Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the Stellar Metaphor

    On the Stellar Metaphor

               This blog proposes an analogy between political economics and astrophysics. This metaphor is incomplete and inaccurate, as are all metaphors, but I suspect that it has some poetic value.

                First, consider a star. It exists in a balance between gravitational collapse and fusion-powered explosion. The star sustains this balance by a negative feedback loop. When the star is too cool inside then gravity makes it contract; this increases the core's temperature, which then increases its fusion rate; this liberates energy, which expands the star. Whereas if the star is too hot inside then it expands, and this lowers the core's fusion rate, cooling the star.

               Now, consider a society. It too exists in a balance between collapse and explosion. When an society hasn't enough money, then it tends to collapse; this 'puts the heat on' the society's core, which responds by increasing its rate of innovation; this liberates money, which stops the collapse. Whereas if the society has more than enough money, then it tends to expand, which 'takes the heat off' the economy's core, which shuts down innovation and thus lowers the money supply.

               Note these matches:

               collapse = collapse
               expansion = expansion   
               pressure = pressure
               temperature =  'the heat'
               energy = money
               fusion = innovation
               fuel = ideas;   for you innovate by fusing ideas together.
               'the core' = 'the top'.

               The last matching is the most surprising one. In the Stellar Metaphor, societies are not ruled from 'the top', but from 'the core'; not by the highest up or the furthest out, but by the lowest down and the deepest in, where 'the heat' and the pressure are at maximum but so is the idea-fusion rate.

               In the Stellar Metaphor, those not in the Core are in the Mantle or the Surface, which is exposed to the frigid chill of interstellar space. Those in the Core or the Mantle know nothing of real cold, or indeed anything beyond themselves.

               Does a star's core exchange material with its surface? That depends on the size of the star. In red dwarf stars, convection goes from core to surface; so all the material in the star spends some time at the core, where fusion occurs. Thus the star has access to its entire fuel supply; this, with the low burn-rate of red dwarf stars, ensures that such stars will last for trillions of years.

               This, I think, aptly describes small societies, which are small enough for the circulation-of-aristocracies to involve the entire population; so the small society has access to its entire supply of innovators; this, along with the lower brilliance of small societies, ensures that they can persist for aeons before running out of ideas.

               In medium-size stars, convection does not go from core to surface; instead the core just mixes itself, a star within the star, separate from mantle or surface. The medium-size star never accesses most of its fuel during its lifetime; this, plus a higher burn rate, ensures that medium-sized stars last for only billions of years.

               Again, this aptly describes societies beyond dwarf size. Its core gravitationally separates itself from mantle and surface; it becomes a society-within-the-society, the sole locus of active innovation, for neither Mantle nor Surface ever suffer sufficient 'heat' and pressure to fuse ideas and thus liberate money; instead the Mantle and Surface's sole economic function is to trickle the money outwards, until the money reaches the Surface and is lost to the void. Such a society can only fuse ideas already found in its core; this self-imposed mental limit, plus the greater brilliance of larger societies, ensure that they run out of ideas all the sooner.

               What happens when a star runs out of fuel? It collapses; and what kind of collapse depends upon the mass of the star. Small stars contract to a white-dwarf ember and slowly fade out. Again, this is an apt metaphor for the fate of a small society. When it runs out of ideas, it just quietly fades away.

               Medium-size stars will, paradoxically, increase in size and brilliance; but this growth is entirely supported by the contraction of its core. During this red-giant phase the star will blow a large fraction of its surface material away into deep space. If the core contracts enough then it will start fusing higher elements, but the energies involved are smaller, and it doesn't last long. Eventually all fusion stops, the star contracts to a white dwarf, and the ember glows red for a trillion years.

               This, I think, is an apt analogy for the fate of a middle-sized society. When its core runs out of ideas, the society paradoxically increases in brilliance, but this is supported only by money liberated by the continued consolidation of the core. If 'heat' and pressure in the core rise far enough, then it starts to innovate by fusing previously worthless ideas; but this doesn't last long. Eventually all innovation stops, and the society becomes small and dim.

               Large stars meet a more dramatic fate. In the end its core fuses elements all the way up to iron, which is at the bottom of the packing curve. The core then attempts to fuse iron, but that reaction is endothermic, not exothermic; it captures energy rather than liberating it. When the star tries to burn iron, catastrophe is inevitable. The core collapses, the mantle and surface first fall down but then rebound in a titanic thermonuclear explosion. All the fuel untouched for millions of years fuses all at once, and the star blows itself into smithereens. 

               Again, an apt metaphor. When the core of a large society recycles worse and worse ideas, eventually it tries to make money from utterly worthless ideas, ideas that use up money when you fuse them. When the core attempts to monetize its own idiocy, then its collapse is inevitable, followed by the fall of mantle and surface, followed by explosive rebound.

               The large star's mantle and surface are blown into deep space, but what happens to the core? That too depends on the size of the star. The resulting stellar ember will be made of some sort of collapsed matter; solid helium in the case of a white dwarf; or nuclear fluid in the case of a neutron star; in either case the stellar remnant is supported only by quantum degeneracy, i.e. the inability of fermions to share wave-functions. For stars larger still, this gives way, and no force in the universe can prevent the core's collapse to a black hole, whose event horizon conceals a singularity where no known laws of physics apply. 

               Again, apt. A large society's core, once it collapses, can support itself only by its own degeneracy. When this gives way, nothing in the world can prevent the core's collapse to tyranny, whose censorship conceals the breakdown of all human law.

               If you were an atom in such a star, where would you rather be? Outside the core, doomed to thermonuclear expulsion? Or in the core, doomed to gravitational singularity? The Inferno or the Pit; which would you prefer?

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