Rocket Scientists need not Apply

Social isn’t Physics

We have been having a love affair with physics. Or maybe that is just me. I have been having a mad love affair with physics. But my needs just aren’t being met.

When using one domain to explore and expand another domain, we can gain some interesting insights. Great. Social physics is interesting. And… beware of the limits that physics works with may not have the same constraints that we face with social limits. For example:

Physics assumes that energy can’t be created or destroyed. Social and emotional energy is definitely created and destroyed.

I am beginning to understand why a physicist friend said biology is hard.

Physics follows clear laws. Even looking at some of how science defines the laws it abides, we quickly see that social dynamics don’t meet these criteria: 
 — True: never repeatable contradicting observations
 — Universal: Appear to apply everywhere
 — Simple: typically expressed as a single mathematical equation
 — Absolute: Nothing in the universe appears to change them
 — Stable: unchanged since first discovered
 — Omnipotent: everything in the universe must comply with them.

Humans have contradicting behavior all the time! Very little if anything appears to be universal about humans in place or time (beyond basic biology functions we share with other forms of life — like we eat, sleep, and other basics). Many people try, but no one has found a simple math equation for social behavior that others have then adopted.

Social systems, like biological systems, experience evolution and lifecycles. Applying these things to physics is a bit of personification that isn’t actually there: stars aren’t really born and don’t really die. Yes, they are particles that have one shape, change, and become another. This is not life cycle. They do not “reproduce” either. Using these terms is slipping them too far from what they are intended to capture. Meaning is lost.

While it can be fun to play with the idea of social physics (and I know, because I have), actual social systems are much better modeled by systems that share the same constraints, behaviors, and motives or drives.

grappling with social cohesion and momentum in 2006…

How to get beyond physics metaphors and modeling:
 — Look for where energy or enthusiasm is created or amplified in a social setting. 
 — Learn about biological models of interesting behavior, like the various forms of slime molds and how they adapt to conditions, as models for what humans can do.
 — Read David P Reed’s Thrivability Sketch essay, “Push Power to the Edges” for more on biology systems and slime mold behavior.

Playing with depictions for how people move and where their attention is as if modeling an atom.