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Fire and the Pendulum

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A second remarkable characteristic of fire is its ephemeral nature. It is all process and not much substance. As Prigogine notes, the Newtonian sciences concentrated on substances and the ways in which forces operated on various substances. It became the science of being. Fire, by contrast, is a science of becoming. Science of being, notes Prigogine, focuses on the states of a system, whereas a science of becoming focused on temporal changes—such as the flickering of a flame. Fire demands a focus not on the outcomes of a production process, but on the nature of the process itself. As adults, we often focus on the outcomes of our children’s creative work. We admire their drawings of sunsets or battles among alien forces. Yet, our children tend to focus on the process of drawing. Their picture is not a static portrait. Rather it is story that is unweaving as the child places various lines on the page. In a similar manner we must often focus on the ways in which decisions are made in organizations, or the styles being used to manage employees, rather than focusing on the final decisions that are made or the relative success of the employee’s performance. Unfortunately, organizational processes (like fires) are elusive. They are hard to measure and even harder to document in terms of their ultimate impact on an organization.

Pendulums operate in a quite different manner from fire. First, the movement of a pendulum is quite predictable, whereas fire is very unpredictable. Once we know the initial parameters of the pendulum (length of stem, force being applied when pendulum is first pushed in a specific direction, and so forth) we can predict virtually everything of importance about this mechanistic and relatively closed system. Even without this initial information, we can readily predict the future movement of the pendulum after observing its trajectory once or twice.

A second important feature of the pendulum that makes it a favorite of many modern day scientists is its primary connection to one of the central building blocks of Newtonian science, namely, gravity. While fire seems to defy or at least be indifferent to gravity, flickering about as if it was without weight or form, our noble pendulum provides clear evidence that gravity is present and operating in a uniform and predictable manner on objects of substance. The pendulum is a tool that readily is transformed into a technology (for example, the Swiss watch), based on its dependability and conceptual accessibility. Fire, by contrast, can burn and rage uncontrolled. Once started, fires tend to take on a life of their own, seemingly defying the laws of entropy. Pendulums gradually lose energy and obey the laws of entropy. They will stop when they receive inadequate attention and never rage out of control.

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