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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tom Still: Information can help change the thermodynamic 'equation' for a changing world


By Tom Still
Even when his audience isn't made up of scientists or engineers, David Krakauer usually gets an opening laugh when he warns his after-dinner chat is about the laws of thermodynamics.

The funniest thing is – he's kidding only in part. By the time Krakauer is finished talking, those who have listened can feel the heat.

Now about eight months into his job as director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, Krakauer has brought a combination of intellectual vigor and humor to the UW-Madison's novel experiment in changing how research is conceived, conducted and communicated to markets and people.

His lunch-and-munch speech about "thermodynamics" is a ready example. It captures Krakauer's belief that better use of information – shared among people or exchanged in gigabytes and terabytes of computer data – may help solve Earth's most pressing challenges. And he thinks major research universities such as the UW-Madison are uniquely positioned to help, assuming they break with old habits.

First, the geeky part: The laws of thermodynamics define physical qualities – such as temperature, energy, mass and entropy – that characterize natural and man-made systems alike. Simply put, it's the physics behind how things work.

Krakauer talks about the metaphor of "mass" to describe the dramatic growth in human population, which didn't reach 1 billion people until 1804 after about 200,000 years of modern human existence. The world hit 2 billion people in 1930, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in late 2011 – with projections of 8 billion by 2027. At current growth rates, the world is adding a city the size of Madison each day; a city the size of New York every week.

That's a dramatic change from what Krakauer calls the "steady state" world of past millennia and eons. As the population grew since 1800, so did the pace of change – in science, biology, industry, engineering, physics and more – as well as the world's thirst for energy.

Not only are there a lot more people on the planet using energy, but they're using a lot more of it. Krakauer says the average human takes in enough energy per day (about 2,500 calories) to power a 100-watt light bulb. Given modern man's thirst for energy to power cars, cell phones, computers and other devices, however, the average person today uses as much energy as it takes for a blue whale to survive.

Not that he's a Luddite and urging everyone to dump their gadgets, but Krakauer says the population J-curve is competing with another thermodynamic principle – energy. All of the world's oil, natural gas and coal was produced within about 200 million years (a time called the "carboniferous period") before the age of the dinosaurs, yet it is being consumed quite thoroughly in a matter of centuries.

Something has to give. That brings us to Krakauer's "entropy" metaphor. Most often used to define wasted or unavailable energy, entropy can also be used to describe the flow of information and innovation. How can what we know – and put that knowledge to work – help close the harrowing gap between population and resources?

That's where the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery enters the picture. Krakauer sees the Institute, which opened in December 2010 alongside the private Morgridge Institute for Research, as a place that can redefine how information drives real-life solutions in a world that is many generations removed from being "steady state."

That will be done, he explains, by building collaborative teams of researchers in life sciences, computer sciences and other disciplines, leaping academic and bureaucratic barriers where necessary, and embracing freedom of inquiry along with the principles of private-sector risk.

Will it work? The $200 million invested in building the Institutes for Discovery is evidence that many campus and private industry leaders believe it can. With a different breed of researchers, the institutes are embarking on a journey that will transcend even the high-tech nature of the building itself.

It's not just idle dinner talk when Krakauer jokes about thermodynamics. The experiment he is helping to lead on the UW-Madison campus could spark results that help power, heal and feed an ever-growing planet.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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