Tag Archives: universe

Everything is flux but it’s not always been recognised

Decorative photograph or ruins of Fountains Abbey next to River SkellI 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’.

Revisiting closed systems in nature


It is the beginning of the academic year and once again I am teaching introductory thermodynamics to engineering undergraduate students and my MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ is running in parallel.  Last week after my lecture on thermodynamic systems, a student approached me to ask whether the universe is a closed and isolated system.  It’s an interesting question and the answer is depends on the definition of universe.   In thermodynamics, we usually define a boundary to delineate the system of interest as everything inside the boundary and everything else are the surroundings.  The system and surroundings taken together are the universe (see my post ‘No beginning or end‘ on February 24th, 2016).  If the universe is defined as the system then there are no surroundings; hence the system cannot exchange energy or matter with anything which is the definition of a closed and isolated system.

Physicists often refer to the observable universe, or define the universe as everything we can observe.  We are aware that we cannot observe everything.  Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the observable universe exchanges energy and matter with the unobservable space beyond it, in which case the observable universe is an open system.  We could also consider the concept that we are part of multiverse and our universe is only one of many, in which case it seems likely that is not isolated, i.e. it can exchange energy, and perhaps it is open, i.e. it can exchange both energy and matter with other parts of the multiverse.

This is not really thermodynamics in everyday life.  However, the occurrence of closed systems in nature appears to interest a lot of people to judge from the visits to my previous posts on this topic.  See ‘Closed Systems in Nature?‘ on  December 12th, 2012; Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter? on December 10th, 2014; and ‘No Closed Systems in Nature‘ on August 12th, 2015. For more about system boundaries, see my post entitled ‘Drawing Boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012.

No beginning or end

milkywayNASAIn the quantum theory of gravity, time becomes the fourth dimension to add to the three dimensions of space (x, y, z or length, width and height), and Stephen Hawking has suggested that we consider it analogous to a sphere. Developing this analogy, we imagine time to be like a flea running around on the surface of a ping-pong ball. A continuous journey, without a beginning or an end. The ‘big bang’, frequently discussed as the beginning of everything, and the ‘big crunch’, proposed by physicists as how things will end, would be the north and south poles of the sphere. The Universe would simply exist. The radius of circles of constant distance from the poles (what we might call lines of latitude) would represent the size of the Universe. Quantum theory also requires the existence of many possible time histories of which we inhabit one. Different lines of longitude can represent these histories.

If you are not already lost (the analogy does not include a useful compass) then physicists would give you a final spin by dropping in the concept of imaginary time! Maybe it is time for the flea to jump off the ping-pong ball, but before it does, we can appreciate that it might move in one direction and then retrace its steps (or its hops if you wish to be pedantic). The flea can travel backwards because in this concept of the Universe, time has the same properties as the other dimensions of length, height and width and so it has backwards as well as forwards directions.”

This is an extract from a book called ‘The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business‘ that I wrote sometime ago with Bob Handscombe.  I have reproduced it here in response to questions from a number of learners in my current MOOC.  The questions were initially about whether the first law of thermodynamics has implications for the universe as a closed system (i.e. one that can exchange energy but not matter with its surroundings) or as an isolated system (i.e. one that can exchange neither energy not matter with its surroundings).  These questions revolve around our understanding of the universe, which I have taken to be everything in the time and space domain, and the first law implies that the energy content of the universe is constant.  The expansion of the universe implies that the average energy density of the universe is getting lower, though it is not uniformly otherwise we would have reached the ‘cosmic heat death’ that I have discussed before.  However, this discussion in the MOOC led to questions about what happened to the first law of thermodynamics prior to the Big Bang, which I deflected as being beyond the scope of a MOOC on Energy! Thermodynamics in Everyday Life.  However, I think it deserves an answer, which is why reproduced the extract above.