Monday, January 09, 2012

Entropy and modern life

OK, time for a bit more nerdiness. One of my favorite things about physics and the universe in general is entropy. This is a simple concept that goes deep into physics and the famous second law of thermodynamics. What is comes down to is that entropy always increases. I won't go into gory details but imagine the great game of Jenga. Building a structure out of wooden blocks takes time and effort (which is energy). Knocking down a structure takes a mere flick of the wrist. When the wooden blocks are arranged as a structure, say a nice tower, they have low entropy. When the structure has collapsed and the blocks are in a heap on the table, they have high entropy. A wine glass has low entropy, the same glass shattered on the ground has high entropy. The interesting thing is that it is easy to go from low entropy to high entropy, not so easy to go back. You could in theory rearrange the glass shards back into a complete glass but that takes a lot of effort. Now imagine a cup of tea and a bit of milk. Mixing the milk into the tea is easy, separating the tea and milk afterwards is practically impossible. 

Interestingly enough, the fact that we perceive time has to do this steady forward progress of entropy...

Sooo...I like to blame entropy for the relentless march of decay that affects us all. Why do things break after some time? Why do we age? The reasons are very complex but at the highest, most simplified level can be blamed on entropy. Our heated bathroom floor stopped heating up recently. My lovely 42" plasma is no longer working as of Saturday, its power LED is blinking a steady error code, but that's it. Our vacuum cleaner is slowly falling apart and will need to be replaced eventually. The family laptop is experiencing a lot of Blue Screens Of Death and does lots of mysterious boot-time hard drive error scanning. My subwoofer's power supply has failed a few times now and I am currently without subsonic bass while watching movies. Sigh. In physics, reversing entropy takes energy. In my case, it takes money. Therefore, entropy in modern life is expensive...

Oh and btw, in my experience, children and kittens are experts at increasing entropy!

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