Commentary: Lessons From a Sandpile
David C. Grabbe
Given 02-Oct-21; 11 minutes
As kids, most of us went to the beach, or maybe a local park if there wasn’t a beach nearby, and played in the sand. If we had the right tools, maybe we made elaborate castles, but just about everyone started out making sandpiles. We would pile the sand higher and higher, but there was always a limit to how tall the pile could get. There came a point when adding just a bit more sand would cause a whole side of the sandpile to collapse. And then we might start over, piling on more sand, thinking it would be different this time, but of course, the same thing would happen: Part of the sandpile would become unstable and slide away.
While the humble sandpile may seem like child’s play, it contains valuable lessons for we who believe in a Creator God, and even humanists are using the sandpile to try to model, and thus better understand, the instability that surrounds us all.
In 1987, three physicists conducted a study with sandpiles in their laboratory in New York. Among other things, they discovered that manually adding sand to a pile is laborious, so they ditched the physical sand, and instead, they wrote a computer model to simulate building a sandpile, one grain at a time. In their model—as in real life—eventually, one grain would cause an avalanche. Typically, the avalanche was small, but occasionally, the tension and other forces would build up, and a major section of the pile would slide away. This simulation was part of an investigation into what are called “non-equilibrium systems,” which just means arrangements of things that are unstable and likely to fall apart. These “non-equilibrium systems” are studied to try to predict things like earthquakes and other natural disasters, as well as major economic disruptions, or any field wherein a sudden change could bring about catastrophe.
Now, as even a child can tell us, sometimes the avalanches of sand were minor, yet others were major—there was no typical size. However, the researchers were able to gain some insight into the probably of a major sand event by changing their simulation to keep track of the relative steepness of areas of the sandpile as a gauge of instability.
So, imagine that you are looking down on a sandpile from above, right over its center. As the simulation added grains of digital sand, the researchers also had it start coloring areas of the sandpile according to steepness. Where the sandpile was relatively flat, and thus stable, the area was colored green. Where the sandpile began to get steep, the computer would color it red. So, as the digital sandpile began, it was all green, but as sand was added and the pile grew, areas of red—areas of instability—began to appear as the falling sand caused some areas to build up and become steeper. As more sand was added, the red spots started to connect and form a web of red around the stable areas.
What they observed, then, is that a single grain, falling on an unstable area could cause a domino-like action in a nearby red area. If the red areas were isolated from each other by the stable green, only small avalanches would occur. But when the trouble areas intersected, they turned into fingers of instability that reached from top to bottom, and the likelihood increased that a single grain of sand could set off a cataclysm. When the red areas—the unstable areas—became interconnected, the sandpile reached what is called a critical state, which is the point when there are conditions for significant change, and something as seemingly insignificant as a falling grain can set off a chain reaction.
This sandpile study was reported on and analyzed in a book titled, Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen, written by Mark Buchanan. Here is the summary of the book’s first chapter:
There are many subtleties and twists in the story... but the basic message, roughly speaking, is simple: The peculiar and exceptionally unstable organization of the critical state does indeed seem to be ubiquitous in our world. Researchers in the past few years have found its mathematical fingerprints in the workings of all the upheavals I’ve mentioned so far [earthquakes, other natural disasters; market crashes], as well as in the spreading of epidemics, the flaring of traffic jams, the patterns by which instructions trickle down from managers to workers in the office, and in many other things.
At the heart of our story, then, lies the discovery that networks of things of all kinds—atoms, molecules, species, people, and even ideas—have a marked tendency to organize themselves along similar lines. On the basis of this insight, scientists are finally beginning to fathom what lies behind tumultuous events of all sorts, and to see patterns at work where they have never seen them before.
What he is saying is that scientists are recognizing the patterns of the sandpile and its instability in all sorts of applications, and that the longer things go on without a return to equilibrium, the greater the likelihood that even a tiny change can tip the balance into catastrophe, especially as systems become more interconnected.
As an example, consider World War I. There is not time to cover all of the areas of instability that had built up, but all it took was a single grain of sand in the form of a bullet to decimate Europe. That small bit of lead struck and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary. A network of interlocking alliances became the equivalent of fingers of instability in the sandpile study, and one country after another was pulled into the avalanche of war. When the dust had settled, that single bullet indirectly killed over 20 million combatants and civilians. In addition, various genocides were spawned by the tensions of the times. On top of that was the Spanish Flu, which appears to have had its genesis in the experimental vaccines given to soldiers, as Charles Whitaker mentioned a few months ago [“The Tyranny of the Majority: Satan's Tool to Destroy Nations”]. Altogether, the death toll of the Great War was around 100 million people worldwide. This testifies to what can happen when connected and unstable systems reach a critical state, just waiting for a triggering event.
Now, let’s contrast this with the wisdom of God’s system. Considering the modern wars involving the nations of Israel, God prohibits making alliances with other nations. This would keep His people from getting drawn into conflicts that are not their direct concern, and would insulate them from interconnected instability.
But more than that, consider God’s wisdom in the year of release. God built periodic resets into His system to keep areas of instability from building up and becoming interconnected, leading to catastrophe. Giving the land a Sabbath every seven years protects it from depletion and eventual barrenness. But man ignores this for the sake of production, leading to famine as the land dies.
God also requires the forgiveness of debt every seven years, which similarly forestalls economic catastrophe, both for families and for the nation. That keeps debt from building up, which always leads to economic instability, as we continue to witness in this nation. By forcing the release of debts, God takes the tension back out of the system.
And finally, by requiring the release of indentured servants after seven years, God forestalls the development of a permanent underclass, which is not only merciful to the servants, but it also keeps certain social tensions and resentments from building. This nation is still feeling the effects of practicing anti-biblical slavery instead of God’s system of indentured servitude that was voluntary and of limited duration.
There is one last thing to keep in mind as we consider the unstable sandpile of the world. It appears that, at times, God forces resets and releases when His people do not practice them. By the Jews’ reckoning, 2001 was a year of release. You might remember the financial turmoil in the aftermath of 9/11 as the civil year ended. Seven years later, 2008 was another catastrophic year as a tremendous amount of debt-based false-wealth was wiped off the books, and some economies are still damaged. Now, not much happened in 2015, so it does not appear that God does a reset each time. However, we are approaching the end of another seven years, and the financial system is groaning under various pressures, including insane and unsustainable levels of debt. Beyond this, the whole world is filled with red areas of instability that are interconnected, just waiting for a tiny, innocuous grain of sand, in whatever form it might take, to set off the cataclysm.