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.