Paul W. Smith
Chaos Always Wins *
The laws under which we live serve to guard our general safety and protect us from harm by other members of our community. Some have changed over time to reflect differences between our modern society, and that of 1789 when our Constitution was born. We are similarly governed by the laws of physics which, except for an occasional breakthrough discovery, have changed very little. They too are beneficial, though in a different way.
As an example, consider the steam engine. Hero of Alexandria is credited with inventing the first one in 60 AD. Known as an aeolipile, it spun around frantically on steam power, but never had any practical value. Many variations surfaced over the ensuing centuries, until Scottish inventor James Watt made a series of improvements (patented in 1769) and produced a practical steam powered machine. In doing so, he prompted early 19th century physicists to ruminate over heat, energy and work. At the time, most laws were empirical – if the same thing held true through years of repeated trials, it was probably something you could count on.
All of these observations eventually boiled down to the three fundamental laws of thermodynamics (a “zeroth” was added later). The First, which is no less than the foundation for all of modern physics, says in layman’s terms that there is no free lunch, i.e., energy can neither be created nor destroyed in an isolated system. This (along with the Second Law) pretty much rules out perpetual motion machines. The Third Law deals with a temperature of absolute zero – where there is no motion of anything whatsoever - that is impossible to achieve (clearly this one is a bit theoretical). It is the Second Law, however, that is most intriguing.
If you wanted to cool down your room on a hot summer’s day, you probably wouldn’t set a glass of ice on the table. Whether through empirical study or common sense, we just know it won’t work. Physicists attribute this to entropy – a measure of the chaos in a system. The larger, hotter room has a nearly infinite number of ways it’s lively molecules can arrange themselves, all the while remaining just a room full of hot air. The slower molecules in ice have far fewer options. The higher entropy of the room wins, the ice melts, and the room stays hot. The Second Law further notes that after the room and the ice have settled on a common temperature, the combined system will have higher entropy (i.e., disorder) than before. The bottom line – the chaos in an isolated system can only grow.
Like most of my STEM colleagues, I spent a good deal of time in institutions of higher learning mastering the basic laws of physics that have been handed down through the ages. Only in hindsight have I recognized how the same laws that govern nonliving systems often manifest themselves in social arrangements as well. When chaos and order go mano a mano in either, chaos gets the upper hand.
Just as the Second Law warns us that chaos is destined to increase, so can the laws of physics in aggregate guard and protect us. The key words are “isolated system” – pulling energy out of the system can calm those jittery molecules and lower the chaos. As an example, look no further than the ice maker in your refrigerator - or perhaps that one calming individual in an otherwise unruly conference room. Over the years, I’ve found this to be something you can count on.
It should probably be a Law.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.