Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Enthusiasm, Optimism and Entropy


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In the wee small hours of this morning, I had one of those elusive moments of clarity; in fact, one of those moments so aptly described by Kona Macphee on the introduction of her excellent new blog site earlier in the year. Apart from the lack of sleep, this was a consequence of watching a documentary about the universe – always guaranteed to stir my brain into action – combined with thinking, as I am wont to do with my recently discovered propensity for getting in touch with my literate side, about the human condition, our general outlook on life and how we deal with it; pessimism and a lack of eagerness on the one hand; optimism and enthusiasm on the other. It is a perspective, in other words, but one that fills me, not only with hope, but also with wonder, especially when you view that perspective in the dramatic light of the universe.

I am talking about BBC2 television's documentary, the ‘Wonders of the Universe’. Episode one was shown a couple of weeks ago, but I watched it on the iPlayer last night. It is presented by Professor Brian Cox, who somehow manages to demonstrate, well, at least convince us, that, just as the universe had its beginning – the so-called ‘Big Bang’ – about thirteen billion[1] seven hundred million years ago, so it is predicted that it will have an ending, albeit rather a long time hence! So he concluded this, the first episode, by leaving us with an extraordinary perspective on time and of how we can come to terms, not only with how long the universe has existed already (ibid) but also with the mind-boggling amount of time it has left to exist – before all matter contracts into ‘Black Dwarves', which then dissolve into non-matter; suffice to say there was an awesome count of zero’s on the end of the number he quoted (trillion, trillion, trillion[1] several times, in years!). Then, as if to dash our hopes to fears of the nearness of the end of the world, presenting this  documentary, as he does, with an element of drama that would grace the screening of a roller-caster Hollywood thriller, he then explained that life in the universe - that is effectively our life here on earth - was represented by an extremely small fraction (with an awesome number of zero’s on the bottom line this time) of a percent of that total time. But worry not, dear readers, because we still have an estimated one billion (thousand million) years to go before our own sun begins to die, by expanding and enveloping the planets in our solar system, then contracting into, well, nothing!

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So, in spite, or rather, because of the awesome scale of all of this, there is a great deal of optimism that should be felt as a result, but not necessarily for the most obvious reason. I know some people have great difficulty coming to terms with the results of scientific research into the evolution of the cosmos, and some I know actually cannot accept the concepts, relating to its make up and propounded by scientists, that seem to deny that the universe, or at least the earth, had a genesis and was therefore created. These alternative views have to be respected; I would go on to propose that the two views are not mutually exclusive, but this particular discussion will have to wait for another time.

Out of the three core subjects, Maths, Physics and Chemistry, I always remember enjoying physics most of all. It was perhaps the more visible nature of most of its disciplines, that appealed; understanding the principles of heat, light, sound, electricity, magnetism, gravity, force, energy and all the experiments that were done to test and prove the theories. During the latter stages of my further scientific and engineering education, I also had to study that branch of physics, which was known as thermodynamics. I found this subject very tedious, but on reflection this was mainly due to the horrible mathematics that were inevitably required to define and measure its principles; and maths wasn’t my favourite discipline! The one principle, or rather variable, which is in fact fundamental to the second law of thermodynamics, and which I have always retained in my memory for some strange reason, is ‘Entropy’. Ent-what? I hear you ask! Well, the description of entropy I remember is that it is a measure of the “tendency toward disorder”.

Brian Cox introduced entropy by going to a disused diamond mine in the desert of Southern Namibia, which was abandoned over fifty years ago, the remains of which is a picture of decaying buildings, which are in the process of gradually being taken over by the desert’s sand and dissolving into nature. He illustrated the principle of entropy by comparing a simple pile of sand with a sand castle, which he made in a good old square shaped seaside sand bucket. The former, pile of sand, he described as having “maximum entropy” because there were an almost infinite number of ways it could be re-ordered without significantly changing its shape or structure. In other words, it was very ‘disordered’. The shaped sand castle, on the other hand, with its flat sides and four little corner castellations, had a very defined and specific shape and structure; it was very ‘ordered’. The second law of thermodynamics basically states that the quality of matter deteriorates gradually over time; likewise, usable energy, which is inevitably used for productivity, growth and repair, is converted into unusable energy; hence the tendency toward disorder. So too the sand castle, left to the natural forces of the desert, over (in this case a relatively short) time, it will revert to a pile of sand.

You may well by now be asking what am I on about; shouting at your screen “get to the point”, assuming, that is, that you have got this far in reading this! Well, let me tell you there is most certainly a point. As the title of this post suggests, it is not just about entropy and thermodynamics, it is also about enthusiasm for and optimism about life. It is also, therefore, about human endeavour, from the smallest and least significant to the most admirable and life changing endeavours ever achieved by the human race. Whatever your accomplishments, however great or small they are, or however great or small a part you play in greater collaborative achievements, they still represent progress in both time and towards order.

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The other principle put forth by astrophysicists, which seems to be irrefutable, is that time is irreversible. Professor Cox referred to this as the arrow of time, always pointing and moving in one direction, never going back. He does give lip service to the possibility that this cannot be said to be true with absolute certainty, but that it is extremely unlikely or, in statistical terminology, there is a very low probability that time will reverse. So it must also be with human enterprise, in whatever field of endeavour it may be, there is need for us to accept that we will always move forwards, never backwards; onwards and, preferably, upwards in our understanding of life, our world and the universe. Otherwise, there is a tendency toward disorder, mentally, physically and maybe spiritually too. We can read about the past, we can look at pictures of it and we can learn from it, but we live for the future.

Trying to persuade a teenager to tidy their bedroom is impossible without dangling a carrot; and even then it is still difficult. Maybe they could be persuaded by the thought of ‘black dwarves’ imploding and evaporating into nothingness as a consequence of not keeping their bedrooms in order and halting the ‘tendency toward disorder’. May be, or may be not! But our every move, motivation and impulse is driven by the march of time as well as this tendency in our everyday lives - let alone what is happening in the world at large - toward disorder, whether that disorder has natural or man-made causes. But I don't think we should feel any less relaxed about the march of time than we would otherwise feel. On the contrary, I suggest, as a result of this thesis, this comparison with the enormity of the universe, that, provided we can get our minds round the huge timescales, we should allow its perspective to comfort us: that there is no panic or rush. As much as we can sometimes enjoy the moment, life is really a journey into the future. Technically, we cannot stand still; we have to accept that our standing still and enjoying the moment is, still, moving and progressing into the future. It is deeply ingrained in our being.

So, I suppose it depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, an enthusiast or less eager, as to whether you find it easier or harder to push the outside of the envelope and push back the disorder in our lives. But push we must. There is an enduring lesson that I take from this particular perspective. When I compare the huge amount of time that will have elapsed between the beginning and ending of the universe to our own, rather smaller, timescale; our own small little part of the world, which is an even smaller (by a trillion, trillion, trillion, etc orders of magnitude) than the great big cosmos, then the feeling I am left with is that we have plenty of time. Did you know that, since our forebears first evolved on our earth, in africa about two and a half million years ago, our own solar system has revolved around the galaxy (‘milky way’) by only one percent of a complete orbit of the galaxy; and the galaxy itself is only one of billions in the universe. So, hey, if things didn’t quite go to plan today, whatever; "am I bovvered" as Catherine Tate would say!

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I’m not sure to whom the quotation is attributed, but Professor Brian Cox, in the process of concluding the first episode, said that “Life is the means by which the cosmos understands itself.” Seemingly an obvious statement on one level, but an extraordinarily significant one on another. There could well be other, similar life in another solar system in our own galaxy or in another galaxy farther away; we don't really know the probability of this being the case, but - in spite of an imperfect world, one which sometimes seems to be broken - to be who we are, where we are right now, is very special; don’t you think?


[1] A billion, at least the currently accepted American definition, is a thousand million; a trillion is a million million.

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. This is a very interesting article. I love thinking about the Universe and how it works. Apart from it being very intriguing, it makes the problems we worry about seem so negligible--diluted in a sea of zeroes.

    Regarding thermodynamics, you might be interested in a quote by a famous German physicist, Arnold Sommerfeld (1865-1951). This stands on page 43 (and not 42), of my physical chemistry textbook, which I still have after all those years. This is what he said, "Thermodynamics is a funny subject. The first time you go through the subject, you don't understand it at all. The second time you go through it, you think you understand it, except for one or two small points. The third time you go through it, you *know* you don't understand it, but by that time you are so used to the subject that it doesn't bother you any more."

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  3. The universe is awesome I agree; I do love your "sea of zeroes", it is truly so, not just in its physical dims but also on an ultimate scale of time.

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  4. Sommerfeld's statement certainly resonates with my experience of thermodynamics, as a budding metallurgist, albeit many years ago. Loved the principles, hated the maths (your subject I think).

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