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Entropy and It's Consequences; Part II

The following is the second in a series of articles reflecting on the interconnectedness of entropy, energy, life and the consequences that follow from their interplay. If you have not yet read Part I: Lay of the Land, I'll invite you to please go have a read of it before continuing. Feel free to assist in the navigation of our journey by opining openly regarding anything you've read here, are reminded of, feel is incorrect or insightful. We shall approach a deeper truth together. You can spark up a conversation with me @forgot_thought on twitter.

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.”

Psalm 46:2-3

Entropy is a slippery concept, oft equated and used interchangeably with chaos or disorder, its action is more insidious and prevalent than is apparent to our perception. The concept itself arose from the insatiable curiosity of those people studying combustion, interesting themselves in productivity with which to empower humanity. These were not idealist men but instead men who devoted their lives to improving the human condition. They were men of order.

The delineation of thought surrounding the concept of entropy can be traced through giants like Clausius, Carnot, Gibbs, Boltzmann, Maxwell, and Planck, among others. As with all human knowledge, the idea does not belong to the thinker and the thinker is not defined by the idea. The idea, set free, will be faced by unceasing scrutiny such that it may approach the truth asymptotically.

Entropy is at work in all places and at all times throughout the universe. Boltzmann had, in his short and mentally tortured life, established the probabilistic nature by which entropy exerts itself across the cosmos, generating the arrow of time that we experience.  It is the reason that actions we witness seemingly have only one possible direction, although the mathematics of their occurrence are paradoxically bidirectional.  The classic example is the egg that breaks upon the floor. We never see the egg spontaneously reform and soar back upon the counter from whence it came.

So what has actually occurred here? We have an egg, at a certain height defined in relation to the floor, which has a well ordered, durable shell and a well formed yolk separate from the albumin. When the egg, pushed off the counter by the clumsy chef, with the potential energy stored by virtue of it's height in relation to the floor and under the influence of the force exerted on the egg by gravity, hits the sturdy floor, it does so with such impact that it's highly ordered shell, albumin and yolk become a contorted mess. The complexity of processes required to have this sequence entirely reverse is inconceivable within our current understanding.

Now this may seem like a chaotic event, which would be relative to ones life experience, of increasing disorder. This is in fact true, the egg is much less ordered than it was previously. However, more acutely, what has occurred is that the energy that existed in this system, the potential energy stored in the egg by virtue of its height in reference to the floor, as well as the energy invested by the mother hen in producing the egg, becomes dispersed. There is energy given off as sound and heat as it explodes upon the floor. The egg has become a less dense store of energy as it had once been. Entropy is just this, the dispersion of energy from higher density to lower density. Ultimately, given sufficient time, we shall encounter the heat death of the universe.

Why is this important to us though? To what extent does the action of entropy matter to us mortals living out our ephemeral lives? The fact of the matter is that this principle is foundational. The ordering of organic resources into complex forms such as the human body or the societal structures they navigate, this directional movement to increasing order is not the probabilistic norm. It takes significant investment of energy to accumulate order in the universe. We'll broach the subject of energy with greater detail in a future instalment.

In the formation of life, inanimate resources must be structured in just such a fashion as to give rise to the living entity. The complex processes by which this is enabled requires the harnessing of energy dense resources to facilitate the transformation of matter. This can be viewed as a systemic decrease in entropy from the perspective of the life form as permitted by its having conducted its life giving efforts. But how can entropy decrease, isn't it always and everywhere increasing? In any closed system this is valid, entropy will probabilistically increase. But this is life's magic, it utilizes energy to create a local decrease in entropy in building itself at the expense of a commensurate greater increase in entropy external to itself. The universe increases in entropy while the life form performs a sort of negative entropic slight of hand. However, as the life giving processes are faced with their probabilistic demise, it requires persistent upkeep.

What is true of life is true of all life's creations, all of the order that we, or other lifeforms for that matter, impose on the world. All we endeavour to create comes at the expense of increasing entropy more rapidly in the surrounding environment. I will refer to this process henceforth, that of the humans immense capacity to transform organic resources into localized order, negentropism. This term represents the aggregate assimilation of energy by human endeavour to become the intellectual mega fauna that we represent.

As we come to understand entropy and the underlying physical reality of the universe we live in we are enabled to practice negentropism with ever greater efficiency to achieve ever greater grandeur.

In Entropy and It's Consequences; Part III, we will begin an in depth exploration of entropy and it's implications for information, computing and cryptography.

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