We sense the passage of time by the changes that occur around us (see ‘We inhabit time as fish live in water‘ on July 24th, 2019) and these changes are brought about by processes that generate entropy. Entropy is often referred to as the arrow of time because forwards in time is always the direction in which the entropy of the universe increases, as demanded by the second law of thermodynamics (see for example ‘Subtle balance of sustainable orderliness‘ on June 22nd, 2016). The temperature in a refrigerator is sufficiently low that it slows down the processes of decay in the food stored in it (see’ Life-time battle‘ on January 30th, 2013) which effectively slows down time locally in the fridge. However, there is a price to pay because the process of creating of the cold zone in the fridge increases the entropy in the universe and moves the universe infinitesimally closer to cosmic heat death (see ‘Will it all be over soon?‘ on November 2nd, 2016). So, cooling the food in your fridge slows down time locally but brings the end of the universe a tiny bit closer. Perhaps that’s not worth worrying about until you start thinking about how many fridges there are in the world (about half a billion are sold every year) and how many other devices are generating entropy. The end of the universe might still be billions of years away but all that anthropogenic entropy is contributing to the increase in the temperature of the Earth’s ecosystem.
I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018. Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996. ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’ These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes. In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity. This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder. Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder. Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature. The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.
Paul Virilio, and Petit Philippe. Politics of the Very Worst, New York: Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89 (available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-very-worst).
While shopping on-line for books during a pandemic lockdown allows you to buy new books, I found it difficult browse online and find new authors. Perhaps because the algorithms employed by the booksellers are too busy guessing my interests or promoting the latest book that they want me to buy. So it was a pleasure to be able to walk into a bookshop again in a couple of months ago. One of the new authors that I discovered was Niall Williams. I have just finished reading his 2019 novel ‘This is happiness‘ which weaves together the life of an Irish village in which nothing ever changes until the coming of electricity, a tale of coming of age and another of burying the past. In the middle of this beautifully-told story, a salesman is extolling the virtues of the electrical gadgets that they can install in their new electrified homes and says that ‘the first law of engineering was to make the world a better place’. The narrator quietly tells us the second law, which the salesman doesn’t state, ‘that without exception everything that was engineered would one day break down … usually one day after each machine had become indispensable to living’. This is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which is that entropy, or disorder, increases in all real processes. Hence, the localised order, which we create when something is engineered, is constantly being eroded until eventually the disorder leads to a break down. Or, as Murphy’s law states ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’. However, the definition of the first law of engineering was the one that caught my eye and resonated with a corny introduction that I used in a talk on why we need to change the way we teach engineering. I played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world‘ and then talked about the wonderful world that engineers have created before highlighting the unsustainable environmental costs of our ‘wonderful’ engineered world and that it is inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population. I gave that talk many times to groups of engineering professors in the USA between about 2006 and 2012; maybe I had some impact but there is still a lot of changes needed to achieve a sustainable society. So, the first law of engineering should be to make the world a better place for everyone.
The economists John Kay and Mervyn King assert in their book ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘ that ‘economic forecasting is necessarily harder than weather forecasting’ because the world of economics is non-stationary whereas the weather is governed by unchanging laws of nature. Kay and King observe that both central banks and meteorological offices have ‘to convey inescapable uncertainty to people who crave unavailable certainty’. In other words, the necessary assumptions and idealisations combined with the inaccuracies of the input data of both economic and meteorological models produce inevitable uncertainty in the predictions. However, people seeking to make decisions based on the predictions want certainty because it is very difficult to make choices when faced with uncertainty – it raises our psychological entropy [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffective leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. Engineers face similar difficulties providing systems with inescapable uncertainties to people desiring unavailable certainty in terms of the reliability. The second law of thermodynamics ensures that perfection is unattainable [see ‘Impossible perfection‘ on June 5th, 2013] and there will always be flaws of some description present in a system [see ‘Scattering electrons reveal dislocations in material structure‘ on November 11th, 2020]. Of course, we can expend more resources to eliminate flaws and increase the reliability of a system but the second law will always limit our success. Consequently, to finish where I started with a quote from Kay and King, ‘certainty is unattainable and the price of near-certainty unaffordable’ in both economics and engineering.