The dictionary definition of a system is ‘a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole’. So it is easy to see why ‘systems engineering’ has become ubiquitous: because it is difficult to design anything in engineering that is not some kind of system. Perhaps the earliest concept of a system in post-industrial revolution engineering is the thermodynamic system, which is a well-defined quantity of matter that can exchange energy with its environment.
Engineers define thermodynamic systems by drawing arbitrary boundaries around ‘quantities of matter’ that are of interest, for instance the contents of a refrigerator or the inside of the cylinder of a diesel engine [see my post entitled ‘Drawing Boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012]. These boundaries can be permeable to matter in which case the system is described as an ‘open system’, as in the case of an diesel engine cylinder into which fuel is injected and exhaust gases ejected. Conversely, the boundary of a ‘closed system’ is impermeable to matter, i.e. the refrigerator with the door closed. The analysis of a closed system is usually much simpler than for an open one. In his Gaia theory, James Lovelock proposed that the Earth was a self-regulated complex system. Is it also a closed thermodynamic system? It is clear that energy exchange occurs between the Earth and its surroundings as a consequence of solar radiation incident on the Earth (about 342 Watts/square meter) and radiation from the Earth as a consequence of reflection of solar radiation (about 107 Watts/square meter) and its temperature (235 Watts/square meter). This implies that we can consider the Earth as a thermodynamic system. The Earth’s gravitation field ensures that nothing much leaves; at the same time the vast of emptiness of space means that collisions with matter happen only very occasionally, so the inward flow of matter to Earth is negligible. So, perhaps we could approximate Earth as a closed thermodynamic system.
Does it matter? Yes, I believe so, because it influences how we think about our complex life support system, or spaceship Earth that sustains and protects us, as Max Tegmark describes it in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’. In a closed system there is finite amount of matter that cannot be replenished, which implies that the Earth’s resources are finite. However, our current western lifestyle is focused on consumption which is incompatible with a sustainable society in a closed system. Even the Earth’s energy balance appears to be in equilibrium based on the data in the figure and so we should be careful about massive schemes for renewable energy that might disturb the Gaia.