Tiny Violations 9/10/20

Science by Richard Bleil

Today we were talking about the laws of Thermodynamics. You know these laws. Oh, granted, unless you’ve studied them, you might not know the technical terminology, or how to perform the mathematics, but you have an innate knowledge of these laws because you have lived them your entire life. You know that your house will decay into chaos if you don’t routinely put in the work on upkeep and cleaning. You know that on a cold day in a camp you want to sit near the fire so heat will transfer to you. These are the laws of thermodynamics.

Probably my earliest scientific disagreement and discussion came about when I was still a college student. Now, before getting any further, let me point out that disagreement and discussion is the way of science. We have meetings and publish our work for criticism and debate, and it is always done with respect, logic and arguments routed in reason. Still, there is something to be said for experience. As an undergraduate still learning, for me to take an opposing position relative to my thermodynamics professor, with many years of experience and holding his doctorate in thermodynamics was rather a nervy thing to do. But it was a very instructive experience, not just on the laws of thermodynamics but on these types of discussions. I never changed my position (and I assume he has not either even if he remembers the discussion), but our open exchange of opposing ideas and the reasons for our conclusions was a great example of civil disagreement.

The debate was simple. The zeroth law of thermodynamics (deemed to be the foundation of the first law of thermodynamics but formulated later) basically defines heat as that which is transferred from a region of high temperature to a region of low. Another student had stopped to speak with the professor earlier asking about “heat exchange” units, basically a form of heater that “extracts” heat from the outdoors at a lower temperature and pumping it into the house at higher temperature. As this is flow of heat from a colder temperature to a higher, it appears to be a violation of the zeroth law.

The answer, of course, is that it is trivial to demonstrate that the amount of energy transferred into the house is less than the energy put into the heat exchange unit in the form of electricity to make it operate. As such, no, it’s not a violation, but my professor took the argument a bit further saying that even if it is a violation of the laws of thermodynamics, it’s only a little one.

This was the disagreement.

My stand was that there is no such thing as a “small violation” of the laws of thermodynamics. In fact, any violation of any law of thermodynamics, regardless of how small, invalidates that law. Would this be such a bad thing, though? Not at all. It means we would get to start over. These failures are often the beginning of huge advances.

For example, classical physics (sometimes called “Newtonian” physics after Sir Isaac Newton and his leaf) cannot explain why copper salts are green when they burn. This, by the way, is how they get different colors into fireworks; various metal ions emit specific colors when they burn. This meant that there are conditions where the laws of physics fails including thermodynamics, giving rise to the need for an all new discipline of physics explaining the laws of subatomic particles, better known to day as “quantum mechanics” or “quantum theory”. These laws cannot be understood by us, you and I, as we follow a completely different set of laws. Did they invalidate, as I suggested they should, the “old guard” laws? Actually, no. A third discipline arose, my discipline in fact, called “statistical thermodynamics” that prove how a large number of particles (say about six hundred billion trillion atoms) have to “add up” so while each one is acting according to quantum laws, collectively they must behave in accordance to what is referred to as the “classical limit”, or the laws of thermodynamics that we all know and love. Because it can be demonstrated that the laws of thermodynamics can be derived from a multitude of particles following quantum mechanics, the two sets of laws of thermodynamics actually validate the other.

Now, imagine if others took this as an example. Suppose the Democrats and Republicans could begin by simply agreeing that they both want a strong country. If they could agree that they had a common interest, then even a disagreement over the best way to accomplish this interest would result in open and respectful discussions on how to find a compromise so everybody wins. I guess that’s too much to hope for.

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