Sunday, April 10, 2011

The coolest book I've ever read on energy

It may seem a bit over the top to say that a book entitled Into the Cool is the coolest book I've ever read on energy. But energy junkies should take note of its two compelling theses: First, the eventual heat death of the universe--a supposed consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics--has, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, been greatly exaggerated. Second, life--in all its forms--is NOT an anomaly made improbable by the aforesaid Second Law, but rather a direct and likely inevitable consequence of it.

Both statements had me on the edge of my seat as I made my way through the book which is written more in the vein of a scientific detective novel than a dry look at the science behind those suppositions. Not much time is spent defending the first thesis until the very end of the book. And, so as not to ruin the plot, I'll let you discover the reasoning behind this view from authors Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan yourself. But the bulk of the book is devoted to a little-known field called nonequilibrium thermodynamics, or NET for short. Because the idea that humans are NET creatures in open systems provides explanations for so much of our evolutionary history and our current behavior, readers will likely find themselves having "aha" moments every chapter as I did.

But what does it mean to be an NET creature? First, let's remember that, thermodynamically speaking, to be at equilibrium means that there is no movement of energy across the specified system. In other words, if you were at equilibrium, you'd be dead. But just as we are taught that nature abhors a vacuum, so too, it seems, it also abhors an energy gradient--which is lucky for us!

And, here is the first "aha" moment in the book. Life--humans included--is particularly adept at reducing energy gradients. And, the biggest energy gradient in our neck of the universe is the one involving the sun and outer space where temperatures step down from 5,800 degrees K to just 2.7 degrees K, that is 2.7 degrees above absolute zero. Of course, the Earth is part of a planetary system that is part of that energy gradient. And, researchers have verified that living systems are particularly adept and efficient at diverting the solar energy which falls on the Earth to their own purposes. The cycling of energy and materials through the biosphere may have seemed miraculous to the ancients. But to NET researchers this cycling is simply made possible by the configuration of the solar system.

A second "aha" moment comes when Schneider and Sagan explain why Darwinian evolution alone can explain neither the origin of life nor its diversity and complexity. For that we need to add an energy gradient which creates self-sustaining cycles on the inanimate, primordial Earth--chemical and energetic cycles which seem like precursors to life to the NET researcher's eye. Once life arises, the same gradient steers evolution toward those organisms that cycle energy and materials most efficiently over time. And, as it turns out, complex climax ecosystems are masters at this task. NET drives evolution toward higher complexity because that complexity is capable in the long run of reducing energy gradients more thoroughly than simpler living systems or inanimate ones.

Life is what NET calls a metastable system. It is stable so long as it is receiving the requisite energy and material inputs. It does have a range of acceptable inputs and so can adjust to changing seasons and circumstances.

And, the "aha" moments keep piling up from here. (Don't worry. There are so many of them I won't ruin the fun for those who decide to read the book.) Sexual reproduction, as it turns out, is a way to maintain continuity for any living gradient-reducing system over time, long after the first living members die due to the wear and tear of hanging around an energy gradient for an entire lifetime. Try not to think about that next time you make love to your significant other!

One of the reasons that living systems are better at dissipating energy than inanimate ones is that they persist far longer than, say, whirlpools or tornados. But even so, it behooves those systems not to move too fast. Of late humans have--since the discovery of fossil fuels--become more like a pioneer species than a mature member of an ecosystem. We have greatly increased our cycling of matter and energy through the use of the concentrated ancient sunlight that fossil fuels represent. But while pioneer species multiply quickly, they eventually find their numbers trimmed back considerably as ecological succession proceeds. The authors recommend that we quickly wean ourselves off depleting supplies of oil and other fossil fuels and use the more sustainable, but less concentrated gradient-reducing wind turbines and solar panels. The move would reflect the age-old successful strategy of long persistent living systems which forgo "short-term maximal expansion for stability and the consequent opportunity to expand in the future."

Echoing the ideas of historian Joseph Tainter, the authors remind us that "[w]hen the energy available for the formation of complex systems is taken away, these systems revert to a more primitive level of function." Human society is an example of a gradient-reducing system that requires continuous inputs of energy to maintain itself. Tainter suggests and NET research confirms that a diminution of that energy spells reversion to simpler and therefore less energy-intensive means of organizing daily business. The path can be gradual or it can be sudden, leading to a collapse of the population.

Schneider and Sagan suggest a reformulation of Descartes in thermodynamic terms to explain the existence of life in the universe. Instead of "I think, therefore I am," they propose "I am because I dissipate." This view implies that life may be far more widespread in the universe than is commonly believed. The elements necessary to life are found in comets and meteors, suggesting they are available elsewhere far beyond our solar system.

It may seem a little depressing to think that one's purpose in the universe is simply to provide efficient paths for energy to degrade. But then again, think about how much better you feel now knowing that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is really your friend and not your enemy as so many mistaken 19th century scientists tried to convince us long ago.


Andrea Muhrrteyn said...


What a cool post.. this book sounds really really fascinating. Been reading its website.

Thanks for the post! Really great!

nathan said...

some of us dissipate more than others

Henry Warwick said...

i told you to read that book how long ago?


Kurt Cobb said...

I should have gotten to it sooner. An absolutely fabulous book as you promised. My mind was working overtime trying to digest the implications of it all.

Henry Warwick said...

yeah - it's right at the top of my list as well, as it reframes the entire humanities debate. Rather than being subjects of expression, they become expressions of entropy. A culture that produces more "culture" is seen as superior, but all cultural artefacts are simply embodied entropy, so superior cultures are those that flatten the gradient...

It also reframes Tainter. Rome's method of energy acquisition (imperialism) met the law of diminishing returns, or:it simply reduced the local gradient to an angle incompatible with its technical and cultural capacities for reducing said gradient. If the Romans had coal, we'd all be speaking Latin...

michael said...

In case you missed it:

Enjoying the book...thanks!