Today, a new look at a favorite cocktail party
topic -- the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The world moves to greater
and greater disorder. Everything deteriorates. Heat
won't flow from cold bodies to hot ones. Sleds will
never coast uphill. James Lovelock looked at the
Second Law of Thermodynamics and said,
"... at first sight [it reads] like the notice at
the gates of Dante's Hell."
But we shouldn't be too quick to abandon all hope.
Our view of disorder is undergoing a stunning
change. Until recently we saw only disorder rising
out of probability. Things move from improbable
order to inevitable disorder.
Enter now the computer. For years we could solve
hardly anything but linear equations. That meant
most of the problems we could take on were ones we
could express as simple proportionalities. The
computer let us solve much nastier problems.
Starting in the '60s, computer solutions began
behaving the way linear solutions almost never had.
A disarming number of these new non-linear
solutions became chaotic when they marched forward
Now here's the catch. There's no probability in the
equations. They're deterministic. Yet, like the
Second Law, they march us off toward chaos.
Remember: These equations are analogs of nature.
They do what nature itself does. March them forward
in time and they lead to chaos as often as nature
Then the new computer solutions produced a second
suprise. They didn't lead just to chaos. They also
created a measure of order within chaos. Here's a
pendulum slowed by friction. As we drive it, it
swings in random lazy eights. It never repeats any
swing exactly. Yet it's drawn back to the same
general path in most of its swings.
The Second Law tells how systems behave only when
they run down. But the Sun drives and replenishes
our world. And these non-linear descriptions tell
how nature behaves when it's driven.
The computer gives us a new way to look at nature.
It tells us that chaos is far more a part of the
natural order of things than we thought. But it
also shows that nature finds large-scale order. The
surface of Jupiter is rippled by the chaotic
turbulent flow of gases. Yet the great red spot, a
huge self-organizing vortex, sustains itself and
feeds off that chaos.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville
observed, "There are some enterprises in which a
careful disorderliness is the true method." It was
canny remark indeed. For that careful disorder now
proves to be the very method by which nature
herself sustains grace, beauty -- and regeneration.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds