Monday, January 28, 2008

Running out the clock

The tendency of energy to become randomly distributed in the kinetic form among molecules is the basis of the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are almost as many statements of this law as there are thermodynamicists, but all of them convey the idea that in an isolated system entropy will increase...A system moving toward equilibrium assumes the most disordered molecular state consistent with the conditions under which it is maintained. At equilibrium everything is completely homogeneous and nothing interesting can happen.
Ah yes, a statement of the Second Law, this one by thermodynamicist Harold Morowitz. Everything tends to disorder. Tell me about it.

It happens faster in the tropics. My house on the beach in Exuma is a blunt violation of the Second Law, an affront to the equilibrium system that has evolved here over eons. A non-equilibrium structure made of non-equilibrium materials in a non-equilibrium place. And the Second Law knows it. The Second Law is doing everything it can to remove the affront.

Termites, sun, salt and rot are as articulate at expressing the Second Law as any thermodynamicist. To maintain the affront to equilibrium requires a constant input of what Erwin Schrodinger called negentropy. Which in this case means mostly money.

My house requires a constant dose of negentropy at the expense of my own negentropy, which like the negentropy of all life must come at the expense of a greater tendency of disorder elsewhere, namely at the center of the sun. The universe is running down. We can buck the trend but not stop it. Ultimately every affront to disorder -- a living organism, a beach house -- is doomed to dust. Paint, bug spray, hurricane shutters, pressure-treated timber -- all a brief uptick in the running down clock of time.

"At equilibrium everything is completely homogeneous and nothing interesting can happen," says Morowitz. I've had a few too many surprises lately. I could use some entropic repose.