Medicine, military, and thermodynamics.



Today’s thought process is brought to you by a history class I took last semester, entitled ‘History 138: History of Science in the U.S.’ We talked about how science has developed throughout American history, and how that has shaped our society / economy / culture etc.  As we covered the 20th century (which incidentally was an awesome century for science all around), we learned about how different large-scale systems grew and developed, using the military-industrial complex as a prime example. Near the end of the class, we specifically emphasized the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project.


This is what got me thinking. We have some sort of intuition about military science, about how it is developed earlier and faster than other types of sciences, and how it is evil because corporations and government and violence and human nature etc. We don’t have that much intuition about medical science, except that doctors make a lot of money and DNA is cool, but a little research makes it obvious that medical science is slow and expensive. Well, both military and medical research are expensive, but medical research seems to be much more time consuming for less drastic results.


If you look at the Manhattan Project, it’s pretty phenomenal what happens. I’m not going to go into detail, but the gist is that they had a goal to make a bomb and did it in under5 years. They got government approval, recruited scientists, built facilities, got industry support, established the theory behind the bomb, designed it, acquired necessary materials (Uranium or Plutonium, extremely difficult to acquire in sufficient quantities – this took up the majority of the work), implemented it, tested it, and deployed it in about 4 years, the entire time remaining covert. That’s fucking impressive no matter how you cut it.


By comparison, medical technology evolves fairly slowly. Just getting the patent for recombinant DNA technology took almost twice as long as the entire Manhattan Project. Medical technology necessarily goes through a far more bureaucratic and entrenched process than military development. The reason is obvious when you think about it. Medicine needs to be safe – it needs to be tested thoroughly to make sure that it not only is beneficial to people, but that it won’t hurt anyone, or if it will, who will it hurt and how. The effect of any medical technology needs to be precise and well controlled. Military technology is typically different – it does need to be tested, but the effectiveness is more related to destructive capability and tends to be relevant on a macroscopic rather than microscopic scale. You might imagine missiles being launched over the ocean or bullets being fired at a target, whereas on the other side you imagine a guy in a lab coat looking into a microscope and using a tiny pipette. Obviously these systems and processes are so advanced that we can’t expect to accurately simplify them in such a way, but at the very least we can assume from results that military technology is generally developed and deployed much faster by comparison.


Here are my big reasons for this:

1) Medical technology requires a high degree of safety, whereas a lot of military technology is used for destructive purposes.

2) Military research does not need to pass as many legal barriers.

3) Ethics are more intrinsic to the ability of medical technology to develop.

4) Medicine is often more science-oriented while military applications are often more engineering-oriented.


One thing is very interesting about all of these reasons, and that is that they all appear to satisfy, at least metaphorically speaking, the second law of thermodynamics. For those who are not well versed in physics, that’s the one that says entropy is a thing. It implies that disorder tends to increase over time. The canonical analogy is with a student’s bedroom – it gets messier over time, thus “increasing entropy.” Although this explanation is sort of BS because the cleanliness of a room really has nothing to do with actual entropy, the intuition of the  relationship makes sense in a lot of ways.


So, let’s apply this to my reasons laid out above. What does entropy have to do with safety? Safety, at its most base level, is a measure of human control of energy. The more control we have over energy, the safer it is. Scalpels and lasers and MRIs and shit = good for medicine, guns and bombs = good for military. Medicine is about the precise, controlled application of energy, whereas military is about the explosive release of energy. Of course, it needs to be “controlled” in the sense that it needs to be directed, but in general the destructive nature of weaponry relates to a different type of control than that which is observed in medicine. In this way, you can sort of intuit that higher degrees of safety require higher degrees of order in energy.


The level of bureaucracy that needs to be applied to medical technology is an additional layer of order that slows its progress. Military resources, on the other hand, can be allocated at high speeds and with little to no legislation required.


Ethically speaking, you would expect that which is more ethical to approach higher order. More rules, more organization, more predictability of outcomes, more stability. That which is unethical tends towards instability and disorganization. It is more important for medical advances to pass through ethical scrutiny. When considering destroying or disarming an enemy, effectiveness is a higher priority than ethicalness.


Science vs engineering – science tends towards expanding the pool of human knowledge, finding out things that we do not yet know. This requires a great deal of reorganizing of information, because we have to take information from the world and process it and record it in a meaningful way. When it comes to engineering, typically we have some amount of information that we already know and are simply finding an optimal solution to whatever problem we are considering. In general I think it’s safe to say that science results in a more powerful application of order to a disorderly system, that is to say in this case, forming useful information from the random information inherent in the universe, whereas engineering has more to do with taking given information and twisting it to be optimal for us. As medical development is often more science related and military development more engineering related, medicine again tends towards a higher state of order.


Everything I’m saying here is of course very generalized and oversimplified… a lot of science goes into military research, and all weaponry needs to be safe. However the intuitive power of these thoughts is pretty interesting to me. I enjoy thinking about how energy is harnessed and directed towards different goals and in different applications, and what this means about order. I like to approach higher degrees of order. The idea of it is enticing, and makes the thought of destruction, of increasing disorderliness, that much more unpleasant.


I think I get a strange sense of satisfaction from breaking down complicated things into their base elements and trying to figure out how it all works. I guess that’s what draws me towards engineering, and towards my objective reasoning framework. Hopefully these sort of simplifications and analogies don’t take me down a road of fallacious reasoning. In any case it’s a good mental exercise.


A great song courtesy of my dear sister. Sit down, close your eyes, and play this with some noise-cancelling headphones.



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