Why things break: 
When I was a teenager I had a summer job helping to build a radio telescope.  The ones we see these days are great metal parabolic reflectors sometimes working together in enormous arrays spread out in deserts.  Ours was simpler.  You probably don’t remember early TV antennae. They were shaped like the letter H.  Instead of a simple wire to pick up the signal, there were two parallel bars set apart at something like half the wavelength of the TV waves.  The electronics of the TV set detected the incoming wave by comparing the difference in the voltages of the two bars.  Later antennae had more bars and now the antenna on your cell phone has similar electrical properties imbedded in a little stub. 

Our antenna was crude but big.  There were two arrays of wires.  They covered a hillside that descended into a swamp.  Each array was a set of wires each stretched out maybe forty feet parallel with each other and about sixteen feet off the ground.  They were set apart from each other by about the wavelength of the radio waves from Jupiter we were seeking.  They were kept off the ground by 18 foot 2X4’s of pressure treated pine, stabilized by baling wire guyed to the ground with stakes.  It all required a lot of digging of post holes, placing of uprights, driving of stakes with a 16 pound sledge and stretching and twisting of wire under the summer Florida sun. 

Most members of the team were faculty and graduate students in the physics department, so our conversations at lunch break were a bit more rarified than you would have expected from the grunt nature of my part of the work.  I spent the summer sweating and thinking physics. 

One day we found we had a perfectly good 18 foot 2X4 and no use for it or easy way to get rid of it.  In those days the solution we arrived at was to toss it into the woods.  Someone did honors and while he was at it tried to toss it like a long skinny caber.  He did not make it go end over end, not even close, and when it hit the ground it broke.

I was stunned.  A 2X4 was my metaphor for indestructibility.  And these were the biggest ones I had ever seen.  I could see how the leverage of the forces conspired against the wood, but it was still amazing.  It seemed that bigger ought to mean stronger.  I thought about it a long time. 

Big things are fragile.  The Belleview Biltmore Hotel not far from here is a marvelous white building, near the biggest if not the biggest occupied wooden building in the world.  It puzzles me that it is not a bigger tourist destination.  It is a few stories high.  You can go higher with a limestone pyramid and higher still with a steel framed skyscraper with I-beam technology, but you are still no match for the summit of a mountain miles high.  A mountain is a solid rock, but even there you face limits.  Build a rock a few thousand miles through and unless you exclude radioactive isotopes the monster will eventually develop more heat than it can radiate and you will have volcanoes and earthquakes.  Make it of pure carbon with no radioactive isotopes and your diamond can be made bigger still but as its weight accumulates it must get ever harder to resist compression.  As it gets harder it transmits sound faster.  Sound cannot exceed the speed of light, so eventually the thing collapses.  There are paradoxes concerning black holes, but whatever you believe there is a maximum size to what you can make.  Eventually it will break. 

Not so many years ago the Chinese showed that they were able to intercept and break up a satellite.  The United States got huffy even though we had done the same thing ourselves.  The objection offered was that the more bits of stuff that are in orbit, the sooner the day when all the bits begin to ram each other and release more pieces until one night we have this beautiful display satellite bits falling from the night sky, after which it will be impossible to maintain a satellite because of the bombardment by the remaining pieces.  The Chinese had committed cosmic littering.  When they calculated how far along China had pushed us toward critical mass they found out that we were already past critical mass.  Oh well.  Eventually it must happen.  Enjoy your cell phones, your global positioning and your internet while you have them.  There is not much point in spending money on manned space voyages for now.  Space is going to be denied us.  We broke it.

Our security arrangements are so complex that nobody can keep track of them.  A few years ago somebody noticed that every long distance phone call made in the United States was being routed through a single building in Texas that belonged to a foreign country.  Oops. 

The internet was originally a military project.  It is heavily redundant and serves as a sort of Q ship for rascals to attack and try to bring down.  So far it has survived all such tests.  But there is a limit to just how big it can get with any given technology.

The global economy, advertised as the safest riches economic arrangement we could possibly have has proved itself unstable.  Experts so intelligent they could have successfully run little general stores found that the management tools at hand simply were not sufficient to the task.  It will be a long time before such tools exist and longer still until we understand them well enough to trust them, if ever.  Big things fail.  They get to big and they fall apart.

A mating pool is just like that.  If it is too big it collapses.  Just as the general principle “anything you need to survive will kill you in overdose,” the principle “anything that gets too big will fail” is true irrespective of the specific mechanism that brings it down. 

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