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May 06 2010

Critical Mass of crazy

In physics, there is a term called ‘critical mass’ which describes the minimum possible amount of fissile material required to generate a self-powered nuclear chain reaction. If there is less than this critical mass available for the reaction, it will not happen.

This concept can be applied sociologically, partially to explain why the forces of stupid seem to be less prevalent here in Canada than we see in the States. The United States of America (population 307 million as of June, 2009) is nearly ten times larger than Canada (population 33.3 million). That means that for every person and personality you see here in Canada there are, demographically speaking, around 10 more like that in the USA. 75% of Canadians live along a long (nearly 9,000 km) strip of land, with cities spread out over many miles. As a result of this confluence of geography and population size, Canadians are relatively more spread out than our southern neighbours.

So when someone has a crazy idea (like immigrants are putting salsa in the water supply, or that the government is stealing their dreams), it’s much harder for them to find an audience for that idea in Canada. There’s simply fewer people around, and fewer still that are willing to listen. As a result, the ideas that take root in Canada will tend to be closer to the mainstream, simply due to the fact that the most bizarre ones won’t go very far.

However, in the United States, there are 10 times as many people around to hear the weirdo ideas. You are, therefore, 10 times more likely to have someone listen to and believe your theory that dental fillings are how secret Illuminati wizards are polluting your semen with atheism. You’re 10 times more likely to have the opportunity to gather like-minded people under your banner of insanity. Once an idea is represented by a group, it gathers credibility – much like a supercritical nuclear reaction increases in energy as it goes along. Soon, you’ve got a political lobby demanding sperm screening of all political candidates who have ever had a cavity.

There needs to be a sufficient number of people in relatively easy contact with each other to allow a dumb idea to gain enough speed to be self-fueled. Just like with a nuclear reaction, a bad idea (or even a good idea that’s before its time) will peter out when it lacks the numbers required to sustain it. The disparity we can see between the market for craziness, the government distrust and splinter groups we see in the USA may at least partially explained by this critical mass issue.

Of course you might be thinking “why doesn’t India or China have 30 times the crazy of Canada?” India is actually closer to ancient Greece – a collection of non-federated city-states that is nominally under the control of a centralized government. China on the other hand is completely under the control of its centralized government. If you aren’t allowed to speak your crazy ideas for fear of having the Glorious People’s Secret Police come knocking at your door, you’re probably not going to be forming any political parties or lobbies. The USA and Canada are nation-states with closely-held free speech laws.

Free speech is clearly one o’ them double-edged swords.

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