Tag Archives: first law

Delaying cataclysmic events might hasten their advent

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RIn thermodynamics, students are taught to draw a boundary around the system they want to analyse and to decide whether the boundary is open or closed to transfers of mass and energy based on the scenario they want to model.  The next step is to balance the energy flows across the boundary with the change in the energy content of the system.  This is an application of the first law of thermodynamics which is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  Rudolf Clausius is credited with discovering entropy when he realised that when energy flowed as heat across a system boundary it became entropy or disordered energy. For instance, when a steam engine does work and discharges heat to the environment. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy of the universe increases in all real processes.  Thermodynamicists are not the only people who draw boundaries and decide whether they are open or closed.  Politicians and generals draw national boundaries occasionally and more frequently decide whether they are open or closed to people, goods and capital.  After the first world war economists, such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, proposed that conflict would be less likely if people, goods and capital could flow freely across national boundaries.  These ideas became the principles on which the IMF and World Bank were formed at Bretton Woods in July 1944 in the closing stages of the second world war.  Presidents of the USA, since Ronald Reagan, have taken these ideas a step further by unleashing capitalism through deregulation of markets in the belief that markets know best.  However, ever-growing capital generates an ever-increasing rate of creation of entropy and disorder in the world [see ‘Existential connection between capitalism and entropy‘ on May 4th 2022] and perhaps attempting to reduce conflict by unfettering capital actually accelerates the descent into chaos and disorder because entropy increases in every transaction.


Rana Foroohar, When the market fails us, FT Weekend, 23 April/24 April 2022.

Gary Gerstle, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in Free Market Era, Oxford: OUP, 2022.

The cataclysmic events referred to in the title are those identified by Thomas Piketty as being the only means by which economic inequality is reduced, i.e., wars and revolutions [see ‘Existential connection between capitalism and entropy‘ on May 4th 2022].  The title was inspired by correspondence from Bob Handscombe with whom I wrote a book entitled ‘The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business‘.

First law of geography: everything is related to everything else

One of the benefits of supervising research students is that you can read a large number of scientific papers by proxy.  In other words, my research students read more papers than I would ever have time to read and then they write reviews of the scientific literature that allow me to quickly gain an understanding of research in a particular field.  Every now and again, a student refers to a paper that raises my curiosity to read it for myself.  One of these was a paper published by Waldo Tobler in 1970 in which he describes the computational modelling of urban growth in Detroit, Michigan.  Although, I used to live in Michigan, it was not the geographical connection that interested me but his invocation of the first law of geography: ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’.  Professor Tobler was writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which he used in an example by highlighting that the population growth in Ann Arbor from 1930 to 1940 depended not only on the 1930 population of Ann Arbor, but also on the 1930 population of Vancouver, Singapore, Cape Town, Berlin and so on.  Perhaps if he had been writing in 2020 he would have suggested that the rate of infection from coronavirus in Ann Arbor depends not only on the number of cases in Ann Arbor, but also on the number of cases Taipei, Milan, Toulouse, Dublin and so on.


Tobler WR, A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit Region, Economic Geography, vol. 46, Supplement: Proceedings. Int. Geog. Union. Commission on Quantitative Methods, 234-240, 1970.

Image: Crisco 1492Own work

Do you believe in an afterlife?

‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.  There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019].  However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely.  I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place.  I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020].  The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016].  Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics.  However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour.  Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.

Reference: Erwin Schrodinger, What is life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Image: ‘Sunflower and dog worship’ by Stanley Spencer, 1937 @ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-13789029

Ramblings on equality

By David Samuel, User:Hellodavey1902 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I had some time to spare in Oxford last week and visited the Treasury in the Weston Library again (see my post entitled ‘The Red Crane‘ on July 26th, 2017).  I was amazed to be confronted by an eight-hundred year-old copy of the Magna Carta.  No fuss, no fanfare, just sitting there behind a glass screen as close as you are to your screen as you read this blog.  But the Bodleian Library has four copies of the Magna Carta; so, maybe it’s nothing special to them!  This one is slightly dogged-eared, or to be more precise, rodent-nibbled – there were a couple of small holes where an animal had gnawed it while it was folded up and stored at Osney Abbey from its issue following King John’s death in 1217 until the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539.  The equivalent documents in the USA, the declaration of independence, the constitution and the bill of rights, are housed in the grandiose building on the National Mall, shown in the picture.

After the Weston Library Treasury, I went to the bookshop next door and could not resist buying a couple of books: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World‘ by Yuri Herrara and ‘The Wandering Falcon‘ by Jamil Ahmad.  Hopefully, I will not succumb to tsundoku (see my post on ‘Tsundoku‘ on May 24th, 2017) and will eventually read these novels.  BTW – you can read the Magna Carta here.

It’s October and the start of university term, which also means that once again I am teaching thermodynamics to first-year undergraduate students. I have blogged on thermodynamics frequently; so, I am going to provide links to these posts during the next couple of months.  Primarily for those of my undergraduate students who find their way to this blog, but hopefully these links will also be of interest to regular readers. My opening lecture set thermodynamics in the context of the more familiar sciences as described in my post entitled ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016.  Last week’s lecture started with the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, which I have discussed in two posts entitled ‘All things being equal‘ on December 3rd, 2014 and ‘Lincoln on equality‘ on February 6th, 2013 – now I’ve gone in a full circle, if somewhat shakily!