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By Bill Caswell
Special to Ontario Construction Report
Why do I as a business leader need to know about a strange scientific concept called entropy? I suppose it is reasonable for me to know why entropy is viewed by some people as important. I might see its significance if I understood how entropy affects me and my company in everyday life.
An initial thought
When we pour cream into coffee, or break an egg and stir them around, we see a mixing of the original constituents to create a uniform mixture: the cream and the coffee, and the yoke with the white of the egg. Which of these processes can return automatically to the original state? Neither. After the mixing, we cannot reassemble the cream from the coffee or the yoke from the egg white. These irreversible processes are so common in life that science has given them a name: entropy. Note that this direction toward entropy is usually an irreversible process.
Might you wonder why it is important to define this common process with the one word: entropy?
The start of an answer
Just as a rough knowledge of DNA allows us to better appreciate vaccines, and biological aspects of the world, so entropy allows us to better appreciate most scientific topics. Why? Because entropy is wrapped up in the second law of thermodynamics.
You may ask: Why should I care about the second law of thermodynamics; and what is the second law? What on earth is the first law of thermodynamics? What is thermodynamics and why might it be important in my life and my business?
Thermodynamics is the study of heat transfer. Heat transfers from a hot stove to a roast as it cooks in the oven. Heat transfers (leaks) from a warm house to the cold winter outside. Half of the food that we humans eat creates heat to keep our bodies warm. And we have to keep eating because our body heat escapes past our clothing (dissipates) into the fresh outside air. These also are irreversible processes. The roast does not un-cook itself to heat up the oven. Nor does a cold cup of tea warm itself up automatically to become more drinkable.
A more serious answer
Thermodynamics as a serious subject is as fundamental to science as 1 and 0 are to computing. Without an appreciation of thermodynamics, Carnot would never have discovered the cycle that makes refrigerators, air conditioners, and jet engines work. Are these not everyday occurrences in your business life? Without thermodynamics, Einstein could never have realized the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and E=mc2.
Author Paul Sen said that the men and women who pushed back the frontiers of knowledge are more important than generals and monarchs. They carved a path that no one could reverse, turn back, overcome, or even dispute. If science is so important, does not one of its key building blocks (entropy) merit some of our attention?
Now, let’s delve into the laws of thermodynamics.
The 1st Law of Thermodynamics
Although heat and work can be converted into each other, the total amount of heat plus work remains the same. That is, energy in the form of heat and work is conserved. The energy of the universe is conserved. The energy of the universe is constant.
Conserved energy means that you can’t get something for nothing. Therefore, the work of a machine must come from some source of energy. As a result, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine – because the work that the machine would do must have an energy source.
Energy is always conserved. All mass is a form of energy. As was noted before, this idea was expressed by Albert Einstein as E=mc2. The speed of light (c) is so large that a tiny mass (m) holds enormous energy (E). When we smash a few atoms into energy, we get the results shown by the atomic bomb and by nuclear power stations. See Postscript 2 below for more information.
The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
Heat never spontaneously flows from cold to hot. It flows from hot to cold. The heat dissipates into the cold.
Entropy (dissipation) always increases.
And there are always losses. So, when you do work, you can’t remain at the same energy level. That is, you can’t ever break even.
The entropy (dissipation) of the universe tends to increase. That is, the 2nd law forbids the reduction of the entropy of the universe.
The entropy of any closed system tends to increase. The disorganization of any closed system tends to increase. The universe is a closed system; the entropy of the universe always increases. Thus, today, the universe has very low entropy (because it is still so orderly).
This leaves us with the prediction that the universe will die as it degenerates into a uniform disorder – into a never-changing state.
- A measure of heat dispersion
- A measure of heat dissipation
- A measure of disorder
A natural tendency to lose order such as a stack of organized playing cards being shuffled. They lose order because there are far more disorganized options than orderly ones. Thus, shuffled cards have more entropy. More shuffling = more entropy (more disorganization).
Entropy is absolute like the measure of length, or weight, or temperature (in degrees Kelvin). Energy will always flow to increase the entropy (dissipation) of the universe.
Dissipation of heat into a cold room keeps happening until the cold room and the hot room are the same temperature. That is, the entropy (dissipation) in the cold room rises. But a cold room never automatically becomes hot; it is a one-way street. Therefore, entropy always rises; it never decreases.
Entropy increases with time because the chances of entropy decreasing (creating order) are so tiny. What is the chance of a shuffled deck of cards becoming ordered again, suit by suit, card by card?
Entropy as an irreversible process is exampled by the many irreversible processes in nature: pouring cream into coffee, air escaping out of a balloon, breaking an egg. Which of these can return automatically to its original state?
What will the future hold? More entropy. More disorder. Our time is the march from unlikely order to statistically more likely disorder. Statistics predicts entropy must increase.
What are the statistical chances of an entropy reversal of water turning by itself into oxygen gas and hydrogen gas? Not very likely. What are the chances that entropy would fall? Not very likely.
Entropy is the natural tendency towards dissipation. If entropy always increases, dissipation always increases. The dissipation (entropy) of humans leads to their eventual decay and death. Perhaps that is one more reason for us to appreciate entropy.
Why understanding entropy is difficult
Entropy requires a person to grasp the idea of a negative parameter growing positively. We usually identify growth with a positive situation, not the other way around. (There are exceptions, such as: if we show positive for a medical test, it means we have the disease; if we test negative it means we do not have the disease.) Growth in entropy usually connotes a bad or worsening situation. If entropy is increasing, disorder is increasing. The positive direction of entropy, which is viewed in a negative light (increase in dissipation) is the concept that we must get our heads around.
Assuming that you agree that entropy is worth your recognition, here is a simple reduction of its principles. You can forget everything else in this paper.
1st law of thermodynamics: Energy is always conserved.
In the world of energy, you can’t get something for nothing.
Bon mot: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
2nd law of thermodynamics: All closed systems tend toward dissipation
Entropy – the spreading out evenly of the cream in the coffee.
Entropy (dissipation) will always increase.
Bon mot: “You can’t ever break even.”
Hopefully, now, when the word entropy enters the conversation around you, your eyes will not gloss over. But rather you will realize that the person is probably talking about the natural tendency for the action to disperse or dissipate. You can remain in the conversation. Your business will decline because of entropy, unless you feed it more energy in the form of sales, products, etc.
The salient conclusion: Entropy is the natural decay of systems.
Postscript 1: The Theory of Everything and Entropy
Stephen Hawking’s genius led to his clarifying the black hole phenomenon. It is more correctly called a space-time singularity or unusual space event or gravitationally collapsed object. A star’s life ends when its energy is insufficient to keep it as a large, round ball. As the star shrinks in size, it becomes denser and denser, so its apparent gravity becomes stronger and stronger, forming what we see as the black hole. Around the black hole is a flat circle called the Event Horizon.
Anything in that Event Horizon circle appears to be “sucked” into the black hole because the Event Horizon is the point of no return. Why? Because in the Event Horizon, light travels faster than the known speed of light. Therefore, it moves faster away from us than light attempting to come to us. So, we cannot see the light in a black hole. Thus, the black hole always shows its blackness to us.
From the above observation, the book Einstein’s Fridge makes two remarkable speculations.
The first is that the size of the Event Horizon circle gives us a measure of the entropy of the black hole.
The second speculation has to do with the so-called “theory of everything.” The theory of everything attempts to connect all the key science equations together, an endeavour that Stephen Hawking spent his lifetime trying to ascertain.
While the mathematics of Special Relativity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics work in harmony, no one has been able to fit the separate equations of gravity into the group. In the early 1900s, Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves when two black holes collided to become one.
Not until 2016 did our technology allow us to capture, measure, and confirm gravitational waves. Gravity was defined by Einstein’s work (and verified) as a distortion in the space-time fabric, a more general definition than that of Sir Isaac Newton. Reasons have been put forward for believing that the universe is 2-dimensional, not 3-dimensional, just as a hologram, even though 2-dimensional, appears to be 3-dimensional.
Gravity is the phenomenon in space that makes the illusion of 3-dimensional space possible for us. Thus, following that thinking, gravity is not a basic parameter. Therefore, we do not need to include gravity in the “theory of everything.” If that is true, “the theory of everything” lies within our grasp – and has been for this past century.
Postscript 2: Einstein’s Theories of Relativity
Einstein’s theory of General Relativity discusses a concept of space-time, like a blanket spread over the universe. But it is not flat because when it runs into a star like the sun, the blanket lifts up or warps around the sun. That warp creates an extra acceleration to get past the sun, and the force of that movement is really what gravity is all about.
This works for all space while Newton’s gravitational rules work only at “slower” speeds, such as that which we observe in the motion of Earth and other planets around the Sun. Einstein showed that space and time were not two separate entities but rather one continuum called space-time. General Relativity allows us to relate back to the big bang, the creation of the universe (a singularity at the start of time), and the existence of black holes (present-time singularities).
Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity is a special case of General Relativity that is an approximation of General Relativity, which is valid for weak gravitational fields. It does this by assuming that the space-time mat is flat, essentially removing gravity from the considerations. It clarified the relationship between energy, mass, and the speed of light, devolving to the energy conservation equation of E = mc2.
The two relativity theories answered a huge number of cosmological concerns that were unanswerable before.
Postscript 3: Handling the idea of a speed faster than light and the illusion created by gravity
Imagine an airplane flying over a number of hills with the bright sun above casting a shadow onto the ground below. The shadow of the plane moves up and down the hills as the aircraft passes over. As the shadow traverses up and down the hill in order to track the airplane, the shadow can be seen to move faster than the airplane. The speed of the shadow is an illusion because the plane is moving at an observable speed.
Imagine that the aircraft is moving at the speed of light. Thus, its shadow over these mountains would appear to be moving faster than the speed of light just as there is an illusion of light faster than the speed of light within a black hole.
Likewise, when the space-time continuum mat passes over a planet, its wrinkle forces an acceleration to get over the bump of the planet at the constant speed of light. Acceleration creates a force as described by Newton’s F= ma, which we feel as gravity.
The higher speed of light on the hills does not need a separate equation to be integrated with the plane’s movement. It is outside of the domain of the aircraft movement just as gravity’s equations can be said to be outside the basic equations of Special Relativity, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics.
1 Einstein’s Fridge, Paul Sen, Simon & Shuster Inc., publishers, New York NY, 2021