Vanity thought #1492. Entropy

Yesterday I mentioned thermodynamics and how saṅkīrtana might fit with that. Afaik, it doesn’t, but there are two diametrically opposite views on this subject and in their struggle they revolve around the concept of entropy.

Mathematically, entropy is very simple, there are clear formulas, one can memorize them and continue using them for the rest of his scientific or engineering life without ever giving it a second thought. The problem lies in understanding what entropy actually means. I don’t think I have an easy answer to that but that won’t stop me from proceeding. It never stops anyone from talking about entropy and I’m not an exception.

“If you would please turn to the page 5 of your textbook,” one can imagine the reassuring voice of his professor. These days, however, one turns to the page on Wikipedia instead and there everything seems to be known, understood, and comforting, just as it was in school. Right from the top, for example, one would read that entropy is a measure of disorder. But then others campaign for purging this definition and they have managed to erase it from college textbooks by 2005, probably from high school books by now, too. They deem it misleading and unscientific. Craps, just as I was getting the hang of it.

This is an example of how a concept so common and basic in science gets redefined over and over again, each time with the air of sacrosanct permanency. How often do you think of the meaning of entropy? Chances are, next time you decide to ponder this concept they’d have it redefined already. If you buy their “we know we had problems but now it’s all fixed” assurances it’s up to you.

It’s not actually a problem with entropy itself but with trying to explain what it means to others. Even discarded definitions are still correct to a large degree but they’ve decided that students might get the wrong ideas and it would be better to approach entropy from a different angle.

The problem is that entropy as it was “discovered” in science is counter-intuitive and we are forced to deal with double negatives right from the start. “Entropy of an isolated system can never decrease.” Try to wrap your mind around “can never decrease”. It’s “can”, but then “never”, and also “decrease” instead of “increase”. As soon as you start manipulating systems it becomes impossible to keep all your negatives in order and once I’ve noticed two obvious errors in internet articles claiming to clarify the issue I gave up.

What happens if you start heating up a pot of water? Temperature increases but entropy moves in the opposite direction and so now you are talking about decrease in disorder. Should it mean increase in order then? If you look at the water in the pot with bubbles forming at the bottom you wouldn’t call it “increase in order”. That’s how it becomes very confusing very fast.

At some point one will be forced to give and just hope that real scientists have figured tit all our and definition changes are only cosmetic so that it would look prettier and easier to understand. It hasn’t become easier for me but maybe others are luckier.

Alternatively, one can give up and hope that creationists have figured it out, too, because they continue to argue this particular point about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, and they aren’t fools either.

In a nutshell their challenge is very simple – according to thermodynamics a system should descend into chaos, not evolve into humans hell bent on organizing the nature. Evolution is the opposite of creating chaos, that’s obvious. Scientists reply that the Earth is not an isolated system, we have Sun rays warming it up all the time, and so thermodynamics shouldn’t be applied the way creationists do here. This doesn’t stop creationists, of course, and then the ugly side of entropy raises its head and everyone gets lost in the formulas and their meanings.

Scientists say that influx of energy into the system can produce order and give an example of electricity turning water into ice crystals in the fridge. Creationists reply that you can’t just put electrodes in the water and expect it would work. Ice crystals in one part of the machine are possible only because there’s heat generated in another and so their orderliness is offset by disorderly hot air elsewhere, and so this whole apparatus requires input of more than just electricity but clever engineering, too. They say that you can’t exclude engineers from your “isolated” system.

Scientists then reply that localized increases of entropy (or is its decreases? I can never tell) are observable in nature and there’s been even a Nobel prize awarded for research in this subject. The gist of that discovery is that when a system faces a large energy influx some “dissipative structures” can be formed to help disperse this energy. Structure means order, and so creationist argument is defeated.

Not so fast, creationists say, there’s a huge gap between turbulent gases flowing in a pattern and creation of life. Dissipative structures as an explanation for evolution is a rather new idea and most evolutionists haven’t heard of it yet, much less explain how it could actually work. The latest is that if you shine light on some atoms they will eventually orderly turn in such a way as to facilitate dispersal of incoming energy. This driver behind the evolution also disperses with Darwin’s natural selection but I’m sure they’ll be able to somehow reconcile the two just as I’m sure it won’t convince the creationists.

In a bigger picture, it’s obvious that Sun can heat up glaciers, ice would melt and flow down as a river, and a river would gradually arrange sand and rocks so that they would not obstruct its flow, but if you start from this obvious observation and declare that this is how the life has emerged you won’t impress anybody, so they talk about “dissipative structures” instead. The way I see it, at the very best this theory can explain creation of the “primordial soup”, existence of which creationists do not deny. It says nothing about emergence of life, however, and they’ve been zapping electricity through their soup in the lab for half a century now with no success.

There’s also something about creation of amino-acids that contradicts the second law but I have no brains left and I’d rather bring the subject back to saṅkīrtana, but let’s see how it goes, brains are unpredictable.

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