As you may have gathered from last week’s post [Man, the Rubbish-Maker on October 26th, 2016], I have been reading Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics. In one story, ‘World Memory’ the director of a project to document the entire world memory in the ‘expectation of the imminent disappearance of life on Earth’ is explaining to his successor that ‘we have all been aware for some time that the Sun is halfway through its lifespan: however well things went, in four or five billion years everything would be over’. The latter is one of the scientific conclusions around which Calvino weaves these short stories and this one put into perspective the concerns expressed by some of my students on both my undergraduate course and MOOC in thermodynamics the prospect of a cosmic heat death resulting from the inevitable consequences of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015]. The second law requires ‘entropy of the universe to increase in all spontaneous processes’. Entropy was defined by Rudolf Clausius about 160 years ago as the heat dissipated in a process divided by the temperature of the process. The dissipated heat flows into random motion of molecules from which it is never recovered. So, as William Thomson observed, this must eventually create a universe of uniform temperature – an equilibrium state corresponding to maximum entropy where nothing happens and life cannot exist. Entropy has been increasing since the Big Bang about 13.5 billion years ago. And as Calvino writes, the sun is about halfway through its life – it is expected to collapse into a white dwarf in 4 to 5 billion years when its supply of hydrogen runs out. These are enormous timescales: the first human cultures appeared about 70,000 years ago [see my post ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016] and history would suggest that our civilization will disappear long before the sun expires or cosmic heat death occurs. A more immediate existential threat is that our local production of entropy on Earth destroys the delicate balance of conditions that allows us to thrive on Earth. See my post on Free Riders on April 6th, 2016 for thoughts on avoiding this threat.
Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.
It seems to be an inseparable part of human nature to worry about the future, the “imminent disappearance of life on Earth” appropriately describing our present day perception of a global threat. While in early history it was Nature posing the threat (What if the sun would keep going down after Dec 21st? What if another flood would cover our landscape?), today we feel that mankind is the real threat: What if the forests kept dying (acid rain)? What if the ozone depletion continued (CFC)? What if the red button were pushed (nuclear war)? What if global warming increased (CO2)?
Desaster seems to lure a day, a month or a decade ahead. But at the same time we extrapolate the history of earth to plus and minus 4 billion years, tacitly assuming unbelievably stable natural boundary conditions for life…- despite increasing entropy.
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Calvino’s book just arrived in time for some Thanksgiving reading. I’d never heard of his writings, and his stories sound intriguing, so thanks for discussing him.
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