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Fugacity: a precision of imperfection


Fugacity (foo-gah’- ci -tee)


That’s not really a word, you’re probably thinking.  Fugacity would be the name of the hooker in a science fiction story set on Planet Xenophon Centauri. She would have five very acrobatic appendages and curves bursting out of her lamé space bikini. Fugacity would be the name of the bar where philosophical detectives and rebels hang out in the 23rd century.  It sounds like somewhere you might meet a hashish-addled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a poem.

I was told by a scientist, by email, that fugacity was the proper measure of carbon dioxide.  Not the ppm we have all come to know; the number that keeps crossing each threshold we set for the end of the world as we know it.

     “We’re all part of a huge experiment. We’ve never had a species on this planet before that took all the carbon in the earth and put it in the atmosphere” I heard a Scientist reply to the Earnest Young Graduate Student who asked about the “so what” of rising CO2 levels. 

     The concentration of carbon dioxide, it turns out, is not all that easy to measure at any place or time, particularly at the surface of the ocean where it is being exchanged between the air and the water. Absorbed into the water, it reacts chemically to form the free and wild hydrogen ions that send us into screaming Ocean Acidification fits about the death of everything shelled or coralline.
     Scientists have wavered, I learned, using mole fractions (not the animal) and partial pressures. Consistency is needed and fugacity is best, say Benjamin Pfeil and Are Olsen at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway.
“Over the last few decades several million measurements of the surface ocean CO2 concentration have been made, in particular following the advent of infrared based systems which determines the CO2 concentration in an air headspace in equilibrium with a continuous stream of sea water,” the plea for the consistent use of fugacity begins.  “The concentration can be expressed as the fugacity of CO2 (fCO2) in the headspace, which takes into account the non-ideal behavior of CO2 gas.”

Precision, it seems, can still emerge from the failure of the most ethereal of matter to behave well. No substance, it seems, is truly ideal. Not gold, not diamonds. Gases tend to escape, but in measurable ways.

The meaning of fugacity is elusive.  It’s derived from the Latin
fugere, to flee, and often interpreted by the physicists as “the tendency to flee or escape.” Fugere is also the root of “fugitive,” which, in our modern world, means flight from custody of some legal authority, or as a noun, a long-running television show about someone who didn’t do it. The word has earlier roots in that which is difficult to grasp or retain, likely to evaporate, deteriorate, change, fade, or disappear. Botanists use “fugacious” to describe plant parts that wither or drop off early, like the petals of an orchid.  “Fugacity” also means “fleeting.”  It seems there are many words like “fleeting,” synonyms that all mean something of short duration – evanescent, transient, transitory, ephemeral, momentary.  But the Merriam Webster dictionary informs me there are subtle distinctions.  “Evanescent” suggests a quick vanishing and an airy or fragile quality. “Transient” applies to what is actually short in its duration or stay, like a night in a hotel, while “transitory” applies to what is by its nature or essence bound to change, pass, or come to an end, like fame. “Ephemeral” implies a striking brevity of life or duration, like the adult phase of the mayfly, but “momentary” suggests coming and going quickly and therefore being merely a brief interruption of a more enduring state, like a pang of guilt in the midst of joy. But both “fugitive” and “fleeting,” derived from fugere, imply passing so quickly as to make apprehending difficult. Ralph Waldo Emerson used “fugacity” in a literary sentence: “He (the poet) perceives the independence of the thought on the symbol, the stability of the thought, the accidency and fugacity of the symbol.” (The fugacious relationship between creative nonfiction and truth was before his time.)

What we actually feel from a gas is its fugacity, not the pressure we would feel if it was an ideal gas. So when we are mindful of our breath, we must really be experiencing its fugacity, like an image we are watching on the walls of Plato’s cave, like the weight of our sins on our soul, like our karma, like love, actually.  Fugacity is the tendency to stay in the state you’re in, which for a gas is expansive. It’s the return of your attention to the hardness of your meditation cushion, the number of breaths you fail to mind, the sneak peek at the person next to you.  Physicists are not idealists. There’s no evidence that they yearn for the ideal gas which they seem awfully certain can never exist. They would say the same about Truth, Kindness, and Beauty. Fugacity is really the measure of the change in pressure it would take to make a gas behave ideally – but where would that pressure come from?

Human consciousness and souls have a tendency to escape, we are told, because there has been a fall from somewhere, sometime in the distant past, into a less-than-ideal form. Spirit is imprisoned in matter, striving to escape.  Zoroaster preached that the world was a Lie, that Truth and Light were imprisoned in the darkness of the matter that is makes up our body. The Gnostics called it Sophia, the goddess of wisdom, a divine emanation of the Supreme God who upset the order of Darkness and Light by her desire to know what lies beyond the limits of what can be known.  The world was created with the Goodness of Light mixed into the Evil of Darkness and matter.  The Sophia part of us is the longing of a divine spark of our soul to escape matter, the part beloved by philosophers.  When all of us return to the perfect, divine realm, the world will end. Fugacity is the measure of how far we have to go to our lost home and merge into the Light.

    Fugacity arises because substances prefer the phase of matter of greatest disorder. Substance tends toward entropy, the escape of order to greater disorder.  Scientists call this tendency to escape the chemical potential of the substance, a potential which is not mathematically well behaved.  It’s a measure of the deviation that is reality. It’s the dimensionless coefficient that would close the gap.

     Fugacity. Just when you think you apprehend it, it escapes you, like the world, like your self.

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Recommended Readings I

AlaskaScienceLit began with a panel discussion at a Writing Science Creatively workshop before the 2013 Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage on January 20.

Recommended readings authored by the panel members: Nancy Lord, Judith Connor, Sherry Simpson, and Andromeda Romano-Lax:

By Nancy Lord
Fishcamp:  Life on an Alaskan Shore
Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast
Beluga Days:  Tracking a White Whale’s Truths
Rock, Water, Wild:  An Alaskan Life
Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North

By Judith Connor, published by Monterey Bay Aquarium
Seashore Life on Rocky Coasts.
Connor, J. L. and Deans, N. L.  Jellies, Living Art.
Robison, B. and Connor, J. The Deep Sea.
Connor, J. and C. Baxter. Kelp Forests.

By Andromeda Romano-Lax
Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast
*Sections of Sustainable Wildlands (forthcoming)

By Sherry Simpson
*The Way Winter Comes
*The Accidental Explorer

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Disappearing, Getting Lost, Getting Found

I recently re-read Sheila Nickerson’s Disappearance: A Map: a meditation on death and loss in the high latitudes, which is place-based in Alaska in an extraordinary way, as might be expected from our former poet laureate. It’s not really Alaska science lit, but it reminded me about another book, Deep Survival: who lives, who dies, and why, by Laurence Gonzales, which is probably non-Alaska science lit, but contains the neurological explanations about why we behave the way we do that fascinates me. The two books, taken together, provide a complex meditation on the phenomenon of people getting lost while on adventures and journeys. Disappearance provides the perspective  of the people left behind when someone vanishes, and Deep Survival provides the perspective of what makes the difference in terms of getting lost and surviving to return. Both are also fantastic examples of the weaving of subject matter and personal meaning.

The first chapter in Disappearance, “Lost” begins with “I live in a place where people disappear. Alaska. Too big to comprehend.” Nickerson’s narrator asks “What is it to disappear? . . . What is it to map disappearance?” She weaves together stories of many people who have disappeared – beginning with a colleague of hers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, followed by Arctic explorers, pilots, boat captains and their crews, hikers, and even a hapless tourist fresh off a cruise ship in Juneau. She follows the searches that come after the disappearance as the stories in the newspaper moves further away from the front page and the effects of the disappearances on the people who continue to search. She embeds these individual stories in a broader history of Alaska, in which resources disappear, and the disappearance of less tangible things such as Alaska Native languages and culture.

She is preparing, throughout the book, to retire from her job and move from Juneau to live on a sail boat in the Caribbean. The book begins in May, “almost spring, but still a time of potentially cruel weather,” to November,  as she sheds  not only the tangibles like the contents of her office, possessions from her home, and files and books related to her successful writing career, but also the intangibles of title and professional identity. At the same time, she is observing the weather and the seasonal changes happening around her closely on a daily basis.

At a deeper level, the book is also a spiritual memoir of her inward journey of searching. “All my adult life,” she says early in the book, “I have searched for spiritual truth.” She likens the ending of the spiritual path to a type of disappearance, one she never professes to have reached over the course of the book. (“The place called disappearance can’t be mapped, because nothing there is separate, lost, or less.”) She also connects her personal search for spirituality to the traditional spirituality of Alaska Natives which suffered from the disappearance of shamans. Finally, she examines the purpose of words and writing in their ability to journey towards transcendence, on the one hand, and keeping the disappeared people alive, on the other. (“A powerful written record can keep a lost person alive.  But not everything gets said and not everything gets said correctly. “)

Gonzalez’s narrator begins with the “fantastic” story he heard throughout his childhood of his father’s survival during WWII. His father’s plane was shot down at 27,000 feet, and he rode the plane down to the ground, breaking most of his bones in the process. When he came to, a German was pointing a gun at him, pulling the trigger. The gun failed to fire. He recovered while a prisoner of war under horrific  conditions. “That he had lived while so many others had died seemed to me to have so much meaning. . . His survival made me believe that he had some special, ineffable quality.” The narrator reflects on his life of life of looking for his “own brand of peril,” and his years of research about brain function to plumb the psychology of risk taking and survival. The principles he discovered applied to the dilemma of wilderness survival he began with, but in the end, he realizes they apply to “any stressful, demanding situation, such as getting a divorce, losing a job, surviving illness, recovering from an injury, or running a business in a rapidly changing world. . . The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”

The narrator in Deep Survival tells stories and analyzes a variety of situations – landing planes on an aircraft carrier, snow machine accidents, climbing accidents, lost hikers, plane wrecks on the sides of mountains, sailboats lost at sea – and distils some lessons about what works and what doesn’t for survival and, to some extent, why from a neurological point of view.

He describes the two systems in the human brain: the “emotional” amygdala that detects danger and girds the body for response and the “rational” prefrontal cortex that responds to training and creates the future plan. (These are the same two at the heart of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). The problem comes when the real future doesn’t match the plan.

One chapter is titled “Bending the Map,” the term used in orienteering for trying to make the map fit where you really see that you are rather than admitting you are lost. The hippocampus, with its “place cells,” is the part of the human brain where mental maps of the environment are constantly created  in concert with your proprioceptive system that maps where all the parts of your body are at all times. As you move and navigate the world, you are constantly remapping it. But the sense of moving to a destination, a goal, is emotionally motivated and can override the mis-match between the world you’re experiencing and your mental map.

I’ve had the experience of using an aerial photograph with a group of people to find a landmark to start a wildlife survey and spending three hours arguing about where we were on the photo. It turned out we weren’t even “on the map,” within the boundaries of the photo yet we all argued about where in the photo we were standing. We had done just as the narrator predicted – struggled to make our mental maps and the world conform, with a growing sense of urgency that would eventually signal a full-blown emergency.

Deep Survival is full of interpretations of brain science, like “bending the map,” that ring true with my own experiences. Nickerson’s question “What does it mean to disappear?” is answered by Gonzalez from the point of view of the lost human, first in the neural mechanisms the amygdala that can no longer match the mental map to the world and the alarm-signaling, emotional hippocampus, then in descriptions of how it feels: “the creepy feeling that knowing that you are nowhere,” “All you know is that you are going mad (For what else is insanity but a failure to match self and world?)” “To be seen is to be real. . . Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.”

The narration in Deep Survival grounds the science and inquiry into the personal meaning of one man’s quest to understand what remains fundamentally not reducible to the functioning of parts of the brain. “Survival,” Gonzalez concludes “is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances. . . not being lost is not a matter of getting back to where you started from; it is a decision not to be lost wherever you find yourself. It’s simply saying, ‘I’m not lost. I’m right here.’ Nickerson’s multi-leveled narration in Disappearance circles around and around the unique human knowledge of death and the understanding of transience that attends the search for a spiritual destination and its truth, like a Pole that is constantly discovered and constantly lost, reappearing and disappearing.

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Why Alaska Science Lit?

Because . . .

Alaska is an epic place and Alaska science, if you think about it deeply,  is often epic.

Science is cool.

Science is a way of knowing that creates validity in a specific, formulaic, and arrogant way, and there are so many other ways to know about the world and ourselves.

The destruction of the natural world is outpacing the tools of science to understand it or persuade us to change our ways.

Literature is what moves us.

Therefore, Alaska science literature is crucial to our collective survival!

This blog is dedicated to searching our collective psyche for deep connections to the natural world.

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