Isn’t it familiar? We are slim and fit for the longest time, then suddenly, we are overweight and unfit. One cheat meal after another, too many crazy weekends, age, not enough exercise, FIFA, pretty soon, you are a big boy (or girl). You saw small changes here and there, but bloody hell, how did you get here?
Interestingly, there are parallels to this in the physical world in the behaviour of water when it is heated:
We imagine water as liquid, but it behaves quite differently depending on the amount of heat you add to or remove from it.
If you keep heating water ‘nothing’ will happen for a time until its temperature reaches a certain threshold. Once there, it changes dramatically into something quite different. V. S. Ramachandran describes this process wonderfully in his book The Tell-Tale Brain:
Imagine you have a block of ice in front of you and you are gradually warming it up: -25 degrees… -24 degrees… -23 degrees… Most of the time, heating the ice up by one more degree doesn’t have any interesting effect: all you have that you didn’t have a minute ago is a slightly warmer block of ice. But then you come to 0 degrees Celsius. As soon as you reach this critical temperature, you see an abrupt, dramatic change. The crystalline structure of the ice decoheres, and suddenly the water molecules start slipping and flowing around each other freely. Your frozen water has turned into liquid water, thanks to that one critical degree of heat energy. At that key point, incremental changes stopped having incremental effects, and precipitated a sudden qualitative change called a phase transition.
A similar thing happens when you heat the (now) liquid water up to 100 degrees Celsius. Do this and all of a sudden you have water vapour. But all the while, during the melting and the boiling phases (the red lines in our graph), the dramatic change imminent is never obvious.
There is a point to all this. I’ve thought a lot about these sorts of phase transitions lately, especially how this dynamic could be playing itself out in Nigeria. Consider this quote again:
Most of the time, heating the ice up by one more degree doesn’t have any interesting effect: all you have that you didn’t have a minute ago is a slightly warmer block of ice.
Things are weird these days, and I wonder: are we just getting a slightly crazier country or are more interesting things imminent?
When I talk to the older folk they seem in shock. They are genuinely surprised by how bad things are: corruption in the very highest levels of the judiciary and military; the erasure of any pretext of independence among institutions; the raging internal security quagmires; the diabolical state of the government’s fiscal position; the abominable plight of IDPs; the starvation in the North East; the increasingly obvious evidence of walking dead states; the plight of young people; even the scarcity of passport pages, visa stickers and other baffling trivialities.
But how can they be surprised? Didn’t they see it happen? Like water being heated, they couldn’t see things changing. (At this point, I cannot find any way to escape the metaphor of the boiling frog, but I’ll let you read up on that and relate it to this story. )
It is hard and unwise to make predictions. Are we at the cusp of a phase transition — when dramatic changes occur? Are we nearing boiling point? How much longer can we stay crazy normal? Have we unlooked the clear signs that all was not well for too long? Did we allow the various injustices perpetuated against minority groups in the country to simmer for too long? Did we refuse to reform the economy for too long? Have we let down young people for too long? Can we maintain the current sharing-the-money system which refuses to be reformed even in the face of a biting recession and fiscal squeeze? How long can we fight Boko Haram and the Niger Delta militants simultaneously? How will we pay back the debt we are about to borrow?
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway described a personal bankruptcy:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
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