Nucleation points

I’ve been thinking a lot about nucleation lately. It’s one of those things you have an intuitive sense about but don’t realize has a name. Once you do, and you have some understanding of how it works, you start to see it everywhere. Most people stop there, but I have a blog post to write every day so you get to hear about it too. Lucky you.

Photo by Anders Adermark
Photo by Anders Adermark.

Pour a glass of beer. Pour it down the side, pour it down the middle, it doesn’t matter. Assuming it’s clear enough, you’ll see tiny bubbles streaming up from the bottom. Ideally you’ll see strings of bubbles. You probably know that the bubbles are from CO2 being released from the beer. The process of that gas being released from the beer is called nucleation. A place that promotes the process is called a nucleation point. In the case of a beer glass the nucleation points are tiny imperfections along the bottom, horizontal surface. Sharp corners and lots of surface area, albeit at the microscopic scale, provide the escape path for the excess C02.

There are lots of other examples in the physical world. A dust particle provides a location for air supersaturated with water vapor to condense as it cools. A grain of sand gets lodged in the soft tissue of an oyster so it releases a substance that coats it to smooth the rough edges. Layer after layer adheres to itself and when it’s all done you have a pearl. Water pressure increases on the back of a dam and a small weak point finally gives way. That sets off a chain reaction which, at the microscopic level, is just the original failure repeated over and over. Nucleation is the process of something starting out one way and then turning into something else when conditions change. A nucleation point is a place where the conditions are favorable for that change to begin. For whatever reason, it takes less energy at that point to push the state of the system from one way of being organized to another.

I think this process has relevance in the social and political space as well. Let’s take Seth Godin’s “Guy #3” as an example. It’s a short video of what Godin calls a “dance tribe” forming at a music festival. He points out that the key person in the process is the third person to start dancing. The first guy sets it in motion. The second guy is another guy dancing. It could end right then and it’s just two goofballs dancing. The third guy is an inflection point. Now it’s a trend. People can choose to join in or not, but there’s no denying it’s a thing. Guys 1 – 3 form a nucleation point.

The Tunisian Revolution began with public reaction to the self-immolation of a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who was protesting that his merchandise had been confiscated. Unrest spread to other Arab countries. Then it hit Syria. And stopped. The conditions there were different. Its government was willing to crush the rebellion and had the means to do it. Not all that different from what happened in China in 1989.

It’s hard to form a social nucleation point on purpose. The folks who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wanted to be one but they couldn’t pull it off. Maybe they didn’t bring enough snacks, but it’s more the fact that there aren’t that many people willing to get that bent about federal land management issues. Is there anything more painful than a company clueless about social media trying to get something to go viral? At best it goes nowhere. At worst it goes viral when people subvert the intent to spread the exact opposite message from the one intended. Political campaigns are really good at that one.

I thought of all of this when the news came down that Justice Scalia had died. I think we’re at a nucleation point. It’s supposed to be the branch of government most removed from the day-to-day of politics but, ironically, it’s the one most likely to put people into the streets. Like a ruling? Have a rally! Hate a ruling? Have a rally!

I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I do know there’s a lot of potential instability in our social fabric and now we have an emotionally-charged point for that conflict to be focused.

It scares the hell out of me, frankly.