Have you ever wondered why things break up, break down, disintegrate, degenerate, shatter, fracture, split, decay, wear out, rip, rust, crumble or move from a state of order to disorder? Or, why do we grow old, demented and senile? Why not the other way around? Given time, a new building will crumble (Fig 1) and a glittering new car will disintegrate, but a rusted old rattletrap would never revert to a shiny new one (Fig 2). And why not?
The answer resides in the Second Law of Thermodynamics which explains the necessity for the expenditure of energy – the capacity to do work. Energy capable of doing work may be described as free, available, useful or concentrated. But the concept is much more profound because energy and matter are interchangeable. Energy is the raw material of the universe; the driving force behind the working of the universe. Without energy, there can be no life, no universe – nothing but unimaginable chaos. Since energy and matter are interchangeable, the inescapable conclusion is that the universe is all energy. Energy manifests itself in different forms: namely, heat, sound, light, mechanical, chemical or electrical. Each of these forms can be mobilized to produce work.
Entropy and the Laws of Thermodynamics
Inseparably associated with energy consumption are the laws of thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the total energy content of the universe is constant. That is to say, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. The Second Law states that energy spontaneously flows from a state of higher concentration to one of lower concentration: from orderliness to randomness. Inherent in the Second Law is the concept of Entropy, often referred to the Law of Entropy. Veteran scientists treat this law with reverence for it can be both simple and mesmerizingly inscrutable at the same time. Professionals in the discipline have often remarked, the more the law is studied the more mystifying it becomes. One of the reasons for its enigmatic character being that it is expressed negatively. Hence for most practical applications, positive entropy is counterproductive whereas negative entropy is productive. The lesser the entropy of a system, the better.
There are myriad ways of expressing the entropic concept. Reduced to its simplest terms, entropy may be defined as a measure of randomness or disorder of a system. It quantifies the extent of degradation that energy undergoes as it changes to its less usable form. Moreover, the total entropy of a closed system is constantly increasing. Besides, entropy always tends towards a maximum, or equilibrium. The transformation of energy from a usable to an unusable form, namely heat, is also referred to as entropy.
This tendency to automatically move to a disordered state is only understood when viewed through the prism of this all-pervasive natural law that governs the inner workings of universe. As an all-embracing phenomenon of nature, entropy deals with the intrinsic operation of the universe and comparable in significance to gravity, time and electromagnetism. Considered the ultimate Natural Law, it explains why time moves from the dead past to the dynamic present; why a drop of dye spontaneously disperses in water; why money is so readily dispersed and why things break up. Among other things, it is a disorganizing force that runs contrary to human effort. And herein lies the crux of this thesis. In my more lucid moments, I wonder if this law is not just another physical manifestation of that divine principle reverently called God.
Consistent with the Law of Entropy is that order demands effort (Fig 3). In the absence of human effort, entropy is the driving force behind the natural regression of order to disorder. Statistically, it describes the number of arrangements available in a system. It also enables one to predict whether a chemical process will occur and the direction it will follow.
Murphy’s Laws are often a comical depiction of entropy: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong; or Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse. In entropic terms, left to themselves all things move to more disordered states. Murphy’s Laws are poignant reminders of the volatility of nature that that only human effort can offset. Collectively, they are a depiction of events inspired by the most fundamental of all natural laws – the Law of Entropy.
Consistent with the underpinning principles of entropic law is the untenable notion of a perpetual motion machine. To function, any such system must generate energy losses at each stage of its various processes: friction and dissipated heat, to name two. Thus, to keep a perpetual machine running, a continuous infusion of fresh energy is an absolute prerequisite. Operation of such a system would violate both the first and second laws of thermodynamics by assuming 100% efficiency (Fig 4). To illustrate, 17% of the energy of a Ford Escort is used to propel the car, whereas 38% is emitted as polluting exhaust waste. A system boasting 100% efficiency is operationally impossible, for no system can convert all its energy into productive work. The combustion engine transforms chemical energy into mechanical energy, heat, and other chemical pollutants emitted in exhaust fumes. Irretrievably lost, the end products of internal combustion cannot be recombined to re-synthesize the original fuel. The simple rationale being that heat energy generated by burning gasoline has achieved an irreversible state of randomization. Combustion has changed a low-entropy concentrated resource into a high-entropy dispersed form and this energy transformation from one state to another is accompanied by a loss of usable energy. Entropy accounts for that loss of usable energy. And there is more.
Entropy describes the energy changes occurring within a system; the extent of energy degradation as it travels from a state of non-equilibrium to a state of equilibrium (maximum entropy). It is a calculus of molecular dispersal and a measure of the energy spent during transformation from one energy state to another – from mechanical energy to heat. Eventually all forms are irreversibly reduced to a more dispersed form of heat energy and irretrievably lost. Ultimately, even solar energy becomes dispersed and unable to perform useful work. Hence entropy measures the extent of energy dispersal.
In thermodynamics, a closed system only allows the transfer of energy – matter cannot enter or leave. Planet Earth, therefore, is a closed system as it derives energy from the sun without exchanging matter with the environment. In keeping with the Entropy Law, in closed systems, all energy forms must move from an ordered to a disordered state. Only the input of human energy can counter this process.
Commercial production and associated consumption are entropic activities. Quantitatively, raw production material is the sum of products and the amount of material waste products ultimately returned to the environment, albeit a qualitative difference exists. The latter being more randomized. Entropy is a measure of that qualitative difference.
During energy transformation – say, mechanical energy to electrical energy to light energy – invariably energy becomes degraded to useless heat energy. Like an energy tax, it is lost forever. Ultimately, energy stored in an inflated tire spontaneously diffuses to an area of lower pressure. That is to say, energy always flows from higher to lower concentrations until it reaches an equilibrium point. It is an inexorable tendency. Similarly, in a system composed of hot and cold bodies the heat invariably flows from the hot to the cold body, never the reverse. The driving force behind this transfer of heat energy is entropy. Not only does heat energy flow from a higher to a lower concentration, but all forms of energy naturally flow from higher to lower densities and ultimately equalize at a point where entropy has reached its maximum, and free energy – the energy to do useful work – is no longer available.
For energy to do work, a differential must exist. For instance, when water falls from a higher level to a lower level, its kinetic energy can be harnessed to spin turbines which in turn can generate electricity. At the lowest possible level, the cascading water has no free energy. Its energy is now said to be randomized, dispersed or in the state of equilibrium and therefore cannot be mobilized to perform useful work (Fig 5). Similarly, wind moving from a high-pressure to a low-pressure area can be used to turn wind turbines to generate electricity. Without the difference in atmospheric pressure, this energy cannot be exploited for advantage. As a general rule, for energy to accomplish any useful work, it has to travel move from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration.
In more liberal terms, entropy measures the waste generated when work is done for improvement of the quality of human life: [whether it is] the struggle of the species in an ecosystem, the biological reactions of a living organism or even the politics of a societal system.
Bio-economist, Martin O’Connor, has lucidly encapsulated the quintessential relationship between human effort and entropy when he incisively blared that economic activity, intended to satisfy human needs runs against the general tendency of the universe to move toward a state of greater disorder, of higher entropy. Human labor runs against this tendency toward increasing disorder of the physical world. It sets into motion the energy sleeping within nature, converts ‘wild’ energy into ‘domesticated,’ useful energy. But to make this useful energy available, a certain amount of human energy (effort) must be expended, either in the form of energy stored in machines or in the form of living human labor. Undoubtedly, the anti-entropic effect of human effort is proven scientific dogma. The successes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs amply exemplify the rich dividends of sustained effort. In contrast, the destinies of the Bernie Madoffs and Elizabeth Holmes’ of the world only serve as corroborating evidence. If the vast wealth of Mr. Donald J Trump is the result of grand scams, grift and con games, like the Trump University, then this universal law predicts a spectacular collapse of his empire. It is pre-consigned to the garbage dumps of history. Just watch.
To counteract the destructive force predicted by this law is an obligation that demands sustained effort. Not mindless speculation mind you, rather it is the Karmic Law, the Second Law, God’s Law.
This post was amended and excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort.