Physics/Biology/Chemistry equivalent to 'lock-in'?
December 3, 2021 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Is there a hard-science equivalent of the marketing/design concept of 'lock-in'?

I was talking about the chirality of DNA with my son, how it's basically arbitrary and could have been the other way, but at some point the current orientation won just because it did. (I think, don't really know any biochemistry, happy to be corrected)

I reached for other examples of this kind of lock-in like QWERTY and VHS/Betamax, and the question came up: is there a physical/chemical/biological term for this phenomenon where something could have been A or B and it's A just because at some point it was chosen randomly?

I've found 'path-dependency' but that's a bit looser, more of a suggestion than an actual lock-in, I feel.

(Looking for in-use scientific terms, please, not speculation or new coinages)
posted by signal to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know that this is quite what you're looking for, but your example reminds me of this quote by Richard Feynman:
There's a kind of saying that you don't understand its meaning, 'I don't believe it. It's too crazy. I'm not going to accept it.'… You'll have to accept it. It's the way nature works. If you want to know how nature works, we looked at it, carefully. Looking at it, that's the way it looks. You don't like it? Go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can't help it, okay? If I'm going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:50 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]


In evolutionary terms, I'm pretty sure I've heard the term 'lock in' used to describe what you're talking about. My spouse additionally suggests 'frozen'/'fossilized' and 'rachet' (although I think the latter is describing something different. I dunno, I never took evolutionary bio (although IAMABiologist).
posted by quaking fajita at 6:53 AM on December 3, 2021


Best answer: "Founder effect" was coined originally in the 1940s in terms of population genetics, but I hear it used very generally in my career as an academic scientist.

Lock-in can also happen through bottlenecks, and both of these have obvious applications to things like betamax.

From a more dynamical systems perspective, you've got stuff like entrainment which generally describes stuff doing similar stuff because it got swept up with the flow and is now moving along with the other stuff.

Finally there's "accident of history", which we also use in population biology when discussing these effect ("it could have plausibly gone another way, but it didn't) even though (I think?) it comes from the humanities. I think of it as a semi-formal term and can't easily find a good reference.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:55 AM on December 3, 2021


Ratchet is sometimes used in evolutionary biology to describe a process that can progress in one direction but then can't be undone. Here's an example I found from a quick search: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21698757/
posted by omnie at 7:28 AM on December 3, 2021


Isn’t the predominance of matter over antimatter in the universe this sort of thing? At the Big Bang, the matter generated was 50.0001% particles and 49.9999% antiparticles, just by chance. Everything mutually annihilated, and the remaining tiny fraction of matter is the universe around us.

(Ignorance warning: I’m a lawyer who vaguely remembers seeing this somewhere. Anyone who knows anything about cosmology should correct me.)
posted by LizardBreath at 9:13 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


The human eye, and that of all vertebrate eyes, come from a poorly "designed" common ancestor. Due to the way it evolved, the photoreceptor cells--the cells that turn light into neural signals--are more or less at the back of the retina. That means light has to go into your eye, then through a bunch of neural processing tissue, then turn into neural signals, then propagate back through the tissue above the photoreceptors as neural signals.

This is terribly inefficient! Squids, which evolved their eyes separately, have the photoreceptors at the top layer and the additional tissue as lower layers—a much more ideal approach.

However, the eye is so complicated and important that it's nearly impossible we or any vertebrate would evolve a squid-style eye, as it would almost certainly create a major loss of evolutionary fitness in the intermediate stages.
posted by Maecenas at 9:52 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]


There is a part played by the Arrow Of Time. Many equations in physics work backwards as well as forwards. Planetary orbits, for example. But some things don't. Heat will flow from a small hot mass to a large warm mass, but never from a large warm mass to a small hot mass. The technical discussions involve entropy.

So the answer to your question depends on the second law of thermodynamics, but the law is not an answer in itself.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:28 PM on December 3, 2021


Best answer: "The frozen accident theory of the Genetic Code was a proposal by Francis Crick that attempted to explain the universal nature of the Genetic Code . . ."
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:39 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


In physics, "convention" is the go-to word many use to explain the way we describe things. (e.g., the right hand rule, that the charge of an electron is negative.) But, that's the description, not the thing itself. Much of the observervable universe has been causally disconnected from us for most of its history. Propagating any arbitrary selection related to physical laws themselves that didn't happen in the first fraction of a second would be a real challenge.

"Hysteresis" might count. It takes less effort to magnetize a piece of iron in the same direction in which it was previously magnetized. The same material at the same temperature may be a solid or a liquid depending on what it was most recently.

Also, "Attractor" or in some contexts "pole of attraction" is used to describe a feature in chaotic or non-deterministic systems that eventually converge to one of many possible final states. If there's a punchy word for a system with more than one, I don't know it.
posted by eotvos at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2021


In physics, "convention" is the go-to word many use to explain the way we describe things. (e.g., the right hand rule, that the charge of an electron is negative.)

Similarly, math has "for historical reasons" to mean "yes, it's goofy, but that's the way it is" (as well as "by convention").
posted by hoyland at 4:54 PM on December 3, 2021


Best answer: symmetry breaking is a term for this in physics.
posted by panic at 7:02 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]


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