Spontaneous Order and Dissipative Structures

© Fernando Caracena, 5 July 2012

 Structure from Chaos

Sometimes complex structures emerge from apparent chaos. The scientist Ilya Prigogine, a Russian born scientist and Belgian citizen, studied such situations both scientifically and philosophically. Basically, when a physical system is driven far from equilibrium, at some point, the system will develop dissipative structures, which represent a new order of motion. An example is the formation of tornadoes where the environment is subject to extreme conditions for thunderstorms.

Prigogine, who was a chemist by training, observed dissipative structures in chemical reactions. I remember an incident when I was studying chemistry when a pre-med student tossed a piece of sodium on top of a beaker full of fuming nitric acid. Expecting an explosion, I ran out of the door. But, nothing happened! Cautiously. I peaked back into the lab. The reaction between sodium metal and nitric acid was so intense that it levitated the sodium (now turned into a drop of molten metal) on a blue flame. This is a very dangerous experiment to try; too much sodium could force an explosion.

I discovered a safe experiment in the formation of dissipative structures, once when I was fooling around with India ink, which is very dense and very black. I wanted to see if I could form a vortex ring by letting a drop of India ink fall onto the surface of clear water in a beaker. What I observed was fascinating: the initial vortex became unstable and burst into multiple streams of ink, each of which formed vortices that continued the pattern until an upside-down tree pattern of India ink streamers formed in the column of otherwise clear water.

The phenomenon of dissipative structures occurs under the category of chaos (or complexity) and is also strongly associated with the one-way direction of time, which is known as the arrow of time.

The arrow of time is part of every thing that happens in our experiences of the world; for example, you can easily determine the correct direction of a video loop of of an egg dropping on pavement, or of a piece of ice melting on hot pavement. Run in one direction we get what we are accustomed to see; run in the opposite direction, the results make us laugh. The equations of physics that govern motion are written as time-reversal invariant ones, i.e, if t is replaced by -t in the equations of motion, the equations look the same. There is no arrow of time on this level. In statistical thermodynamics, which uses time invariant equations of motions for the constituent particles, the arrow of time emerges as the most probable scenario, but the reverse is also possible, but with an almost vanishing probability.

Big Bang and the Higgs Boson

The Big-Bang was a very energetic physical event; having energies high enough to create a soup in which particles flickering rapidly in and out of existence, made them more potentialities than particles.  The processes were governed by highly non-linear interactions. The rapid expansion of the universe sapped the energy of these processes, until the various channels, no longer energetically funded, were frozen out of the mix. According to the Standard Model, very early in the history of the Big Bang, the symmetry between components of the vector boson (W-boson) that mediates weak interactions and the electromagnetic field was split through their interaction with the Higgs field1, which resulted in the emergence of the zero mass photon and three heavy W-boson components[+, - and electrically neutral]. For a while, photons were coupled to ionized matter in space, but when the cosmic background radiation fell below a temperature of 3000 K the electromagnetic field became decoupled from the neutral matter in space, approximately 379,000 years after the onset of the Big Bang. At present, the cosmic background radiation temperature is a mere 2.72548 ± 0.00057 K.

Perhaps there is a human behavior is similar to that of complex physical systems. Malcolm Gladwell suggests that this is so in his popular book, "The Tipping Point." This would have application to the present international situation when whole countries are failing economically and there is rioting in the streets. The social stress and growing chaos may prompt new and unexpected forms to suddenly emerge.

1" In a much-hyped announcement Wednesday [4 July 2012] from the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] in Switzerland, scientists reported evidence of a new "Higgs-like" particlewith roughly 125 times the mass of the proton." However, the discovered Higgs particle does not conform exactly to the decay processes prescribed by the Standard Model. Had the LHC group not found a Higgs particle, the Standard Model would have been destroyed; instead, the Standard Model is only wounded.


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