Quantum leaves in fact and fiction

When one tries to wrap one’s brain around quantum mechanics chances are that the distinctions between fact and fiction blur, and on most good days that which we think to be logic eludes us. Those are the good days!

It surprised me to come across this little piece: Material witness: Quantum leaves in fact and fiction : Nature Materials : Nature Publishing Group: “Quantum coherence refers here to the way that electronically excited quantum states of the pigment chromophores called excitons maintain a correlated phase relationship for long enough to assist transfer of the excitation energy towards the reaction centre, where an electron is ejected from chlorophyll. These quantum dynamics depend on the precise nanoscale arrangement of the pigment molecules.”

Why? Oh why! I get excited about these things, passionate even. I think that what we think is logic is an insufficient (if not inadequate) guide to understanding our universe and the rules by which it plays with what we call chemistry and physics. The only trouble is that I have  yet to figure out what would complement or evolve our logic.

I have spent a few weeks around thoughts centered on nanotechnology, technology, discovery and invention because, whether you like it or not, there distinctions here that are economically relevant and that may infringe in that which we consider the common good. The common good that comprises humanity’s knowledge of the arts and sciences is what I like to call culture.

I can argue that perhaps information does not want to be free, only because information lacks a will, but when it comes to the rules by which the universe plays chemistry and physics, these are facts of nature that belong to us all. Now imagine that some multinational comes up with the idea of making a photovoltaic process that does nothing else than mimic what nature does in photosynthesis and then vaults that process in a patent. What consequences would that have? What kind of patents would be allowed? What kind of patents would not be allowed? Is the present patent system capable of adequately preserving our access to culture and knowledge?

Indeed, how the average plant leaf transfers energy from one molecular system to another is nothing short of a miracle (Ian McEwan, Solar). By the way, I have not yet read Solar, but it promises some delights in the confusion of climate change. What I find of more interest than the climate change debate itself, nanotechnology as such,  quantum mechanics, is the fact that humans will label anything which they can not comprehend with the rudiments of their logic as a miracle.

Written under a different tone but echoing some of my sentiments is another piece by Daniel Sarewitz that expresses in more details some of the ideas hinted at above.

Finding “Theoretical Man”

My exploratory notes on Theoretical Man are here in this blog. Recently I have found out that it is getting increasingly more difficult to find anything in this blog even with the help of the search box on the right navigation column, thus I have gone back and relabeled some of the older posts to include in addition to the technorati tags, also the blogger-labels: theoretical man, public man, knowledge ownership, culture. A technorati search for “theoretical man” will not yield a clean or complete list of results as the label is also used by others.

Why this now?

Although these notes also exist on my hard drive and are readable outside of a browser, I find it convenient to keep them accessible when I am away from my own storage media.

Originally this whole thing came about from my questioning of what knowledge ownership might be, some of the notes from those early days were neither tagged or labeled with”theoretical man.”

I have also used “knowledge ownership” within the context of intellectual property and that has preciously little to do at this point with the bulk of what Theoretical Man is about in spite of the fact that it was my starting point.

Since this is work in progress, the taxonomy and structure is still evolving. Yes, I keep thinking of a wiki, but…

LIFT07: The Rise of Public Man

Was it real? The three days went by me in a blur.

Perhaps. I like how Riccardo Cambiassi summed it up in a twitter chirp. Riccardo is one of the people whom I wanted to meet at Lift07 as I only knew him from his online presence and twitterfoo. See, there is no virtual without real, they are two conjugated images that form a whole.

What was Lift07 about? I added a word to the Lift lexicon: culture.

Oh well, heavens, it was about me! Stowe said it, social = me first. Who would argue with that kind of logic? Not I, not really, not today, and I do like to argue with Stowe Boyd, except this time I went out of his way.

The minute that I arrived in Geneva for Lift07 on Wednesday last week, I was in absorption mode. Most certainly I was not playing it safe either, few people were. If you do go to my favorites on Flickr, you will find that I favorited mostly pictures of myself or people whom I already knew, and there are a few fresh faces here and there. I stayed within my circle of friends, and those who had something to tell me, or wanted something from me, they found me. I got up on stage.

what happened
I found myself on Open Stage with a talk containing one sweet piece of logic, but before I could get to it, I got hung up on the third slide with all the emotion that I did not want to show. It got me, and I had debated long and hard as to whether I was going to keep that slide in the presentation. On stage I found myself sharing how a man whose intellect I admired, and who was not a friend, had done something that made me change the course of action in my life. I tend towards drift. Drift, dissipation, entropy are all favorite dynamic forms of energy to me. Once in a while I need a wake-up call, just to be reminded that perhaps I ought to look again and see if my dreams and my actions are still aligned. Often, I discover misalignment and the task is then to bring back some order into the dynamic of it all. In 1992, I had lost sight of my dreams, and google was not yet invented, I had to take another route towards finding them again. I left the world of physics and academic research to go on to learn about communication, business, and strategic management… but my talk was not about me, nor was it about a suicidal physicist, it was about life and its nature.

about inspiration
I do not get all my inspiration from dead men who committed suicide, I also get it from men who are rather alive and kicking. For the Knowledge Ownership presentation I was also inspired by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, Lawrence Lessig and David Galipeau. The logic of it all in that presentation centers around language, representational language, and the very creation – invention – of culture through language. While on language let me add a note to my use of the words man and men. To me a man is genderless and it is a figure of speech, it is not about gender.

ab initio
I have found preciously few useful tools to deal with what we all call information overflow. I drown in it like everybody else, and then on occasions i go totally off the grid into the analog ecosystem with some paper and pen and jot down my ideas or listen to the ocean at the beach. However to tackle the essence of what knowledge ownership might be I needed another approach. There is enough information and scientific data out there to corroborate or underline just about any theory or opinion that you may come up with, it borders on total meaninglessness. I chose an ab initio approach, that is, from first principles. I have based my observations on my own knowledge in solid state physics and quantum mechanics, with the help from the contributions of Benoit Mandelbrot, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Bertrand Russel, Kurt Gödel, Richard Sennett, Christof Koch, Gregory Bateson, Lance H Gunderson and C S Holling, to name a few of the major influencers of my thinking.

what we all know, and tend to not want to make use of
We – humans – we are just one. The same animal that gets up in the morning and has breakfast un-showered, is the same animal who shows up at the office in suit and tie – or whatever equivalent – for negotiations, job interviews or a dry key financial indicators presentation. But that is not the end of the story, we are really just one, just one culture. we all know this, and we all know that this is not all, there is a paradox of existence that needs to be balanced, the we and the I.

knowledge ownership
Knowledge ownership was just the starting point, I wanted to get to culture, and a new understanding of culture that is inclusive of our technology, including the technology of relationships. Technology of relationships has nothing to do with the Silicon or whatever crystalline or quasi-crystalline quantum well or nanostructure construct that actually pushed the electrons inside the hardware bits and pieces in your machine while you were twittering, much less does it have to with any piece of lousy code that you are so fond of calling social software. The technology of relationships has all to do on how we interact with one another in all aspects of our lives, from the professional to the deeply personal.
As a so called knowledge worker, how do you best leverage that which you have, and earn a living in dignity? After all, do we want more? Don’t we work out of necessity? If the necessity was not material, it would be spiritual. Necessity is necessity and necessity drives invention, it creates culture.

knowledge vs. information
I wanted to distinguish knowledge from information. David sees knowledge as talking with conviction, and that is as good a place to start the distinction as any other. Talking takes place in the language domain, and conviction has a spiritual aspect, there is an element of something that one believes in or a view that is strongly held to one’s own sense of identity or being, it is not about just talk and babbling, that would be information, not knowledge. The transmission of information does not require cognition, just cables. The conversion of information to knowledge does require cognition, or say intelligence.

In the presentation I made this distinction by going through the 7×7 slide to arrive at the Si (111) 7×7 surface reconstruction as shown in an atomic force microscope image in one of the slides. This physical observation teaches us two things. First, when a crystal is cleaved and a fresh surface of atoms is exposed, the top layers of atoms, in this case the top three, will rearrange and reconfigure so as to minimize energy. Second, crystals have properties, or attributes that are different from atoms, they are collective properties or cohesive properties that arise from energetic interactions in space and time. A single isolated atom in vacuum has no cohesive properties.

You start to get the idea of the nature of knowledge if you start to recognize that all these representations have acquired a precise meaning through the internalization of information in an (conscious) cognitive process. Furthermore that process is not one of an isolated human absorbing it in the absence of its social ecosystem, after all somebody created the information. Humans do not survive in an adiabatic isolated social system, that is without exchange of energy in which ever form. Once one has dwelled on this idea for a while, it is easy to see that the two have different attributes. Knowledge has fast access times, is dynamic, representable, transmissable, intrinsic, and intangible while information is slow, static, archival, transferable, extrinsic and tangible. Looked at it from this perspective it is clear that the two are not of the same logical type and thus in terms of determining the intrinsically and practically of its ownership, not equivalent.

With this distinction in hand, the matter of ownership and leverage of that ownership can be negotiated. It will be interesting to get into the issue of why ownership is relevant, and what all of this has to do with culture, language, representations and the theme of LIFT07, namely the challenges and opportunities of technology in our society. There are plenty and the world is just fine the way it is, there is just a lot of work to do.

who invented culture?
The invention of culture is to me a bit of a no brainer, but a fun one at that. Culture has to do with the expression of behaviour, in particular collective behaviour. Where else could it come from? UNESCO defines culture in terms of the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features a society or a social group, and that it encompases, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. I would prefer to rephrase this as culture is the cohesive expression of human behaviour. Culture is to humans what cohesive properties are to crystals. To draw this parallel has some consequences that are far reaching if we explore it further. Then it could be that this easy only to a solid state physicist, and the rest of you are not particularly impressed. None the less, do try to think of what this might mean, and what pragmatic consequences you may be able to derive from it.

my culture is digital, how about yours?
When you look at it in detail the world is digital, and so is culture. It is both digital and analog has always been just an approximation of the digital nature. This seems very far fetched to most of us used to think of digital as the bits and bytes and analog as electrical currents flowing in copper wires. But think again. Current is carried by electrons. What are those? What is the process that allows a current to propagate?

Now, take an imaginary voyage inside one of those atoms that is, for example, on that Si crystal. An atom is mostly empty space, and there is good evidence that it has a nucleus and some electrons orbiting around it. The electrons are caught in the field created by the nucleus and the orbits can be described using the tools of quantum mechanics. Then continue your voyage within the nucleus itself. Again, what is it like in there? Bryan Cox gave you an idea that again there are nuclear particles making up the nucleus and those are held together by some forces that physicist not quite understand in their entirety, thus they have called upon strings and Higgs to help them sort out the mess. It is all rather abstract, rather aesthetic and very real, this is the physical world, and the further down in the detail you dig, the more discrete structure you find. You do not find a continuum, it is not analog. I would stretch the terminology a bit and say that matter itself is digital, and with it equate digital with the quantization of matter, either the electron is there (1) or it is not (0).

ab initio II
If you managed to get this far, you are wondering where on earth I am leading you to. I started by wanting to get some access to what our culture today and knowledge ownership can be accessed and used in order to move the ball forwards and fulfill our expectations of the world.

There is a whole lot that we can learn from all that is already accessible through our culture. Here is my take home list of subjects or principles worth tackling and integrating to create a more cohesive picture of complexity:

1. Non linear processes. These processes exhibit interdependent, adaptive, learning, emergent and ambiguous behaviors.
2. Incompleteness.
3. Self-oranization
4. Self-similarity
5. Autopoiesis
6. Uncertainty

The internet is a public space, so is the stage. In a culture dominated by complexity the various ecosystems need to interact, adapt, and learn in the process of self-organizing. The internet does however is a much valuable resource to a complex system, it provides connectedness at the communication level. In any evolving complex dynamic system speeds are important. Why? I think that I need to go into this at another time, just consider for now the effect of two interacting systems, what happens when they are trying to communicate and one is very fast in transmission and the other very slow in reception?

Now I allow myself a few quantum leaps forward and assert that what was very evident for me at Lift07 was the rise of public man. We are having public conversations, we are discussing and thinking in public and as a collective. Indeed, social is me first. But when I am me first and out there in the public, the cohesive emerges. That is the beauty of it for me, that is what happens. This happened to me on stage.


I am still a writer, a physicist, a mother, and I am still trying to make ends meet. Nothing has changed, and yet nothing is the same any more. I still want to live in Geneva, an idea that I have had for a few years, I just need a few clients there, preferably in leadership development. See, being selfish is the most pure of all utopias. Think about it!

Thanks to Laurent and the whole team. You guys have done a fantastic job, you pushed yourselves beyond the confines of expectation, and you surpassed reality, you created it. There is something happening in Geneva, and I want to be there making it happen. Thanks for giving me a stage for learning, after all that is what life and sharing it is all about.

Although I laboured for hours on this text, I am clear that some logical incongruities – plus mispellings, fragmented sentences or typos – may have passed unnoticed. I look forward to your comments and feedback.

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