysics does, all the more, this is the basic principle of chemical kinetics. 


Buyer and seller form a single system, exactly as Simmel saw it, and the superposition of their desires (whether linear or not) translates into the transition barrier (which we call price) that defines the outcome, but never deterministically, not even under the gun.


Since we do not know and not really care about the shape of transition, we reduce it to just three levels: initial, maximal, and final instability, Figure 4. What really matters is just their relative height.


Figure 4. The phases of transaction as seen from the present.

Bu: buyer, Se: seller, Me: merchandise (goods, services, predictions, inventions,
crime, punishment, etc.). The horizontal lines are the stability (satisfaction) levels.


The chemistry type symbols in figures mean: Bu: buyer, Se: seller, Me: merchandise (goods, services, predictions, entertainment, etc.). In the transition state, Buyer, Seller, and Merchandise interact in an unspecified way, typically, in negotiations or decision making, reversible up to a point.


Unlike the fleeting and usually unobservable transition state in chemistry, the negotiation could be recorded in full, sometimes by FBI, which promises valuable experimental data for the future econochemistry and “quantum econophysics.”


In modern computerized information society the market change can be monitored in almost real time. Traders use the inborn ability of human brain to instinctively evaluate the coming events, as hunting foxes do. There are also various technical means to do that. But I am interested here not in the mass events, but in single unique acts of exchange. I do not deal with statistics and averages.   


The final state in Figure 4 is in the future. The increasing uncertainty is portrayed by the darkening gray area. 


The transition state  appears in this picture as a temporary and irregular configuration in which the bonds between the merchandise, buyer, and seller are captured in the moment of uncertainty and can either advance to a new ownership configuration or to drop back to the old one. 


Both buyer and seller expect to achieve a final state which is more stable than their current (initial) state. If not for the transition barrier, the deal could happen immediately, and it often happens for the buyer with big disposable income, which guarantees the predictability of the near future and insignificance of possible loss.  The fast direct deal is out of the question for the buyer with insufficient money. For the middle buyer, the transaction should be weighed against the income, necessity, competing needs, and pure irrational desire. The overall incentive for the deal, regardless of details, is the expected drop of instability after the purchase, which would quench the desire.


The main increments of the transition barrier are relative cost (money factor) and additional indecision (mind factor). 


There is a huge, fundamental, dramatic difference between the world of molecules and the world of exystems. Molecular transformations, i.e., chemical reactions, are in principle reversible, while the transformations of exystems are in principle irreversible. This is why any final state in chemistry can become initial state and back zillions of times and the system comes to an equilibrium. Unique exystems, however, undergo a certain particular transformation only once in their lifetime. By definition, new things happen only once.  After that, they happen, if ever, as old things.


NOTE:  The complicated subject of the future is central for neology. Obviously, we often know what can happen in terms of a pattern. Otherwise we would not have desires and dreams. We know what to desire.


I see the change in terms of ideograms, i.e., templates for a pattern. This is the most unusual way of looking at things outside chemistry,  but I expanded on patterns dozens of times in complexity.


In rigidly regulated societies the patterns of the future would be all known. We can hardly find today such society. In the intense economic and political life, the level of noise, or, to put it differently, degree of chaos, for which the term temperature is most appropriate, can wake you up of your dreams any minute. This is why I see neology not as theory and not as art, but as investigation of the outer borders of knowledge by a pursuit of patterns. On the one hand, we can predict the different, but not the new. On the other hand, whatever we can predict, the accidental external events can change it.


Economy is a perpetual dawn. Soon after the deal, the dark dreamy area of imaginary future, the farther the darker, makes first steps into the light of the present. The reality may be different from expectations because of the nature of X-systems. They are always in flux. Besides, the errors of judgment  regarding the past and present can become evident. The final state may become less stable than the initial one. We know the conditions of the deal, but as soon as we are behind barrier, the future brings an increasing amount of surprise. What we saw as a good deal may look later as a bad one.


The same applies to an individual seller, although it could be somewhat different with corporate sellers and their non-negotiable for the day prices. Corporations have the power of  slowing down the future and smoothing its uncertainties in the same way the coins served ancient travelers. 


The surest way against failure appears to be growth,  see Essay 54. Growth and anti-growth.  Mergers and acquisitions are expected to bring size and all kinds of competitive advantages. On a larger time scale, this may look exactly as Figure 4 with the same range of outcomes. Examples abound, the story of Lucent is one of them.


Then why are we alive if the instability profile of biochemical cycles is exactly a sequence of states separated by transition barriers? Who or what invests in our lives? Why isn’t our life too bad a deal, anyway?


The answer is in the question: the key word is cycle. The same applies to economy. This, however would be too much for this Essay, but see Essays 51 and 52.


Nevertheless, I am tempted to formulate the answer in the enigmatic Delphic manner:


Αλλ λιφε φρομ σεαωεεδ το εκονομυ κυκλες ον συνλιγ-τ ανδ ιφ νοτ ον κασ- θεν ον κρεδιτ.

Which, translated from fake Greek, means:


 All life, from seaweed to economy, cycles on sunlight and if not on cash then on credit.

Speaking of…




The most conspicuous barrier toward the deal on the buyer’s side is the cost. It divides the potential buyers into (1) those for whom the deal involves a small part of disposable cash, so that they would not fret about it, (2) those who do not have enough and would not even think about buying, and (3) those who are in between and have to do some calculations, whether numerical or intuitive.

The lives of many people are absorbed by such evaluating, weighting, calculating, and reducing of qualitative values to quantitative ones. (Simmel, p.444)

Figure 5. Credit

            Figure 5. Credit extends transition state and makes it more accessible.

                The buyer's rumination adds another increment to the height of the
                barrier: the increment of indecision, Figure 5A. 

Figures 5C and 5D show the relativity of the barrier height. 

The uncertainty of the future is already implied in the very notion of action. That man acts and that the future is uncertain are by no means two independent matters. They are only two different modes of establishing one thing.

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (first edition: 1949), Chapter VI. UNCERTAINTY , Section 1. Uncertainty and Acting.


I do not need to go into details of this process of decision, but it is essential that it can be frustrating not just because of vacillations (“she loves me, she loves me not”), lack of exact knowledge, and. most importantly, the interdependence of numerous factors, for example, other planned deals, future needs, prospects of employment, etc. The moment comes when the internal instability overcomes a certain threshold and the buyer finally decides, still capable of reneging.


For many chemists the picture would immediately associate with the act of a chemical reaction between individual molecules. They will react if their total energy exceeds a certain level: the activation energy, i.e., the barrier between two stable states, see APPENDIX 1, Figure 1A-1


This is probably what free will is about. The phenomenon of free will requires two conditions: a barrier and internal fluctuations of the desire to jump over it. There is no free will either in rolling downhill or in a mechanical device.  Freedom to select from a menu is yesterday's leftovers of freedom.     


Figure 5B very schematically illustrates the effect of both credit and advertisement—the omnipresent snapping jaws of consumer economy. They squeeze the barrier from top and bottom.


Advertisement is pure information and works as a catalyst  in the sense that it is never spent in the act of its participation.  Credit is a more mysterious thing: it is a money-making machine for the creditor—not so mysterious in thermodynamics of X-systems.


The desire is immediately satisfied with the completed deal, although the burden of the credit may somewhat spoil the pleasure.  As Figure 5E illustrates, the projected level of instability (white line) can turn out well below the actual stress (red line).


What is never mentioned, except in the finest print of ads, is the inherent uncertainty of human life depending on thousands of personal and impersonal factors.  This dark area of uncertainty exists for both buyer and creditor, and growth , production, and selling is the only natural insurance, if not the contractual insurance for sale, which adds the cost.


Georg Simmel returns to this idea repeatedly: big money and small money are qualitatively different things. 


If I am not mistaken, this is something quite alien for classical physics (but less so for chemistry and not at all for philosophy).  It is certainly alien to both physics and chemistry in one particular aspect: they deal with phenomena that repeat themselves within the overall time of observation.  Since they are repeatable, both initial and final state are known in advance. In natural science the final state is as much past as the initial state.  The reason for that is not so trivial: the nature is much slower than human history.


In human matters,  the future is only partially known, or not at all if it hides an important novelty. I will give an example from my personal (not unique) experience. After the Katrina hurricane of 2005, some home insurance companies hiked the rates and in some instances dumped whole coastal areas off coverage. Katrina was the big novelty. The hike itself, its timing, and reasons were unexpected. But the pattern of hiking the rates under some pretext was, of course, not new.


When in 1987 I had visited New Orleans, knowing very little about the city in my first year in America, I noticed  from Jackson Square a strange rampart. I could not believe my eyes when I climbed the embankment and found the river well above the ground level. My first thought was that sooner or later the city would  be flooded. The question was only: when? Unfortunately, it happened in my lifetime.   


Figure 6 shows the chemistry of credit (Cr) in more detail.

Figure 6. Credit-2

            Figure 6. Credit extends the dark area, but pushes it back


Credit makes the transition state so flattened that the change of ownership becomes a kind of natural rolling downhill. As a trade-off, the final state looks like non-final for a long time. Credit extends uncertainty over long time, which means (another delicate physical subject) the decreasedeclawingof uncertainty. In physical terms, it looks like the increase of social effective temperature (see the left column of Table in APPENDIX 1).

High effective temperature means that the amount of energy needed to perform the same amount of work increases.




Here is just one formula that cannot be avoided for physical and chemical systems:




Its hypothetical generalized interpretation is:  to perform a change, we need to supply Gibbs free energyΔG , not only for work,  ΔE,  against forces ,  but also TΔS for  creating specific order ΔS . The higher the temperature, T, the more additional energy is needed to complete the task.  Δ is a symbol for change, S is entropy, the measure of disorder. Humans and animals get their G from food. Industry gets its G from humans and mineral fuel. The cell phone gets it from the battery. Plants are lucky to get it from the sun. Food and fuel cost money. Sunlight is free but the weather is capricious. When we decrease chaos, ΔS is negative and  – TΔS  is positive. When energy is consumed,  ΔG and ΔE are negative. Ordering, however, cannot be spontaneous. For creating and increasing order, which is the purpose of society, economy, and government,  ΔG = ΔE + TΔS.   No more space for details here, but an illustration follows.


Suppose, two symbolic “molecules” of different shapes, chaotically moving in space, are reacting with each other as in Figure 7.  For the transition state to form, they have to overcome the uncertainty of  mutual orientation.  This requires some extra energy, which increases the height of the transition barrier.  For two squares (7B), the mutual orientation is much less important than for more selective  7A because there are four exact orientations for the green square. For the blue shape in 7A only one is exact. The red squares have four exact orientations in both A and B cases.  The decrease of entropy  (increase of order) , TΔS ,   in  transformation A is higher than in transformation B.  The higher uncertainty of A must be compensated by a hike in ΔG.  


Figure 7.
                  Entropy factor


Figure 7. Entropy factor

There is an entropic asymmetry between buyer and seller, which is close, but not the same as information asymmetry known in economics. The shopper could be lost in the maze of the supermarket with 60 kinds of mustard, but the manufacturer knows well what to do with 600000 of identical filled-up jars. Information asymmetry relates to market data


The buyer assembles his desire from many preferences, rational or not, while the seller thinks in terms of money, i.e., hard cold number. The ruminations of the buyer include multiple choices in dealing with the purchase and its consequences. The purchase has an uncertain future. The seller already accomplished his act. The buyer only begins her test. The money-making machine works only for the seller. On the market of rarities, the buyer can resell the purchase later, for a profit. This asymmetry between buyer and seller creates the irreversibility of growth. It is one of the basic principles of money-making machine. Of course, a transaction could be a matter of life and death, but not in normal conditions.


David Hume compared money with “oil which renders the motion of the wheels more smooth and easy” (see APPENDIX 4). For a chemist it translates not so much into the chemistry of oil as into catalysis. Catalysis assists in smoothing the bumps along the way of a chemical transformation. Credit definitely smooths the bumps of economy, which only confirms that the essence of money as credit. No wonder, because economy is a life form and we, humans, are too. See Pythia’s answer at the end of Good Deal and Bad Deal section. Another question I would like to ask the oracle is…





Inflation (Figure 8) has always been a mystery for me. When I came to America in 1987, apples at a Dominic's supermarket in Chicago’s Rogers Park cost 99 cents. It looked to us, new immigrants, outrageously expensive. In small shops on Devon Avenue apples could cost 29 cents. Twenty years later, apples in our local supermarket can cost the same $0.99 even off-season, but they could not be found anywhere at $0.29, and $1.49  is a common price even in the season. It still looks expensive, but only because of the imprinting of my first days in America. Our first car, dirty and worn out Mustang 1980, unsafe on a curve, cost us $1000. It was practically a gift. The cars cost more and more, but they seem less expensive than twenty years ago.


As a non-economist, I weigh less than a pound of apples in such matters as inflation . Nevertheless, as a breathing molecule of economy, I have my own molecular perspective.


Figure 8. CPI

Figure 8 .  Inflation. What happened after 1945? Around 1970?
The answer could be in the question.

I am satisfied with the explanation of inflation in Jack Weatherford’s, The History of Money : it was because of the elimination of Gold Standard. There are quite a few of other theories, and I am aware of most. I am sure they are all true. I am absolutely free of any ambition to make a contribution to theories of inflation. I just want to share my personal vision in an essayistic manner. 


The persistent inflation started around 1947, i.e., after the end of the WWII.  The nuclear threat, large armies, de-colonization, and the Cold War resulted in a large amount of uncertainty. Since that time, the explosion of new technology has been sustaining a constant uncertainty about the very composition of the market: what else will be invented and offered for sale tomorrow? Will the typewriter be alive next week? Inflation reflects the price of uncertainty passed, as all costs, to the consumers, whether corporate,  public, private, individual, or the government.  Political frictions and election campaigns blown up by TV introduced even more high stake uncertainty. This is my private opinion.


NOTE (2016). Robert Reich in his Supercapitalism (2007) attributes the emergence of the new kind of capitalism around 1970, to new technology. As a pattern chemist, I am looking for the most general and universal pattern covering the particular events. At this angle, what happened was a switch from the past experience as the only source of our understanding of the world and calculating the “balance sheet” of the future, to calculating and managing the future per se, basing on our assumptions about it and relying on our newly acquired ability to perform massive calculations overnight, as if the prediction of the future were proven possible. We had resurrected the ancient Roman profession and institution of augurs. The money tomorrow became more important and desirable than money today. As result, the future began bringing us huge and unpleasant surprises. The beautiful ducklings were turning into ugly swans. I believe, however, that although we cannot predict the future with desirable accuracy, we can understand it not by calculations but by using a repertoire of patterns and rules of their change.  That humans are a kind of Things and Things are a kind of humans is just one example of such a pattern.  By warming up to wild animals and identifying us with domestic ones, we are making the first step to a new, less idealistic and anthropocentric understanding of how the world works. But how exactly?  Here is just one possibility: toward unification (spread of authoritarian regimes), standardization (all Things speak the same language), and—who could imagine it today?—simplification (all teenagers want to be iPhonized down to the common denominator). We are in a transition state. But the other possibility is the opposite of the first, however improbable it looks today.