Whatever the Problem, Human Ingenuity is No Match for Entropy

Published on
by
the Baltimore Sun

Whatever the Problem, Human Ingenuity is No Match for Entropy

Scientist, author and political activist Jeremy Rifkin, once described in Time Magazine as "the most hated man in science," has ruffled feathers for many of his 64 years on this planet.

Back in the '80s, he wrote the book "Entropy: A New World View," which represented a frontal assault on the widely accepted view that given time and increased human knowledge, everything will pretty much work out.

Intrigued by his message, I interviewed him and later went to a speech he gave at a local college. His case that the Second Law of Thermodynamics - the law of entropy - is the supreme law of nature made quite the impression on me. In the years since, his argument seemed to me to make more sense out of the way the world works than any other.

In short, as we scurry about in our hurried lives, worried about the future of our nation - polls show a majority of Americans believe we are heading in the wrong direction - and of ourselves and our families, the Second Law sheds light on the nature of the dilemma facing us.
Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun breaking news text alerts

Our leaders blunder along, patching a plethora of problems the best they can while (rarely) apologizing for their failures or (more often) blaming the other party and its leaders for the messes we are in.

Entropy dictates that given time, and regardless of human cleverness or anything else, everything decays.

The First Law of Thermodynamics soothes us with its assertion that the total energy content in the universe is constant. You cannot create or destroy energy. It has been fixed since time began and will remain the same until time ends. Call it the law of conservation. So far, so good; if this is all of it, we should be able to use energy over and over again and never run out of it.

The Second Law is the disturbing one. It holds that energy is transformed in one direction only: from usable to unusable, from available to unavailable, never the reverse. For example: When a lump of coal is burned, the energy remains, but the coal is turned into sulfur dioxide and some other gases and dispersed into space. We know we can never burn that lump of coal again.

We also cannot create energy. We can only transform it from one state to another. Every time energy is transformed, some of it is lost as far as being available for future work, and the name given that penalty is entropy. So you see why people get riled when confronted with the theory of entropy. That's why it's largely ignored by the chattering class. If there's no answer to a problem, we might as well ignore it. So we do.

If the Big Bang Theory is correct, the universe was originally a dense mass of energy that exploded and scattered into the great void. The universe itself is entropy in motion. This is something that was sensed by earlier peoples. "Christian theology," writes Mr. Rifkin, "has a distinct beginning, middle and end in the form of the Creation, the Redemption and the Last Judgment."

For more than four centuries however, a different world view has been dominant. Mr. Rifkin calls it the Machine Age. We modern people view time's passage as an unending opportunity to show progress, to perfect things.

We're shocked at the events of the Great Recession, at the burgeoning public debt, at the ineffectual leadership struggling to make order out of chaos. We wonder how things have gotten so out of hand.

Mr. Rifkin believes we can enact policies, and reformulate our industrial, educational and scientific thinking in ways that can slow the entropic process to enable more generations of humans to flourish on Earth before the planet becomes once again uninhabitable. This was his thinking 30 years ago, anyway. I intend to catch up with him soon and get an update.

I was once introduced as "a man who believes in entropy." People chuckled. I did, too, knowing that no less than Albert Einstein concluded that classic thermodynamics should be ranked as the supreme law of the universe.

This is the same eminent physicist who said "Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe."

Who am I to argue with that?

Ron Smith

Ron Smith's column appears in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

Share This Article

More in: