Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Before he unveiled his theories of Special and then General Relativity, Einstein had already made a name for himself in the world of physics, largely because of some papers he wrote before 1905, his so-called “Miracle Year.” One of those early papers was his PhD dissertation, which was about Brownian motion. This, you may recall from 10th-grade physics, is the bouncing and jiggling movement of particles in a liquid or gas. It is related to the concept of diffusion, which is the gradual spreading of particles throughout a liquid or gas, due largely to Brownian motion.
    We’ve all witnessed diffusion. Drop a pinch of salt into a tank of water, and soon you can taste salt molecules that have spread pretty much evenly throughout the water. (Stirring and heating help but aren’t necessary, given time.) Open a perfume jar in one corner of a room, and, rather quickly, you can smell it in the far corner, because perfume molecules have spread that far, that fast. That’s diffusion. Einstein provided equations to explain how that happens under different conditions. His papers helped prove the existence of atoms. Here’s a nice web page about Brownian motion and diffusion.
     Starting in the 1950s, social scientists began scientifically examining the idea of “diffusion of ideas”—i.e., how ideas, innovations, news, information, customs, symbols, and even changes in language spread throughout societies. Think of how the use of the single-word sentence “Whatever,” or the fashion of the backward baseball cap, or the addiction to Harry Potter spread throughout the society of American youth: Some kids somewhere began each fad, and then it spread--like salt in water or perfume in air.
     I’ve been thinking about diffusion lately in light of the recent tax-cut fight in Congress and the WikiLeaks classified-document leaks. In a sense, they’re both about diffusion.
     Though it probably won’t make me as famous as Einstein, here’s my theory:
     Wealth and information, like salt and perfume, try to spread themselves evenly throughout the world. They want to diffuse. To prevent this spread, rich people and governments create containers or try to freeze the liquid. This is like turning a single gallon of water into four quart containers; now when you put salt in one, it cannot spread to the others. Or like turning the water to ice; the salt cannot diffuse. It’s also like sealing off the room where you opened the perfume.
      But the law of diffusion is powerful. There are natural forces trying to move wealth from the rich to the poor, and information from the those in the know to the ignorant. It takes powerful container walls or freezing temperatures to prevent this from happening. Whole legal systems, for example, are designed to keep wealth from diffusing to the poor (laws banning theft, for example, and protecting inheritances); physical structures like bank vaults and gated communities have the same effect, and so do social codes that, for example, shame the poor into thinking that they must not even ask the rich to share their wealth. Similar walls have been built to contain information: laws that classify government documents, for example, or that censor books and websites, or that close off schoolrooms and colleges and university libraries to some people while letting others (usually those already “in the know”) in.
      The thicker the liquid, the slower diffusion takes place. It happens much faster in gases. (It even happens in solids, but not so’s you’d notice.) My sense of the world today is this: When it comes to information, the world is turning to gas. When it comes to wealth, it’s still liquid, and pretty thick, at that.
      Thanks to the internet, ideas fly through the ether (that imaginary gas that constitutes the digital universe) faster than ever. Actual studies have been done to show that a single idea, such as “sustainable growth” or “global warming,” now moves through the world far more quickly than it did 10 years ago, and the speed at which such ideas diffuse is increasing exponentially. WikiLeaks has merely opened the perfume bottle.
      Rarer are the instances when some of the barriers to wealth diffusion have come down: The New Deal, for example, and the War on Poverty, and the 50-year period when the IRS imposed a 50-91% tax rate on the super-rich. Even today, some politicians would like to warm and stir the water and help the salt to spread.
      But not most politicians.
      Mostly, the barriers to the diffusion of wealth remain up. In the recent debate over tax cuts in Washington, some politicians clearly would prefer that diffusion not take place, that the liquid of American life be made colder and more viscous, or even frozen altogether, so the salt moves through it slowly, if at all. They want the wealth to stay where it is, contained, cold, locked in place. They would even, if they could, make life a solid.
       These politicians can’t turn the digital ether into amber, however, so we know what they’re up to. There is a smell coming from Washington today that is as pervasive as perfume, though not so sweet, and it’s reaching us at the speed of scent.

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