Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unstable Equilibria

Henry Kissinger this morning, in reviewing a biography of Bismarck, waxes metaphorically this:

Bismarck’s opponents were still wedded to the 18th-century concepts of the international system as a great clockwork with intricately meshed parts: the science of Newton. Bismarck foreshadowed an age whose equilibrium was an ever-changing interaction of forces, themselves in constant flux, like later atomic physics. Its appropriate philosopher was not Descartes but Darwin; not “I think, therefore I am,” but the “survival of the fittest.”

Now, it's just possible that balance of power politics and diplomacy predated Bismarck. It's also odd that Descartes and Darwin are contrasted as opposites. Too, it's been a while since the teleological 'survival of the fittest' credibly summarized evolution.

The most fun, though, can be had with Kissinger's notion of 'equilibrium' and 'constant flux' presaging 'atomic physics'. The nineteenth century saw Ludwig Boltzmann and J. Willard Gibbs, and others, elaborate statistical thermodynamics, in which macroscopic phenomena were linked to microscopic interactions using Netwonian mechanics. Equilibrium is a basic concept in thermodynamics, used to such brilliant effect that economists, envious of physicists' successes and imagining themselves capable of replicating it by reducing human beings to molecules, borrowed the notion for their market models. Perhaps Kissinger's referring to thermodynamics, in which case it isn't 'later'. Or, he's referring to quantum mechanics, which is not only later but entirely inapposite to the point he's making. Either way, he's wrong.

Whatever you think of Kissinger, he's neither stupid nor uneducated. It's fascinating to see such a person pack so much crap about science into such a small space. And, at that, crap touching on scientific theories of wide and deep significance in intellectual history: you can't understand contemporary thought without having a grasp of evolution or thermodynamics. So not only can I have sport with Kissinger, and his editor, on this. I can safely assume that the vast majority of people reading this review won't even stop to scratch their heads.

Maybe Bishop Ussher was right, after all...

1 comment:

dfh-in-dubrovnik said...

Sounds like if there were a question on the GRE: Newtonian physics is to Descartes as quantum mechanics is to ________.

Kissinger would say "Bismarck!"

If he ran a university, I'm sure it would be a right agonizing form of Teutonic torture.