Cats’ Paws and Catapults

Nothing super exciting on the home front. I’ve been practicing cello like a maniac (trying to catch up on a 2.5 month loss) and reading lots of books. My “to read” list keeps expanding at a rate faster than books added to my “read” list. Most recently, I read The Martian by Andy Weir (thanks Lexie for the recommendation) and it was AWESOME. For reference, I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning. But before that, I spent two weeks on Cats’ Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel, which Katrina recommended a while back (read: Beach Week 2012).

Cats’ Paws is about how things work and how nature and man go about making things work. Some passages that caught my attention follow below.

Characteristics beneficial during normal times are likely to work against an organism faced with catastrophic change. After all, those normally nice characteristics were selected when the future mirrored the past; a plant that does well in the shade will have a hard time when the forest disappears! At the least, when the world changes rapidly, extreme specialization is likely to be counterproductive…Perhaps the internal combustion engine will fade too, in the face of more expensive fuel or unacceptable emissions (in effect, habitat change), not a competitor that’s superior under current conditions. (38)

Y’all. This book was published in 1998. Obviously things have changed a lot since then, but boy is this sentiment ever applicable. (Then again, I’m pretty sure we’re in a time “when the world changes rapidly.”) What really caught my attention was, “…extreme specialization is likely to be counterproductive.” In particular, I’m thinking about all the different paths within medicine and how so many doctors specialize and then subspecialize and then sub^x specialize etc. How many of those careers will die out in the next generation or two? Some time ago, I read about robots reading radiology scans. From an engineer’s perspective, that makes sense. MRIs, CTs, ultrasounds, etc. all fall under the bigger blanket of image processing. All these engineers working in image processing are deft at coding and (guess what?) code becomes the brain (AI, if you will) for bots. At some point in the future, robots will become better than humans at recognizing malevolent secrets hidden in the pixels. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. My only other question is this: what other (medical although adj. is optional) jobs will be replaced by bots?

We humans have a great affection for flatness. We make floors flat. And walls and roofs and steps and desktops and paper and books. We make our roads as flat as possible…Of course we’re not fanatically flat. Our automobiles and airplanes have few flat surfaces. Jars, cans, and pipes are almost always cylindrical.

Nature, on the other hand, makes very few flat surfaces. The only ones both common and fairly large are photosynthetic structures: the leaves of many plants and the fronts of large algae. (57-58)

I liked this passage because it made a point about the different size scale between nature and human devices. Small things in nature like viruses are on the order of nanometers while the largest nature made things like trees are in the hundreds of meters. Humans on the other hand make mechanical devices down to the millimeter (this was back in 1998, so maybe we’re on the order of microns now) whereas long bridges can be on the order of tens of kilometers. Ok so back to flatness. Us humans live in a world where gravity is the dominant force. Flatness has an advantage in a gravity dominant world because it’s isotropic. You don’t have to worry about direction-dependent variations. Vogel gives a ton of examples on why flat is better when gravitational force is the main force, but essentially “flat is easy and convenient.” Nature however does not really like flat surfaces. On nature’s scale, gravity is not as dominant as phenomena like surface tension and diffusion. For a zoomed out view of flatness, Vogel brings up Laplace’s law, which states that “tension is equal to the pressure times one-half the radius of the sphere…A bigger sphere has flatter, less sharply curved walls. Thus, in general, the flatter the wall, the more tension a given pressure difference produces…Living things are usually made of flexible materials, and both they and their parts often have different pressures inside from outside. So Laplace’s law tells us much about why nature abhors flat surfaces. Worms, guts, blood vessels, the alveoli of lungs, free-living cells–all must be cylindrical, elliptical, or spherical, indeed anything but flat-walled” (63-64). On smaller scales, gravity isn’t the dominant force (tension described by Laplace’s law IS) thus the advantages conferred by flatness are overridden by the disadvantages.

Ok so there was a ton of other stuff that I originally wanted to write about, but tbh the previous paragraph took longer to write than I anticipated and I’m running out of time before yoga class so I’m skipping everything else.

One last thought, completely unrelated to mechanical workings of nature and human things. Mom and I were talking last week and she said something along the lines of “back then people were more pure.” I asked her what she meant by this and she said, “people didn’t have as much exposure to everyone else’s lives. People’s possessions weren’t constantly broadcast, so even if you didn’t have much you didn’t know how little you actually had. Today, on TV and whatever [she means FB, Instagram, Twitter, etc.] you constantly see how the rich people live and that creates jealousy. People are not as pure because they’re always thinking about what other people have, and it causes envy, unrest, and unhappiness. What’s the point?”

So on that thought, I’m off to yoga.



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