Sisyphus on A Sand Dune

I’m walking the park’s paths on a lovely early Spring day when, “There you are, Moire. I got a question!”

“As you always do, Mr Feder. What’s your question this time?”

“OK, this guy’s saying that life is all about fighting entropy but entropy always increases anyway. I seen nothing in the news about us fighting entropy so where’s he get that? Why even bother if we’re gonna lose anyway? Where’s it coming from? Can we plug the holes?”

“That’s 4½ questions with a lot of other stuff hiding behind them. You’re going to owe me pizza at Eddie’s AND a double-dip gelato.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Moire, but you’re on.”

“Deal. Let’s start by clearing away some underbrush. You seem to have the idea that entropy’s a thing, like water, that it flows around and somehow seeps into our Universe. None of that’s true.”

“That makes no sense. How can what we’ve got here increase if it doesn’t come from somewhere?”

“Ah, I see the problem — conservation. Physicists say there are two kinds of quantities in the Universe — conserved and non‑conserved. The number of cards in a deck is is a conserved quantity because it’s always 52, right?”

“Unless you’re in a game with Eddie.”

“You’ve learned that lesson, too, eh? With Eddie the system’s not closed because he occasionally adds or removes a card. Unless we catch him at it and that’s when the shouting starts. So — cards are non-conserved if Eddie’s in the game. Anyway, energy’s a conserved quantity. We can change energy from one form to another but we can’t create or extinguish energy, OK?”

“I heard about that. Sure would be nice if we could, though — electricity outta nothing would save the planet.”

“It would certainly help, and so would making discarded plastic just disappear. Unfortunately, mass is another conserved quantity unless you’re doing subatomic stuff. Physicists have searched for other conserved quantities because they make calculations simpler. Momentum‘s one, if you’re careful how you define it. There’s about a dozen more. The mass of water coming out of a pipe exactly matches the mass that went in.”

“What if the pipe leaks?”

“Doesn’t matter where the water comes out. If you measure the leaked mass and the mass at the pipe’s designed exit point the total outflow equals the inflow. But that gets me to the next bit of underbrush. Energy’s conserved, that’s one of our bedrock rules, but energy always leaks and that’s another bedrock rule. The same rule also says that matter always breaks into smaller pieces if you give it a chance though that’s harder to calculate. We measure both leakages as entropy. Wherever you look, any process that converts energy or matter from one form to another diverts some fraction into bits of matter in random motion and that’s an increase of entropy. One kind of entropy, anyway.”

“Fine, but what’s all this got to do with life?”

“It’s all to get us to where we can talk about entropy in context. You’re alive, right?”

“Last I looked.”

“Ever break a bone?”

<taps his arm> “Sure, hasn’t everybody one time or another?”

“Healed up pretty well, I see. Congratulations. Right after the break that arm could have gone in lots of directions it’s not supposed to — a high entropy situation. So you wore a cast while your bone cells worked hard to knit you together again and lower that entropy. Meanwhile, the rest of your body kept those cells supplied with energy and swept away waste products. You see my point?”

“So what you’re saying is that mending a broken part uses up energy and creates entropy somewhere even though the broken part is less random. I got that.”

“Oh, it goes deeper than that. If you could tag one molecule inside a living cell you’d see it bouncing all over the place until it happens to move where something grabs it to do something useful. Entropy pushes towards chaos, but the cell’s pattern of organized activity keeps chaos in check. Like picnicking on a windy day — only constant vigilance maintains order. That’s the battle.”

“Hey, lookit, Eddie’s ain’t open. I’ll owe you.”

“Pizza AND double-dip gelato.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Conversation of Energy

Teena’s next dash is for the slide, the high one, of course. “Ha-ha, Uncle Sy, beat you here. Look at me climbing up and getting potential energy!”

“You certainly did and you certainly are.”

“Now I’m sliding down all kinetic energy, wheee!” <thump, followed by thoughtful pause> “Uncle Sy, I’m all mixed up. You said momentum and energy are like cousins and we can’t create or destroy either one but I just started momentum coming down and then it stopped and where did my kinetic energy go? Did I break Mr Newton’s rule?”

“My goodness, those are good questions. They had physicists stumped for hundreds of years. You didn’t break Mr Newton’s Conservation of Momentum rule, you just did something his rule doesn’t cover. I did say there are important exceptions, remember.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t say what they are.”

“And you want to know, eh? Mmm, one exception is that the objects have to be big enough to see. Really tiny things follow quantum rules that have something like momentum but it’s different. Uhh, another exception is the objects can’t be moving too fast, like near the speed of light. But for us the most important exception is that the rule only applies when all the energy to make things move comes from objects that are already moving.”

“Like my marbles banging into each other on the floor?”

“An excellent example. Mr Newton was starting a new way of doing science. He had to work with very simple systems and and so his rules were very simple. One Sun and one planet, or one or two marbles rolling on a flat floor. His rules were all about forces and momentum, which is a combination of mass and speed. He said the only way to change something’s momentum was to push it with a force. Suppose when you push on a marble it goes a foot in one second and has a certain momentum. If you push it twice as hard it goes two feet in one second and has twice the momentum.”

“What if I’ve got a bigger marble?”

“If you have a marble that’s twice as heavy and you give it the one-foot-per-second speed, it has twice the momentum. Once there’s a certain amount of momentum in one of Mr Newton’s simple systems, that’s that.”

“Oh, that’s why I’ve got to snap my steelie harder than the glass marbles ’cause it’s heavier. Oh!Oh!And when it hits a glass one, that goes faster than the steelie did ’cause it’s lighter but it gets the momentum that the steelie had.”

“Perfect. You Mommie will be so proud of you for that thinking.”

“Yay! So how are momentum and energy cousins?”

“Cous… Oh. What I said was they’re related. Both momentum and kinetic energy depend on both mass and speed, but in different ways. If you double something’s speed you give it twice the momentum but four times the amount of kinetic energy. The thing is, there’s only a few kinds of momentum but there are lots of kinds of energy. Mr Newton’s Conservation of Momentum rule is limited to only certain situations but the Conservation of Energy rule works everywhere.”

“Energy is bigger than momentum?”

“That’s one way of putting it. Let’s say the idea of energy is bigger. You can get electrical energy from generators or batteries, chemical energy from your muscles, gravitational energy from, um, gravity –“

“Atomic energy from atoms, wind energy from the wind, solar energy from the Sun –“

“Cloud energy from clouds –“

“Wait, what?”

“Just kidding. The point is that energy comes in many varieties and they can be converted into one another and the total amount of energy never changes.”

“Then what happened to my kinetic energy coming down the slide? I didn’t give energy to anything else to make it start moving.”

“Didn’t you notice the seat of your pants getting hotter while you were slowing down? Heat is energy, too — atoms and molecules just bouncing around in place. In fact, one of the really good rules is that sooner or later, every kind of energy turns into heat.”

“Big me moving little atoms around?”

“Lots and lots of them.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Conversation of Momentum

Teena bounces out of the sandbox, races over to the playground’s little merry-go-round and shoves it into motion. “Come help turn this, Uncle Sy, I wanna go fast!” She leaps onto the moving wheel and of course she promptly falls off. The good news is that she rolls with the fall like I taught her to do.

“Why can’t I stay on, Uncle Sy?”

“What’s your new favorite word again?”

“Mmmo-MMENN-tumm. But that had to do with swings.”

“Swings and lots of other stuff, including merry-go-rounds and even why you should roll with the fall. Which, by the way, you did very well and I’m glad about that because we don’t want you getting hurt on the playground.”

“Well, it does hurt a little on my elbow, see?”

“Let me look … ah, no bleeding, things only bend where they’re supposed to … I think no damage done but you can ask your Mommie to kiss it if it still hurts when we get home. But you wanted to know why you fell off so let’s go back to the sandbox to figure that out.”

<scamper!> “I beat you here!”

“Of course you did. OK, let’s draw a big arc and pretend that’s looking down on part of the merry-go-round. I’ll add some lines for the spokes and handles. Now I’ll add some dots and arrows to show what I saw from over here. See, the merry-go-round is turning like this curvy arrow shows. You started at this dot and jumped onto this dot which moved along and then you fell off over here. Poor Teena. So you and your momentum mostly went left-to-right.”

“But that’s not what happened, Uncle Sy. Here, I’ll draw it. I jumped on but something tried to push me off and then I did fall off and then I rolled. Poor me. Hey, my arm doesn’t hurt any more!”

“How about that? I’ve often found that thinking about something else makes hurts go away. So what do you think was trying to push you off? I’ll give you a hint with these extra arrows on the arc.”

“That looks like Mr Newton’s new directions, the in-and-out direction and the going-around one. Oh! I fell off along the in-and-out direction! Like I was a planet and the Sun wasn’t holding me in my orbit! Is that what happened, I had out-momentum?”

“Good thinking, Teena. Mr Newton would say that you got that momentum from a force in the out-direction. He’d also say that if you want to stand steady you need all the forces around you to balance each other. What does that tell you about what you need to do to stay on the merry-go-round?”

“I need an in-direction force … Hah, that’s what I did wrong! I jumped on but I didn’t grab the handles.”

“Lesson learned. Good.”

“But what about the rolling?”

“Well, in general when you fall it’s nearly always good to roll the way your body’s spinning and only try to slow it down. People who put out an arm or leg to stop a fall often stress it and and maybe even tear or break something.”

“That’s what you’ve told me. But what made me spin?”

“One of Mr Newton’s basic principles was a rule called ‘Conservation of Momentum.’ It says that you can transfer momentum from one thing to another but you can’t create it or destroy it. There are some important exceptions but it’s a pretty good rule for the cases he studied. Your adventure was one of them. Look back at the picture I drew. You’d built up a lot of going-around momentum from pushing the merry-go-round to get it started. You still had momentum in that direction when you fell off. Sure enough, that’s the direction you rolled.”

“Is that the ‘Conversation of Energy’ thing that you and Mommie were talking about?”

“Conservation. It’s not the same but it’s closely related.”

“Why does it even work?”

“Ah, that’s such a deep question that most physicists don’t even think about it. Like gravity, Mr Newton described what inertia and momentum do, but not how they work. Einstein explained gravity, but I’m not convinced that we understand mass yet.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Meanwhile, back at the office

Closing time.  Anne and I stroll from Al’s coffee shop back to the Acme Building.  It’s a clear night with at least 4,500 stars, but Anne’s looking at the velvet black between them.

“What you said, Sy, about the Universe not obeying Conservation of Energy — tell me more about that.”

“Aaa-hmmm … OK.  You’ve heard about the Universe expanding, right?”

“Ye-es, but I don’t know why that happens.”

“Neither do the scientists, but there’s pretty firm evidence that it’s happening, if only at the longest scales.  Stars within galaxies get closer together as they radiate away their gravitational energy.  But the galaxies themselves are getting further apart, as far out as we can measure.”

“What’s that got to do with Conservation of Energy?”

“Well, galaxies have mass so they should be drawn together by gravity the way that gravity pulls stars together inside galaxies.  But that’s not what’s happening.  Something’s actively pushing galaxies or galaxy clusters away from each other.  Giving the something a name like ‘dark energy‘ is just an accounting gimmick to pretend the First Law is still in effect at very large distances — we don’t know the energy source for the pushing, or even if there is one.  There’s a separate set of observations we attribute to a ‘dark energy‘ that may or may not have the same underlying cause.  That’s what I was talking about.”Fading white satin

We’re at the Acme Building.  I flash my badge to get us past Security and into the elevator.  As I reach out to press the ’12’ button she puts her hand on my arm.  “Sy, I want to see if I understand this entropy-elephant thing.  You said entropy started as an accounting gimmick, to help engineers keep track of fuel energy escaping into the surroundings.  Energy absorbed at one temperature they called the environment’s heat capacity.  Total energy absorbed over a range of temperatures, divided by the difference in temperature, they called change in entropy.”

The elevator lets us out on my floor and we walk to door 1217.  “You’ve got it right so far, Anne.  Then what?”

“Then the chemists realized that you can predict how lots of systems will work from only knowing a certain set of properties for the beginning and end states.  Pressure, volume, chemical composition, whatever, but also entropy.  But except for simple gases they couldn’t predict heat capacity or entropy, only measure it.”

My key lets us in.  She leans back against the door frame.  “That’s where your physicists come in, Sy.  They learned that heat in a substance is actually the kinetic energy of its molecules.  Gas molecules can move around, but that motion’s constrained in liquids and even more constrained in solids.  Going from solid to liquid and from liquid to gas absorbs heat energy in breaking those constraints.  That absorbed heat appears as increased entropy.”

She’s lounging against my filing cabinet.  “The other way that substances absorb heat is for parts of molecules to rotate and vibrate relative to other parts.  But there are levels.  Some vibrations excite easier than others, and many rotations are even easier.  In a cold material only some motions are active.  Rising temperature puts more kinds of motion into play.  Heat energy spreads across more and more sub-molecular absorbers.”

She’s perched on the edge of my desk.  “Here’s where entropy as possibility-counting shows up.  More heat, more possibilities, more entropy.  Now we can do arithmetic and prediction instead of measuring.  Anything you can count possibilities for you can think about defining an entropy for, like information bits or black holes or socks.  But it’ll be a different entropy, with its own rules and its own range of validity.  … And…”Riding the Elephant

She’s looming directly over me.  Her dark eyes are huge.

“And…?”

When we first met, Sy, you asked what you could do for me.  You’ve helped me see that when I travel across time and probability I’m riding the Entropy Elephant.  I’d like to show my appreciation.  Can you think of a possibility?”

A dark night, in a city that knows how to keep its secrets.  On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott