The Future is Composite

Materials science has always fascinated me.  How things actually work, on a mechanical level, when it really, really matters.  I mean, it’s one thing to simply build in the abstract, where you’re working with heuristics.  Big Picture™ stuff where tolerance isn’t really an issue.  Miss by a factor of two and everyone thinks you’re a fucking Einstein.  A Wilbur Wright.  Edison and shit.

But even at a level we can directly experience without instrumentation (all we need is a good sense of touch or the benefit of good eyesight – with or without lenses), the actual honest to “Bob” mechanical structure of whatever reality is there really becomes the sole determination of what is real NOW, what just HAPPENED and what is INEVITABLE.  The smaller and smaller we go, the less and less freedom we appear to have – the more DETERMINISTIC things become.

Or so we naively thought, of course.  The reality we enjoyed before Bohm kicked Einstein’s ass by bludgeoning him with sub Newtonian probability non linearity even his prodigious intellect couldn’t model.  But such is the mystery of reality that we need not bring up further in the course of this rant….

As I was saying, how things work at the mechanical level we intuitively understand has understandably fascinated me.  And one of the more fascinating things that I’ve wondered about is the whole field of composites.  A composite sounds like an exotic, Science Fiction™ material, but its really not.  Take some wood and shred it.  Pour some epoxy on the fibers and let it dry.  Viola!  You have a Composite material.

The great thing about composites is, from one POV, is that they have inevitably have properties that often far surpass the linear combination of the properties of the materials that form the composite.

Back in the day, my operating reality was assuming that things like a pure titanium crystal would be your penultimate material of choice for extreme material coolness.  For example, they grow – yes, grow – jet engine turbine blades out of solid crystals of titanium allows.  Stunning.  And no doubt a feat of precision engineering seldom found in nature.

But think about it.  We can build composites from materials – such as wood and some oily shit.  And even if we do things in a slipshod manner, we find that we can invariably produce amazing stuff.  In fact, the very “imperfections” and randomness in the composite material is where the strength arises.

And then there are alloys of different materials, where the different sized atoms form quasi periodic imperfections in an otherwise homgenous lattice – e.g. graphene doped with some random element.  Suddenly very cool and amazing properties spring from such unlikely combinations and seemingly haphazard arrangments of primitive chunks of base reality.  Amazing when you think about it.

Lately, I’ve been pondering the wonders of three dimensional printers – i.e. 3D replicators.  These nifty little machines will essentially “print” a solid object replicating pretty much anything you can model in 3D space.  Low end models like the one I built extrude plastic and consequently don’t produce parts you can use – say – in making a car.

But that isn’t a limitation that is currently shared by the state of the art in 3D printing.  Actually, it’s not a limitation that’s really been around for quite a while.  Almost immediately, it seems, 3D printers appeared which use metal powder.  Each layer of the object is produced by laying down a thin layer of metal and using a laser to sinter the powder to order.  What’s produced is a loose lattice of metallic grains that are kind of “welded” together.  What you do when that is finished is that you dunk the object in some molten metal which fills the gaps and viola you have a pretty solid chunk of metal that you custom printed in the 3D shape you desired.  Tough.  Industrial.  And locally created from essentially raw materials, rather than some huge big ass industrial plant with union laborers and drone managers.

Turns out you can also do much the same thing and create even more exotic composites, such as ceramics and glass.  The amazing thing, of course, is that you don’t even need a frickin’ laser to produce these ceramics.  You just fire the objects in a kiln after you’ve glued the matrix together.  Pretty cool.

In any event, what got me thinking about this was the fact that a lot of this science fictiony stuff is possible only because it’s actually a good idea to build materials with diverse components.  It turns out that it’s actually advantageous to have structures built using the fundamental principle of diversity.

Which brings me to the point that I actually was mulling about when I decided to write up this post.  People whine about diversity for diversity’s sake and wonder why on earth liberals and progressives think it’s a good idea – intrinsically good idea.  Your average independent will scratch his head and wonder what the big fuss is.  Your right of center type will simply know, instinctively, that it’s a bad idea.  Your libertarian nut jobs will wonder what the hell is wrong with the moron who even contemplates such ideas.

But diversity in systems can result in amazing emergent properties that are quite valuable.  Properties that simply aren’t obtainable in monocultures.  We see this in complicated macro scale systems like biological immune systems.  Inter species systems where a diversity of genes as well as large scale actors are seen as essential to the overall health and evolutionary fitness of these ecosystems.

It’s not a hard jump to the conclusion that diversity in the workforce, diversity in our society, diversity in our friends is not a terribly bad idea that results in emergent properties that are quite valuable to the systems that make use of these human cultural constructs.  Enumerating these properties isn’t exactly easy, for much the same reason that it is hard to explain to someone that adding Chromium and Nickel to Iron produces a material which has an order of magnitude more tensile strength than the sum of the tensile strength of these three elements alone.  It’s these synergetic effects – emergent properties of systems – that provide tremendous value.  But trying to understand how they come about, much less explaining to someone else as to why it works the way it does… well, that is actually pretty hard to do.

But valuable it is.  And even if the right wing loons and even the more moderate folks who operate purely out of “common” sense can’t understand the reasoning, diversity is still valuable.  Intrinsically.  And not being able to understand why that is, is most likely not a proof of its lack of intrinsic value.

3 thoughts on “The Future is Composite

  1. I think this is a specious argument for the value of human diversity. No materials – not even those made of a bunch of complex polymers, and certainly not simple alloys and ionic compounds – embody non-linear dynamical systems. Their systems are linear. They reach equilibrium quickly. There are no feedback loops. Modeling and predicting the properties of materials of a few different phases and components is simple for anyone with enough chemistry and a slide rule. But if you put three people in a house on Monday night and ask them to do something together, you will probably be completely surprised on Tuesday morning, regardless of what you thought about their demographics.
    We’ll talk about your impression of libertarians later, but I’ll note that I find it typical of liberal progressives (and to some extent social conservatives) to misapprehend the complexity of persons.

  2. An atom is a complex non-linear, dynamical system. Systems composed of atoms are even more complex, non-linear and highly dynamic systems. Reaching equilibrium doesn’t mean a system isn’t dynamic (thus the phrase: dynamic equilibrium). As to feedback loops, such is the essence of atomic and molecular interaction, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say that there isn’t any such feedback loops.
    As to the simplicity of modeling and predicting the properties of materials, I would only point out that predicting protein folding is still far beyond our capabilities, even with distributed supercomputers. Our ventures into the realm of nano machines and the ability to (tentatively) construct materials on an atom by atom basis has shown us that we barely even knew a tiny bit about what happened on the statistical level of bulk materials, and how pitiful and trivial our knowledge of how materials actually work. Heck, we just discovered a new phase of water just last year.
    So I must disagree with your major premises.
    I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you claim (in the passive voice, no less) that liberal progressives misapprehend the complexity of persons. And I simply have to emit a rather large guffaw at the assertion that social conservatives only to some extent misapprehend the complexity of persons.
    I look forward to a discussion on libertarians. They’re a hilarious breed and quite stimulating to discuss their belief structures and kind of cute in their utopian view of reality. There probably should be some beer involved in that, however. Talking about the foibles and follies of libertarians always makes me thirsty for a Guinness…

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