Thermodynamics, Quackery and What We’ve Maybe Missed

The heat death of the universe as framed through the 2nd law of thermodynamics probably makes such thoughts as I have been trying to have lately quite impossible, but the Wikipedia manages to toss in just enough doubt [string theory!] on the subject that I’ll go ahead and hash out whatever the hell it is that I’ve been thinking. I wish I knew more physics.

At the start of James Blish’s work Cities in Flight science as an entity is grinding toward stagnation and no Copernican or Newtonian or Einsteinian level breakthroughs have occurred in a very long time. Mainly because the scientific method has fulfilled its usefulness. So one man, with just enough power and just enough vision, decides to encourage the pursuit of quackery science. Maverick thinkers and charlatans are the main stripe here—loonies with strange ideas, strange habits and no funding. But the logic is that for every thousand or million nutjobs there will be one truly mindblowing idea. Long story short, anti-gravity machinery and anti-death drugs are both discovered. A really long time passes. The universe doesn’t go through a heat death either, instead it passes through an antimatter universe and is nullified in that manner. But that’s not important right now.

What is important, at least for my purposes here, is the idea that intuitive thinking is capable of trumping the rigors of scientific reason. This is not a new idea. Apocryphally: Supposedly a man invented a cheap and effective mobility device for combat soldiers. It was a strange looking, springy sort of shoe and gave a person the ability to take longer strides, higher jumps and generally move faster. It wasn’t a regular shoe, in fact it looked pretty goofy. sort of like the arms on this guy. But it worked amazingly well, and for cheap. But military folks dismissed it out of hand as ridiculous, and instead focused on multimillion dollar robotics work that was clunky and prone to malfunction. Or, the story of a man who spends years in the mountains inventing something that allows him to fly just like a bird. He goes to some people with his invention, but they laugh at him and show him the wonders of modern airplane flight. Dejected that the problem he solved has apparently already been solved by others, he straps on his wings and flies away, amazing the people who call for him to come back. But he doesn’t hear.

Anyway, apart from the Luddite sensibility of both of those stories, the missing things are what scare me. For instance, everything is now digital, solid state electronics and the transistor are old news, all but forgotten, people say that their time is past. Yet there might be possibilities inherent in those systems that are still waiting to be discovered. But no one cares anymore. The printing press revolutionized the written word both semantically and syntactically, but what might our language have morphed into if writing was still the only way to make a book? Or what other ways of making a book might have been discovered?

I guess my point has been made easily enough. What I’ve been wondering about in particular is thermodynamics. Why heat is the only way to transfer energy. Burning things is what makes the universe run. Friction causes heat, combustion causes heat, people are furnaces in and of themselves. It is so close to us, such a part of us, that the only way we can see to provide ourselves with energy is through heat transfer. Oil is burned, wood is burned, the sun gives heat, hydroelectric power is produced by the friction of water that turns the generators, creating heat and electricity. On and on. Heat seems to be the fundamental mover in the universe. But I wonder if it is possible that we are missing something. Well, of course, we’re missing all kinds of things, but I mean something so basic that the whole of existence would need to be rethought in order to encompass the idea. Why not use cold for power [bad example, it is the other side of thermodynamics]? Why not find a way to use entropy for power? Why not rethink the word power itself, to mean something almost the opposite?

I’m getting a bit pontifical and a bit too fascinated with hearing myself spout poesy. But thinking along the opposite lines of what we might know gives me pleasure, like running your hand against the ruff of a dog’s coat. And treating entropy as something to be welcomed sounds a little Buddhist to me. So these things have probably already been thought long before me, but that would only really matter if I was trying to be first at something. I’m just wanting to keep the noggin limber. I like ducks. Quack. Quack.