Today, I'll contaminate the Internet. 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 other day, a friend showed me his program
for the Tom Stoppard play, Arcadia, which he'd just seen. The
play has a lot in it about early 19th-century science and technology.
It's hailed as a kind of meeting ground for C. P. Snow's two cultures,
the sciences and the humanities. The program notes made much of that
and said that the play incorporates Newton's second law of thermodynamics.
So I Googled Newton's second law of thermodynamics and got 3270
hits. Now, when I post this script, there'll be even more.
In any case, my friend was rightly appalled. For this is right up there with
the flat earth and denials of evolution. When Newton wrote his
of motion, he completely altered the way we deal with our world. But the
subject of thermodynamics would not arise for another century and a half.
Newton's second law says that to accelerate any body we have to apply a force
equal to its mass times the acceleration. The much later
of thermodynamics says that the potential of energy for doing useful work is
constantly degraded by irreversible events. That knowledge was also destined
to radically alter our world view.
The two laws are completely unrelated. Irreversibility is unknown in the world
of Newton's laws. Stoppard's actors recognize that fact. One character says,
flat out, that the newly formulated laws of heat flow threaten Newton's determinism.
So a blunder was made in the program notes. No big deal by itself; we all make
mistakes. But this one was so quotable that it echoes down through the Internet's
corridors. The Internet leaves an indelible record, and too few people know enough
to question it.
Just this morning, a newspaper feature on scientific illiteracy listed ten things
we should all know and gave a brief explanation of each -- stuff like DNA, evolution,
relativity, the big bang, quantum mechanics. It was all good stuff, but it did not
include the older -- and still essential -- laws of physics.
It did include statistics, where so many of us trip, but what about handling simple
numbers? I just went to the web and typed in "Joan of Arc, Noah's wife." I got
fifteen thousand hits. Article after article reported the fraction of
Americans who thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Some said six percent, others
ten, twelve, twenty -- I even saw sixty percent.
That shows pretty low respect for numerical accuracy from the very people concerned
with illiteracy. It also gives me pause. As I do my dance in favor of technological
literacy, how much mischief do I sow among people listening with half an ear? Well,
I've really done it this time -- by posting this script, I've created one more citation
to Newton's non-existent second law of thermodynamics on that un-erasable mirror that
we call the Internet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
T. Stoppard, Arcadia. (Faber & Faber, 1994.)
C. Cookson, Numbers + Symbols = Confusion. Life & Arts,
Financial Times, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007, pp. 1-2
I am grateful to Charlie Dalton, UH Mechanical Engineering Dept.
for showing me the "Newton's second law of thermodynamics" blunder.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.