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Thermodynamic Mysteries: What is Meant by the Heat Death of the Universe?

written by: Dr. Crystal Cooper•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/31/2009

When physicists discuss the heat death of the universe, what do they mean by it? And how did a Scottish nobleman, a gloomy German physicist who had abandoned the practice of medicine, and a British bachelor who also doubled as an engineer contribute to the origin of this doomsday scenario?

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    When Keats proclaimed "A thing of beauty is a joy forever", he did not take into account the concept of entropy. Entropy will eventually send the nature he so eloquently describes to the path that all the living must take. "Dust to dust", as the Bible succinctly puts it.An unhappy flame 

    Basically, entropy quantifies the quality of energy. It tells you if the energy available can do useful work or not, by measuring the amount of disorder in a system. It is continually increasing throughout the universe. An introduction, including its history, may be found at Bright Hub's What is Entropy. One consequence of the theory, to use Robert Oppenheimer's quote from the Bhagavad Gita, is its role as a "destroyer of worlds" via heat death. The universe will cease to change, because the entropy will be at a maximum.

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    An endangered pastime A basic physics course teaches that the energy of the universe is constant; it cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be changed from one form to another. This concept was first put forth by the Scottish physicist Lord Kelvin, who was the first to develop the Kelvin as a temperature scale, and who also coined the term "thermodynamics". A refresher, including of how you can conduct your own experiment by rubbing your hands together, may be found at Bright Hub's Conservation of Energy.

    Lord Kelvin, combining the logic of no new energy sources with that of the relentlessness of entropy in light of the second law of thermodynamics, decided that there would be no more energy in the universe; all heat would diffuse evenly throughout, and all motion everywhere would cease. The temperature would be that of 0 kelvin or absolute zero.

    German physician turned physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, following up on Lord Kelvin, coined the term "heat death" in 1854. He declared that the world would become of uniform temperature and "be condemned to a state of eternal rest". The idea of "the end of all physical phenomena" was developed by British physicist and engineer William Rankine, who is famed for his seminal work on steam engine theory such as the Rankine cycle.

    When is the heat death of the universe supposed to occur, and what will happen to the Earth, the stars, and all living creatures when it happens? These questions will be addressed in part two.

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    Physics for Scientists and Engineers by Douglas Giancoli

    Physics For Scientists and Engineers by Raymond Serway

    Energy and Empire A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin by Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise

    Essential University Physics by Richard Wolfson

    Dictionary of the History of Ideas

    Image Credits

    BBQ Fire by Avinmannn