Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thermodynamics laws for laypeople (the Entropy of War)

First Law : Fool's GOLD !
I am frequently called upon to explain the two main laws of thermodynamics that are my two lead characters in SVE and I generally try to explain them in a pared down sort of way.

 I begin by saying that the First law deals exclusively with the quantity of mass and energy in the universe : that quantity can never get bigger or smaller --- it can merely change its state ( ie character).

By contrast, the Second law deals exclusively in quality not quantity : it says that the quality (ie the character) of mass and energy becomes steadily less useful (to K-selected creatures like humans) as parts of it become more and more widely dispersed.

"Useful" for giant K-selected beings like humanity, is really code for "concentrated" : being giant in size and hunger and few in number, one molecule of sucrose every few miles along a trail won't keep us alive.

(Thus the concept of "lack of physical concentration as an biological limiting factor" is anathema to classical economists ,who have bathed exclusively in the Kool-aid of the First Law of Thermodynamics.)

Tell us, about ALL the gold in seawater...

Glad you asked, because 'Gold molecules in seawater 'is the classic 'dividing' example.

 People of the First law always proudly *deny* that we can be running out of gold - 'gosh, the amount in the oceans alone will last us folks for, oh say, billions of years at least.'

True, predictably sigh the folks of the Second law sardonically : only too true - if we but had the trillions of trillions in dollars needed to recover those molecules of gold scattered ocean wide!

But bacteria, being widely dispersed themselves (and thus being the ultimate in r-selected lifeforms) can profitably recover those widely dispersed gold molecules : they may only need a few dozen atoms of gold to make enough copies of a vital enzyme to survive and reproduce.

We humans demonstrate the superiority of the fundamental second law to the  derived first law every time we go to war.

The embodied energy in the artillery shell and gunpowder used to propel it along and blow it up, along with the embodied energy in the building it destroys , will never cease to exist as a quantity.

But as a quality, we can never usefully use them ever again : the energy has gone off to heat up the air and ultimately the Universe.

And the tiny fragments of shell body? They are now widely scattered and rusting in the soil. The building fragments have been used as rubble to fill holes in the ground.

That ,my friends, is a very uniquely human form of entropy : a wide - and useless - dispersing of once-usefully concentrated energy and matter.....

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