In 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.
I am teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students at the moment and in most previous years this experience has stimulated me to blog about thermodynamics [for example: ‘Isolated systems in nature?’ on February 12th, 2020]. However, this year I am more than half-way through the module and this is the first post on the topic. Perhaps that is an impact of teaching on-line via live broadcasts rather than the performance involved in lecturing to hundreds of students in a lecture theatre. Last week I introduced the second law of thermodynamics and explained its origins in efforts to improve the efficiency of steam engines by 19th century engineers and physicists, including Rudolf Clausius (1822 – 1888), William Thomson (1827 – 1907) and Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906). The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe increases during all real processes, where entropy can be described as the degree of disorder. The traditional narrative is that thermodynamics was developed by the Victorians; however, I think that the ancient Greeks had a pretty good understanding of it without calling it thermodynamics. Heraclitus (c. 535 BCE – c. 475 BCE) understood that everything is in flux and nothing is at rest so that the world is one colossal process. This concept comes close to the modern interpretation of the second of law of thermodynamics in which the entropy in the universe is constantly increasing leading to continuous change. Heraclitus just did not state the direction of flux. Unfortunately, Plato (c. 429 BCE – c. 347 BCE) did not agree with Heraclitus, but thought that some divine intervention had imposed order on pre-existing chaos to create an ordered universe, which precludes a constant flux and probably set back Western thought for a couple of millennia. However, it seems likely that in the 17th century, Newton (1643 – 1727) and Leibniz (1646 – 1716), when they independently invented calculus, had more than an inkling about everything being in flux. In the 18th century, the pioneering geologist James Hutton (1726 – 1797), while examining the tilted layers of the cliff at Siccar Point in Berwickshire, realised that the Earth was not simply created but instead is in a state of constant flux. His ideas were spurned at the time and he was accused of atheism. Boltzmann also had to vigorously defend his ideas to such an extent that his mental health deteriorated and he committed suicide while on vacation with his wife and daughter. Today, it is widely accepted that the second law of thermodynamics governs all natural and synthetic processes, and many people have heard of entropy [see ‘Entropy on the brain’ on November 29th, 2017] but far fewer understand it [see ‘Two cultures’ on March 5th, 2013]. It is perhaps still controversial to talk about the theoretical long-term consequence of the second law, which is cosmic heat death corresponding to an equilibrium state of maximum entropy and uniform temperature across the universe such that nothing happens and life cannot exist [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ on November 2nd, 2016]. This concept caused problems to 19th century thinkers, particular James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1979), and even perhaps to Plato who theorised two worlds in his theory of forms, one unchanging and the other in constant change, maybe in an effort to dodge the potential implications of degeneration of the universe into chaos.
Image: decaying ruins of Fountains Abbey beside the River Skell. Heraclitus is reported to have said ‘no man ever steps twice into the same river; for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’.
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.