Thoughts on the Rubi’s Scientific American article:
Does Nature Break the Second Law of Thermodynamics?
By J. Miguel Rubí
The First Law of Thermodynamics formally stating that the energy in the universe is constant is not a revelation. The concept that energy doesn’t mysteriously appear and that energy is never lost in nature is generally accepted as true and does not require much proof. Hence, if energy is never lost, then why can’t bodies in motion indefinitely remain in motion? In the 1800’s, no matter how hard inventors tried, a perpetual motion machine could never be built. Friction that resulted in heat slowly “stole” energy away, thereby creating a nagging problem that made scientist somehow try to technologically devise a system to recapture this lost energy and try to return it back to the machine so that it could remain in apparent perpetual motion. Such an accomplishment has never been achieved. The concept of a zero loss energy system resulted in the branch of science called thermodynamics which is a statistical view of mechanics. Though few would disagree that the lost energy could theoretically be recaptured, its dissipation created a new energy cost in its reclamation making such an endeavor not worthwhile to pursue. The linking of the scattering of energy and the internal energy of a system resulted in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Miguel Rubi, in his article, The Long Arm of the Second Law, restates the law in that: the universe is becoming more and more disorganized, energy is inherently wasted no matter how efficient the machine and there’s nothing that we can do about it!
Based on observation from the Hubble telescope and observations of the back flash from the “Big Bang” a recent article in Discover Magazine reported the final conclusion that the universe will dissipate to what Rubi referred to as “an eternal stasis of heat death”. This “dark” force of chaos, called entropy, will be powerful enough to even evaporate black holes. The thesis of Rubi’s article is to bring to light that all is nearly as gloomy as it may seem. Furthermore, Rubi points out that there are many instances where disorganization paradoxically creates order and “… belie(s) the idea that nature tends to become steadily more disorganized.” The misconception is pointed out that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is not so dynamic at all. How ironic its name, the original Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies to states that are in equilibrium where there is no dynamic change. What’s so dynamic about that?
Though scientists ponder the reversibility of small sequential states of equilibrium, point in fact what appears to be a succession of equilibrium states can be reversible whereby the net change is in fact irreversible. Rubi uses a melting ice cube in water to prove this point. Incrementally, any step could be reversed, but spontaneous ice cubes just don’t form and the only way that you will be able to get one to reform is by putting the water back into the freezer. Rubi gives many examples where states of dynamic equilibriums exist that give rise to order and organization. A toaster and thermocouple, forward and reverse osmosis are surprisingly two pairs of reciprocal operations that are indeed reversible in the face of dynamic equilibrium states. Standard thermodynamics are compelled to explain away these phenomena as “nonequilibrium thermodynamics”.
Rubi explains that nonequilibrium thermodynamics does not break any of the thermodynamic laws. He proposes that a mixed drink that was stirred with a swizzle stick contains pockets that are in various local equilibriums in the midst of dynamic change that is occurring in an ocean of temperature gradients and concentration gradients as the mixed drink is being stirred. The only time that this system breaks down is when there would a dramatic change such as a chemical reaction or when the system is so small that behavior varies greatly over small distances. Rubi points out that the classical thermodynamic variable set is not rich enough to explain these phenomena. He also points out that even systems of excessively small size still shouldn’t fail. He argues that just because a few coin tosses results in a series of heads, tossing the coins long enough will still result in the expected average.
Rubi concludes that thermodynamics apply equally to the steam engine of the 1800’s as well as the biology running life’s machinery at the molecular level, since after all, both are still motors and both still result in moving things. Properly applied, thermodynamics provides computational shortcuts and insights to the understanding of these intricate systems. Though we will ultimately lose the war against steadily increasing chaos, thermodynamics will continue to foster existence of the increasingly complex.