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.
“In 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.