[This Commentary originally appeared in the March 8, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
There used to be a car repair commercial about the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Law of Entropy. Here’s something you might not know: Entropy actually lists as the third law of thermodynamics. For a while, physicists viewed entropy as the second most important idea in thermodynamics. Then, they discovered what they now consider the utmost concept in the field. Unfortunately, by the time of the discovery, everyone used the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Law of Entropy interchangeably. The scientists could not very well shift everything down one. It would cause too much confusion.
Physicists, however, can often act as astute problem solvers. Since the nomenclature had already included the terms First and Second, they needed to invent a higher order ordinal number. That’s why physicists today call the four laws of Thermodynamics the Zeroeth Law, the First Law, the Second Law and the Third Law.
The above preamble demonstrates the notion behind entropy. We can define entropy as the tendency of a system to fall apart. Perhaps the car repair place chose entropy to emphasize that cars eventually fall apart. Most definitely, the discovery of the Zeroeth Law caused the nice neatly structured lexicon of the physicists to fall apart.
We might prefer to describe entropy in a different manner. Entropy and chaos are interrelated. Entropy tells us that, as time goes by, the universe tends towards chaos. In other words, (like we said before), everything will eventually fall apart.
Of course, thermodynamics deals with big, big things like stars, galaxies and the whole universe. Yet, we can see evidence of entropy in our everyday lives. Melting snow represents the transformation of matter from nice neatly structured crystals to wildly loose vaporous molecules. The wind and weather eventually wear down even the toughest rocks to dust. Closer to home, your VCR often pops a fuse literally seconds after the warranty expires.
One of the more meaningful features of entropy involves the fact one cannot reverse the decay process it describes. To the physicist, only chaos exists in the end. While entropy strictly demands this, we can take solace knowing entropy applies only to the entire system, not to the parts of that system.
For example, when snow melts, the water vapor it creates can crystallize into snow again. This seems to be a reversal of entropy. The water cycle, however, represents just one small subsystem of the gigantic system entropy pertains to. In the final analysis, we really don’t see precise examples of entropy in our everyday lives (unless we happen to serve as physicists or engineers).
“Now, Mr. Wizard,” you might ask, (albeit somewhat sarcastically), “How can I use this precious piece of trivia to help me in my regular activities?”
Good question! It just so happens entropy possesses another interesting part to it. As a system becomes more chaotic, it releases energy. An atomic bomb represents an extreme example. The process of converting a nice solid brick of uranium (and much of the adjoining neighborhood) into atomized particles creates tons of energy.
Okay, okay, so that’s not the kind of everyday application we want. Energy, though, cues us as to the real power of entropy – self-revitalization. Converting chaos into structure requires energy input. Spontaneity leads to the creation of energy.
Let’s say that again, this time with bold emphasis:
Converting chaos into structure requires energy input.
Spontaneity leads to the creation of energy.
There you go. Take that, my son, may you use it well. We don’t claim it’s the Meaning of Life, but it’s a philosophy most of us already live. We’ll look at it one sentence at a time.
Converting chaos into structure requires energy input. This means work. To build the life we want to live requires work and energy on our part. The power we use comes from our muscles and our brains. We convert this power into jobs, families, homes and communities. Our species would not have evolved to its present level without this discipline.
Spontaneity leads to the creation of energy. This means all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and Jane a dull girl. Only Superman can spend all his time converting chaos into structure. He’s got unlimited energy. Humans, on the other hand, can do only so much before their muscles start to weaken or their brains turn to burned-out mush. We’ve got to relax and mix things up a bit, whether it’s taking a nap or going bowling. Doing something completely different every so often revitalizes our body and soul with new vigor. Our species will not evolve from its present level without this discipline.
Improvisation – creative chaos – refreshes us; hence, we work harder. Hard work and spontaneity complement each other splendidly. By themselves, though, their usefulness diminishes.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]