Monday, April 30, 2007

Entropy

The second law of thermodynamics, says that in the material world energy of all kinds disperses or dissipates from higher concentrations to lower ones, if it is not hindered from doing so. The dispersal occurs at a predictable rate. The measurement of this rate of dispersal is called entropy.

The implications of this law are profound. It encompasses both life and death. On the one hand, life as we know it would not be possible without a stable and predictable rate of dispersal of energy from higher to lower concentrations. On the other, the inevitability of such a flow makes it certain that the world as we know it will one day come to an end. To give an example, the sun, the most concentrated form of energy in our solar system will continue to radiate its energy to lower concentrations at a steady rate till its concentration is "equalised".[1] The steady dispersal of the sun's energy gives rise to life on earth. The fact that this dispersal will cease once the concentrations are equalised means that life sustained by this dispersal must end some day.

To the scientist, entropy is a means for measuring this law and, consequently, for describing the processes that sustain life. To a lay person like me entropy can also be viewed as the rate at which order turns to chaos, assuming that "life" is order and "death" (or, the end of life) is chaos. In other words, entropy is chaos. Or, entropy is the potential for chaos that inherent in all "order".

In a paper titled Entropy Is Simple -- If We Avoid The Briar Patches!, Professor Frank L. Lambert, Professor Emeritus (Chemistry) Occidental College, Los Angeles has severely criticised all those who use entropy in the manner described above. He complains bitterly about the simplistic and inaccurate use of both, the second law and of the concept of entropy to create what he calls falsehoods about entropy as "disorder" or, as a measure of chaos. He gives myriad examples from everyday life, illustrating chemical (or thermodynamic) entropy, to justify his critique of philosophical entropy. To quote " entropy change has to do with energy spreading out, not with pretty patterns." This sentence encapsulates the professor's scorn for the non-scientific use of the term: to describe a descent from "order" to "disorder".

While the professor is quite right to distinguish between scientific entropy as a measure of the rate at which heat is dispersed in a given process (or, thermo-dynamics) and, entropy as weltanschauung, his refusal to recognise the philosophical implications of the second law is in keeping with the short sightedness of modern science (and scientists). In fact, the professor's approach is perfectly consistent with why the world is in the parlous state that it is in; with the worst aspect being the outright refusal of those who run the world to recognise the existence of philosophical entropy or, its implications for their actions.

[1] Though not used in the strict scientific sense, the expression is nevertheless accurate since it is predicated that as the sun cools its matter will spread (the sun will expand), thereby heating up the solar system till the entire solar system is encompassed within the sun's ambit, resulting in an equalisation of temperatures.

5 comments:

shahidul said...

not really a comment. mailed you at your gmail account, which bounced, so looking for alternative methods of sending you mail.

Shahidul

Muhamad Lodhi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Muhamad Lodhi said...

Don't worry so much about the death of the sun.
Be like Krishna in the battlefield of life and death.

Chakori said...

Dear Muhamad

Thanks for the comment on my piece on Entropy. I am surely not worried about when the sun blinks out since I will be long gone by then.

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