Saturday, May 12, 2012

Unclear on the physics

So I'm reading along in the May 21 issue of Poker Player newspaper. There's a column on page 14 by somebody named A.C. Clark. His author's blurb says that he is in charge of the publication's Northwest advertising sales, and he's a high school teacher. Why that qualifies him to write a column about poker escapes me. He's also not qualified to write a column about physics, but he sorta tries to do that.

He says that he has recently felt very inspired by reading a book with an unusual title:
212: The Extra Degree, by Sam Parker and Mac Anderson, intrigues the mind while making perfect sense. At the core is the notion that water is hot at 211 degrees. Then, at 212 degrees, it boils. With boiling water comes steam, and steam can power a locomotive. Think of that...what a statement. Just simply raising the temperature of water one extra degree means the difference between something that is very hot and something that generates enough force to power a machine. Point made: Small things can make major differences.
(Alterations in original.)

The former college physics major in me threw down the yellow penalty flag on this argument. It may make "perfect sense" to Mr. Clark, but it doesn't to anybody who understands classical physics.

It takes about 4.2 joules of energy to heat 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. So if you add 4.2 J of energy to 1 gram of water that is already at 99 C (I don't feel like doing the Fahrenheit conversion), you get 1 gram of water that is at 100 C, or 212 Fahrenheit. But you do not get steam.

To convert water in its liquid form to steam takes an enormous amount of energy, relative to the energy it takes to elevate its temperature. In order to convert 1 gram of water at its boiling point into steam, you have to add another 2260 J, or more than 500 times the amount of energy that it took to elevate the water's temperature from 99 C to 100 C. This is called the "heat of vaporization." That energy does not further elevate the temperature of the water; it goes into overcoming the molecular bonds that attract the water molecules to each other.

This is not to say that small changes never make big differences. They can. A sniper making a minute adjustment in his scope can mean the difference between hitting and missing a target 800 yards away. A boulder precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff requires only a small push to send it tumbling down toward the road below. And so on. But you have to pick such examples carefully, because for the most part small changes make only small differences; effecting large differences requires large changes. In the water example, you not only have to elevate the temperature that last one degree to get it to its boiling point, but you then have to apply more than 500 times that much energy again to create steam. That is no trivial matter.

To bring the point back to poker, as Mr. Clark attempts to do, you can't triple your hourly earning rate by, say, learning how to pick up one additional kind of tell in opponents. You can only expect a change in earning that is probably too small to detect against the background noise of variance. Still, small changes are important, because most us get better, if at all, only one baby step at a time, and they add up. But it's unrealistic to expect vast differences in poker outcomes to arise from small differences in input.

I suppose, though, that I should thank Mr. Clark for saving me the trouble of reading the book. If the authors so fundamentally misunderstand the workings of the system that they used as both their title and central teaching point, I can feel quite confident that the book is not worth reading.


Gary said...

I'm not sure which is worse - if he truly didn't know that one degree of heat would power the Tennessee Valley, or if he assumed that the distinction between boiling water and steam would be lost on his readers. Either way, you're correct in your assessment - skip it.

Rich Mond said...

My neighbor wrote that book.

Rich Mond said...

That's our best friends brother. Funny.

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable post, Grump!


Apollo said...

Your comment about precariously balanced boulders reminded me of a recent Mythbusters I have an issue with.

They balanced a limo on the edge of a cliff and then added a bird to the hood to see if it'd tumble down. It didn't. It took 500lbs of birds before it tumbled. They concluded the myth was busted.

But wait... doesn't this just mean they did not have the limo precariously balanced at the outset? There really was a point where adding one more bird caused the limo to tumble. Myth confirmed! Mythbusters just incompetent.