Saturday, December 6, 2008

The particle, the heap and the angle of repose

Can societies be modeled as heaps of particles? 

Amorphous dust particles cannot be gathered together to become a gigantic heap: It is bound to collapse. In soil mechanics there is a concept called the angle of repose

From Wikipedia: 

The angle of repose (sometimes incorrectly confused with the 'Angle of Internal Friction') is an engineering property of granular materials. The angle of repose is the maximum angle of a stable slope determined by friction, cohesion and the shapes of the particles.

When bulk granular materials are poured onto a horizontal surface, a conical pile will form. The internal angle between the surface of the pile and the horizontal surface is known as the angle of repose and is related to the density, surface area, and coefficient of friction of the material. Material with a low angle of repose forms flatter piles than material with a high angle of repose. In other words, the angle of repose is the angle a pile forms with the ground.

Well, so much for the analogy. (I often balk against usage of analogy but more often than not I seem not to follow that rule. Well we can discuss why later). I believe people can be "heaped" into a cohesive society only upto a point. Once you hit the angle of repose of society, things start slip-sliding away. See what is happening in the Balkans and many parts of Africa. India does not fit into this analogy too well because it was never cohesive to begin with and was accepted in that form when it came into existence in 1947. People here kind of enjoy being in separate heaps and yet stay together at the same time. It is as if there was some kind of plan at work on how the internal heaps in the country would work. This should be an interesting line of investigation for sociologists. 

Talking of particles and heaps, there is another movement at work: Micronations ; where a very small group of people take over an uninhabited island and proclaim a new nation there.  

And we have not even talked about that "eighth continent" called the Internet where you can see heaps being formed, deformed and diffused. I can make another mental leap and make an anlogy with the expanding and contracting of the universe: Each society is like a universe of its own and it will naturally expand to accommodate as many "particles" that can bring in cohesiveness. Once it hits the angle of repose, it will start contracting and the process will start all over again.