Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tilting at Windmills

Jim distracted me from my post on Mme. Chiang with this , by the Biomedical Science Director of the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum, and the comments on the Second Law of Thermodynamics is so egregious, I’ve got to say something.

First, why do I care? Well, I'm a Baptist. If I expect my in-group to be taken seriously on the stage of public discourse, then I'd better clean up the messes of the fringe elements who happen to sit on my side of the fence. Heaven knows I knock on the Left for not doing this. Now to brass tacks.

Albert Einstein was a genius, but he was not a terribly wise man. One of the truly wise things he did say, however, was:

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

This is quote is related to the spewings of Creationists in that Creationists often take the college sophomore definition of a very complex term and then run with it in their arguments. We’re about to wade into a deep, deep pool of that BS, so let’s all get on the same page.

First, a matter of definitions. One reason reading science is so dense is that terms are rigidly defined. If you don’t know the precise definition of the term, science writing is so much gibberish to you.

So, what is entropy, at the simplest level? Don’t read on, don’t leave this site yet, just answer the question in your head. Unless you cheated and Googled it, or are an avid amateur, or a trained chemist or physicist, your definition probably had the word “disorder” in it. This is in fact, a useful fiction that I wish high school and college science teachers would dispense with because it gets less useful the more you try to apply that definition of entropy outside the classroom. Let’s look at the actual definition :

In physics, entropy (from Greek εντροπία "a turning toward," from εν- "in" + τροπή "a turning"), symbolized by S, is a measure of the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work.

Note not one word about disorder. Consider a library with the books on the shelves. Now, take the books off the bottom shelves and scatter them on the floor. The layman would say that the state with the books on the floor has a lot more entropy. In fact, assuming the bottom shelves are close to the floor, the entropy has not increased that much. Now, take all the books off of the floor and burn them in some metal wastebaskets in the room keeping the ashes tidily in the trash cans. The average person would say that the room with the books on the floor was messier, and therefore had more entropy. In fact, the room with the ashes neatly in the cans, but more molecules of gas than solids, and the concomitant raised temperature and gas pressure has the greater entropy. Do not confuse entropy with disorder.

I’m a molecules and atoms guy, though. I tend to prefer explanations that go back to the fundamental physical building blocks of the Universe. When someone says that there are losses in every system, and thermodynamically those losses are called Entropy, my next question is “why?”. So the Statistical Mechanics definition of entropy is a lot more satisfying to me, not to mention that all other definitions can be derived from it, so it is the fundamental definition:

In statistical thermodynamics the entropy is defined as the number of microscopic configurations that result in the observed macroscopic description of the thermodynamic system:

S = kBlnΩ

where kB is Boltzmann's constant 1.38066×10−23 J K−1 and Ω is the number of microstates corresponding to the observed thermodynamic macrostate.

As I said in Ken’s comments the last time this particular bit of nitwittery was brought to my attention:

Entropy is a function of the system's microscopic states, so it's sort of a thermodynamic uncertainty principle: if you clearly define the macroscopic states, there is still some energy left over in the system that can be thought of as the atoms or molecules shifting between possible microscopic energy states. This corresponds to the classical thermodynamic definition of entropy as the heat energy in a system that is not available to do work.

The way I used to help conceptualize this to undergrads was to ask them to think of driving a railroad spike with a 20 lb sledge. Nice solid hits will get you there in a few strokes. That’s an entropy-free system. Now, take 20 lbs of ball bearings and shoot them at the spike with an air hose. Sure, it’s the same mass and energy hitting the spike, but the bearings can bounce off of each other and cause losses by being in more states than the solid sledgehammer. A lot of energy is not there to do useful work. THAT image is getting closer to the real definition of entropy than is the indiscriminate use of the word “disorder”. Real physical scientists think in terms of models that we visualize in our heads or represent in the symbolic logic of math. We distrust words for just this reason.

Ken also pointed out another logical fallacy in the high school science teacher’s definition of Entropy:

"Disorder" (whatever that means) is part of it, but a system with exactly the same temperature throughout, and with any matter uniformly dispersed, is at maximum entropy.

Finally, and this is relevant to this particular post, Angie Schulz (a physicist) weighed in the comments with this anecdote:

One time a colleague of mine was debating a creationist -- not in a formal setting, but just gabbing away. The creationist says, "Ah HA! Evolution says that more complex lifeforms evolve from less complex ones, thereby DECREASING entropy, and that's not allowed. What do you say to that?"

My colleague says, "But entropy MUST increase only in a closed system. The Earth is not a closed system."

Creationist: "What? How do you mean?"

Colleague: "Well, for one thing, it gets energy from the sun..."

Creationist: "A little sunlight shining on it isn't going to do anything!"

And that's where my colleague should've shot him.

Unfortunately, the Young Earth Creationsists are still worrying at the Second Law, and they've thought up a rejoinder for that little bit of logic. Unfortunately it's not a rejoinder that holds any water, so let’s start with the Fisking. Text originating at Mt. Blanco in red.

*The second law of thermodynamics states that all work processes tend towards a greater entropy (disorder/lower energy density) over time. Since the universe is tending towards a greater entropy (expanding over time), all work processes within the universe also tend towards a greater entropy.
Cited from

OK, maybe this guy was working off of an earlier, less precise version of Wikipedia, but I searched the current document and found the phrase “work process” to be absent. It’s also absent in my undergrad P-Chem book, my graduate P-Chem book, and my Statistical Mechanics book. It’s also missing from my memory of my course work. Remember what I said above about scientists being very precise in their definitions of words that laymen use indiscriminately? Well, terminology mistakes like that right off of the bat drop an argument from the level of “scientific” to the level of “the kind of drunken philosophy that college sophomores engage in around 1:00 AM on a Saturday night” in the mind of a trained scientist. Just what exactly is a “work process” anyway? The correct terminology, by the way, is “closed system”.

In layman's terms, the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system things always go from a state of order to a state of disorder without exception. Think about a nice orderly child’s bedroom, or any room for that matter. Do nothing and it will “magically” become an absolute mess.

Well, now we switch one of the terms to the correct “closed system”, but we’re still talking about “disorder”. And I don’t think most laymen talk in terms of a “closed system”. Once again, that’s why we rigidly define our terms in science, even more than lawyers do - to avoid the mixing of macroscopic disorder with microscopic entropy in the example of the child’s room. This was exactly why I set up that library example in the introduction.

You must put energy into the system to make it orderly again.

Yes. And?

This is why evolution is impossible. There is no physical law that can account for inanimate objects going from a state of disorder to a state of life. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a powerful advocate that someone had to create the incredibly sophisticated order we see all around us, Rom 1:20.

That’s a big logical jump. Of course there is no physical law that accounts for the random, spontaneous appearance of life. We’re not at that state of the science yet. Even when we are, I doubt there will be one physical law, rather there will be a complex equation of interplaying forces. But science never allows a Deus ex machina when it runs into a wall, it keeps postulating testable theories. That word testable is important. It does not have to mean controlled experiments, although those are the easiest way to test a theory. In fact, when Darwin first postulated Evolution, some physicists debated its merits as science because of the absence of experimentation. More on that later.

I’ve seen systems go from high to low entropy based only on energy inputs of UV light and random stirring from a mixer. They are called colloidal crystals, and they are made by stirring water, styrene, an initiator and ionic soaps - stirring quite randomly, I might add. They just formed naturally without any intelligent work on my part. But the polymerization process gave off a lot of heat into the fume hood, increasing the entropy of the air / flask / styrene solution system. Within the flask – entropy decreased. Overall in the system of the fume hood? Not so much.

A natural form of colloidal crystallization is what makes opals and mother-of-pearl and gives them their iridescence. This is an example of natural self-assembly, and even in a closed system it does not violate the Second Law – you can get localized pockets of low entropy as long as the overall entropy of the system increases. Opal formation gives off heat, which increases the entropy of the surrounding system, even as entropy decreases in that small domain inside the silica and water matrix.

Evolutionists completely ignore this law and when pressed about it they side step it and say “Well that only applies to a closed system and since the earth receives energy from the sun it is open and not closed.” My own college professor actually said this when I questioned her about evolution vs. the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Indeed, they all say this and quickly change the subject because they know their answer is a non-sequitur. Why is that you ask? The reason is arrived at on two separate accounts.

First, the earth and sun must be considered as being in the universe which is by definition (from a physics standpoint) a closed system. Where then does the universe get this strange ability to defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Answer, it doesn’t.

Wrong answer. See my comments on mineral-based self-assembling systems above. Closed systems can have pockets of low entropy. Whirlpools spontaneously arise in chaotic streams by this same mechanism. Second, I don’t hear this argument being made about planets and stars. They, too are pockets of low entropy, but the entropy of the universe is still increasing.

Therefore, things on the earth always go from a state of order to disorder unless work not just energy is applied to reverse the disorder.

I’m not sure what he means by “work”, here. He seems to mean some sort of biological process or human effort. The definition of “work” that is included in the “not available to do work” definition of entropy is the physics definition of a force acting on an object to cause displacement of that object. It’s not in any sense intelligently directed work that seems to be meant here.

This is confusing several different concepts from physics. We have left the arena of the second law entirely when we begin to talk about work in reversing disorder. That’s why I was so pissy about the term “work process” at the beginning.

Second, if we allow the earth/sun relationship to be an open system (as my college professor suggested) then we have to take into consideration the quality of the energy being put to work in the system. Let's go back to our bedroom analogy. If you tell a two year old child to clean up his bedroom and leave him unattended, every mother knows exactly what you will get, an even bigger mess than before.

I think I covered this before, but let me point out once again that this is no longer an argument against evolution based on evolution violating the Second Law. The concession that the Earth is not an open system by virtue of all those solar-generated photons impinging on us takes us away from the central premise that evolution violates the Second Law.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with this line of reasoning. If you don’t count the potential energy losses of things getting knocked off of high shelves, a messy room and a clean one have almost the same thermodynamic entropy. To claim otherwise is a form of anthropomorphism. What we humans see as “order” is not necessarily related to entropy. Take a volume of Shakespeare and print it, but make a word scramble out of every word. It would take a lot of human effort or “work” to make sense of it. However, since the quantity of paper and ink is the same in either addition, the scrambled version and the regular edition have practically the same entropy. By cleaning a room and expending heat and chemical energy in the process, you are actually increasing the entropy in the room.

As you can see it’s not the quantity of the energy but the quality of the work that makes the difference. A two year old child is more than happy to put energy into the room but it’s not the kind that will clean up the mess.

I think I covered this before, too with opal formation. Natural processes can result in localized entropy minima at the expense of the entropy in the total system. Let me also say that it looks to me as if certain carbon structures are strange attractors in the Chaos Theory sense –low energy wells in a sea of higher energy chaos. In that sense, random mixing and chemical bond formation over millions of years will result in self-assembling and eventually self-replicating systems, because once the first protein is made by chance it attracts others to its space. A strange attractor. If you give a planet billions of years to mix and match chemical bond formation, you can postulate a mechanical explanation for life. This theory not proven yet, but it is theoretically (and possibly practically) testable, which Young Earth Creationism is not.

Likewise with the sun. Yes, the sun will put tremendous amounts of energy into the earth. But as any thinking person knows not all sun energy is good energy. Think about what happens when summer rolls around and you go outside on the first hot day of the year with your sleeves rolled up. You get a sun burn. The sun put energy into you all right. However, it was not good energy but destructive energy. The sun actually killed life (the cells in your skin) it did not create life.

All I have to say here is that my pharmacologist friends always tell me that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose. Small does of the sun are good for us. Ever heard of vitamin D? This is just piss-poor reasoning. Plants don’t get sunburn. Life had to move through vegetation before it got to us sunburning humans and pigs (AFAIK the only other animal that sunburns).

Yes, without the sun we would not live long. We need its energy to have life. But, it takes highly developed systems which are capable of taking advantage of the sun’s energy to utilize any useful work from it. It can’t work any other way. The amount of sun energy that would be necessary to jump start life would kill it before it ever got started.

Huh? Give me the formula to derive the amount of solar energy necessary to “jump-start” life, please. I never got that one in biophysics class.

This is the dilemma that all evolutionists face regarding the origin of life. And they run from it like a scientist fleeing Jurassic Park.

Scientists routinely wrestle with the issue of not being able to observe life at its inception. Evolution in vertebrates is hard to observe because you can not do evolutionary experiments on large-scale animals within a reasonable amount of time. The debate in the 19th century was resolved in favor of evolutionary biology being science – with lots of caveats. Ijits on my side of the aisle such as Dawkins make statements in the lay press they would not make in a scientific journal about having proven religion wrong. Philosophically they are just as wrong as the Young Earth Creationists. But evolution is science because it is testable.

We have to keep in mind that the testability of evolution comes only from either finding new fossil evidence, or from controlled evolutionary experiments on modern organisms. Evolutionary biology has a hard row to hoe because of the difficulty of obtaining evidence. That doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress, it’s just that Creationists demand more proof than the state of the science can give. But if Lavoisier had given up on the root causes of combustion by invoking the hand of God, we’d still be in the 18th century, physics and chemistry-wise. Science progresses, sometimes slowly, but never with a Deus ex machina explanation. As Rand Simberg said:

You're just frustrated because we won't turn an elephant into an aardvark before your very eyes.

Finally, I’ve got to Fisk some of the more philosophical ramblings at the top of that page because they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and what it isn’t. I’m tired of this crap, so I’m only going to point out a few errors.

Believing that the universe started with a big bang and that things evolve from a state of lower order to a state of higher order (which is a flagrant contradiction of the Second Law of Thermodynamics*) can only be believed by faith. In order to be scientific, it must be able to 1. be observed and 2. be repeatable under carefully controlled experiments. The "theory" of evolution regarding origins fails both these qualifications miserably.

I think we’ve beaten that Second Law thing to death, don’t you? Leaving aside that there was no antecedent to “it” in the next sentence, the fundamental tenet of science is “testability” not “repeatability”. The best example of testing a theory that could not be tested by lab experiments was the testing of General Relativity 1919 eclipse:

For example, Einstein predicted that a gravitational field should bend rays of light much more than was expected by Newton’s theory of gravity. Although the effect was too small to be observed in the laboratory, Einstein calculated that the immense gravity of the massive sun would deflect a ray of light by 1.75 seconds of arc – less that one thousandth of a degree, but twice as large as the deflection according to Newton, and significant enough to be measured.

The Sun did bend light as predicted by Einstein, and General Relativity was generally accepted based on that single observation. Of course, we keep picking at the theory as best we can. When jets and atomic clocks were invented more than a few years after that, we were at last able to measure the miniscule time dilation effect of traveling at a mere 500 mph, which further established the Theory of Relativity. But scientists were willing to provisionally accept the theory based on one observation. Now, of course we are happier when multiple observations can be made, and we’re always trying to poke holes in a theory, but no reasonable physicist much doubted that Relativity was here to stay after the 1919 eclipse.

You can't observe the origins of the universe, the earth, the plant and animal life any more than you can repeat it. Therefore, what you believe about origins, whether you are a creationist or evolutionist can only ever be believed by faith.

Absolutely. Here we agree, but it's a trivial agreement. I can not travel back in time and observe the moment that contains the origin of life. I can’t prove that God didn’t make those little molecules jump into place and start replicating. As a matter of fact, that is something along the lines of what I do believe – except that I’m a bit more of a mathematical Deist and believe that God set up the universe so that life was likely to happen according to Natural Law. But that is not the argument that the folks at Mt. Blanco are making. They jump from that philosophical conundrum that scientific theories can never prove anything, they can only themselves be disproven, to asserting that things that can be disproven – such as a 6000 year age for the Earth – are true.

Science is not the search for Truth, it is the search for truth. Truth with a small “t” within the boundary conditions of testability and knowledge at any given time.

This is where Science and Philosophy / Religion part ways. If Scientists still acted like Philosophers and Theologians wresting with the Big Truths, we’d still be sitting under fig trees in Greek togas and wiping our asses with leaves. Instead, scientists ditched the notion of Truth in favor of truth and bootstrapped mankind into a life that isn’t so brutish, nasty or short. Give me that approach to life any day. And any, I mean any, attempt to undermine that process is the ultimate in barbarism.

As professor Dutch said:

What is truth? How do we know it when we see it? How can we be sure our interpretation of it is valid? What about rival claims of truth? These are difficult questions, challenging questions, wonderful questions. They tell us a great deal about the limitations of our methods of inquiry. The one thing they cannot do - what I call the Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy - is tell us anything at all about the nature of reality or the existence of truth. Philosophy since the days of the ancient Greeks has focused on the grand questions and the limitations of what and how we know, and as a result has remained stagnant. Science focused on what can be known and mushroomed.

All the fossils that can be dug up can only tell us that we found a fossil and it was in the dirt (or rock as the case may be) and that’s it. Nothing more. It’s a dead animal or plant and it can’t say one word about where it came from or how it got there. Period.

Oh yes it can. Are we tossing out the entire science of forensics here? There are a lot of convicted felons who’d love to use this line of reasoning.

We can interpret, based on any number of factors, such as geology and geography etc., how it got there but that is called interpretation based on evidence.

That is pretty much the definition of science. But if we assert something and claim that assertion is scientific, there must be a way to falsify it.

And interpretations are always subject to your predisposition. That's not to say the evidence is unimportant or that we can't learn anything from the evidence. The point is there is no scientific mechanism to prove how it got there or why it is there.



Janiece said...

Don Quixote - one of my favorite fictional characters. Alongside Edna Mode, of course.

Thanks very much for this post. I appreciate the opportunity to read about how YEC are screwed up in ways I hadn't even imagined.

Yay, Science!

Anonymous said...

Without being at all schooled in the science - I stopped taking physics after 101 - I saw so many *logic* errors in the YECs' statements that I stopped counting early on.

Thanks for the excellent explanation.