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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Stochastic Tinkering, Stochasting Resonance

I like to think my office is an organized mess. But there’s long-standing scientific evidence (despite my wife’s undying love for The Container Store) that some mess is good. Things tend towards entropy, disorder. Life and all willful use of energy attempts to subvert this. Some of my most original ideas come from the random juxtaposition of two unrelated pieces of paper sitting on my desk. If I were more organized, they’d be neatly segregated and never have the chance to mingle. Entropy is like the Rosa Parks of ideas.

Disorder is discomfort. Even in global politics, our leaders and the media are unsettled by the unsettled. We try to “achieve stability” in “unstable” places. Then the locals throw violent tantrums—not unlike a child forced to clean his room.

We make personal long-term plans. Companies have 5 year strategic plans. But the truth is this: there’s too many concatenated things that need to happen that don’t and too many random ones that aren’t expected that do as time unfolds.

Back to my point: there’s long-standing scientific evidence that some mess is good and it’s got a name: stochastic resonance. The gregariously generous George Gilder recently pointed me to this concept after I wrote a few weeks ago about how the noise of a hairdryer in a barbershop made the signal of a crackling, poorly-tuned radio station, sound clearer. Stochastic resonance is a complicated idea. Put simply: an extra dose of noise can help rather than hinder some devices.

Here’s what IEEE magazine wrote about it: “Stochastic resonance gets its name from the stochastic, or random, signals involved and the fact that, as in a resonance phenomenon, you can get a bigger than expected impact from small-amplitude signals.”

Sound like anything you know? The market perhaps. Or the brain. Or Per Bak’s sandpile. Or maybe any complex adaptive system where a small perturbation can have a disproportionate effect.

The idea is actually 25 years old, when two scientists used it to explain regular ice ages in our history. They believed that random climate changes, “atmospheric noise” coupled with the force of the Earth’s orbit, could kickstart or stop an ice age. (Of course, today they’d be burned at the stake—which would paradoxically release more CO2.) Scientists have since seen “stochastic resonance” in everything from lasers to medical devices and chemistry.

Well I’m building a rhythm here because earlier this week I met with a member of Congress who (like many other politicians appealing to a logical and popular idea) is championing energy independence. His proposal? A DARPA for energy. One might call it “EARPA” (though that sounds like the bug in the urban legend that crawls inside your ear and lays eggs—perhaps a nice visual metaphor for an infectious idea).

But here’s the thing. The history of government directed programs has fared poorly. Consider Richard Nixon’s declaration of war on cancer with the National Cancer Act in 1971. It set up the National Cancer Institute to make the "conquest of cancer a national crusade." What happened? They went out and empirically tested 144,000 compounds. None of them worked.

What did? A random insight into mustard gas. During WWII, people accidentally exposed to mustard gas were found to have really low white blood cell counts. It was then hypothesized that the same effect might impact cancer cells. Voila: chemotherapy.

Look for one thing, find another. Other accidents that have changed the world: Viagra (initially intended to treat hypertension, it was ineffective—with an “effective” side effect).

It’s easy to apply post facto logic to make a sequence of reasoning appear more linear than it really was. It’s harder to be intellectually honest that it wasn’t. I applaud the inventors and entrepreneurs that take the approach of stochastic tinkering towards stochastic resonance. Try lots of experiments. That’s the best way to solve our energy issues. Governments to fund undirected basic science research, venture investors to invest risk capital and society to applaud the many inevitable failures for they yield the unexpected winners that create vast wealth and change the world.
by Josh Wolfe

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