Article by Angus Jenkinson FCybS, June 2021
The Matter ‘aspect’ — or field of interest — is the metatag to connect a wide field of related interests, especially physics and its various subdomains including engineering, chemistry and its, and the material sciences. It looks on the one hand to distinguish cybernetics from these, since cybernetics does not derive from or require either. At the same time it aims to show relatedness, since so may fields of activity, from robots to architecture, software design to ecology, navigation to engineering routinely depend on expertise in materiality and material processes, including chemistries both organic and inorganic. Exploring these is the purpose of this field.
Haemoglobin and cells
Consider one of the most interesting complexes of biochemical action in the human being (with related characteristics and other mammals). It concerns the process in which oxygen from the air is picked up, transferred by the blood to the cells, released, becoming central to activities in the cells. This is an activity that can properly be considered material — although it consists of a vast stream of minute and incredibly short activities in series — and physical. Physics, chemistry, their combination in biochemistry, and the systemic understanding of it in biology are all relevant.
Every cell is a living organism, and so its activities are responsive to its environment.
The exquisite haemoglobin molecule, which allows oxygen to be extracted from air in the lungs and passed to the cells for metabolism, is a coordinated production and synthesis of two organic molecules, haem (US: heme) and globin. The process is in turn a good case for illustrating some of the types of interface between cybernetics and chemistry.
The haem structure is the prosthetic group that mediates reversible binding of oxygen by haemoglobin. Globin is a protein that surrounds and protects the haem molecule. Haem production is synthesised in a remarkable series of steps in the development of the porphyrin ring structure involving enzymes in the mitochondrion and in the cytosol of the cell. Globin is formed by two distinct globin chains, designated alpha and non-alpha, each with its individual haem, or iron, molecule. A strange process or mechanism closely balances expression of the alpha and non-alpha genes. Balanced gene expression is required for normal red cell function. The process changes after the first weeks of life and is also varied under different conditions.
The processes of production and ongoing activity as a whole are continuously taking place in every cell involving multiple chromosomes and their gene expressions, enzymes, and catalytic actions, and in the cycle of life between the interfaces of the lungs with the world of air in the breathing cycle and the circulation of the blood as it interfaces with every cell in the inner world of the body. Thus very many billions of events are taking place every second.
This is but the beginning of a detailed description of the whole cycle.
Where does cybernetics come into it?
Every cell is a living organism, and so its activities are responsive to its environment. Moreover its own internal organization similarly consists of organic responsive elements. From the 50s, cybernetics should have been able to point out that the neo-Darwinian “Dogma” for gene expression must be wrong, and indeed in a significant way it does miss a vital element. Genes do not drive the process, they are responsive to it. They have been described as the equivalent of the organ upon which the organ player plays. The organ player is the larger meta-organism. The regulation of this whole activity and the responsiveness of various elements to their contextual environment is a natural field of cybernetics. Biochemists and biologists may well use the techniques of cybernetics unconsciously, but they are nevertheless cybernetic. In turn, cyberneticians can and do learn from these, and apply the principles elsewhere.
A smart solution to cooling and global heating?
Another example illustrates the principle that so often it is the mix of skills and disciplines that is needed, especially in a world where “pure research’ often needs to turn commercial to make a difference. Exergyn’s system is at first sight a relatively simple example of a control system. Its lead inventor, Dublin-based Dr Kevin O’Toole, calls himself “at heart a technology geek who likes to understand how things work”.1 He began with the idea of using a smart material to generate power from low-grade waste heat (<120°C) with zero pollution. The early stages of development were focused on this. Then he realised that there was a still smarter idea to make a difference to global warming.
It arose as a puzzle and uncomfortable feeling (‘something better?’), which ‘cross-pollinated serendipitously’ in discussions with a Dr. Barry Cullen, a colleague in the energy space. The idea was a cooling system using nitinol, a shape memory alloy (SMA, a Nickel-Titanium alloy), an elastic metal that expands and contracts, recovering its form. Many things do this — in different ways — like springs, balloons, muscle cells with different levels of sophistication. The atomic structure of nitinol gives the “shape Memory Effect”. It is composed of rhombuses that are mirror images of each other, which makes Exergyn unique. Nitinol can be compressed and released to produce and capture heat as a heat exchange unit. A solid-state stack in a reciprocating engine sits between two fluid circuits, e.g. water. Four units are successively compressed and released as a reciprocating engine like a four-valve car engine. As two are being compressed, two are decompressing to effect the heat exchange, at industrial scale.
It can maintain air-conditioning for a block of apartments or be used in highly intensive applications like electric car battery cooling. When each unit expands, it sucks heat out of the space to be cooled and as it is compressed the heat is expressed into the outer world, as is the case in a refrigerator. But the big difference is that there are virtually no moving parts, the amount of energy used compared with conventional refrigerator is reduced 60%, and the highly potent greenhouse gases found in ordinary refrigerators disappear (apart from the electrical input).
At first sight, a memory system seems similar to the stabilising brought about by a cybernetic negative feedback control system, but of course it’s quite different. It depends on its physical (atomic) structure not on an information feedback. The most fascinating cybernetic aspect of the process is how the Exergyn team and Dr O’Toole switched direction and navigated the development process. Start-ups are a prime area for the application of cybernetics. They help with the processes of identification, purpose, dealing with problems (negative feedback) and progressive optimisation. It’s the design process rather than the material itself which is the core subject of cybernetics here.
Dr O’Toole also describes real difficulties, running out of cash and having to bring the team along, how investors required education, handling risk. What kept him going was “a vision of the technology rolling out and gaining acceptance in the industry”, a classic cybernetic tool. (There are also interesting design aspects to the business, like a case study of its branding by agency Inception.2) Its design concept for the logo is based on the mirror image rhombuses that makes Exergyn unique in colours thatrepresent the environment and water.
And it’s a fine example of a response to a world crisis that is a win-win-win for technologists, commercial investment, society and nature. O’Toole argues the need to present the commercial opportunity over the “do-gooder” requirement to win investment, but the deeper purpose is clearly apparent.
1 Sourced from internet records, The Economist, I-Form, and Authority Magazine, a channel on Medium.
2 https://www.inception.ie/site/portfolio/exergynbranding/. https://www.inception.ie/site/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Exergyn-Media-1.mp4?_=1
Another example is permafrost. This is discussed in more detail elsewhere on the site, but in short, the basic circular causality of warming producing warming through the melting of the snow and ice can be described by basic physics. But the response of organisms, from the most simple to mammals, and thereby the generation of ecosystems that further moderate this process in various ways still being examined requires a different analysis. Circular causality functions at the physical level but the feedback cycle based on reading and responding to changes in the environmental context belongs to the living world and is fundamentally cybernetic. This is not some form of scientific imperialism — ecology, botany, zoology and other sciences or bring expertise. The essential point is the interdisciplinary nature of understanding such complex or wicked problems. In this cybernetics also brings an important analytical set of tools.
These are of particular importance when it comes to the human factor, both how humans are actually acting and responding and how this might be modified, where advanced skills are available.
Physics and chemistry, material sciences
The Chinese had a reference to 10,000 things to denote a large number and Indian traditions had a similar one with “thousand”, as in the thousand petalled lotus. There are “10 thousand” necessary uses for the sciences of the physical world and few that cybernetics cannot contribute to.
Cybernetics dances with all these, and more:
- Physical and chemical Organization — laws of physics, chemistry
- Engineering applications, from traditional machines to silicon chips
- Catalysis and Autocatalysis
- Organic products, eg protein.
- Physico-chemical self-organization
- Anatomy and the physiome as physical systems
And world issues like: Global warming and its effects (see permafrost above), clean water, irrigation systems, plastic eradication, nett-zero heating, refrigeration, and air conditioning (see Exergyn above), and alternative ecological fibral materials (see our Honorary Fellow, Dr Carmen Hijosa).