The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Waiting for the end of the world - Sugar and the Information Paradox.


Amelia the Amoeba is the protagonist of a chapter of my book " Before the Collapse " (Springer 2019). She is a Naegleria Fowleri who has the rather nasty habit of devouring human brains but, apart from this, she kindly lent herself to be an example in the book of the mechanisms of growth of living creatures. In the following post, Alessandro Chiometti again uses the example of single-celled creatures for an interesting discussion on how our brains are destroyed, not by a brain-eating amoeba, but by an excess of available information. As a post, goes a little against the principles of modern "throwaway information", in the sense that rather than starting with trying to impress you with some flashy information, it gives you a little lesson in chemistry. But if you feel like working on it just a little, you'll see that it is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. It suggests that too much information is doing to us the same thing that too much sugar could do to Amelia: it kills our brains. And you'll learn some chemistry, too! (UB)


We are used to call "sugar" a substance that is actually sucrose, one of the many existing "sugars" which are referred to in organic chemistry as carbohydrates. These compounds can be formed by a single molecule of any sugar (monosaccharides) or by several molecules (polysaccharides). Sucrose is a disaccharide formed by the union of the two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.

Although these two molecules have the same brute formula (C6H12O6), they are very different: glucose forms a six-atom ring while fructose forms a five-atom one but, above all, it is glucose that is the primary source of energy for every living being.

The role of glucose in the various aerobic and anaerobic cycles is fundamental for the production of the molecule that carries energy in the cell (ATP) and therefore for any cellular engine that requires energy. All the nutrients we consume throughout our lives are transformed by the body into glucose or stored as precursors of this in various forms (e.g. glycogen), ready for use.

In short, it can be said that glucose, and therefore its various precursors present in nature, is what allows “life” as we know it, in the sense of mobility, movement, sport, physical and intellectual effort, growth. It is certainly no coincidence that when you want to cultivate a bacterial culture with a suitable growth medium, the sugar supply must always be guaranteed. Like us, bacteria and other microorganisms grow and multiply thanks to glucose and therefore to sugar, of course.

However, have you ever noticed that we can keep sucrose for decades at room temperature and nothing happens to it?

It does not go bad, molds do not grow and, if greedy children or ants do not get their hands on it, even after years we find it exactly where we left it. And we can consume it safely without fear that some bacteria have grown in it.

And this, I guarantee, will happen for any sugar solution in which the sugar percentage is greater than 70% (for example, honey).

This is because microorganisms are very sensitive to what we call "osmotic pressure," and for this reason when they are in contact with pure sugar or salt crystals, or being in a too concentrated solution of these, they simply die. Instantly.

The cell of a microorganism is held together by the cell membrane which is called a "semipermeable membrane." It is a barrier that, when surrounded by a liquid phase, lets the solvent in but not the solutes dissolved in it. In an aqueous solution, in practice, water would pass through this membrane but not the salt dissolved in it.

But what happens when a semipermeable membrane separates two solutions of different solute concentrations? In this case, the solvent (water in general) passes through it from the most diluted part to the most concentrated part (thanks to the strength of the osmotic pressure). The result is that the two concentrations will be equalized until they are identical.

If we are talking about a closed system like a cell it is obvious that just so much water can be contained in it. The result of a strong osmotic pressure may be that the cell will explode from inside or, vice versa, it will dry out into a ghost of itself in the desperate attempt to dilute the external concentration. That will happen to all living cells.

I know that this was a very long introduction but, it was necessary to attempt the risky speculative reasoning on what is happening in our society as regards the possibility of accessing information.

The more time passes, the more it seems evident to me that the enormous amount of knowledge that we have at our disposal has in no way increased the knowledge of people or their ability to draw conclusions. following these. Rather the opposite.

Apart from the tsunami of fake news and orchestrated disinformation, all of us today have access to an amount of data and information that was unthinkable until a few decades ago. We can access the NASA website to find out how the permafrost melting is going in real time, we can access the John Hopkins University to know every death and every contagion due to Covid on planet earth, we can see the measures taken by each country and understand who has guessed or not the management of the pandemic, we can access the sites of evolutionary biology and know the progress of the sixth mass extinction.

Yet, there is something that's going wrong. Functional illiteracy is skyrocketing. We do not know how to distinguish between an astronomy site and an astrology site. In front of a three-variable graph, we have the same attitude of the Kubrik's apes in front of the black monolith.

Many people find it increasingly difficult to complete the reading of an article that fits on a single A4 page. (By the way, are you still reading?)

And many of them, even if they read it,  remain convinced that the article proves them right even if it says the opposite of what they claimed.

Where's the problem? Where is the osmotic paradox that can justify this?

I am trying to find a correlation here (warning: speculation on reasoning already speculative per se ) by comparing the information paradox with the "sugar paradox." It seems to me that the more information comes into contact with our minds, the more Holbachian common sense comes out of our heads. It should be obvious that common sense is not learned in books. Once, we had enough of it to distinguish a charlatan from a scientist. Not anymore.

Now, let me be clear: I know very well that there has never been a golden age of information, and that there have always been profiteers of people's good faith (the “Ponzi scheme” was born in 1918, not the day before yesterday). Nevertheless, perhaps we have been suffering positivist optimism. We thought that more information was always a good thing, just like a bacterium may think that the more sugar around, the better. We really hoped that having the possibility of accessing so much information, people would have been if not better, at least more aware.

But not for me, as George Gershwin said (*).

Patience, it will be for the next species.



(*) In the original version, Chiometti referred to the Italian singer Brunori Sas






  1. Interesting, thought-provoking article. A quick thought. I have to wonder if part of the problem is a general misunderstanding of how 'science' works and the increasing politicisation of science to control narratives (one of the primary concerns of the ruling class). I've come to understand that science is a human-constructed (and therefore quite fallible) endeavour that is rife with competing narratives, sometimes nasty debates, and loads of skepticism. The ruling class (which includes many 'scientists' as supportive bureaucrats) in its ongoing attempts to control narratives and people has turned 'science' (a complex and rarely non-controversial activity) into simplified and definitive support for their latest agendas. Issues of controversy and uncertainty that typify science are branded conspiracy theories or fake news with purveyors of such nonsense ostracised or cancelled. The masses are left confused and seeking to reduce the cognitive dissonance created when conflicting beliefs penetrate their thinking. And, yes, one can find ‘data/evidence’ to support almost any belief nowadays and with governments/corporations/etc. pushing the herd in specific directions (and those that tend to ignore and or dismiss the uncertainty and fallibility of ‘science), it’s no wonder people seem to be increasingly ‘illiterate’: it’s what the ruling class seems to want.

    1. Ah, well, I was thinking along very similar lines....

  2. sounds like Norbert Weiner's Paradox.
    "as the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.”

  3. "I have to wonder if part of the problem is a general misunderstanding of how 'science' works" - Steve Bull

    There was a well published experiment by the BBC when same exact TV material has been aired at the same time with a very minor tweak of few words between two regions within the UK.

    That minor tweak has been enough to cause hugely polarised feedback coming back from the public of each region, strongly contrasting each other.

    "What a parrot whose mind is in his ears" - 1930s' poet Shawqi describing the public, before the Internet age.

    Watch here Israeli female soldiers 'communicate' beautifully with their Arab peers on the other side of the front - reminding of the infamous WW I football across trenches;

    It appears humans exchange Information, including what today we call Science, selectively, parametrised by how much Energy resources are available in-hand to behave a predator or friend.

    Few decades ago, the media has been airing 24/7 scenes of soldiers breaking the arm of a demonstrating child, in contrast.

    Then, more Energy resources were still in the ground of the Middle East and worldwide than today - one can easily conclude.

    Peace by Physics is an immanent option to take by humans when they realise there will be no Energy resources enough for life if they burn the little Energy left playing more 'BBC' Information and 'Science' Games.

    Humans turn themselves 'glucose or fructose' at will, driven by Physics.

    Physics over time teach them through trauma - Wisdom and Ethics.

    One hopes the wisdom and ethics humans have got from burning all fossil fuels in the 300 years - are proportionate to what they've burned - for good - enough to propelling them in the journey of the future - less primitive - without fossil fuels.


  4. Signore Chiometti is right. In my short essay "Television magic" (available only in Serbian), I tried to answer the question why in human brain, when watching TV, within about thirty seconds, the brain-waves switched from predominantly beta waves, indicating alert and conscious attention, to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention: the state of aimless fantasy and daydreaming below the threshold of consciousness, as found in Herbert Krugmans research from November 1969.

    My hypothesis is that this effect is due to the way human brain responds to what I call "information torrents". When exposed to high levels of information human brain turns off automatically because the computational power, the processing power of the brain is limited. The brain is not designed to gather and process the high levels of information in the form that industrial civilization offers. When watching TV, in several minutes you can experience the Himalayas peaks and deep ocean trenches. The brain is simply not designed for such experiences. The brain is evolutionary designed to gather and process information at walking speed. Even riding a horse or bicycle is too high speed for brain's processing power.

    Exposure to information torrents has devastating effect on human mind, it destroys both rational and moral capacity of human being. Industrial society is dystopia.

    1. I largely agree with what you say, but it has been shown that people actually adapt to the speed at which information is presented to a degree. I have no idea how quickly this happens or if it relates to intelligence or some other quality we try to measure, but I remember learning about this in the late 1990s.

  5. Just as a note, fructose can form 5 and 6-membered rings. In pure form the 6-membered ring dominates. You may also wish to watch this YouTube video, which deals with an AI that is actually sculpting information for people since humans lack the ability to distinguish what is true and false.

  6. One should also keep in mind that information offered is not only abundant but excessive in quantity and manipulated by the powerful interests. Individual is lost in this informational high level noise and relevant information is masked by that noise.

  7. Early on in the education process individuals are given the information that is deemed to be the information they need regardless of how accurate, truthful, relevant, it is. They are told to memorize this information then tested at intervals to make sure they have internalized that information.

    In other words they are told what to think. This process goes on for years during the most impressionable time in their lives. We gage an individuals quality and worth by how long and how much they have been told to think usually illustrated by the letters included after their name.

    Some of us, a small minority I believe, reject this concept early on and either become a problem (according to the system) or figure out howto navagate around this dynamic and still retain some sanity and autonomy.

    Most people simply want to be told what to think and given an option will choose what others in their circle of peers are thinking rather than seek out the information they would need to form their own opinion. First of all that has never been taught to them and second it represents a seemingly huge amount of effort.

    Information overload, as pointed out in the article is absolute for the average person but for an autodidact or a good scientist it is pretty easy, or at least reasonably possible to acquire the information needed to gain a solid degree of understanding.

    People often confuse science and technology. Science is a process. The process of seeking information, compiling it and constantly adjusting understanding it. Technology is something to be attained. I't like being told what to think. There is no process involved and all it takes to attain is money.

  8. The image with sugar is relevant but Alessandro Chiometti miss the essential thing: Entropy. As entropy increases the information gets lost. This what the media are doing: they create entropy. In Simulacra and simulation Baudrillard commented the sentence "medium is the message" from MacLuhan and concluded that information dissolves in the process of communication.
    I would add that the pedagogue know that the art of teaching is repetition. But the information we get one day will erase the information of the last day and will be erased the next day by another information. In this context, only strong analytical minds who are able to "draw the lines" and see repetitions in much different situations have a chance to catch the meaning of information. Unfortunately, they are not so many.

  9. Too much Sugar === Too much information?

    All the comments have some relevance. We have a low bit rate uptake for learning new stuff.

    Evolved conciousness has feelings about the aspects which are relevant to personal and tribal survival and well-being, which includes future access to resources. Feelings have both valance - good / bad, and intensity. The uncomfortable feelings about being a dependent plaything of evolution and entropy, should help guide wiser long term resource use strategy.

    So we filter good and bad news according to feelings with evolutionary relevance.
    Evolution and Science, Entropy put a damper on our feelings of reproductive exuberance.
    Life potential prefers having it all now, before it all goes phut, for we are mortal, and don't like to be reminded of this.

    Also the foreign tribes and nations with whom we have no trust agreements about commons management, have instincts just like ours regarding going forth, stake out and protect territory and multiply.
    Evolution reproduction potential doesn't have a reliable off switch, because that is a liability in competition with those species and groups that already lost theirs. National governments fear of other national governments, don't do well on mutual restraint.

  10. cf. Neil Postman, "Informing ourselves to death" (1990).