Things Fall Apart-Part 1 Entropy

An aging widower is losing the battle to maintain his crumbling home. The body of a gray fox lies prone in a stand of birch trees; over a season it swells, decomposes, then shrinks back into the soil. Rivulets of spring water roll down a hillside. What thread connects these disparate phenomena?

Each is obeying a universal principle—that any system, from a tree to a mountain to a molecule and its atoms, tends towards its most stable state. Invariably, the most stable state of a system is that of lowest energy. The aging widower’s house would be most stable as a pile of rubble; the fox is at its lowest energy as its constituent parts unwind and rejoin the soil; the spring water is most stable at the bottom of the hill.

Entropy–the name given this universal principle–is most precisely described in terms of thermodynamics, where it concerns the dissipation of energy as heat, but it equally predicts a more general tendency to disorder; a state of disorder is always the lowest energy configuration of a system, and is therefore most stable. Entropy is why milk blends uniformly into our coffee, why ice melts in a drink, water finds the lowest point, why things fall apart. These states are at low energy, high disorder, stable.

This principle is part of our intuitive understanding of reality, and is why when we dump out a bag of sand, we expect it to just spread out everywhere rather than spontaneously twirl itself into a sandcastle. When we spill water, we know it will head through the cracks in the floorboards.

Yet all around us is evidence of order, of complexity. The world is filled with systems that seem to violate this entropy principle. It would shake our foundations to see a castle assemble itself in the sand, yet all the vastly unlikely, highly ordered life all around us seems quite natural. A tree, a bacterium, our human bodies are in a real sense infinitely less likely to exist than that spontaneous sandcastle, yet here we are.

Instead of grains of sand, it is trillions of minute particles that swirl up from the basic elements found on Earth into a fantastically unlikely configuration—our bodies and those of all living things—and are held together despite the pull of entropy.

What ingredient opposes this universal tendency to disorder? For there are houses not crumbling, foxes not decomposing, water on hills. The necessary ingredient is energy. With energy, a system can maintain its order and complexity; it can stay far from the disordered state to which entropy is always prodding it. So energy put into a house, by clearing the gutters and painting, repairing the foundation, flashing the windows, can maintain it as a highly ordered system. Water can be carried up a hill, and an energetic little beachcomber can build a sandcastle.

But where does the energy come from? The ultimate source of energy for living systems on Earth is the Sun. Its limitless light showers down and powers all our activities. Life evolved on this planet in the Sun’s glow and in such a way as to be able to utilize its radiant energy.

For the duration of our lives, we take in energy, and we are thereby allowed a relative hiatus from the ceaseless beckoning of entropy. The moment that energy is no longer available we, like the gray fox, step back into the flow, where entropy carries us back to stability, to disorder. All the constituents that had miraculously arranged themselves to compose us, now begin to unlink, unfurl, disengage, and are released back into the environment.

In fact, as we will see, there is one more critical ingredient besides energy that makes life possible. But for now, we begin with energy—how light is fuel, and how we use that fuel to stave off, temporarily, our slide into ruin.

Published on November 29, 2006 at 11:05 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is very good. Thank you.

  2. […] principle of entropy states that systems tend toward their most stable state, and usually that stable state is that of […]

  3. Thank you for this post, very enlightening. Although I am of a different view when touching the evolution of life, I have to agree that all things come to a disorder, and I first heard this idea from Chuck Missler who was explaining how since “sin” came into the world all things tended to a disorder because the world became cursed. You don’t have to be of the same view, but perhaps if you heard some of his material you may find it very interesting.

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