February 19, 2018

Up Front - The Publisher's Column

Going with the flow

Andrew P. Corty | 5/14/2012

Andy Corty
Andy Corty, Publisher

Since I typically cover Florida topics in this column, let me apologize now for wandering afield. At least the topic relates to business.

I was recently browsing at Barnes & Noble when a new book caught my eye. It's called "Design in Nature" by Adrian Bejan, distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. His co-author is a journalism professor, so non-scientists can follow the thread.

Bejan's book is about constructal law — the generation of design in nature as a physics phenomenon — which he terms a "unifying" theory for how the world works. He first proposed this theory some 15 years ago in academic circles, but this book describes it in layman's terms, allowing it to "flow out" to the general public.

I emphasize "flow" because that is the idea of constructal law. Simply put, Bejan says everything flows over time. This intelligent design generates shapes and structures to facilitate the flow toward its greatest efficiency.

Some examples might make this clear: Branches and tributaries are created in river basins that efficiently disperse water flowing downstream. Human bodies contain arteries and capillaries in patterns that distribute blood efficiently. Trees have root systems that efficiently gather water, and then trees grow a trunk, limbs, branches and leaves to disperse the water. Similarly, lightning bolts distribute electricity along the paths of least resistance. All of these natural systems have similar designs that rely on branches and sub-branches.

The key is to understand what's flowing. In our bodies, it's blood and oxygen. In rivers and trees, it's water. In lightning, it's electricity.

Scientists have always seen flows as heat disperses from hot areas to cooler ones or gases move automatically from areas of high pressure to areas of low. But Bejan argues that this "law" governs the flow of all human achievement. He sees evolution in these terms. As animals become faster and stronger, they are able to move greater weights at greater speeds. The faster or tougher animals survive. Bejan shows that our bodies have evolved to create faster runners, higher jumpers and greater athletes.

In academia, ideas are generated at select universities, then dispersed to the next tier of colleges, down to teachers and students. Our roadways are set up in similar branching patterns.

In business, we see this same system in our organization chart or our logistics plan. Just as water seeks the quickest path downhill, so does business follow a natural tendency to seek efficiency. Throughout history, business advances have led to greater productivity. Only with efficient use of resources can we make goods and services more affordable and thus sell more and sustain our businesses. Most of us have been trained to follow these precepts without understanding the general principle.

Bejan's theory says that all systems evolve following this constructal law — and that gives him hope for the future. Because mankind has a natural tendency toward the free flow of thoughts, he's betting on the spread of free trade, human rights, globalization and the rule of law.

Bejan's deceptively simple idea pulls philosophy and everyday life together. He provides examples from the tiniest organisms to the planet as a whole. Take a look for yourself.

Fitness update: In the past month, I enjoyed four long walks and eight gym workouts, but dropped only one lousy pound. Three possible theories ... either the electronic scale is broken, I'm adding muscle weight or I'm eating too much. I think it's muscle weight!

— Andy Corty

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