The physics of freedom

Adrian Bejan & J. Peder Zane Authors, Design in Nature
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As the Arab Spring blossomed, freedom filled the air, like oxygen. From Cairo to Tripoli, from Paris to New York, politicians, pundits and push-cart operators inhaled its heady idealism and spoke of dreamy possibilities. Now, as winter sets in and we face once more the gap between our imagination and reality, it is a good time to ask an essential but often overlooked question: What is freedom?

Since ancient Athens, freedom has been defined politically, as a series of hard-to-pin-down terms including fairness, justice, equality and self-determination. We moderns also view freedom statically, as a collection of bedrock rights — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, etc. As a result, we are inevitably disappointed by “freedom movements” — from the French Revolution to contemporary Egypt — that begin with high-minded goals and end with something much less.

To better understand the world around us, we need a new definition of freedom, one not based on the changing desires and practical aims of politics. We need a universal meaning that reflects its dynamic nature grounded not in rhetoric but science; we need to put Aristotle, Locke and Hobbes aside and consider, strange as it may seem, the immutable laws of physics.

Freedom is not the invention of man. It is a property of nature. If natural phenomena were not endowed with the freedom to change, to evolve, the earth as we see and know it would not exist.

Here’s why.

Nature is a flowing landscape of shape, structure and rhythm. It is the design of trees, river basins and lightning bolts, and of you, me and the systems we create, including politics. None of these fell from the sky fully formed. All have acquired their specific look, their design, through an evolutionary process.

Take all the river basins that cover the globe. They began to form when the first rain drops fell from the sky. Soon, the drops coalesced to form tiny rivulets. Over time, these rivulets joined other rivulets to form brooks and streams that eventually fed the great rivers of the world.

Similarly, our political systems have coalesced from families and tribes to cities, states, nations and even larger entities such as the E.U.

The fundamental question is this: Why have these designs emerged? Why didn’t the rain drops just seep by their lonesome in the muddy ground? Why did individuals form larger and larger unions? The answer is a principle of physics called the constructal law. It accounts for the fact that anything that moves acquires shape and structure over time, naturally and spontaneously.

Design emerges for a specific reason: to facilitate movement. Rain drops, for example, move faster and farther when they flow together in a channel than they do when they seep through the ground. So too do people, goods and political authority, which also flow across the landscape.

In addition, these designs evolve with a direction in time: toward better and better configurations to move more mass farther and faster per unit of useful energy consumed.

In our human-built world, the first footpaths traced by people have evolved into streets and highways, rail lines and air transport lines that take us where we want to go. Better infrastructure means better movement. Our political systems have also evolved in order to provide more efficient channels — the bureaucratic infrastructure of local, state and national governments — to move people, goods and ideas across the landscape.

Freedom, design and evolution underpin all phenomena of flow on the globe, including political systems. This truth corrects a common misconception: the wishful idea that we can impose a political system — a “good” system — forever. In reality, government and the rule of law is the design of the flow of society, the pattern of evolving channels that have emerged over long periods of time and cannot be replaced easily. A new system must use and build upon what came before it; efforts to impose rigid systems, such as communism, are destined to be replaced because their designs are not natural.

Politics is the natural urge to change the channels to flow better. When the existing systems can no longer handle the flow of people, goods and ideas, they are replaced (often after a brutal struggle against entrenched channels — the power) by easier-flowing structures. Today, the globe is dotted with a myriad of political systems, no single one of which would be best for every land and every time period.

Freedom is not an endpoint. It is the design property that allows all movement (all life) to evolve, to change, to get better. Indeed, the constructal law holds that evolution never ends, no system is ever perfect; given freedom, it will always evolve toward a new design to flow more easily.

The future of government, then, is not a series of predetermined outcomes, or a series of defined rights. Instead, it is the infusion of more and more freedom into the system, to allow it to evolve naturally and flow better. Rigid systems are short-lived. Systems with the freedom to change have staying power.

Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, and J. Peder Zane, Assistant Professor Journalism at St. Augustine’s College, are the authors of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization,” which Doubleday is publishing this month.