an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the second law of thermodynamics – some preliminary thoughts

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the essential battle – to be more effectively productive than consumptive

Early on in his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker makes much of the second law of thermodynamics, aka the law of entropy, as something way more than an ordinary law of physics, citing others who’ve claimed the same thing, including Arthur Eddington, C P Snow and Peter Atkins. Soaring rhetoric about pinnacles and ‘without which nought’ tend to be employed, tempting dilettantes come moi to wonder, if it’s so effing over-arching why is it only the second law?

So the first law of T is about conservation of energy, the third is about the impossibility of dropping to absolute zero. Maybe it’s just prosaically about chronology?

Maybe. The first law, first made specific by Rudolf Clausius in 1850 but much refined since, essentially states that in a closed system the internal energy is equal to the amount of heat applied minus the work done on the system’s external environment. Basically, you can’t get more out of the system than you put into it. The second law also involves many contributors, including Sadi Carnot in 1824, and Clausius again in 1850. Pinker attributes its largely up-to-date statistical iteration to the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, whose work on the law dates to the 1860s and 70s. The third law, which also employs the concept of entropy, wasn’t formulated until the early twentieth century, firstly by the chemist Walter Nernst. So maybe it’s a chronological thing, but it certainly seems uncertain.

Anyway, the mystery attached to its title is just the start for the second law. It’s been formulated in multiple ways by scientists and popularisers. It’s mystical, hard-nosed, ineluctable, basic, obvious, magnificent and, according to Eddington, supreme. Entropy can be applied usefully to everything, from the universe to a cup of coffee and its consumer. The first point to always keep in mind – and for me that’s not easy – is that, left to itself, any system, such as those just mentioned, drifts inexorably from low to high entropy. To put it more succinctly, beds don’t make themselves. This obvious point may seem depressing, and often is, but it opens up the intriguing possibility that, if not left to itself, a bed can be made in many mysterious and inspiring ways. Energy into the system, systematically directed, creates art and science, life and intelligence, natural and synthetic. Natural selection from random variation, as we have so intelligently discovered, provides just such a system, through solar energy complexly distributed.

Of course, before we get too excited, there are problems. Although solar energy is the ultimate ‘without which nought’ of our systematic existence, or at least the emergence of it, we human energumens tamper with and lay waste to a great deal of other complex systems, including what we so euphemistically term ‘livestock’, in order to order ourselves in increasingly ordered, soi-disant civilised ways. From farming to fracking, from radioactive atolls to space debris, we leave many a wreck behind, and it’s still and may always be an open question whether we end up drowning in our own crap, species-wise. Animals are born exploiters, as Pinker writes, and maybe we should celebrate the fact that we’re better at it than other animals. Certainly we need to acknowledge it, with due deference and responsibility, while trying to temper the reckless excitement with which we often set out to do things – though they may be our best moments.

The point is that the principal human battle, the main game, is the battle against the inexorability of entropy, and that is why globalism, for as long as this globe alone is our home,  and humanism, as long as we see, as Darwin so clearly did, that our existence is due to, and dependent on, the evolutionary bush of living organisms on this planet, must be our highest priorities. William Faulkner famously expressed an expectation that humanity would prevail, but there’s nothing inevitable about it, and far from it, given the energy that needs to be constantly supplied to keep the consequences of the second law at bay. Perhaps the analogy of bacteria in a petri dish is just a little oversimplified – for a start, the nutrients in our particular petri dish have increased rather than diminished, thanks largely to human ingenuity. As a result, though the human population has increased seven-fold over the past 200 years, our per capita caloric intake has also increased. But of course there’s no guarantee that this will continue – and far from it.

One of the problems is being too smart for our own good, always arguably. In the early fifties, the Pacific, and Micronesia’s Marshall Islands in particular, was the scene of unprecedented damage and contamination as the USA tried to improve and perfect its new thermonuclear weaponry there. Not much concern was shown, of course, for the locals, not to mention the undersea life, at a time when the spectacular effects of the atom bombs on Japan had created both a global panic and a thrill about super-weaponry. The nuclear fusion weapons tested in that period dwarfed the Hiroshima bomb by many factors in terms of power and radioactive effects, and there was much misinformation even among experts about the extent of those effects. We were playing not just with fire, but with the most powerful and transformational energies in the universe, within a scant few decades of having discovered them. And today the USA, due to various accidents of history, has a nuclear arsenal of unfathomable destructive power, and a political system sorely in need of overhaul. With galloping developments in advanced AI, UAV technology and cyber hacking, it would be ridiculous to project complacent human triumphalism even a decade into the future, never mind into the era of terraforming other worlds.

Einstein famously said, at the dawn of the nuclear era, ‘everything has changed except our way of thinking’. Of course, ways of thinking are the most difficult things to change, and yet we have managed it to some extent. Even in the sixties, hawks in the US and other administration were talking up nuclear strikes, but apart from the buffoonish Trump and his counterpart Kim of North Korea – people we’re sadly obliged to take seriously – such talk is now largely redundant. After the horrors of two global conflicts, and through the growing realisation of our own destructive power, we’ve forced ourselves to think more globally and co-operatively. There’s actually no serious alternative. Having already radically altered the eco-system that has defied entropy for a blink of astronomical time, we’ll need all our co-operative energy to maintain the miracle that we’ve so recently learned so much about.


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2018 at 11:33 am

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