The New Materialist Radical Energy Proposal, Part 1
In chapter 7 of “Religion, Politics and the Earth,” Clayton Crockett and Jeff Robbins consult the work of Kevin Mequet, an architect from Arkansas with a deep and passionate love of physics who has developed his own radical proposal for nuclear energy. After showing in the previous chapter (ch. 6) the utter unsustainability of not only carbon and hydrocarbon sources of energy, but also traditional thermal nuclear alternative that have not yielded nearly the efficiency people expected, the authors here show us a sketch of what we might turn to moving forward. I highly recommend Tad Delay’s post on this problem before proceeding. The basic concept for this proposal is “physics beyond heat.” The language in the book is a bit technical sometimes so I was able to talk to Kevin myself to ask him a few clarifying questions and to hear about the project more from his perspective. First I’ll outline some basic concepts of the theory, frame the conversation, and in my next post will contain the interview.
If we remember from high school science class, the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy, is the movement of a system from order to disorder. In this process, more energy is lost in heat conversion than used for actual work. Today, because we burning so much inefficient fuel, heat is “literally burning up the planet” as nation states and corporations fail to make significant changes in energy policy (102). To begin to think otherwise, the authors claim that we need to begin to take Einstein very seriously, specifically the concept of “physics beyond heat.”
As Ilya Prigogine recognized in the 19th century, thermodynamics was only concerned with a specialized circumstance of equilibrium thermodynamics that lead to a steady state of heat. (103) The obvious problem is that we don’t live in that equilibrium most of the time. In other words, the study of thermodynamics was concerned with rare circumstances, not a common one. 21st century thermodynamics, then, are about non-equilibrium rather than equilibrium states. For this, the authors turn to the earth’s magnetic field- which by all standard physical accounts should not exist- as the key for understanding energy in the future.
In short, the reason our magnetic field should not exist by most accounts is that within the earth, iron and other metals in the mantle and core are too hot for electricity to be conducted. “Magnetohydrodynamics” is the term that describes the interaction between electricity and magnetism that we’ll be looking at.
One problem is that “ferromagnetic” materials (such as iron) need a magnetic driver to be paramagnetized above the Curie temperature, so what is that driver? Normally according to standard models “all the tiny magnetic moments would cancel each other out rendering a global dipole magnetic effect implausible” (104). In other words, if material in the mantle and core is paramagnetized, how is it not jumbled but rather sustained and consistent? The second problem is what naturally occurring process could make produce a magnetic field to begin with?
The mistaken assumption is that the question of the earth’s magnetic field has to do with heat. According to Mequet, it is not crucial that metals are hot in this process; we need to look beyond heat, first to salt tectonic studies.
The key claim here is that heat and density can be thought of interchangeably (105). Density gradients among dissimilar materials produce similar results to thermal gradients (though physics has only been thinking in thermal terms). Quoting Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan, the authors cite the oft cited but perhaps not adequately investigated claim that “Nature abhors a gradient” (105). It can be said that naturally occurring organized structures emerge to abolish gradients.
This, then, is how magnetohydrodynamic materials produce a global magnetic dipole field where molecules self organize (principle of least action efficiently degrades the gradient). Every dipole degrades itself and reverses, and we know this has happened to the earth- our magnetic field has weakened 20% in last 40 years alone.
So we have motion, a magnetic driver, answer to first question, but not yet a theory of the magnetic field generation itself. For this problem, the authors turn to the theory of Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. “Every time a fissile nuclear atom fissions, it sends out one or two neutrons, a few subatomic particles including one antineutrino, two halves of the nucleus… and on spontaneous magnetic moment.” This explains driver of the magnetic field… “ Magnetohydrodynamic fluids are being continually paramagnetized by fissile nuclear decay chain interactions. Fertile and ffissile nuclear elements are thoroughly entrained in the iron/silicate mantle/core matrix materials like yeast leavening flour in bread dough.” Fertile elements are converted fissile ones. We’ll come back to that later in our conversation with Kevin.
Lastly, a connection is made between this athermal theory of nuclear energy and the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who “provides
the philosophical methodology for inspiring a creative leap.” In particular, Deleuze’s radical claim in Difference and Repetition that “the world is an egg” (107). The authors here do not take Deleuze to be speaking metaphorically- rather, the earth’s core is made up of different hemispheres, which, due to their specific arrangement, and spun clockwise and counterclockwise to each other, creating a nuclear generator that ultimately produces the earth’s magnetic field. The “bubble” of magnetism produced by the generation of an electro-magnetic field is the condition of life on this planet that protects us all – like the shell of an egg. In this way, Deleuze provides the concept that allows us to conceptualize the earth itself in a new way, unlocking new energy potentials. For Deleuze, this is what philosophy is, as he and Guattari argue in What is Philosophy? It is the creation of concepts for the purpose of solving problems that we face in the present. If Crockett, Robbins, and Mequet are on to something with their energy proposal, this is exactly how philosophy and concept creation can be used to open new creative doors even in the hard sciences. Even if this theory doesn’t pan out, as the authors admit it very well could not, we desperately need outside voices like that of Deleuze and geniuses like Kevin to synthesize different forms of thought into coherent and new proposals.