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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

At Harvard and beyond, thermodynamics (yes, that’s right) can ease the political divide

You can’t change the world surrounded by people just like you. It’s against the laws of physics.

.Images from Adobe Stock; Globe staff illustration

When I arrived at Harvard University for graduate school last year, I hoped to gain an understanding of many new perspectives. As a naval submarine officer aspiring to the fields of military strategy and public policy, I believed that a sincere appreciation of competing viewpoints was essential to learning, and perhaps the only way forward to solve society’s most complex challenges.

Alas, discussing different worldviews in class has proven more difficult than I anticipated. While Harvard is more politically diverse than it appears in the news, I’ve found folks often refrain from expressing even a moderate political opinion for fear of being publicly lambasted by students with more extreme views.

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Amicable debates on campus have practically disappeared amid the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict. Some of my peers seem to have forgotten that the point of any protest or debate is to win support for their position — not denigrate everyone expressing a dissenting opinion. Calling someone a racist xenophobe or a socialist hack because they disagree with you might feel cathartic, but it usually hinders them from seeing things your way.

Observing such vitriol — on campus and across the country — reinforced my belief that easing America’s political divide will require millions of people to change their mind-sets about one another. It also got me thinking about, of all things, thermodynamics.

I studied physics in college and recently qualified as a naval nuclear engineering officer, so I often think in scientific terms. In this case, I thought about how the temperature of objects change. This led me to theorize that thermodynamic principles also apply to societal change.

It starts with an existing equation, known as Fourier’s law, which describes the rate of heat transfer in a given material: q= -k∇T

Here, “q” represents how rapidly heat is flowing in one place; “k” is the thermal conductivity, which is how easily the material changes temperature; and “∇T” refers to how far apart adjacent surfaces are in temperature. The terms on the right are multiplied, and the minus sign indicates heat flows from hot to cold.

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This means heat is transferred quicker when adjacent surfaces are further apart in temperature and when the materials involved are more “willing” to change temperature.

Applied to human interactions, the equation illustrates an important lesson for our divided times: Change happens faster when people who think differently interact more — and it’s especially helpful if those interactions are friendly. But if you’re the same “temperature” as everyone around you, nothing changes.

So goes the story of my life.

Raised in a conservative Christian household in Tennessee, I scarcely recall a dinner table conversation that wasn’t about religion or politics. By age 12, I was already a door-knocker for Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

I genuinely believed that Democrats were a threat to most things I valued, and I couldn’t imagine ever befriending one.

Then, at 18, I joined the Navy. Suddenly, I made friends based on proximity rather than mutual interest in sports and politics. One evening, over dinner with my best friend, Craig, I made an offhand joke about Democrats. Craig chuckled, leaned across the table, and whispered: “Hey man, I’m actually a Democrat.

Craig was a brilliant guy. We had the same job, education, and religion, yet were firmly seated on opposite sides of the political aisle. It made me wonder, If he’s a Democrat, what am I missing about why someone would vote that way?

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One friendly conversation changed my perception of half the country.

To put this back in thermodynamic terms, a transfer of values (q) occurred because we had different values to begin with (∇T≠0), and were empathetic toward each other’s viewpoints. In other words, our social conductivity (k) was huge.

That’s how change happens. Conversations with people you care about — not arguments with strangers on the internet (where social conductivity is essentially 0).

The vitriol in our society might be partly because Americans are surrounding themselves with others with similar views — both in where they live and with whom they spend time. A recent study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests that this kind of “sorting” causes folks’ beliefs to deepen “as a result of that social homogeneity.”

That’s a problem. Debates used to be more civilized partly because we used to know people who weren’t exactly the same as us. It let us appreciate our similarities and not just stereotype each other into oblivion.

With an election year upon us, it’s vital to have the courage and curiosity to befriend people outside your political or socioeconomic niche. Join a local rec sports league, book club, or church. Consider engaging with organizations such as Braver Angels, which facilitates conversations between Americans across the political spectrum, or the American Exchange Project, which helps high school students experience life in a community different from their own.

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And when you meet someone you disagree with, resist the urge to prove why they’re wrong and consider the social conductivity of your conversation. Be genuinely interested in people who think differently — not just in hunting for potential converts.

If any of us truly wants to change the world, we must first change people’s minds — which means we need to actually know and care about people who think radically differently than us.

But what if, in trying to change someone else’s mind, they change mine, too?

That might not be such a bad thing.


Justin Barnard is an active-duty US Navy submarine officer pursuing a master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.