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The Physics of Lynch Mobs

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For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Forces always occur in pairs. For example, when you push a cart, the cart pushes back against you; when gravity pulls you down against the ground, the ground pushes up against your feet. When you fire a rifle, you feel the recoil. When gravity pulls down on a neck in a noose, the rope pulls up. Whether it’s a jet plane, a rowboat or a baseball bat, Newton’s Third Law of Motion shapes just about everything in our lives that can be touched or felt.

This is a basic law of physics; it’s not a philosophical or theological principle. Nonetheless, it can give us some insight for understanding why the world is moving backwards at the same pace it’s advancing. At the same time that spacecraft travel beyond the outer reaches of the solar system and cancer is treated through genetic engineering, the Islamic Caliphate is fighting the same brutal wars as a thousand years ago. At the same time that the United States has its first black President, it experiences the same, or worse race riots as fifty years ago. This time though, it can’t be blamed on the powerlessness of black people. A black President, Mayor, Prosecutor, Congressional Representatives and policemen in Baltimore all attest to force being exerted, pushing the lives of black people. Is racial progress pushing upwards? One can certainly make a strong argument that black people in high positions are in control of black lives in Baltimore. Yet there seems to be an equal force pushing down.

Schrödinger’s cat / drug dealer

Sir Isaac Newton first presented his three laws of motion in 1686. By the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, scientists realized that really, really tiny things didn’t obey Newton’s Laws.  The rules used to understand the motion of a bullet or cart couldn’t be used to explain how an electron or atom works.

A thought experiment (one that was not performed, but took place only in the experimenter’s mind) was devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who imagined a quantum experiment with a cat:

cat good bad newsA cat is placed in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive substance…  Until the box is opened, an observer doesn’t know whether the cat is alive or dead—because the cat’s fate is intrinsically tied to whether or not the atom has decayed and the cat would, as Schrödinger put it, be “living and dead … in equal parts” until it is observed.  In other words, until the box was opened, the cat’s state is completely unknown and therefore, the cat is considered to be both alive and dead at the same time until it is observed.

This is counter-intuitive; it defies reason. Cats are either dead or alive. One can say that Schrödinger used the experiment to highlight the limits of Quantum Mechanics when applied to practical situations. The cat is actually either dead or alive, whether or not it has been observed.

Let’s consider a variation on the experiment. The steel box will be the back of a police van. The Geiger counter, the poison, hammer and uranium will be an unused seat belt, drugs, and protruding bolts. Instead of a cat, we’ll place Freddy Gray, a convicted narcotics dealer in the box, possibly busted in the midst of a drug deal. To increase the uncertainty we’ll add a witness who did and did not see Gray deliberately trying to injure himself.

Was Gray both dead and alive in the box? What took his life: was he poisoned by drugs, killed by a protruding bolt. Was it decay from a beating? Did someone hammer him with a police baton? The box has been opened, his death as been observed.  Though we lack crucial information, a verdict has been demanded in the name of justice; in the name of blind justice.

Back To The Future of Lynch Mobs

Lynching is the execution of an offender by a mob without due process of law. In the United States approximately 4,742 individuals were killed this way between 1882 and 1968; of the victims, 3,445 or 73 percent were Black. Some of the lynchings were preceeded by trials, but angry crowds, often stirred up by the press, could tip the hand of justice against the accused. Newspapers provided graphic and grizzly reports, using language that implied that the victim was indeed guilty, and deserving of his fate.

Leo Frank lynch mob

The lynching of Leo Frank

With very few exceptions the practice had pretty much died out by World War II. It was no longer socially acceptable. Although the American justice system is far from perfect, it does offer advantages over mob rule. In theory, evidence is gathered to determine guilt, appropriate charges are laid, and a judge or jury issues a decision based on the evidence.

Have we gone through a time warp, or is it Newton’s inexorable law of motion? Great racial progress has been made in the American justice system. There’s a black Attorney General, black Supreme Court Justice, black prosecutors, black police… Rarely is a black person tried by an all-white jury.

Yet despite this progress, we have lynch mobs in Ferguson, Miami, and Baltimore. Stirred up by the media, motivated by race-baiters such as the President, the mayor and the prosecutor, sympathy riots spread throughout the United States. Justice can only be served, they all said, when the police are convicted. When the people whose job it is to uphold justice have determined the desired outcome before the trial, there is no justice system, there are lynch mobs.

Entropy

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entropy illustrated

Entropy is a function of thermodynamic variables, with cosmological and social implications. It’s a hypothetical tendency for the universe to attain a state of maximum homogeneity in which all matter is at a uniform temperature (heat death). Based on this, in 1854, Hermann von Helmholtz made what is probably the gloomiest prediction in the history of science, that the universe is dying. Physicists of the day presumed that the underlying laws of physics (then assumed to be Newton’s laws of mechanics) are symmetric in time. Such laws, which made no distinction between past and future, gave rise to a directed arrow which we know as time.

There are many explanations, many discussions around this enigma (all beyond the scope of this essay). We should ask though, is humanity working towards a state of maximum homogeneity, in which all people are uniform? Racial equality, the end of discrimination is a worthy ideal, but when it’s all we focus on, we reverse time’s arrow, and re-create the lynch mobs of a century ago. Are we bringing ourselves to a social equivalent of heat death, with government officials promoting lynch mobs?

 Schrödinger’s Lynch Mob

In a previous essay, we cited Schrödinger’s association of consciousness with learning; adapting to change, learning from experience, transforming humanity. The racial upheaval that’s taken place in the United States shows a society that hasn’t learned, hasn’t adapted, not even to the changes it has wrought upon itself. A society that has lost consciousness. A society that has yet to realize that the election and elevation of people merely based on race rather than qualification will have an equal and opposite effect, that is the degradation of all races, the degradation of that society. The relentless push towards homogeneity will result in the heat death of burning communities, and of order and organization in society.

 

Note:

Dr. Amanda Peet (the physicist, not the actress) recounts the joke that sociology is applied psychology, psychology applied biology, biology applied chemistry, and chemistry applied physics.  Physics is a fascinating field, which grows more so with each new day. Quantum and cosmological weirdness provide a basis for philosophizing on many grand ideas. But people are not quantum objects (though they are made of them). Societies are not governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Physics concepts are applied in this essay as metaphors, not scientific statements.  They are used to illustrate.