‘The Cosmic Blueprint’ by Paul Davies and the Second Law

On the one hand, there is the Second Law of thermodynamics. Conceived when the deterministic Newtonian cosmos entered the 18th century with its interest in steam engines, industrial revolutions, and other thermodynamic systems, the Second Law says simply that hot things cool down and this cooling process is the arrow of time which will lead to the heat death of the universe. In this final gasp, all the fuel has been used up. Game over. A lump of coal can be used to power a locomotive; once the lump of coal releases its energy as heat, it is a one way reaction; the heat cannot come back together to form a useful lump of coal. The implications of the Second Law?–order decreases, disorder increases, everything is slowly dying, and so on. On the other hand, however, more complex forms constantly arise: planetary systems, galaxies, and life. What is disturbing is that these things arise in seeming violation of the Second Law, which only presages doom and gloom, not the spontaneous triumph of nature to produce order from chaos, animate life from inorganic compounds, consciousness from inert clay, and so on.

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That there is this dichotomy between creation and destruction is good news for physicist Paul Davies, who has turned the question into a book: The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe. He must have lots to say because that.s quite the long title! And whether he is talking about new discoveries depends on your frame of reference: the book came out in 1988 (the cover illustration is from the revised 2004 edition which I have not read). My parents bought it for me around that time. Only now have I got around to reading it. As an aside, I.ve been weeding down my book collection. The happy booksellers Russell.s Books on Fort Street has been taking most of my secondary sources (ie books like this that are commentaries). My collection of primary sources (ie Shakespeare, the Bible, Nietzsche, and the original works that other people like to talk about) has been growing as a result. Perhaps primary sources make up three-quarters of my four bookcases now. I hope to weed things down some more. There.s no need really for me to have so many books since most of them are available at the library (and, if I did not already have it, I would have read the new revised edition)! But primary sources are nice to have because I.m always referring to them. And they are all marked up with notes as well. So, after seventeen years, I.ve finally finished this one! I should reward myself with a beer to celebrate the occcasion, since I.ve been looking at this book thinking I should read it for all this time!

Okay, so back to the book. In this book, Davies pits the destructive side of the cosmos against the creative side. Now it turns out, the creative side doesn.t have a fancy ‘law’ like the ‘Second Law’ (in case you.re wondering, and you should be if you don.t know, the First Law is one of the conservation laws). It doesn.t even have any real physicist approved monikers! Would you believe that? What it does go by are terms frightening to scientists such as Aristotelian teleology (a respectable theory in the Middle Ages), vitalism (respectable to New Age folks), Gaia concept (don.t ask), and other such terms. Davies refers to it with the much more respectable name of the ‘cosmic blueprint’. And the book is filled with examples of higher levels of order arising (consciousness, life, and DNA are big arguments). Even inanimate structures, such as Saturn.s rings, are held together by some force which eludes us. If the physical structure of the rings is put into a computer simulator, the longest they can last is a hundred years. Tops. Then they break apart. But obviously there.s something holding them together. Maybe the hand of God? Perhaps. But it.s surprising they haven.t been able to put it into an equation. Davies’ own view seems to lean towards the opinion that somehow the universe has brought about the conditions necessary for life so that consciousness can evolve. He points out that the conscious observer–which is required to break down quantum states (ie Schrodinger.s Cat)–seems to be a necessary part of the process. So, built into the deep structure or blueprint of the universe is this will to complexity which scorns the Second Law. An interesting question: is consciousness the vanity of the cosmos?

But the Second Law itself is no slouch. Well, first of all, unlike the ‘vital force’, it has a proper name and is associated with cool things like the irreversibility of the arrow of time! On the Second Law, Davies quotes the great Eddington. Sir Arthur Eddington to you:

The law that entropy always increases–the Second Law of Thermodynamics–holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations–then so much worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation–well, the experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you not hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

And what does the Second Law imply for us mere mortals? Here.s what Bertrand Russell has to say:

all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–al these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Wow. No kidding! I wonder if there.s a way to capitalize on this fear? Any entrepreneurs out there? Maybe someone can come up with a ‘Universe Heat Death Survival Kit’!

Now, since I am always labouring away Doing Melpomene.s Work, it occurs to me that perhaps the quarrel between the cosmic blueprint and the Second Law is a scientific analogue to the ancient quarrel between tragedy and comedy. Do you see where I.m going? In tragedy, the best intentions always result in a ‘heat death’. Well, everyone dies in the end. In comedy, however, there is some creative force working in the background of its deep structure so that, no matter how idiotic the characters are, there.s a happy ending, usually a wedding. Comedy is therefore a place where more complex structures (weddings) can occur against all the odds. It.s like life emerging from the primordial soup.

So that.s my thought of the day for you, dear readers. Until next time, I will be Doing Melpomene.s Work.

2 thoughts on “‘The Cosmic Blueprint’ by Paul Davies and the Second Law

  1. Larry Olson

    Hi you said that ” the Second Law says simply that hot things cool down”… Actually the second law says that cool things become hotter, heat transfers from hot to cold… Ordered things become more scattered, cold things are less scattered and have less motion, heat gets added to cool things and causes them to be more scattered in more states and in more disorganization…

    See also my website for some challenges to the second law and some interesting ideas on whether cool objects can transfer heat into hot objects, temporarily violating the second law. The papers are at olsonb dot com if interested.

    Reply
  2. Edwin Wong Post author

    Hi Larry, glad to see you here and thanks for the link to olsonb dot com: it seems you have spent some time thinking about the Second Law! It’s nice to see a site where there’s so much gathered on this fascinating law. By ‘temporarily’ how long are we talking-seconds, fractions of seconds, or days and weeks? BTW ‘milk demon’ in place of the Laplacean intellect or Maxwell’s Demon is priceless!

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