Advertisement

What Entropy Is, and Is Not

To judge from the writings of C.R Snow, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics were once indelicate subjects. Now things have changed, and on the cocktail party circuit we hear of entropy in art, entropy in economics, entropy in urban decay, and other erudite-sounding applications. A most difficult concept in physics is being applied to confused areas in the social sciences, with the impression being conveyed that this increases our comprehension. I have before me a letter from Jeremy Rifk

By | March 23, 1987

To judge from the writings of C.R Snow, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics were once indelicate subjects. Now things have changed, and on the cocktail party circuit we hear of entropy in art, entropy in economics, entropy in urban decay, and other erudite-sounding applications. A most difficult concept in physics is being applied to confused areas in the social sciences, with the impression being conveyed that this increases our comprehension.

I have before me a letter from Jeremy Rifkin, author of Entropy: A New World View. His communication states that "entropy helps explain why we have runaway inflation, soaring unemployment, bloated bureaucracies, a widely escalating energy crisis, and worsening pollution." That sentence is an archetypical example of the patent intellectual nonsense being offered in applying physics to the social sciences. Entropy, a deep and hard-to-penetrate physical construct, is being indiscriminately applied to situations in which it is devoid of physical meaning. No hint is given that the far-from-equilibrium world in which we live is governed by different laws than the thermodynamics learned in an introductory physics course. Boltzmann's work of a hundred years ago is ignored, as are numerous works of modern science showing the antientropic character of energy flow processes.

In short, entropy is being made a code word to explain every political idea Rifkin wishes to propound. This is a dangerous misuse of science, because it may fool the scientifically untrained into believing that certain conclusions come from natural laws, when in fact they do not. Fooling the public with "sciencese" decreases our society's ability to make rational judgments.

The popular purveyors of entropy pap should be reminded of the words of Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain. And drinking largely sobers us again."

In the meantime, what of the notion of entropy? This elegant quantity is a precisely defined construct of physics; it can be rigorously measured for equilibrium systems and can be given meaning for near-to-equilibrium considerations.

The second law, when formulated in terms of entropy, gives powerful insights into a wide variety of problems. It seems a shame to take such a beautiful and exact idea and blur its meaning by indiscriminately applying it to all sorts of areas that have nothing to do with equilibrium thermodynamics. Such a procedure might disorder our thoughts about other disciplines that are already difficult enough.

Morowitz is professor of molecular biophysics at Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, and master of Pierson College. This article is adapted from his book Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life (Berkley paperback, 1986). Reprinted by permission of Charles Scribners Sons.


A Disorderly Lecture

If you have remembered every word I've said, your memory will have recorded about a hundred and fifty thousand bits of information. Thus, the order in your brain will have increased by about a hundred and fifty thousand units. However, while you have been listening to me, you have converted about three hundred thousand joules of ordered energy, in the form of food, into disordered energy, in the form of heat, which you have lost to the air around you by convection and sweat. This has increased the disorder of the universe by about 3x1024 units, about twenty million million million times the increase in order because you remembered my talk. I think, therefore, I had better stop now, before we degenerate to a state of complete disorder.

Excerpted from a lecture by the physicist Stephen Hawking at a symposium in Chicago in December 1986. Quoted in the February 1987 issue of Discover, p. 71.


Advertisement

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Mettler Toledo
Mettler Toledo
Life Technologies