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Friday, April 1, 2011

Entropy as a Religious, Spiritual or Self-Help Metaphor

This post is part of a series, Nonsense and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The previous post is entitled The Second Law and Creationism.

While browsing around the Internet for misuses of the term "entropy," I found some examples of the use of entropy as a metaphor. For example:
In human development and performance, entropy is somehow equated with limitations. It should be noted that if we go on to accept that people have limitations and a capacity for sin, then the natural pattern of human performance is not towards excellence but mediocrity. I say this because there are challenges, adversities, and even suffering, which are essential for healthy growth, although we don't normally seek or invite them. Overcoming these challenges, help us to see limitations as mere imaginations. Since entropy is very difficult to keep at bay, why must we continue to struggle against it in life? (Source)
I think that this paragraph has to be read as a somewhat confusing metaphor. It is not easy to characterize as a correct or incorrect understanding of entropy, but I suggest it is a bad metaphor. Entropy is not something that we can struggle against in the long term.

We do struggle against it in a sense when we build more efficient gasoline engines. We try to be as efficient as we can, the best we can be. The second law tell us that the best we can be involves dissipating heat that cannot be used for useful work. We can build  more efficient engines, but ultimately, the efficiency that can be achieved is a place of total limitation.

Trying to frame our human struggle as war against entropy strikes me as a bad idea.  t is framing the discussion in terms of a war we can never win. Better realistically to assert that creating some entropy in the universe is ok. We are here to use some of the energy available to us and transform it into less useful forms of energy.  

If our goal were to fight entropy, then we should not do anything interesting. If you clean your room, you increase the entropy of the universe.  

If you do not want to contribute to the entropy of the universe, do not clean your room. (Caveat: in the popular imagination entropy is incorrectly equated with disorder. See Entropy is Not a Measure of Disorder.  Whether a messy room has more entropy than a clean one is debatable - it probably does, but only by a minuscule amount. What is not debatable is the fact that any entropy decrease in the room as a result of housekeeping increases the entropy of the room and its surroundings taken as a whole.)

Physics cannot tell us how we should live our lives, but if I wanted to use the second law as an inspiring metaphor, I would start with the idea that it means we are privileged to be here.  The metaphorical lesson is that I am here instead of someone else; the useful work that I use for my benefit could have been used for someone else's benefit.  Let us use it to do truly useful work, to love, and to make the lives of people around us a little bit better.

Even this metaphor is a bit weak, however.  Realistically, there is so much energy in the universe (from the sun, from others stars, from nuclear energy) that there is plenty of energy left over for others to use, if only we knew how to harvest it safely. See, however, Isaac Asimov's short story The Last Question, for a fun view of this question.

The next post is entitled Free Energy.

  • Atkins, P. W. Physical Chemistry, W. H. Freeman and Company, New York, 3rd edition, 1986
  • McQuarrie, Donal d A., Statistical Thermodynamics,  University Science Books, Mill Valley, CA, 1973 
  • Bromberg, J. Philip, Physical Chemistry, Allan and Bacon, Inc., Boston, 2nd Edition, 1984
  • Anderson, H.C., Stanford University, Lectures on Statistical Thermodynamics, ca. 1990.
  • Laird,  Brian B. Entropy, Disorder, and Freezing
  • Vitus Ejiogu,  Entropy - A Place of Total Limitation 
  • Asimov, Isaac, The Last Question, Multivax Website.  Thanks to Ruth Shear for pointing this story out to me.
  1. Introduction
  2. What the Second Law Does Not Say
  3. What the Second Law Does Say
  4. Entropy is Not a Measure of Disorder
  5. Reversible Processes
  6. The Carnot Cycle
  7. The Definition of Entropy
  8. Perpetual Motion
  9. The Hydrogen Economy
  10. Heat Can Be Transferred From a Cold Body to a Hot Body: The Air Conditioner
  11. The Second Law and Swamp Coolers
  12. Entropy and Statistical Thermodynamics
  13. Fluctuations
  14. Partition Functions
  15. Entropy and Information Theory
  16. The Second Law and Creationism
  17. Entropy as Religious, Spiritual, or Self-Help Metaphor
  18. Free Energy
  19. Spontaneous Change and Equilibrium
  20. The Second Law, Radiative Transfer, and Global Warming
  21. The Second Law, Microscopic Reversibility, and Small Systems
  22. The Arrow of Time
  23. The Heat Death of the Universe
  24. Gravity and Entropy
  25. The Second Law and Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence
  26. Conclusion


Rich said...

Previous comment was spam selling pharmaceuticals. I will remove all spam posts.

Aj Jenkins said...

I may be a bit of a spiritualist. I like using the terms entropy and syntropy in a metaphorical or realist stance on the sense that everything is in a state of entropy. the difference between the entropy in an inanimate object and a living being is that living beings are fighting our flow of entropy through syntropy. We nourish ourselves in order to cause our cells to grow and continue our flow of syntropy. The inevitability of our entropy is evident in our aging process! We get older and our bodies grow to weak to fight entropy anymore. So after our peak it turns into a downward hill of entropy until our death when syntropy stops and our bodies can't continue.
There are obviously varying degrees of this theory and different ways for us to fight our entropy through medicine. Survival of the finest through intelligence. I'm still deciding on my beliefs so all of this isn't meant to prove anything more as a way of describing the human condition.

Rich said...

The birth of a new born baby, his/her growth and the love that surrounds him/her all increase the entropy of the universe. Entropy is a bad metaphor for what you are saying.