Eclectic Plagiodoxy

Thinking about the world as a heterogeneous assemblage far from equilibrium

The word “plagiodoxy” came to me in a familiar place: in front of a classroom of introductory geology students. I was trying to connect the sometimes arcane jargon of the science with ordinary experiences the students were familiar with. In this case, I was working my way through the mineral group called feldspar, trying to make semantic connection with the two sub-groups, orthoclase and plagioclase. So I was chatting about ortho-dontists, ortho-pedists and ortho-doxy. I ended up saying something like “I suppose if you wanted crooked teeth, you would go to a plagiodontist. If you wanted crooked bones, you would go to a plagiopedist. If you wanted to learn to think on the slant, you would go to a plagiodox institution. That’s called “college”.

I’m not sure even now what it means exactly. Of course, what it means is not up to me alone. Like children, words have lives of their own. You can participate in their conception, you can hope to provide guidance. But ultimately it is not up to you.

Orthodoxy means thinking right, or straight, or properly. It means looking at our experience in life as a graph wherein the two axes of the graph are drawn at right angles, orthogonally, at a proper angle, 90°. There is only one way to draw such angles.

Plagiodoxy means thinking on an oblique angle, at a slant, improperly. There are an infinite number of ways to draw such angles. Only a careful examination of the existing world will disclose the correct angle, with a ± error.

Plagioclase striations

Plagioclase striations

So the cleavage planes in a particular plagioclase feldspar (86°24′ to 85°50′, according to my Dana) are not quite at right angles as they are in orthoclase, and this is discernible by looking for the striations that the cleavage produces on some surfaces of the mineral grain.

So too the angles drawn in a Minkowski Spacetime diagram are precisely determined by the actual speed of the moving frame of reference.

Minkowski Spacetime Diagram

Minkowski Spacetime Diagram

The striations diagram is from Dana: Textbook of Mineralogy; copywright 1898, revised 1932, printed 1950. It was my mineralogy textbook at Pasadena City College in 1953.

The spacetime diagram is a drawing of my own making. It is a photo of a pedagogic fossil. The Ditto masters we used in those days came with different colored backing sheet. By moving the master from one to another, one could create multicolored diagrams for students to work on. I was inspired to do this, and to attempt to teach Special Relativity using them to non-science college freshman by Taylor and Wheeler’s Spacetime Physics, 1963, 1966.

Plagiodox thinking draws the mind away from the easy logic of Platonic intuition, and focuses it instead on the difficult task of seeing the world closer to what it actually is, looking through the metaphors into existence.

Eclectic plagiodoxy stresses the heterogenous nature of the thing we are trying to understand, what scientists refer to as reality. The diversity of our experience with the actual world demands that we mix and mingle, that we look for meaning in the juxtaposition of these diverse and sometimes contradictory experiences. Serendipity is a delight. Contingency is a discipline.

One eclectic plagiodoxic conclusion is that the commonly accepted relationship, symmetry equals order, is actually wrong. In the relatively simple world of mineral crystallography, it is well established that of two polymorphic forms of the same substance, diamond and graphite to use a common example, the one with the higher symmetry is also the higher temperature form, and has, correspondingly, higher entropy and less order.Taken to extremes, the most symmetrical form is that of a perfect gas-the symmetry of a sphere. Randomness is infinitely symmetrical. All parts are interchangeable. Amory Lovins once described a particular energy policy as “spherically senseless”. It didn’t make sense no matter how you looked at it!

Which leads the eclectic plagiodox mind to consider the asymmetry of the flow of time during process, the distinction Prigogine made between chemistry and physics (Prigogine: Order Out of Chaos; 1984). The orthodox mind seeks balance and equilibrium. But the only balance and equilibrium observed in existence is in death. All life is process, and seeks to maintain disequilibrium, keeping the process flowing, maintaining the basic asymmetry of historic time.

Historic time has itself been discovered only recently, and imperfectly. We are struggling at present with extracting it from its roots in the psychology of our own childhoods by bringing to bear the problem solving skills of adult science. We discover that even in the ever repetitious turning of days, weeks, seasons, years, the world does change, even as we have each changed during our own individual ontogenies. But there is no guarantee that we will like the changes, or be able to cope with them. Whether or not there is God, I apprehend that there is no Grand Parent above who will assure that everything comes out alright. Does God care? Does God give a damn?

There is caring in the Universe. We see it around us, and within us, every day. It is invariably associated with living beings, such as human beings, whether or not they Believe. Whether or not God cares, I care. I care that the human experiment in thinking and caring continues. I consider it part of the improper unfolding of the Universe.

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