an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘survival

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

reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 3

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my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

my new Dino-lite Basic, and some coriander roots, under low magnification

coriander roots

Having finished reading the big Darwin book I’m letting the influence of his character and world percolate through me, for example on my way home from work the other day, walking by the city river, I got the idea of taking pics of the bird species hanging by the riverside with my mobile phone – murray magpie, mallard, eurasian coot, black swan, masked lapwing, Australian pelican, Australian magpie, dusky moorhen, Australian white ibis and little pied cormorant. It really brightened my day, though the photos were pretty crappy, but I looked up the species when I got home (this is where the internet really comes into its own) and learned so much about habitats, male-female differences (the male murray magpie, or magpie-lark, has a white ‘eyebrow’ and a black throat) and such. Fun, and now I’m thinking about a good camera for bird-watching. I’ve also, on something of an impulse, bought a digital microscope, on its way from the USA. No idea as yet what to use it for.


At a recent meetup group I had a stimulating discussion, or rather listened in on one, about the end of humanity, the various possibilities for our impending doom, the principal one being artificial intelligence. The idea is that so many things that humans are engaged in are barely in control, and that the best option for the survival of a species isn’t constant change and development, but stasis, as with trilobites perhaps, or some types of bacteria.  Since this appears not to be an option for us, some think that we’re hurtling, with all our good intentions, not towards the singularity, but towards extinction. Anthropogenic global warming, mass species extinction, human-induced epidemics, out-of-control artificial intelligence, or a combination of these might cause this event, but it was the view of one conversationalist that AI would be our undoing, and possibly quite soon. It might lead to a gradual transhumanism, which we won’t recognise until it’s too late. One of the key figures mentioned in analysis of humanity’s possibly grim future was Nick Bostrum, whose name has come to my attention from time to time. Wikipedia tells me he’s a philosopher based at Oxford, and the director of its Future of Humanity Institute. So, a person and an institute I should be conversant with for my solutions ok blog. I should probably link to it there, and it’ll mean a lot more reading and study, groan. Meanwhile, one of the arguments I heard the other night was that this could explain why we don’t find complex life out there looking for us, with their super-clever antimatter rockets and super light-speed travel techniques, because complexity of that sort beats an inevitable path to destruction. Highly-developed life-forms like us and our superiors burn with brief intensity then snuff themselves out. For us, this might be sooner than later. Hmmmm. In any case, existential risk is something I’ll have to pay more attention to in the future, if we have one.


The other day I was listening to the amusing Answer Me This podcast when the name Marky Mark came up – apparently an actor, for he was chosen to star in Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones. Not being too keyed in on popular culture, I’d never heard of Marky Mark (or The Lovely Bones for that matter) so I looked him up. It turned out that this was an early moniker for the actor Mark Wahlberg – whose name I’d heard of, but that was about it. Having now seen some photos of him, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything, and I had no idea that in his early life as Marky Mark he was a notorious rapper and petty crim. But interestingly, I read that Wahlberg was now seeking a government pardon for the crimes he was convicted of as a teenager – including a few bashings of Asian-looking people. One of these incidents resulted in the victim having permanent eye damage. I don’t automatically trust too many internet sites, but the story appears to be that Marky, as a probably drug-fuelled and undoubtedly peer-influenced teen, indulged in some pretty nasty behaviour, spiced with language about ‘gooks and ‘slopes’, but he did have potential – don’t we all – and with the help of mentors he turned his life around to become, eventually, a Hollywood ‘star’. He did receive punishment for some of his crimes – and I read that he was tried as an adult for at least one of them – probably the one in which a victim lost an eye, or part of one….

I mention all this because it’s a case that raises a number of fascinating and important ethical issues. Firstly, there’s the tendency, most prevalent in the US but increasingly here too, to try juveniles as adults when they commit serious crimes, as if their ability to be fully responsible for their actions is in direct proportion to the damage they do. This smacks of a slide down the slippery slope of retributive justice – people have been really really hurt so the perp has to be really really punished, no matter that she’s eleven years old. While I have some sympathy for that attitude, and I’ll elaborate on that later, we have to accept that teenagers and children are different and that there are good, scientifically verified reasons for granting them diminished responsibility in a graded way from earliest childhood to the latest teens. The law is always a bit of a bludgeon of course, rarely taking full account of individual developmental and psychological peculiarities, which is one of the problems of ‘equality before the law’, but there’s no doubt that we generally do stupid things as teenagers and school kids, often under peer pressure, things we’d never do as mature adults. I myself got into trouble with the law for stealing, together with four or five of my friends, at the age of fourteen. We’d been egging each other on, and we perpetrated a lot more than we were charged with, but it all came crashing to a halt when we got caught. None of us were nasty brutish types, and it’s unlikely that any of us have reoffended.

Marky’s offending was rather brutish though, with serious consequences for a least one victim. His desire for a pardon is apparently driven by the fact that he’s disqualified at the moment from getting an Oscar or other accolades because of his past. Unlike me he has a permanent criminal record presumably due to being tried as an adult. He’s written a letter to government authorities wanting recognition for being an entirely different person than the one who committed those acts. Marky now does charitable work on the side like many other Hollywood stars – which is fine and dandy especially as they’re significantly overpaid for what they do and would have good reason to consider themselves bloody lucky to be in their position – but as online critics have pointed out, he’s never apologised or made reparations to his permanently-scarred victim. It goes without saying that this soul has also had a change of life since being bashed with a two-by-four all those years ago. Not much work for a one eyed Asian in Hollywood, methinks.

So this is the dilemma. Why doesn’t Marky Mark face up to the damage he did by trying to help the one person whose life he changed irreparably as an oafish teenager? That would seem to be an obvious move. And that brings me back to the treatment of serious crimes committed by persons of diminished responsibility. The reason we seek to impose harsher penalties, and for that reason to attribute greater responsibility to the young perpetrator, is because of the consequences of the crime. We believe someone has to pay for all that damage, and if not the perp, then who? It’s a really vexed question, but imposing an extremely harsh penalty on an adolescent for an extreme crime doesn’t really help, especially when the penalty, such as a prison term, will tend to harden the adolescent and make him more resentful, angry, and subject to bad influence, than he was before.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a very forgiving society, a society which immediately seeks to help adolescents who’ve gone off the rails to the extent that Marky Mark presumably did – and I should make it clear here that I’m just using him as an example, and I’ve no idea if the facts of his case are exactly as, or even close to, what I’ve reported (I got it off the internet after all). As part of that help, he should’ve been made to face the living consequences of the damage he had done, the suffering and change he had wrought in the lives of others. But that of course would require a massive change in our system of crime and punishment. For adolescent crime though, I think it would work well, and to be fair, it does operate to some extent in some juvenile court systems, conferencing between perpetrators and victims and their families, though there isn’t enough of it, I suspect.

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2015 at 9:11 am