Monthly Archives: November 2014

Ludwig Boltzmann: The Master of Disorder

BoltzmannThe principle in physics called entropy has a convoluted history. The genesis of the idea started in the 1800s with the industrial revolution and the advent of steam engines. Although steam power was producing an incredible amount of energy and transforming societies, the fundamental physical laws behind the process was largely unknown. The full story behind solving this question concludes with Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmannand his view of entropy. His insights into the physical reality behind heat and energy were later applied to a much larger scheme, including the whole universe.

The Universe in a Coffee Cup

Why does a hot cup of coffee left on a table get colder over time? The answer to this simple question is at the heart of Boltzmann’s idea. The explanation is due to the behavior of atoms. Today, the existence of atoms is taken for granted, but back in the late 1800s many prominent scientists did not believe in atoms (including Ernst Mach, one of Boltzmann’s adversaries). No one had observed an atom, and it was thought that no one ever would. Nevertheless, Boltzmann peered deeper into the physical world than any of his contemporaries.

cup of coffeeLet’s get back to the hot cup of coffee. The heat from the coffee will disperse to the cup, the table and the surrounding air, until the temperature of the coffee is roughly equal to its environment. The same amount of energy still exists, but now covers a wider area. The flow of energy, left alone, will always flow from a hot source to a cold source. This natural flow of energy was the secret behind the steam engine, as the heat energy was converted to physical work. Boltzmann realized that this phenomenon of heat transferring and dispersing could be explained within the framework of atoms.

In the hot coffee, the atoms are tightly arranged and jostling about. The vibrations of the atoms are responsible for the heat. But as they move they contact the atoms of the cup, and transfer some of their energy. This continual process of bumping eventually distributes the heat energy to a much larger number of atoms. In the hot coffee the atoms are arranged in a unique way, but there are may possible arrangements in which the atoms can spread out. In the language of entropy, the system has moved from low entropy (an ordered state) to high entropy (a disordered state). The natural tendency for systems to move from order to disorder is now understood as a fundamental principle that underpins the entire universe. Loosely speaking, this describes the second law of thermodynamics.

 What is Order and Disorder?

disorderClassical physics, the method of scientific reasoning that held sway since Issac Newton, demanded that precise calculations were made. Physics was about discovering exactly how things moved and interacted. If atoms really existed, the sheer amount of them imposed an almost insurmountable problem. How could they ever be studied? Boltzmann took a different approach. Perhaps his greatest insight was that the motion of atoms could be described mathematically by using statistical probabilities. In addition to studying atoms, probabilities could be used to determine the amount of entropy in any system. This idea leads us to a definition of order and disorder:

  • Order means that there are very few configurations, if changed, which would go unnoticed.
  • Disorder means that there are many configurations, if changed, which would go unnoticed.

For example, take the analogy of a deck of playing cards. Dealt at random, there are few arrangements of cards that will line up in numerical order. Conversely, there are many arrangements of cards that will be mixed up. The reason is obvious. The probability is much higher for a disordered configuration than for an ordered configuration. Order is a special and unique condition, while disorder can come about in numerous ways. Therefore, we can conclude that high entropy (disorder) is a more natural state. We can still create order, but we need to intervene in some way. Still, any system left alone will move from order to disorder (or entropy will increase).

Statistical Reasoning

The entropy in a cup of coffee will tend to increase. Someone has to create the order by heating up the water and making the coffee. What would be the likelihood that the heat would naturally occur in the coffee? Of course we know that doesn’t make any sense. Thus by statistical reasoning, it makes perfect sense that disorder is more likely than order. Entropy, and in turn the second law of thermodynamics, is based on the probability of how any physical system will evolve. Eventually, everything dissolves, crumbles, decays, degrades and collapses.

We don’t need to look any further than our own homes, as it is a constant effort to maintain order (the special condition where items are neatly arranged). Disorder happens much more naturally, because there are many more ways in which the home can be disordered. Left unchecked, dirty dishes will accumulate, laundry will build up, and things will get scattered. The condition of the home’s structure will also degrade over time. This is all due to the principle of entropy.

A Story of Triumph and Tragedy

Boltzmann’s theories were highly controversial in his time; many prominent physicists rejected his ideas. And to make matters worse, he suffered from severe bouts of depression (probably due to undiagnosed bipolar disorder). On the positive side, he also went through periods of intense creativity. Aside from describing what entropy actually was, Boltzmann was able to put numbers to his theory. He devised a mathematical formula that could calculate the amount of disorder in a system.

His use of probabilities went against years of certainty behind the theories of classical physics. In the early 20th century, scientists would soon find his method useful in probing the atom. Probabilities would become a fundamental feature of quantum mechanics. The sad part to the story is that Boltzmann’s achievements would only be recognized after his death. In 1906, he committed suicide during one of his episodes of depression. Whether the final blow was delivered by his mental illness or the lack of recognition for his work is unclear. Nevertheless, his lasting legacy is engraved on his tombstone in Vienna: his equation for quantifying entropy, S = K log W.

 

References: Order and Disorder the ENERGY – HD Documentary, Published on June 24, 2014.


 

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The Abundance of Nature

wild flowersIn many respects planet Earth is a rare and unique place. This is partly due to the abundance of nature. There is abundant opportunity, quantity and diversity, as well as abundant time and space. No matter where we look, we will find that things come in large quantities. There is rarely just one of anything in nature; if there is, it probably won’t last for very long.

For our convenience, we separate and categorize the components of nature. Inanimate substances and living things make up two large categories, which are broken down into smaller subgroups. This is useful for us, but in reality the Earth is a living planet. What we consider as inanimate is shared and circulated to maintain all life on earth. For example: soil, water, air and sunlight are part of the living world (in a roundabout way).

Natural Selection and Exponential Growth

Natural selection, Darwin’s term for nature’s sorting process, has a subtle implication; similar patterns and forms are repeated over and over again. This is an unavoidable consequence of natural selection. In order for environmental conditions to serve as a shaping force, it must be favorable for numerous life forms. If only a few individuals are favored, then randomness necessitates that their genes will not be passed on in the long term. On the other hand, when selection acts positively on large numbers (of genes, individuals, groups or species), then the odds are high that they will prosper.

Success from an evolutionary standpoint means survival and replication. There is a constant competition for resources; there are always winners and losers. Once something gains an upper hand, exponential growth will lead to an abundance of that particular life form. It is similar to compound interest in a bank account. Of course, abundance does not entail permanent growth. All species will eventually decline or become extinct due to ever-changing conditions. Nevertheless, when anything survives the process it will do so in large numbers, otherwise it would not be here.

butterfliesFor example, if favorable conditions (such as a plentiful food supply, lack of predators and a temperate climate) are present for a particular species, then the numbers will likely grow. This may at some point lead to overpopulation and stress the survival needs of the species, which can create an opportunity for competing species. The growth of species will usually fluctuate; but most of the time a balance will develop, somewhat like the swinging of a pendulum. In the end the diversity of life will almost ensure that life as a whole will be plentiful.

Self-Organization, Order and Randomness

Both the living and non-living world has the ability to self-organize. That can partially explain how order emerges from a random and chaotic world. The process of self-organization in nature is messy, nothing like we organize our daily lives. With humans there is usually a clear direction or purpose when we make plans. But not all the time; humans also self-organize when groups of people act in a similar way, even if no one is in control.

In nature, the terms trial and error best describes how order and structure arises. There is a role for both order and randomness in this process. The order allows for stability, the random component creates opportunities for change. For example, if we think of how seeds from plants are dispersed, we can see that they fall to the ground in irregular patterns. There is no reason why any seed will come into contact with fertile soil. In fact, the majority of seeds will be wasted. Still, within each seed contains the information necessary to produce the plant. And due to the abundant production of seeds, by random factors alone some seeds will find a prosperous location.

treeFor instance, a mature tree can produce thousands of seeds, and yet, only a tiny fraction of those seeds will become trees. Looking at this process from an individual seed, it seems that the survival chance of a seed is extremely low. But if we account for all the seeds of a tree, there are bound to be seeds that are deposited in just the right location. This is just one example of many similar situations where the abundance of nature assures that life will go on and flourish.

 The Goldilocks Zone

The term Goldilocks Zone is often used to identify the location of the Earth. The idea being that our planet is just the right distance from the sun to support life. The Earth’s location allows for a narrow band of temperature variations (in relation to the universe), a range that can provide liquid water. For water to exist it cannot be too hot or too cold. For life as we know it to exist, liquid water is an absolute must.

At first glance the Earth’s precise location seems highly improbable; however, like the seeds from a tree, there are huge numbers of planets that can’t support life. Hundreds of planets outside our solar system have been discovered, and there are surely countless more. Thus far only a few exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) could be considered as earth like. Out of over 1800 that have already been found, most cannot support life as we know it.

Goldilocks Zones are applicable to situations on earth as well. All life is sustained by a narrow range of conditions. However, because nature allows for abundant opportunity, quantity and diversity something will always find the right location (or conditions). Clearly, from any perspective, there is abundance of every kind. This is what we observe when we examine the natural world. That is why in the grand scheme of things, nature always flourishes.


 

From Superstition and Myth to Scientific Explanations

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have walked the earth anywhere from about 150,000 to 200,000 years. The span in years depends on the definition one uses to classify modern humans. By the way, the term Homo sapiens comes from Latin meaning wise man. Despite the distinction of wise man, human progress was slow in ancient times as compared to the last few centuries. Of course there were some discoveries and innovations through the years. One can imagine the development of stone tools, improved hunting techniques, agricultural advancements and other rudimentary progress. However, humans would only live up to their Latin name when they were able to find explanations for the natural world.

Bad Explanations

The ancients almost certainly desired a better way of life, for themselves and their children. They would have wanted to know more about the world. Why do crops fail? How does disease come about? Is the water safe to drink? In ancient times questions of this kind could not be answered with any degree of certainty. Of course they tried to find adequate answers, but for the most part failed in doing so.

Without the ability to decipher the intricacies of nature, ancient societies often turned to superstition and myth for answers. This method would have provided explanations for a number of mysterious happenings. However, they would have been mostly bad explanations because their approach was flawed from the start. Why were they so prone to such explanations? For starters, without an established scientific method in place, they would have relied on their senses to a large extent. This was probably quite adequate for what could easily be observed. But when it came to the unseen world they were mostly at a loss.

The Birth of Superstition

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, offers an interesting explanation as to how superstition creeps in the human psyche. It goes something like this: Imagine that you are a Hominid (a distant human ancestor)  living in the African Savanna about 3.5 million years ago and you here a rustle in the grass. Are you better off to assume it’s a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you think it’s a predator and it turns out to be just the wind, then there is no harm done. If you think it’s the wind and it really is a predator, then you may become lunch. Natural selection would have been more likely to select individuals that tended to assume that mysterious noises might be predators. To remain safe in this environment it was best to assume the worst, rather than take the time to investigate.

What is the difference between a dangerous predator and the wind? A predator has intentions, it is looking for food and you may become its target, whereas the wind is an inanimate force. The wind has no concerns for you whatsoever. In the fore mentioned scenario, assuming that mysterious noises have intentions is a survival trait. We are descended from primates which would have been more likely to assume intent, whether it was real or not. And that is just fine for everyday life in the Savanna. It only becomes a problem when this principle is applied to a wider range of unknown phenomenon. When a host of natural occurrences, not well understood, are perceived to have intentions then we have superstition. When these intentions are personified, then they may become part of myth.

A Way Out

We are perhaps hard-wired by evolution to make snap decisions and assumptions in certain situations. However, most of us no longer live with immediate dangers at hand. Science is the best remedy to what ailed our ancient ancestors. We no longer require superstition in our lives, because we now have better explanations (real explanations).

The scientific revolution that swept Europe in the late 1500s to the 1700s is referred to the beginning of modern science. Men like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and many others led the way to a deeper understanding of nature. From that point on human progress would happen at a much faster rate. The Scientific Method (the catalyst for progress) had at long last been discovered.

The Scientific Method

beakerWhat is the best way to know how something works? A good place to start is with a well thought out question. And then we can proceed in looking for the answer. The scientific method could be described as the process between the question and the answer. Science arrives at answers by observation and experimentation. Scientists can make predictions that nature will behave in a certain way based on observation (known as a hypothesis). Then the experiments will either confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. If the hypothesis is verified then it becomes a theory. The theory is then subjected to analysis by other scientists, and if it holds up, it becomes accepted as scientific knowledge.

The knowledge base is still subject to being altered or expanded on by more complete explanations, but by similar methods in which it was first discovered. The book is never completely closed; however, by now we are far along in the process and many explanations about nature are unlikely to change significantly. Scientific knowledge exists on its own merit, not because of traditions or the word of authorities. In fact, it can be said that there are no scientific authorities.

The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (better known as the Royal Society) was founded in 1660. It is a fellowship of some of the world’s finest scientists and is perhaps the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its motto reads in Latin Nillius in Verba, translated in English to mean “On the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it.” I would say, don’t blindly trust authority or people of stature and see for yourself.

Progress 

It can be debated as to what constitutes progress, but there can be little doubt that modern science is a significant contributor. In the developed world we live more comfortably than previous generations; with conveniences that ancient societies could not have imagined. This is largely due to the scientific endeavor.

AtomWe now know about microorganisms and their role in disease and infection. We have a greater understanding of weather systems and can reasonably predict their effects. The discovery of electricity has eased our way of life significantly. The unlocking of the atom has made possible a multitude of information technologies. This is but a sample of what scientific discovery means for us.

Beyond the practical aspects we can’t ignore what science offers in terms of explanations. For instance, the ancients did not have a natural explanation for a solar eclipse. Some cultures believed that the sun was being devoured by a celestial dragon or some other creature. It was common for people to join together and bang on pots and pans, and make noise in order to frighten the beasts in the sky. Of course in due time the sunlight would return, reinforcing a false pattern.

We now understand that a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s position obscuring the sun. No celestial creatures are required for an explanation and no amount for pot banging makes any difference. Today there are numerous things we can know about reality that are mostly taken for granted. However, our experience is greatly enhanced by the efforts of past and present scientists. We truly live in a special time, because for the most part, science has supplanted superstition.

 

References: Best of Michael Shermer Amazing Arguments And Clever Comebacks Part One, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ8gasKQEWM, May 7, 2014.

David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folTvNDL08A, Oct 26, 2009.