Dr. Adrian Bejan, Professor at Duke University

Adrian Bejan is a Romanian-American professor who has made contributions to modern thermodynamics and developed the physics of evolution. In Wikipedia, he is presented as a Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University and author of the 2016 book “The Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything”. Last year in Berlin, the Humboldt Foundation awarded Prof. Bejan the Humboldt Research Award for lifetime achievement. He was cited “for his pioneering contributions to modern thermodynamics and “Constructal Law” – a law of physics that predicts natural design and its evolution in biology, geophysics, climate change, technology. 

Irina VanPatten: Tell us a little bit of your background and what made you interested in writing?
Adrian Bejan: I was born in 1948 in Galați, that’s the year when Red Army installed the unelected government of Romania and passports were banned, so no one was allowed to leave the country. The history of the region is very well known. Those who tried to leave Romania had to cross two frontiers: one from Romania to Yugoslavia and then trying to cross the second one in Italy, was taking a big chance of being shot or arrested twice and sent back to the communist regime as a prisoner. 

One day, my father disappeared, then the same happened to my mother. These were not simple arrests. These were disappearances in the middle of the night or in the broad daylight, as a form of organized terror to send a message to the population, that people who do not follow the straight line are in danger. Seeing my father and mother brutalized in front of my eyes, it became obvious to me, when I was growing up, that there has to be another way or another place for me. 

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I.V: What prompted you to write your book Freedom and Evolution?

A.B: It goes back to the beginning. I was provoked by the circumstances in which I grew up, and the injustice that my parents went through. To this day, I feel that I have something to prove. I was not trying to settle scores, but I was always trying to do better. Drawing from my basketball experience, we were taught to come up with better ideas on the court all the time. Any good coach would tell you that you are in charge and free to create your next move, because the coach is not playing the game for you. That’s evolution. 

I.V: What is your book about? What are you trying to tell us and how can we use it to apply to our daily lives?

A.B: The title of the book is “Freedom and Evolution”, but the secondary title is: “Hierarchy in Nature, Society and Science”. My view of it is that with the evolution of the river and the evolution of the game of basketball, it has to do with evolution of society too, because I was questioning the political regime and the restriction of movement of people out of my country. 

I just gave two lectures about my book in Bangkok. At these lectures people asked me: “What is the meaning of Freedom and Evolution?” And I told them: “If you have difficulty imagining the physical meaning of these words, imagine yourself in a position where you don’t have freedom and you don’t have evolution. How would you feel? Well, you’d feel rather shitty, like Adrian, who was growing up under the dictatorship.” 

Consider this comparison: Silicon Valley is creating the science, which is highly innovative, but this innovative spirit cannot be transplanted to China, where you can get in trouble if you question your boss. 

I.V: How do you think your book is going to reach the regular readers who don’t know about all this high concept of Freedom and Evolution? Why would a regular farmer or a factory worker care about these concepts? What I, personally, find frustrating nowadays is that some people don’t understand what that means to lose your Freedom, because they’ve been used to this for so long, they take it for granted.

A.B: Very good point. In the end it’s always: what does this mean to me? My book is not about politics. It is about the physics, the scientific basis of freedom. In the book I show from one chapter to the next that with the greater freedom or with greater ability to evolve comes a better performance. For example, how the water flows through a pipe or how the vehicle moves on the road, finding or adjusting the course or the shape of the roots is the secret to getting there faster, or more cheaply, or burning less fuel, so freedom is good for performance. 

Pratt School of Engineering, professor Adrian Bejan

Then in another chapter I show that freedom is good for beauty, for example, for artists. When the artists have their freedom to paint what they want, and have the tools that they need, the paper, the right pencil, the right paint brush and the money to buy them, that’s freedom again. Or, if the people around you who look at your art have no idea of what that means, the freedom allows you to get on the train and go to Paris and paint there. If you look at the names in the history books of literature, music, arts and science, those are individuals who happened to be free, or lived in places that were freer, wealthier, and more peaceful. It’s easier to create in peace.

My book should be read by everybody, because my book is really not for geeks. It’s for people who like having fun with ideas. I don’t care what diploma the reader has or if they don’t have a diploma at all. My book is for high school students, who are making decisions about where to go to college, or whether to go to college at all. It’s about being wise in life the way I was as a little kid.

I.V: What you’re talking about is more of freedom of people versus government, right? How about the concept of people’s freedoms horizontally? For example, the very strange concept that I hear a lot in the U.S. for example, the concept if we give more rights to someone else, it takes away our rights. For example, if gay couples have more freedoms, than the straight couples have less freedom, or if we restrict women’s rights, the men have more freedom. I find it very fascinating because taking away somebody else’s freedom doesn’t give more freedom for you. 

A.B: Freedom is not a currency, a zero sum or a calculation. Freedom is the ability of something that moves and flows to change its course, meaning to be different tomorrow than right now. The ability to change is present in the life and movement of your neighbors. It is very likely that you in your own movement benefit from the same ability to change. This is the human society. Human society is about individuals who are in fact organized and depending on one another, including on neighbors, so the freedom of one is the freedom of everybody in that particular organism. 

You cannot have less freedom if you give people more freedom. Freedom is not like a bag of beans where you give a half to John and another to George. And there is no such thing as enough freedom, or too much freedom. Freedom is like the flood, which is just waiting to flow over you. The only thing you need to do is to open the gates and let it flow in, and then open more gates. Freedom is good for flow, change, and life.

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