Thursday, January 06, 2011

Marcelo Gleiser - Cosmos Vs. Chaos: Entropic Thoughts For A New Year

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser, who blogs at NPR's 13.7 Culture & Cosmos group blog, had some thoughts on the end of 2010 and the arrival of another new year.

He muses that part of the impact of order in nature is to create disorder - which feels to me like the scared dance of chaos.

It happened again, the year is gone. Some people think it went too fast, others too slow. We want to learn from our experiences, avoid repeating mistakes, start doing new things, activities that now make sense, that recently became compelling: a new diet, a new exercise routine, a new blog, volunteering for a charity. We do it to make the new year new, to separate it from the one that just finished, to make it better and, in the process, to make us better.

We are busy creatures, trying to undo Nature’s trend of undoing. We try to bring order, some measure of control over the disorder around us: cosmos vs. chaos.

Einstein once remarked that of all theories of physics, the one that he’d bet wouldn’t change is thermodynamics, the study of heat and disorder. Gravity could change, quantum mechanics could change, even electromagnetism could change. But the three laws of thermodynamics are here to stay. The first says that energy is conserved. The second that in an isolated system (that is, a system that doesn’t exchange energy with the outside world) disorder — entropy — grows. The third says that you can’t cool a system below “absolute zero,” equivalent to a temperature of -459 Fahrenheit. The reason is simple: you can’t take away heat from something that has none left.

Some may object to what I said above, that Nature has a trend of undoing things, and state that Nature creates all the time, that we see order all around us, in flowers, rainbows and, of course, in ourselves. Well, we are not a closed system: we, animals, plants, Earth, exchange energy with each other and, most importantly, with the Sun. We are solar creatures, completely dependent on the Sun for our existence. In fact, the balance is precarious; if the Sun misbehaved a bit we would be toast.

But none of this stuff today.

A lot of the order that we see around us, from hurricanes to waves to storms — like the one that just hit the Northeast (see Adam’s post yesterday), living creatures big and small, all can be interpreted as mechanisms to increase disorder, degrading the luminous energy coming from the Sun into amorphous infrared radiation that the Earth exhales back into outer space. The second law says it in a gloomy way: the structures that exist now are bumps on the road to an inexorable end where disorder will triumph. This kind of thinking made many people unhappy in the 19th Century. It still does today. Maybe it’s time to shift our focus. Something else to do this coming year.

To obsess over what will happen in the “end” is to miss what goes on now. What matters is what happens in between.

We and all other living creatures (and hurricanes and rainbows) are the spurts of order that makes it all worthwhile. The wonder is in the richness of forms that do emerge en route to disorder, the holdouts against decay. To look at things from a one-dimensional perspective tends to lead us into a very distorted view of reality. This is John Keats’ (mistaken) critique of science that we find in his poem Lamia, that reason “unweaves the rainbow,” that to use it to interpret reality is to take away the beauty of Nature. I’d say that to use only reason is the mistake: There are many ways to look at a rainbow and they all serve different purposes and have useful meanings.

A rainbow should be looked at in many different ways. Only then can we admire it fully.

Science and scientists are not one-dimensional; we don’t look at Nature only from the light of reason. To look for explanations behind natural phenomena is, as Einstein remarked, akin to an act of devotion. To admire a flower or a rainbow for their beauty and to then try to understand their function within a wider natural landscape only adds to their beauty. In this sense, there is a religious aspect to science. The word religion comes from “religare,” to reconnect. But reconnect with what? Different choices for different religions. As we search for the laws that describe Nature and its creations, we are reconnecting with our cosmic origins. This is my religare, the one that brings meaning to my life and makes me whole. If life is a struggle against the inexorable mandate of entropic growth and material decay, it is even more beautiful for it.

Why not call it sacred?

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