The Depth of Beauty 8/25/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

In my physical chemistry class, I decided that I want to challenge my students. I want them to think about the principles that we are learning, and to apply them to situations that might seem unusual. Every week, they will have a new question to ponder, and will have to write a small paper (just half a page or so) presenting their thoughts. These will not be simple questions that can just be looked up online; they’re meant to really stretch the student’s imagination and critical thinking. In my first lecture, I suggested that thermodynamics does not just apply to chemistry or physics, but everything that happens must occur according to the laws of thermodynamics. I chose for their first question one that would challenge this thought. In class, I made it a point to say that even falling in love must happen in accordance with the law of thermodynamics. For their paper, I asked them to explain what I meant by this statement.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? The question is surprising because we think of love as something ethereal, a concept with no real physical foundation. But the truth is, there is an actual chemical foundation for feelings of love, actual chemical interactions and reactions that must follow the laws of thermodynamics. When we’re in love, dopamine is released, which interacts with receptors in the brain cells which triggers feelings of happiness and calm. Dopamine is also released when we eat chocolate, so there is an actual chemical reason that chocolate is an excellent gift on a first date. It’s also a depressant and I for one do NOT believe that’s just a coincidence!

This might not seem terribly poetic. The poets argue that the heart is the source of love and will look at this post as unveiling the mystery of the emotion, but I would argue that the opposite is true. We all have dopamine, and there are certain triggers for its release. How poetic the dance of finding just the right partner to trigger that response, the hormones, the pheromones, the elation of the senses all working in harmony, in a beautiful symphony with that one person that makes your heart flutter. Is this not poetic enough?

Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant men of his time, in line with Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling. A physicist at Cal Tech, he was an artist as well. Okay, he was better at physics than art, but he walked both worlds. This is not uncommon, actually, as scientists (including myself) tend to appreciate the arts. I think it’s because scientists tend to be interested in the world around them, and art is definitely part of that world. At one point, somebody challenged him, suggesting that he cannot possibly appreciate art since as he looks at the colors, he probably only thinks about the electrons jumping around absorbing and releasing light. His answer was that he probably appreciates art even more. Not only can he see the aesthetics of the art, appreciate the strokes of the hand and the skill of the master that created the art, but also understands and appreciates that ballet of electrons giving rise to the colors.

Thermodynamics is much like this. With four basic laws, mathematically one can derive pretty much anything else in science. Well, not quite; as it turns out that at sub-atomic scales, classical thermodynamics fails, and yet there are mathematical formulations to describe the sub-atomic laws, and mathematical formulations that link these two extremes. It’s easy to look at all of this math and lose the connection between the material in the course and the world around us. But when you get into the practice, it’s astounding what you can see.

The two driving forces of classical thermodynamics is energy and entropy. These are the “yin” and “yang” of all that happens, the two opposing forces that the Taoists speak of that drive all motions in the world. Everything tends naturally to lower energy, and higher entropy, or higher disorder if you prefer. Entropy can be overcome with work, so energy can overcome entropy when properly channeled. There’s an old joke that one can repair anything with duct tape and lubricant. If it’s moving and it’s not supposed to, use duct tape. If it’s not moving but it is supposed to, use lubricant. With thermodynamics, one can think of energy and entropy. If things are falling apart and moving towards chaos, it’s entropy. To repair it, all you have to do is expend energy to do work on the system. Repairs to roads, politics, and yes, even love follow the laws of thermodynamics.

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