Born to Cause Trouble 8/23/19

A Science Discussion by Richard Bleil

On my social media page, somebody asked, “we aren’t born to cause trouble?” Well, actually, we are.

I’m typing this while sitting in a lounge at the Catholic College where I am an adjunct professor. It’s not the first religious institution with which I have been affiliated, which is kind of a funny thing since I, myself, am very spiritual but not religious at all. Let’s put it this way, it seems like every time I pick up a piece of jewelry with a cross, my skin starts to burn.

This is pertinent, because, although I do not know how this particular college works, at some of my previous ones they really REALLY didn’t like me talking about creationism. In chemistry, normally I don’t; it doesn’t really fit well into my class, except for one of the favorite arguments against evolution that you frequently hear; namely, that evolution is a violation of the second law of thermodynamics, or entropy. The argument goes that evolution is moving from disordered single cell organisms to ordered complex organisms. In my classes, I don’t discuss evolution versus creationism, but I do discuss this argument simply because, in my humble opinion, if somebody is going to make the argument, they need to be aware of the flaws therein.

If this is sounding like I’ve written on it previously, I have, but I want to take a slightly different approach this time. Last time I explained that the entropy of a system (in this case, the system being living organisms) may be decreasing entropy, but the entropy of the universe is increasing as a result. See, the second law does allow systemic entropy decreases, but the entropy of the surrounding must increase.

And we really REALLY increase the entropy of our surroundings.

lt may not always seem to be the case. We look at amazing architectural marvels; there is no way those are high entropy. If the computer on which I am typing were high entropy, it couldn’t work. It relies on order. We lay out streets in grids, pave them, create long smooth stones out of cement and blacktop. Surely this is ordered.

But think about what it takes to actually perform these well-ordered low-entropy systems. Think of the noise pollution from the bulldozers, the smell of chemicals coming off of the blacktop before it cools, the soot pumping out of trucks delivering materials; this is all high entropy. This is all chaos.

It’s an interesting thing, really, how large low-entropy structures rely on so much microscopic entropic generators. There are billions or perhaps trillions of tons of carbon trapped in the ground, removed from the carbon cycle in the form of oil, gas and coal. We humans have evolved to the point where we can dig this up, re-introduce it into the carbon cycle, and burn it. Converting from condensed states (liquid and solid) to gas is always a dramatic increase in entropy, so not only is digging these energy sources up increasing entropy, burning them to create carbon dioxide further creates entropy. We are HUGE chaos generators!!!

As I write this, I think about how earth created such order in the first place. It seems illogical that carbon should become trapped inside the earth since that is such a low entropy state, but the answer, again, is life. Thanks to the gas station with the little dinosaur logo, a lot of people assume that oil comes from decayed dinosaurs.

That would be a “no”.

Actually, there were never nearly enough dinosaurs to create the coal and oil reserves that we have. In fact, oil comes from life that is so much more ancient, the earliest forms of life, namely, microbes. Once the ability to harvest sunlight developed in the earliest single-celled organisms, they began to multiply, and on an enormous scale. Heck, no predators yet, so as long as the necessary components are in the area, they would reproduce as long as the necessary components are available. These organisms grew, began forming colonies, aging, and dying. As they continued, they would accumulate on the ocean floor, be covered by new life, and compressed into the ground. Given enough pressure from new organisms above them, they would begin to change. The settling sediment would turn them into oil and coal, and they became removed from the cycle. But all along, in this cycle, the ever-increasing single cell organisms, then poly cellular, then multi-cellular would absorb sunlight, exude gases, and increase the entropy of the earth.

Just like you exude gases.

Yup, you are an entropy generator. It’s becoming a problem as we are about to cause our own extinction by the entropic effects we are having on the planet, but one thing we are NOT doing is violating the second law of thermodynamics. So, yes, you were born to cause trouble. May as well enjoy it!!

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