Entropy of Life 9/6/21

Science with Richard Bleil

Outside, as I’m writing this, they are still working on the road. With the majority of the blacktop laid, there are still a few spots that need additional work. One of these spots happens to be right outside of my bedroom window. This morning, long before a retired, crusty old fart like me usually gets up (and yet somehow still at a “decent hour” for our society) they began working on this spot.

Sometimes the house rumbled, and sometimes there was a high-pitched screeching not unlike a dentists’ drill as they broke apart the concrete and smoothed the edges of their work. It was annoying, and here I am, still at a time I usually sleep writing about it in my blog.

It’s not all bad. Yesterday I bought a VR game device, last night as I lay awake in bed I bought a WWI fighter simulator, and this morning I played it until I thought I would vomit from the virtual motion. So, I stopped. Now I’m writing a blog hoping this nausea subsides. I have to admit, though, it was so realistic (even if a tad cartoon like) that I did get motion sickness sitting still in my desk chair.

As I write this, I’m sitting here with my office manager (my cat, Star) and my office mate (a very realistic plaster skull I call Edgar) and thinking about thermodynamics. One of my favorite aspects of the discipline is the second law, namely entropy. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that entropy can be thought of (if somewhat oversimplified) as a state of disorder. The law is often incorrectly interpreted as saying that entropy can never decrease, but it can if we put work into the system. What the law actually states is that the entropy of the universe can never decrease, meaning as we decrease the entropy of a system, like the road outside, then the entropy of the surroundings must increase at least as much as the entropy of the system decrease.

Star, my office manager, is sitting on my desk cleaning herself. It’s a never-ending process as dirt on her fur comes from both the inside and outside. She might get dust or dirt on her from the litter box, or just roaming the house because, honestly, I’m a poor housekeeper. This is a state of higher entropy on her fur, and frankly, not something that she wants. So, she cleans. And cleans. And then she cleans some more. As she does, the entropy of her fur decreases as it becomes cleaner and uniform, so the entropy of that system, defined as her fur, is decreasing. However, as fur is loosed in the process, and the dirt goes off of her and into the surroundings, the entropy of the surroundings increases. Add to that the energy she expends in the process, requiring fuel (sugars in her metabolism) to be burned and converted into carbon dioxide, entropy of the surroundings again increases.

This chemical increase of entropy to the surroundings is also reflected in the road work. By the time they are done working on this patch, it will have very low entropy. Fresh concrete will be poured to replace the broken piece they avoided blacktopping yesterday, and they’ll patch the blacktop once the new concrete sets. This decreases the entropy of the system defined as that patch of road in disrepair. And yet, the old concrete they removed has been broken down into smaller pieces and hauled off, increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In modern times, though, not only is the effort of the workers converting sugars to carbon dioxide, but there is also the burning of fossil fuels making the surrounding entropy increase even more.

Poor Edgar. I believe he is realistic because they cast it from an actual skull, meaning that the original model for Edgar was once alive. He had horrible teeth, but he was alive. His entire life he battled entropy, taking in food, growing, and replacing old cells with new. Let’s be real about this; life is all about decreasing entropy of the system defined by that life, and yet to live increases the entropy of the surroundings. Old cells sluff off and become dust that Star has to clean off of her fur. Fuel in the form of food is constantly taken in and converted to carbon dioxide increasing the entropy of the surroundings. And now, Edgar is gone. His metabolic processes have stopped, and so the entropy of his system is no longer being worked upon to reduce it. The natural state of entropy is to increase, so poor Edgar has fallen apart and even his system, along with the surroundings, have increased entropy. His organs have long since decayed and dried into dust, leaving only the skeleton to remind us that he once was a thriving human being.

Even this virtual reality game system increases entropy of the surroundings. Had I actually lost my breakfast, that would have been obvious, but as a system, this device is exceptionally low entropy (much like you and I are). Think of how precisely all of the components must work together for it to be a viable game system; the electronics, the wireless signals, the optics all must synchronize in perfect harmony. But to work, it requires electricity, which is always high entropy to produce (even solar power, for example, absorbs light which ultimately becomes trapped energy and released back into the environment as heat which always increases entropy). Plus, think of the minerals that had to be mined for the wiring, solder and computer components, and the petroleum products that were converted to make the plastic casings. The entropy of the surroundings had to increase dramatically just to make me feel sick to my stomach.

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