Open Systems

By Sean Carroll | May 10, 2007 11:35 am

I agree with Cynical-C, this has to be one of the best creationist quotes ever. (From Fundies say the darndest things.)

One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

I guess they haven’t heard that scientists recently detected just such a source of energy, using our sophisticated neutrino telescopes.

Sun in neutrinos

Now if only we could figure out how to use this mysterious cosmic fusion reactor to generate a flow of entropy here on Earth. Someday, I’m sure, we’ll get there.

Penrose's picture of entropy flow

  • KL

    An oldie but a classic. The first time I ran across that one, a few years back, I laughed so hard that I cried.

  • boomslang

    It’s also always worth explicitly mentioning to these numbskulls that the development and maintenance of complex systems can often be entropically favored, precisely because they tend to increase entropy faster than simpler systems do. For example: farming, construction, and manufacturing expend far more energy than foraging does, and subsequently allow the human race to increase in population by several orders of magnitude in a feedback loop. The mistake the Fundies make is to assume that complexity involves a decrease of entropy, rather than an increase (which probably also partially accounts for their hubris in completely disregarding the well-being of the natural world). I wish I could find a simple-for-the-layman way to demonstrate the math of this… suffice to say, a predilection for the spontaneous emergence of order is a well-studied and well-documented chemical process. I don’t think the Divine’s name appears anywhere on the patent for Nylon, for example…

  • Neil B.

    Sure, silly about the Earth – but what about Thermo 2 applied to the whole universe? There’s perhaps some interesting issues about how that works out w.r.t. the evolution of the universe, the increasing complexity, etc. (I’m not saying the law is broken, just some interesting points in there….)

  • BlackGriffen

    Yeah, my high school physics teacher brought this one up and the solution was obvious even to people of that age. Ok, maybe not all of them, especially the ones who wanted it to be true.

    Although booomslang brings up a very good point that I hadn’t considered. I would think that the easiest example of what he’s talking about would be depletion in a binary mixture of colloidal spheres. As long as people understand that the little spheres can be more disorganized than the big spheres in the space that’s freed up, they should get the basic idea.

  • fh

    fstdt seems to be down but I remember reading a wonderfull comment there along the lines:

    “I sat awake all night thinking what that source of energy could be. Then it finally dawned on me.”

  • dm

    What about nuke power plants? (not from our sun…)

  • Joseph Smidt

    This is hilarious!

  • boomslang

    Neil B. brings up another good point: what is the relation of “Dark Energy” to the Second Law, or for that matter, Thermodynamics in general? I have seen very little published material on this, and yet, when Dark Energy was first trumpeted over a decade ago [!], concern about its relationship to the Laws of Thermodynamics was the first thought that crossed my mind…

  • Anne

    As a solar physicist, I find that one particularly amusing.

  • Changcho

    Nice! The drawing looked familiar, and after I clicked on it sure, it’s from Penrose’s book.

  • Paul Valletta

    Boomslang, you may want to read these threads:

    these recent papers have seemed to have cracked a number of promlems

    Linde has a new insight:
    (linde actually re-normalized inflation to correspond with a slow-roll-out..)

    Whilst Giddings and Marolf:

    have turned the “Boltzman Brains”..insight out..or ,maybe they see from the outside looking in? ;)

  • Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer

    I love that one. I have a creationism debunking talk I give, and I use it… with the slide titled “The Sun of God”.

  • quork

    Cosmology has lost its way

    The Divorce of Science From Humanism
    by Herman Cummings

    In this article, we are limiting ourselves to the sciences of Biology, Cosmology, and Paleontology. When conclusions were made that lead to establishing the “theory of evolution”, what followed were humanist theories of the “Big Bang”, the Nebular Hypothesis, and the “Primordial Soup”. These sciences have “lost their way”, by being joined to the humanist way of thought, and have worshipped the idol god of Atheism. The “god” of Atheism requires that all other viable facts, possibilities, and truths be excluded, and only the physics of our natural existence be used to explain our origins, no matter how foolish they may be.

  • mollishka

    What I particularly like about this quote is that it takes a certain about of rational thinking to come up with the argument in the first place … and then a special lack of common knowledge to not see the flaw in the argument. It’s a unique situation to be sure.

  • Paul Valletta

    They may not of heard of Saturn backlit by the S*n ?

  • Brian

    I do not believe that science can either prove or refute the existence of a God. Science does, however, controvert the account of creation found in Genesis, but rebuttal of the Biblical account was never a goal of science. The debunking occurs “en passant,” a sort of collateral damage inflicted unintentionally in the pursuit of other objectives – like a beautiful woman wounding a man’s ego simply by not even noticing him.

    Science attempts to understand physical reality. I feel, sometimes, that by aggressively advocating atheism, some scientists arouse animosity towards their discipline, animosity born of the misconception that all scientists are atheists or that science is incompatible with a belief in God (which it certainly is not).

    Religion engages peoples’ feelings (hope, reassurance, etc.), but pounds down on their heads with authority and judgement. Science springs from the intellect, but also involves feelings (curiosity, being right, etc.). When an atheistic scientist and a religious person debate, neither can convert the other. The arguement that takes place on the battleground of logic and reason (and sophistry) does not address the feelings – but the feelings are the real motivators, not just for the religious person but for the scientist as well. The atheism always seems to derive from some aversion or dissatisfaction, not from pure rationalism.

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  • Joseph Smidt

    This is hilarious.

  • John Phillips

    Brian: The only dissatisfaction or aversion I feel as an atheist is to those who base their world view on something without evidence and then try to influence the laws under which I live my life or use that world view to justify actions that I find reprehensible. Apart from that, my life has plenty of satisfaction enhanced by wonder at the knowledge gained through the scientific method. The above applies to all the atheists I know.

  • djm

    Well it wasn’t so long ago that they were worshipping the Sun, so I think it is entirely appropriate. Ra ra ra!

  • Brian

    John Phillips, I also feel dissatisfied with and averse to attempts by “those who base their world view on something without evidence…[to] try to influence the laws under which I live my life or use that world view to justify actions that I find reprehensible.” Pardon me for being, perhaps, somewhat intrusive, but are you really an atheist? If so (if you wish to elaborate), why? How did you manage to meet such a homogeneous group of people (“The above applies to all the atheists I know.”)?

  • J

    Ah, dear God.

  • Brian

    John Phillips, I was just out walking, and I realized that in my list (in post #15) of the feelings engendered and satisfied by science, I omitted perhaps the most ccmpelling one: the aesthetic appreciation of reality. Then I recalled that you had cited this feeling in your post. You are fortunate, indeed, to be aware of this aspect of science. Feelings are like seeds – those that you water develop.

  • Amara

    My first thought when Joanne posted this image last October, was: “Hey, there’s Halley’s comet!” (Halley’s Comet in the ultraviolet as seen from Pioneer Venus, in 1986. Photo AC86-0107-5. Further analysis here.) I think that it’s funny that only the shape and the IDL color table, can make the Sun look like a comet. :-)

  • nigel

    The 2nd law of thermodynamics, increasing entropy, has a physical mechanism: redshift due to cosmic expansion. Note that the “heat death of the universe” was formulated at a time (prior to Hubble) when it was believed that the universe was static and eternal. In that static, closed system, eventually you will get an equilibrium where everything is at uniform temperature, so work can’t be done.

    In the expanding universe, all radiation emitted is redshifted, losing energy inversely with the size of universe. That’s why the energy density of radiation in the universe falls inversely as the fourth power of time, not as the inverse cube root of time (which describes how the energy equivalent of matter falls).

    The loss of energy of radiation guarantees that you always have an efficient heat sink in space while the universe expands: it’s literally impossible for a radiation equilibrium (heat death via uniform temperature) to arise while the universe expands. Sure, eventually energy may be used up, but that’s not the same as entropy (disorder) always increasing.

    By the way, it’s gravitation and other attractive forces which act against the rise of entropy. Disorder occurs at high temperature as you know from heating a magnet and seeing the magnetism (ordering of domains) disappear. If you heat up anything, it eventually vaporizes and becomes a chaotic gas with high entropy. As you cool such a gas, things consense due to electromagnetic forces (surface tension, bonding of ions and electrons into stable atoms, and then atoms into molecules, etc.) and gravitation (planet formation, etc.). So low temperatures produce order. As the universe expands, it cools, so the overall entropy falls due to those forces being able to bind particles together if the particles are slow (cool) enough that their kinetic energy is less than the binding energy due to the attractive force.

    The second law of thermodynamics is based on heat engines, where you always need a heat sink cooler than the engine in order to get more than 0% efficiency. In a heat engine, entropy rises because the heat sink becomes warmer due to keeping the engine cool. This implies that in a closed, static system eventually you will uniform temperature. But that doesn’t apply to the universe, which is expanding. You could argue that when the stars run out of hydrogen and nuclear power in general, the universe will then be of uniform temperature. In that case, you need to prove how the curve of falling entropy of the universe since the big bang is going to reverse its direction and rise, which will require a detailed treatment of massive black holes which radiate at an decreasing rate as they grow.

    (I’ll copy this comment to my blog in case it is too off-topic or too long long and is deleted or edited.)

  • B

    @boomslang #2

    could you point me towards some reference on the relation between entropy and complexity? Also, I don’t get your example, wouldn’t the question be what energy sources ‘farming, construction, and manufacturing’ use, and whether we could ever have exploited them without energy that goes back to the sun in one way or the other? (The answer is simply no, since humans are solar-powered.)

    As far as I know Nylon is not a very complex system. As you say, it is an emergence of order that one has there, not self-organization of a complex system. The important thing about a complex system is that it can increase its macroscopic order while increasing its overall entropy. Is that what you’re trying to say?

  • nigel

    sorry that comment above by me is full of errors, the worst being “… inverse cube root of time (which describes how the energy equivalent of matter falls)” which should be “… inverse cube of time…”

  • boomslang


    This paper touches on the issue of the relationship between complexity and entropy somewhat.

    As to my example, you’re spot on: the idea is precisely that a complex system can increase its macroscopic order while increasing its overall entropy. To oversimplify slightly, because we have a manufacturing-and-agriculture-based civilization, we generate more waste heat than we would if we were a (necessarily smaller, lower-energy-using) aboriginal ciovilization. Thus the technologiucal “advancement” of the Human Race increases entropy faster, and may therefore be considered to be naturally favored.

    Nylon is a simple example of macroscopic order (a long-chain polymer) emerging inevitably from a chemical reaction; again, oversimplifying for clarity, this process may be offered as analogous to the rise of DNA: chemistry is often an engine of entropy which produces orderly end products, even macroscopic ones, but we didn’t invent chemistry — it has been there from (almost) the beginning.

  • Shane

    Ha, those stupid fundamentalists! I don’t know what’s the worse part of fundamentalism: the malformed philosophy or the ungracious behavior.

    In some circles of educated (though perhaps less “focused”) people, boomslang’s suggestion,

    “a predilection for the spontaneous emergence of order is a well-studied and well-documented chemical process. I don’t think the Divine’s name appears anywhere on the patent for Nylon, for example…”

    would, even in its elliptical sense, be seen as a philosophical error similar in magnitude to the scientific error that Sean, in his post, is finding so compelling. But a really focused person might just ask boomslang to stop waving hands and write down the multiplicity of a farm.

    I would like to make counter-suggestion, in the form of a modern parable I heard from a biochemist:

    Once upon a time, a conference of biochemists and microbiologists agreed that they could make a living cell better than any found in nature. To prove their conviction they elected to challenge God to a competition, the winner of which would be the entity that (or “That”, as they generously provided in the disclosure) had made the better cell by the end of some number of hours.

    God, bravely accepting the challenge of the scientists, said, “Okay, let’s do it this Thursday.”

    Thursday came (as God generously provided), and in the morning the scientists and God gathered at the laboratory. The scientists had begun to make preparations and were readying their many supplies, when God rumpled his eyebrows and complained: “That wasn’t part of the agreement. You have to bring your own dust.”

  • Brian

    You wrote, “ha, Those stupid fundamentalists! I don’t know what’s the worse part of fundamentalism: the malformed philosophy or the ungracious behavior.”

    It’s the ungracious behavior – one hundred percent. We all have plenty of malformed philosophies. In a way, they make us all a bit cuter, a bit more exotic. They make for a tangier stew. But then…Mother Teresa was religious, the Pope is religious, George Bush is religious, Torquemada was religious. What is the difference? Didn’t they all read the same Bible. Yes, they did, but religion is often used as a vehicle or even an excuse for manifesting the prior inclinations of the adherent.

    Some use religion as an inspiration for love and appreciation. They want a loving relationship with a being who knows and understands them, someone strong and caring to express their hopes and fears to. I enjoy the company of such people. I feel comfortable with them. Their innate kindness and openness are a joy to all. Perhaps they are fundamentalists or perhaps they adopt a looser interpretation, but I really don’t care. I like them as people.

    Well, of course, there is a very broad gamut of possibilities and variations, and I will skip most of them. But, at the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to use the scriptures as a rationalization for intolerance. Some fundamentalists virtually demonize entire groups of people based on extremely selective interpretations of the Bible. For instance, the Bible (1 Thessalonians 5:15) says “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for you and for all.” Yet I have never heard this quoted. How many times have I heard “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?” This is what I mean by selectivity. The speaker is feeling vindictive and uses “God” as a little puppet to support his case. You can make “God” say almost anything you want – a little selectivity, a little “interpretation”…. I could cite may more examples. For every nasty, misanthropic, judgemental sentence in the Bible there are ten kind, loving ones. I guess you find what you look for.

    Obnxious, judgemental people offend almost everyone. But then there is another segment that flies in the face of the rationalists. This group likes to argue against scientific findings that challenge their own beliefs. The OP is directed against an argument put forth by one of these people.

    You have to realize, that many scientists delight in the beauty and apparent elegance of reality. They leap to defend it against those who disrespect it, who callously violate the integrity of the truth and the sincere search for truth. Perhaps a Creator might appreciate their admiration for His production.

  • B

    Hi boomslang: Thanks so much! This is really helpful. Have a nice day – B.

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  • Brock Tice

    “Creationists always try to use the second law,
    to disprove evolution but their theory has a flaw,
    the Earth’s not a closed system, it’s powered by the sun,
    so f**k the damn creationists,
    Doomsday, get my gun.”

    – M C Hawking, “F**k the creationists”

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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