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    People from the beginning of history have worried about material things going wrong in their lives. About why bones break, why shiny copper jewelry (valuable in antiquity) turns green, why tools wear out, why rivers of mud rush down the hills and wreck the village, why people get sick, why they die. Fate and karma and spiteful gods have been just a few of the infinity of inaccurate solutions to the threatening problem of seemingly erratic nature. "Why me?" has probably been a human feeling before the invention of language. It is common today in any catastrophe. Is it justified?

    You now know the basic cause of every material/physical event that we think is bad: It is the second law or, more accurately, what the second law describes: the behavior of energy in our real world. All the structures that we prize -- from our own bones to our artifacts like chairs or houses, skyscrapers, bridges or jet planes -- are subject to being broken or destroyed by adequate energy flow moving from being concentrated to becoming spread out and diffused. The distressing results of forceful impacts on bones and cars and buildings are simply manifestations of this tendency of concentrated energy.

(Quakes and violent winds are temporary and coincidental accumulations from less concentrated energy sources).

     Further, you know now that all the chemical catastrophes that hit us are similarly caused because the substances involved in the disaster obey the second law. Whether forest fire, or Hindenburg fire-explosion, or dangerous corrosion of a car part, blocking of brain patterns by Alzheimer's factors, or bacteria that interfere with a critical feedback system in the body -- these are just examples of concentrated energy spreading out contrary to our human preferences.

     As one of our major goals, we humans want order and organization of many different varieties. An equally important goal is our desire (not realizing the potential dangers) for oxidizable substances like wood or iron to use in our artifacts and like gasoline for always-safe power source in our machines. Neither goal is consistent with the second law. Yet we are surprised when, against our naive wishes, the predictions of the law actually come about. Murphy's Law (speaking only of matter-related events) that things always go wrong fits an emotional human need when we are frustrated; it’s a joke because it is such a gigantic exaggeration.

    However, we may subconsciously let its humor make us concentrate on things going wrong and blind us to the most amazing fact in our second-law world: Usually things do NOT go wrong. There are three major reasons that they don't: First, constant human care and caution in protecting against second law predictions. (Two mundane examples: planning and actions that reduce the possibility of fire in industry and the home, painstaking design for safety and the continued careful inspection of airplanes.) Second, the existence of activation energies that obstruct and block chemical processes or fracture of materials from occurring spontaneously (i.e., “blocking” the second law from milliseconds to millennia). Third, the literally incredible organization in living things: All the complex energy-processing systems -- from simple amebas to humans, from primitive grasses to complex plants --live and procreate because they are protected from failure by an enormous variety of feedback mechanisms.

(It is often the failure of only one activation energy out of billions, or one feedback loop out of thousands, that makes Murphy's Law seem valid. Fancifully, Eas and feedback cycles act as our ‘protectors’. Thus they could be called Maxwell's Angels (in contrast to that humanly-unhelpful “Maxwell’s demon”.)

     A fractured leg in a ski accident, a spark in the fuel tank of TWA Flight 800, a broken timing gear in a Corvette, a fire in a fraternity house started by a forgotten cigarette, a California freeway collapse in an earthquake, a fall from a horse that results in a broken spine and quadriplegia -- all these are examples of activation energies being exceeded, whether in chemical reactions or physical fractures. Together with the thousands of illnesses that can destroy our functioning as whole persons, they constitute "things going wrong" in people's lives.

     But activation energies that obstruct undesirable chemical and physical events almost always protect us and our prized objects even from disastrous change that the second law predicts. Bodily feedback systems almost always protect us from bacterial attacks and malfunctionintg human biochemistry.

Almost always.

     Shouldn't "Why me?" be our near-constant question of wonder and delight at being alive and being able to move and think and create -- in a second-law world that favors dispersed energy and inert sand? Knowledge of the second law makes unrealistic the human cry of "Why me?" that is so frequent at times of tragedy.

     At such times, the only rational response is "Why not me?", even though then it is emotionally quite unacceptable.



[Links and References follow below]

Addendum: The Importance of Chemical Kinetics

     "Time's Arrow", our psychological sense of time

Philosophers and novelists and their readers have been disserved by hearing statements of the second law (that events and physical matter move in the direction of energy dispersion) without the essential codicil from chemistry that the law is continually blocked by activation energies.

    Chemical kinetics (chemical dynamics) is the area of chemistry that focuses on activation energies and the rates of chemical reactions.  

     Physicist Arthur Eddington's maxim about the second law is an incomplete view of the way the world works without a chemist's correction : --

(AE, 1925)            The second law of thermodynamics is time's arrow
(FLL, 1996)                but chemical kinetics is time's variable clock.


Or (FLL, 1998):    Chemical kinetics firmly restrains time's arrow
                                   in the taut bow of thermodynamics
                                        for milliseconds to millennia.

As a result of my suggestion, Professor Keith J. Laidler in his "To Light Such A Candle" (Oxford, 1998) says it profoundly at the end of his chapter on thermodynamics:

                               The universe as we know it is therefore as much controlled 
                                     by the laws of chemical dynamics
                                         as by the laws of thermodynamics.


Links


References

Please send your favorites to entropy.lambert@gmail.com for future versions.

"Entropy Analysis", N. C. Craig, John Wiley: New York, 1992. 
"The Second Law", H. A. Bent, Oxford: New York, 1965. 
"To Light Such A Candle", K. J. Laidler, Oxford: Oxford, 1998.    

"Note on Entropy, Disorder and Disorganization", K. C. Denbigh,  
            Brit. J. Phil. Sci., 1989, 40, 323-332. 

"Why Don't Things Go Wrong More Often? Activation Energies: Maxwell's Angels, Obstacles to
          Murphy's Law", F. L. Lambert, The Journal of Chemical Education, 1997, 74 (8),  
          947-948. [link]

"Chemical Kinetics: As Important As The Second Law Of Thermodynamics?", F. L. Lambert, 
            The Chemical Educator, 1998, 3 (2) [link]

"Shuffled Cards, Messy Desks, and Disorderly Dorm Rooms – Examples of Entropy Increase?
          Nonsense!", F. L. Lambert The Journal of Chemical Education, 1999, 76 (10),
          1385 – 1387. [link]

"Disorder -- A Cracked Crutch for Supporting Entropy Discussions", F. L. Lambert
             The Journal of Chemical Education, 2002, 79 (2), 187-192. [link]

"Entropy Is Simple, Qualitatively", F. L. Lambert,
             The Journal of Chemical Education
, 2002, 79 (10), 1241-1246 [link]

""Order-to-Disorder" for Entropy Change? Consider the Numbers!". E. I. Kozliak and F. L. Lambert,
              The Chemical Educator, 2005, 10 , 24-25. [link]

 

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