For decades school classrooms have echoed with a chorus describing the water cycle: “evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, run-off”. The sun heats the waters of the ocean. Thermal energy beamed down onto the ocean surface agitates water molecules to an extent that some are able to cross the energy barrier at the ocean surface to begin an airborne journey. Thermal effects cause the moist air to rise as the potential energy of the heavier, colder air displaces the warm vapours to higher altitudes, until they reach an equilibrium height in the gentle folds of clouds. Prevailing winds blow the clouds towards land, to rise further into foothills overhung by a slate grey cloudscape in which the moisture condenses into drops of relentless drizzle.
As this rain falls the potential energy gained when the sun earlier had heated the ocean surface is transformed into a kinetic energy in the falling droplets. In isolation this energy is miniscule. The smallest drops coalesce into bigger ones that can then collect in tiny trickles that run for seconds down a window that faces into the rain. These patterns are not random but are choreographed by the Principle of Least Action.
The window glass appears unaffected by the downpour, yet it too is behaving like a liquid that is flowing over centuries rather than seconds!
As the raindrops collect together to form rivulets and streams, they combine their energies to become an erosive torrent. Rain engorged streams cascade down mountainous slopes. Some potential energy in the water is diverted into creating the micro-fractures of erosion, through which steep river valleys will eventually be sculpted. These sharp ravines may be assumed to be a natural consequence of energy flow by a carrier material, which in this case is water.
The direction taken by streams, as well as the patterns of erosion of canyons and valleys, are clearly not random but again co-ordinated and optimised by the Principle of Least Action. Macroscopically the descending water converts its potential energy into kinetic energy as rapidly as possible. Microscopically the energy transferred and dissipated through the erosion shown above can be considered analogous to the accumulated effect of micro-fracture events in a viscoelastic material.
This accumulation of microscopic erosion events is the information content that describes the creation of the river valley over time. That is, in an ideal sense, the energy passing through the water cycle forms the conduit through which the water flows and optimises its design to comply with the Principle of Least Action. The associated information content is written by this process. It is a feature of the environment and is unrelated to any living agent. The information that is written by the water cycle has a syntax and meaning in the accumulation of the erosive events with time, but has no associated value. Simply the energy and information content are linked by the physics of the system.
And so it was for millennia that rivers became terrestrial conduits for energy flow. Then a new form of conduit emerged to process more of the vast energy resource that showered down upon the early Earth. About four billion years ago biology was born. Soon thereafter solar energy began to be captured by the photosynthetic activity of Stromatolites, beginning the sequence through which this energy eventually would pass through the bioenergetic transformations of the food chain. Energy is passed from vegetable to animal, from prey to predator, assuming the predator is able to catch its prey. The energy is passed from a fallen leaf into the soil, into bacteria and on into further tributaries of the food chain. The energy each biological organism receives enables it to sustain itself to the search for more food and to reproduce.
A tree is one such organism deserving attention as a biological equivalent of the river valley. Trees have common features but as individuals no two are alike due to the information written into their physical structure. To receive solar energy a tree must extend up towards the forest canopy and position the photosynthetic chemical factories in its leaves to be aligned to the sunlight. Unfortunately, the descending sunlight may become blocked by many obstacles, notably by its own boughs or those of adjacent trees. Growth is therefore a sequence of reactions to seek the essential sunlight. Hence the contortion of an arboreal structure and the shedding of the deadwood that fails in its quest to reach the sunlight.
As is the case of the river valley, the realignment of the growing tree may be considered as events analogous to micro-fracture events in the physical domains. This accumulated sequence of events then provides the information that describes the tree through its life; information also has a syntax and meaning. One might speculate that this information has value, at least for the individual tree as it determines its survival.
Do we underestimate the power of plants and trees? bbc.com, 20th Nov 2015
As energy captured by photosynthesis in plants cascades down the food chain, it supports the development of other organisms. Through this throughput of energy there is information content in those same living organisms, just as in the tree, which supports their survival. For an intelligent agent this is the information that enables their participation in an economic society both as producer and consumer. The throughput of energy over time creates the information that is the intelligence of the agent. Furthermore, deployment of this same energy of the intelligent agent in labour creates or replicates the information in the product or service of that labour and thereby creates value from their economic activity.
Let us return to the earlier mountainous cascade, where now an intelligent agent is able to develop another system through which energy is able to flow. The potential energy and kinetic energy of the torrents that race down the steep hillsides can be harvested and deployed elsewhere.
A Highland Electricity Company elects to obstruct a particularly fast-flowing river with a hydroelectric dam and directs the water flow through its turbines. A reservoir of water with an enormous potential energy builds up behind the dam, but this energy is insufficient to breach the mechanical strength of the obstacle – fortunately the dam holds firm. The energy that once propelled the water through turbulent streams is now controlled and set for harvesting. As water pours through turbine channels, the blades are rotated and the water leaves slightly subdued, stripped of a portion of its kinetic energy. Generators have converted some of this passing energy into an electric potential.
As the river’s remaining energy takes the water to the sea, the electrical energy now flows through a different channel, a national grid of high-tension cables to power a society. The intelligent agent has thus developed a further energy conduit that is also filled with energy obtained from the combustion of fossil fuels. That energy also came from the sun and fell onto primordial forests in an earlier epoch from which the chemical energy of the oil and gas and coal has now found freedom to flow again through the electrical conduits.
Each value adding step can be interpreted as the movement of the fabricated goods through an economic potential field. A further utilisation of terrestrial energy resources propels these manufactured commodities to a higher economic potential. Millions of individual blips on the Value Surface of the goods are thus created to record their elevated value.
A road network is no less a conduit for energy flow than a river valley or a tree. Human beings as producers depart on the minor tributaries and pour down major transport links to deliver their labour. Manufactured goods are loaded onto juggernauts, ships and through huge container ports to carry them onward through supply chains. Through the motorways, main roads and side roads of an economy the goods are carried to the shelves of the retail outlets to be made available to a geographically distributed consumer population. Human beings as consumers enter the same transport networks to find the goods and services that they need. The information content can be drawn into maps and GPS devices.
Elsewhere we have considered as equivalent the information communicated by the distribution of some fabricated goods and the information communicated through media channels that advertise those same goods. Precisely the same equivalence may formed between the transport networks and telecommunications networks that communicate information generated by intelligent agents and which enable those agents to integrate their activity in an economic society. The society thus brings together all the energy contributions of its component parts. At this high level the associated information content includes the rules and regulations that enable the society to function, as well as the information that is shared between the component parts.
Whereas water is the carrier of energy in the river and has created the information content of the valley, and the passage of energy through the food chain has fashioned the design of trees and other organisms that make up this chain, the energy in the materials, manpower and machines are also the source of the information content of the fabricated goods and services. Likewise, the energy that drives an economy is the source of the information content of its transportation and telecommunications infrastructures and the governance of the society itself. Roads, railways, relays and regulations that are disused will eventually meet the same fate as the dried river bed or the deadwood of the tree.
We have described specific examples of a generic process where the passage of energy through a system causes the system to change, and discrete events record that change in the information content of the system. A system’s information content can therefore be considered to be a legacy of this energy throughput:-
|River||Water||Potential, Kinetic||Erosion of the river valley|
|Tree||Carbohydrates, ATP, etc.||Chemical||Physical structure of the tree|
|Food Chain||Primitive Organisms and Species||Chemical, Kinetic||Behaviour to survive and reproduce|
|Intelligent Agent||Food, Fossil Fuels, Human*, etc.||Chemical, Kinetic, Electrical (neural)||Production and consumption|
|Commercial Organisation||Human*, Machines and Materials||Chemical, Electrical Potential#||Product or Service|
|Power Generation||Water, Fossil Fuels, Wind, Nuclear||Electrical||Electricity distribution network|
|Transportation and Telecommunication||Fossil Fuels,
|Transport and telecoms networks|
|Society||Human*||Potential#||Governance, Legal, Press, Operational Routines|
* Human beings as innovator, producer and consumer of goods and services and a carrier of the chemical energy obtained through the food chain. # Potential energy based on the assumption of an economic potential field
In the diagram below the connected conduits from the table above enable the energy throughput through which the information content of the system (blue boxes) is written. In yellow are sources of energy which enter the system from external sources and storage.
One final thought: In the effort to understand this article you will have consumed energy from the food chain. A third of this energy passes through your brain and hopefully this will have etched a memory of your cogitations into the information content of the neural circuits that form the blue box that is your brain! It will be the information that enables you to perceive the value of the contents of this page.