The Idea of Entropy Has Led Us Astray
Date: Saturday, July 04, 2020 @ 23:10:01 MST
Topic: General


Via nautil.us: Let’s stop hustling as if the world is running toward disorder.
By Aaron Hirsh July 1, 2020

...By returning to the Victorian origins of the laws of thermodynamics, we can see how—and, perhaps, why—those laws have been broadly misconstrued and misapplied. In the 19th century, the first textbooks on the science of thermodynamics emerged from the work of Rudolf Clausius, in Berlin, as well as William Thomson (often called Lord Kelvin) and William Rankine, both in Glasgow. Studying how machines, such as steam engines, could exchange heat for mechanical work and vice-versa, these physicists learned of strict limits on efficiency.


The best a machine could possibly do was to give up a small amount of energy as wasted heat. They also observed that if you had something that was hot on one side but cold on the other, the temperature would always even out. Their results were synthesized in the first two laws:

     I.  The change in the internal energy of an isolated thermodynamic system is equal to the difference between the heat supplied to the system and the amount of work done by the system on its surroundings.

     II. Heat cannot spontaneously flow from a colder body to a hotter body. Or, phrased in terms of Clausius’ new concept of entropy, the total entropy of an isolated system will increase over time.

Thermodynamics was extremely useful science for a society in the throes of rapid industrialization and a shift toward a capitalistic free market. The laws and their extensions could be applied to improving the engines driving advances in productivity. Just as importantly, they could be phrased in broad terms that were ideologically aligned with the cultural transformation underway, from an agrarian community of smallholding farmers to an urban society of wage-earning factory workers. For example: You never get anything—energy or work—for free. (On a small farm, in a hospitable climate, you sometimes do; as a factory-worker, you definitely don’t.) Or: Without the input of energy through work (and perhaps combusting coal) a system tends naturally toward cold and disorder. I do not mean to imply that there was something scientifically dubious about the research behind the laws, only that it was neither accidental nor inconsequential that they developed amid—and were articulated in terms reflective of—the broader social transformation that was underway.

    Let’s add a fourth law: There is no such thing as an isolated system.
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