Loaded Dice - Thermodynamics, Entropy, and Heat Death
written by: Dr. Crystal Cooper•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/15/2009
Life contributes to a net increase in the entropy of the universe and thereby heat death.
But is this still true when a living thing dies? Also presented here is a popular seventeen word summary of the laws of thermodynamics.
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How Death Contributes to An Increase In Entropy
We've seen that life causes a decrease in entropy, though it still causes a net increase in the entropy of the universe. Living things that are deceased are no longer able to decrease entropy. But their death itself means that they have contributed to the disorder of the universe - heat is no longer produced, mechanical work such as lifting can no longer be done, the nature of the chemical reactions created will drastically change, and part of the heretofore life will be transformed into unavailable energy.
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The Summing Up
With a nod to Somerset Maugham, whose title I have liberally borrowed, I now present British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow's humorous modification of a popular summary of the laws of thermodynamics, with commentary by myself and Professor Paul Hewitt. The zeroth law is not in the original version.
Zeroth Law: You must play the game. You don't have a choice as to whether you are in or out. One is reminded of Don Corleone's offer you can't refuse.
First Law: You can't win. You can't get any more energy out of a system than what you put into it - no cheating is allowed, ever.
Second Law: You can't break even. You can put in useful energy but you can't ever get as much useful energy out. Your return on your investment of 100 units will yield you 40 or 20 or 15 - 10 units back, for example. Of course it goes without saying that it is impossible for you to invent a perpetual motion machine.
Third Law: You can't quit the game. You can't get out of the game, as you are trapped in a universe where entropy is always increasing and there is nothing you can ever do about it. Period.
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The Dice Are Loaded
Einstein famously stated "God does not play dice with the universe" but it sure appears that entropy does, and that the dice are always loaded.
Next up - while the consensus is that the heat death of the universe is inevitable, physicists disagree on whether this indeed means the end of all life. What are some of the alternate scenarios that allow for life's the ultimate survival? We will examine a few of them in part five.