Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Flailing away at the Second Law

By Jim Mosher

One of the laws of physics says that everything is always getting less organized. It’s a conclusion embodied in what’s called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law basically tells us that ‘entropy’ is always increasing. ‘Entropy’ is a more technically refined term for what we laypeople would normally call disorder or the random arrangement of stuff.

I understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics because I was on holidays for two weeks — and everything simply got less organized despite my best-laid plans.

I stared down the Second Law — and lost.

We have a garage-studio building that we ‘converted’ to a storage shed. I decided I would try to ‘organize’ things in this building. All I achieved was a random reordering of stuff. I rearranged the deck furniture on my storage shed Titanic.

Instead of putting the sandpaper on the shelf to the right of the door; I put it on the shelves to the left of the door. And I put screws and nails I’ll probably never use in a plastic Folgers coffee container (partly because it cannot be recycled locally, and I wanted to find a use for it).

In the end, I achieved nothing, except to prove the ultimate truth of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I sullenly meet the Second Law every day. No matter what a good little recycler I try to be, there’s still a bag full of garbage at week’s end. And even at my recycling best, I continue to contribute evidence to support the Second Law.

The Second Law is frequently illustrated using the mechanical model. This model suggests that there is no process that is 100-per-cent efficient. When we use gasoline in our car engines a certain percentage of that energy is ‘lost’ as heat that cannot be used for so-called useful work.

The Second Law is often evoked when people talk about perpetual motion machines.

Imagine a machine that, through its own processes, captures some form of energy and uses it, with 100-per-cent efficiency, to keep itself going, and going and going … forever. A sort of Ever-ready bunny on steroids.

The mechanical holy grail of perpetual motion will forever elude us, states the Second Law. We can only ever speak of optimal efficiency … because some energy will be lost to the universe outside our best-designed machines.

The Second Law is a theoretical refinement of what we all know intuitively.

No matter how fit we are, we will, eventually, die. We can extend our lives by doing all the right things we should know about. But we cannot cheat death.

But even in death, some of what is left of us will serve the universal greater good — and temporarily increase local order — whether adding to the foodchain or entering the atmosphere as a useable gas. But much of our moldering remains will dissipate randomly as heat energy.

One might imagine, then, that my holidays were disheartening, as I harkened back to my university days and my study of thermodynamics.

In the frame of thermodynamics, life seems an almost worthless exercise, bound only to increase the universal sink of disorder.

Ever the optimist, though, I shun this notion of futility and the fatalism and almost nihilism that’s bound up in it.

It’s the temporariness and fleetingness of life that imbues it with such value. How precious the moment that cannot be revisited. How sweet the first kiss, that first love. The second kiss or second love may be qualitatively better, but it is still lost in second place.

And so the mathematics that is the very underpinning of physics and our other great sciences is also home to our greatest hopes. Instead of the dire and meaningless, we find the essential values that make us human.

So there! I have recovered from a holiday briefly spent trying to face down the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I failed but the effort — in spite of the fact the studio-shed is no better organized than before — was worth it. The studio-shed looks better in my eyes, though proof of that must be set against the fact of our uphill struggle against disorder.

I believe, if naively, that my energy was not wasted.

No comments:

Post a Comment