2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Sense of Style
The Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. (The First Law is that energy is conserved; the Third, that a temperature of absolute zero is unreachable.) Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.

In its original formulation the Second Law referred to the process in which usable energy in the form of a difference in temperature between two bodies is dissipated as heat flows from the warmer to the cooler body. Once it was appreciated that heat is not an invisible fluid but the motion of molecules, a more general, statistical version of the Second Law took shape. Now order could be characterized in terms of the set of all microscopically distinct states of a system: Of all these states, the ones that we find useful make up a tiny sliver of the possibilities, while the disorderly or useless states make up the vast majority. It follows that any perturbation of the system, whether it is a random jiggling of its parts or a whack from the outside, will, by the laws of probability, nudge the system toward disorder or uselessness. If you walk away from a sand castle, it won’t be there tomorrow, because as the wind, waves, seagulls, and small children push the grains of sand around, they’re more likely to arrange them into one of the vast number of configurations that don’t look like a castle than into the tiny few that do.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is acknowledged in everyday life, in sayings such as “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” You can’t unscramble an egg,” “What can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn), “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”

Scientists appreciate that the Second Law is far more than an explanation for everyday nuisances; it is a foundation of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. In 1915 the physicist Arthur Eddington wrote:

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

In his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow commented on the disdain for science among educated Britons in his day:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

And the evolutionary psychologists John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Clark Barrett entitled a recent paper on the foundations of the science of mind “The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the First Law of Psychology.”

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.