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A-Z of thought: Thermodynamics

Russell Stannard

Two photographs, one showing a car in showroom condition, and the other the same car as a rusting heap that cannot pass its MOT. Which came first? The answer is obvious. Or take a photo showing a factory chimney, and another featuring a pile of rubble. Again we know which came first. Chimneys collapse; they do not build themselves out of rubble.

These are examples of the Second Law of Thermodynamics at work. Disorder increases with time. Left to its own devices, a system such as a new car, or a chimney, will end up as a disorderly wreck, or a pile of rubble - never the other way round.

Except, of course, new cars and chimneys do get built. Untidy nurseries get tidied; dirty dishes get washed and put back in the cupboard. Order coming out of disorder.

So, are these violations of the law? No. I was careful to say 'left to its own devices'; we were talking about closed systems. The disorderly can become orderly only if there is an injection of order from some outside agency - bricklayers to build the chimney, car workers to manufacture the car, and mother or father to tidy and do the washing up.

We can also expand what we are calling the 'system' to include what is happening to these people who bring order as well -  their bodies  are breaking down the orderly food they have eaten to produce waste products, for example.  Zooming out in such a manner, one finds that, although there can indeed be small pockets of increasing order, overall this expanded system shows a net increase in disorder - in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

So what we find from thermodynamics is that the physical world is subject to an inexorable tide of events leading to ever increasing disorder. But that does not preclude the possibility of exceptions where the current can, on a local scale, flow in the opposite direction.

This can be seen as a metaphor for life in general. We live in a materialistic society where it is increasingly taken for granted that one should devote oneself to becoming rich, famous, powerful, being sexually permissive, binge drinking, and so on. Yet allowing oneself to be swept along in this manner does not lead to the hoped for goal of happiness and contentment. Quite the reverse. It leads to a disorderly life of distorted values, wrong perspectives, shallowness, and failure.

It does not have to be like this. We can indeed behave as if we live in a closed system. But faith tells us that we live in a system which is open to God. The Christian hope is in God's redeeming and sustaining work transforming us through his Spirit.

Russell Stannard