Brief Introduction To Biophysical Principles

All physical and biophysical principles function simultaneously not only with an underpinning of commonalities but also with the novelty of varying emphasis at different times, scales, and places. The functionality of these principles is archived in the repetitive cycles of cause and effect, as seen through all the reaches and scales of time, space, and the events entrained in them. This seeming duality gives rise to both the generic and unique attributes of every system, whether purely physical or biophysical. In a sense, these principles act like a cosmic spider web, with ever-shifting points of contact and emphasis, all being intrinsically equal and complementary with one another within the context of systems supporting systems supporting systems supporting systems ad infinitum, from the sub-atomic to the galactic.

Although I have done our best to present the principles in a logical order, it is difficult to be definitive because each principle forms an interactive strand in the multi-dimensional web of energy interchange that constitutes the universe and our world within it. Moreover, I see the possibility of a different, yet “valid” order each time I read them, and each arrangement seems logical because each principle affects all principles. Therefore, every arrangement is equally correct in a functional sense—much like the a waterbed in that you cannot touch any part of it without affecting the whole of it—the overarching “Waterbed Principle,” of which the biophysical principles are constituents:

1. Everything in the universe is a relationship supporting relationships, thus precluding the existence of an independent variable, absolute freedom, or a constant value beyond the number one (the universal common denominator); everything else is an additive of one.

2. All relationships are productive, because all relationships produce an outcome.

3. The only true investment of energy on Earth is solar energy from sunlight; everything else is a reinvestment of existing energy—including all market dynamics, such as the energy that drives the stock market.

4. All systems are defined by their function—not their pieces in isolation of one another.

5. All relationships result in a transfer of energy, and everything we humans ever do is a manipulation of energy.

6. All relationships are self-reinforcing feedback loops; whether feedback loops are “positive” or “negative” depends on whether or not they satisfy a human desire.

7. All relationships—usually experienced in the form of decisions and actions—have one or more tradeoffs.

8. Change is a constant process, which, by definition, can produce only novel outcomes.

9. All relationships are irreversible because all outcomes are novel, and we cannot go back in time to recapture a past outcome.

10. All systems are based on composition, structure, and function, where composition determines structure, and structure allows function.

11. All systems have cumulative effects, which compound unnoticed through time until a visible threshold is cross, making the cumulative outcome apparent.

12. All systems are open to cosmic energy; consequently, closed-loop of anything (be it an economic system or technology) is a physical impossibility because, while energy can be constrained, it cannot be contained.

13. All systems function in curvilinear cycles, like a coiled spring wherein each cycle approximates—but only approximate—its neighbor through the ever-changing process of novel outcomes, but each cycle is simultaneously linear because the coils never touch.

14. Systemic change is based on self-organized criticality, which simply means that an internal shift in one or more components of the system ultimately caused a dramatic shift of systemic proportions.

15. Dynamic disequilibrium rules all systems, which negates the romantic notion of the “balance of nature.”

Every one of the fifteen principles came into being with the birth of the cosmos. If the first two physical things were chemicals, then the initial relationship (principle 1) between those two chemicals produced the initial chemical reaction (principle 2), which in turn produced something else (principle 4). This means that a third thing—a chemical compound—arose out of the initial chemical reaction (principles 6, 9, and 10). That chemical compound simultaneously created the possibility of new relationships and a new definition of relationship (principle 5). Thus, the result of the interaction between the two chemicals—the compound—becomes an integral part of the definition of each parent chemical. At some point, in the classic concept of cause and effect, the growth of possible

physical-chemical relationships becomes exponential, which means that one thing’s hidden potential to become something else takes it beyond what it seems to be (principles 8 and 12).

At this juncture, the chemical composition or makeup of a compound (such as carbon dioxide) determines its structure, which in turn determines how it functions (principles 9 and 10). Because the composition of something refers to the way in which its various parts are put together and arranged, a change in the composition simultaneously alters both its structure and its function (principle 11). Once the composition is in place, however, the structure and function are set—unless, of course, the composition changes, at which time both the structure and function are altered accordingly (principles 5, 7, and 14). This dynamic is an ongoing process of every system (principles 13 and 15).

The malleability of an object’s composition and the subsequent fixity of its structure and function move inevitably toward a critical state in which a minor event sooner or later leads to a catastrophic event, one that alters the system in some dramatic way, such as the birth of a star and its ultimate demise (principle 10).1 In this sense, all systems are dissipative structures in that energy is built up through time only to be released gradually or in a major event of some kind, such as a fire, flood, or landslide, in some scale, ranging from a freshet in a stream to the eruption of a volcano, after which energy begins building again toward the next release of pent-up energy somewhere in time (principles 1, 2, and 4 through 14).

Such disturbances, as ecologists think of these events, can be long term and chronic, such as large movements of soil that take place over hundreds of years (termed an earth flow), or acute, such as the crescendo of a volcanic eruption that sends a pyroclastic flow speeding down its side. (A pyroclastic flow is a turbulent mixture of hot gas and fragments of rock, such as pumice, that is violently ejected from a fissure and moves with great speed down the side of a volcano. Pyroclastic is Greek for “fire-broken.”)

As with the rest cosmos, these principles were primarily physical in nature when planet Earth was young because one essential ingredient for most life was missing—oxygen. Nevertheless, Earth, like the rest of the universe, was physically bound to the functional integrity of these fifteen principles. And since we humans are an inseparable part of Earth’s biophysical systems, we ignore these principles at our peril, which is clearly evident worldwide—from air pollution; to global warming; to deforesting the tropics; to overfishing the oceans; to acidification of the oceans; to massive, marine oil spills, all of which negatively affect every living thing on our home planet.

To achieve the level of consciousness and the balance of energy necessary to maintain the sustainability of ecosystems, we must focus our questions—social and scientific—toward understanding the biophysical principles inherent in the governance of those systems and our place within that governance. Then, with humility, we must develop the moral courage and political will to direct our personal and collective energy toward living within the constraints defined by those principles—not by our economic/political ambitions. The decision we make today and the subsequent consequences of the actions we take based on those decisions become the legacy we leave to all generations unto evermore.2


1.Per Bak. and Kan Chen. Self-organizing Criticality. Scientific American, January (1991):46-53.

2.The foregoing discussion is largely excerpted from: Chris Maser. Social-Environmental Planning: The Design Interface Between Everyforest and Everycity. 2009. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 321 pp.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2011. All rights reserved.