The Corner

Viva La Hysteresis

From a reader:

While reading your comments about Julian Sanchez, it occurred to me

that the word to describe what you want for society is not “freezing”,

but rather “hystersis”:

(From Wikipedia)

Hysteresis is a property of systems (usually physical systems) that do

not instantly follow the forces applied to them, but react slowly, or

do not return completely to their original state: that is, systems

whose states depend on their immediate history. For instance, if you

push on a piece of putty it will assume a new shape, and when you

remove your hand it will not return to its original shape, or at least

not immediately and not entirely. The term derives from an ancient

Greek word õóôÝñçóéò, meaning ‘deficiency’. The term was coined by Sir

James Alfred Ewing.

Systems in hystersis are not immune to change, indeed change is part

of the definition. Rather, they are resistant to change, reacting

gradually to persistant outside stimuli.

Feel free to use this one… I’m sure at least Derb has heard of it before!

Update: Just to cover my bases before I get inundated by engineers who had better things to do than read the Corner over the weekend. From a reader:

Dear Jonah:

Your reader, and Wikipedia, have mangled the definition of hysteresis beyond recognition.  Imagine two air hockey pucks floating over their table.  Now put a rock on one of them, so that it rests on the table.  The acceleration of the floating puck is a nearly perfect reflection of the forces that have been applied to it; a slight force on it towards the north accelerates it in that direction.  The puck with the rock remains stationary in response to any force less than that needed to slide it, no matter how long the force is applied.  That stickiness is the essence of hysteresis, and while it undoubtedly pops up in the social sciences, in this case I think it only leads into an analogy swamp that will leave you covered in leeches if you ever make it out again.

I write this fully aware of how geeky this email must seem to a non-engineer.