2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe
The Virial Theorem

The word "meme" denotes a rapidly spreading idea, behavior, or concept. Richard Dawkins originally coined the term to explain the action of natural selection on cultural information. For example, good parenting practices lead to children who survive to pass on those good parenting practices to their own children. Ask someone under twenty-five what a meme is, however, and chances are you will get a different definition: typing "meme" into Google Images yields page after page of photos of celebrities, babies, and kittens, overlaid with somewhat humorous text. Memes spread only as rapidly as they can reproduce. Parenting is a long-term and arduous task that takes decades to reproduce itself. A kitten photo reproduces in the few seconds it takes to resend. Consequently, the vast majority of memes are now digital, and the digital meaning of meme has crowded out its social and evolutionary meaning. 

Even in their digital context, memes are still usually taken to be a social phenomenon, selected and re-posted by human beings. Human beings are increasingly out of the loop in the production of viral information, however. Net bots who propagate fake news need not read it. Internet viruses that infect unprotected computers reproduce on their own, without human intervention. An accelerating wave of sell orders issued by high-frequency stock trading programs can crash the market in seconds. Any interaction between systems that store and process information will cause that information to spread; and some bits spread faster than other bits. By definition, viral information propagates at an accelerating rate, driving stable systems unstable. 

Accelerating flows of information are not confined to humans, computers, and viruses. In the 19th century, physicists such as Ludwig Boltzmann, James Clerk Maxwell, and Josiah Willard Gibbs recognized that the physical quantity called entropy is in fact just a form of informationthe number of bits required to describe the microscopic motion of atoms and molecules. At bottom, all physical systems register and process information. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy tends to increase: this increase of entropy is nothing more or less than the natural tendency of bits of information to reproduce and spread. The spread of information is not just a human affair, it is as old as the universe. 

In systems governed by the laws of gravitation, such as the universe, information tends to spread at an accelerating rate. This accelerating spread of information stems from a centuries-old observation in classical mechanics called the virial theorem. The virial theorem (from the Latin "vis" or "strength," as opposed to the Latin "virus" or "slimy poison"implies that when gravitating systems lose energy and information, they heat up. A massive cloud of cool dust in the early universe loses energy and entropy and clumps together to form a hot star. As the star loses energy and entropy, radiating light and heat into the cold surrounding space, the star grows hotter, not colder. In our own star, the sun, orderly flows of energy and information between the sun's core, where nuclear reactions take place, and its outer layers, resulting in stable and relatively constant radiation for billions of years. A supermassive star, by contrast, radiates energy and information faster and faster, becoming hotter and hotter in the process. Over the course of a few hundred thousand years, the star burns through its nuclear fuel, its core collapses to form a black hole (an event called the "gravothermal catastrophe"), and the outer layers of the star explode as a supernova, catapulting light, energy, and information across the universe. 

Accelerating flows of information are a fundamental part of the universe: we can't escape them. For human beings, the gravitational instability implied by the virial theorem is a blessing: we would not exist if the stars had not begun to shine. The viral nature of digital information is less blessed. Information that reproduces itself twice in a second wins out over information that only reproduces once a second. In the digital memes ranked as most popular by Google Images, this competition leads to a race to the bottom. Subtlety, intricacy, and nuance take longer to appreciate, and so add crucial seconds to the digital meme reproduction process, leading to a dominance of dumb and dumber. Any constraint that puts information at a disadavantage in reproducing causes that information to lose out in the meme-race. Truth is such a constraint. Fake news can propagate more rapidly than real news exactly because it is unconstrained by reality, and so can be constructed with reproduction as its only goal. The faulty genetic information contained in cancerous cells can propagate faster than correct genetic information because cancer cells need not respond to the regulatory signals sent to them by the body. 

Human society, living organisms, and the planets, stars, and galaxies that make up the universe all function by the orderly exchange of information. Social cues, metabolic signals, and bits of information carried by the force of gravity give rise to societies, organisms, and to the structure of the universe. Chaos, by contrast, is defined by the explosive growth and spread of random information. Memes used to be cultural practices that propagated because they benefited humanity. Accelerating flows of digital information have reduced memes to kitten photos on the Internet. When memes propagate so rapidly they lose their meaning, watch out!