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Entropy: The Second Law of Thermodynamics | David L. Hawk | ST-ON 2021-03-14

For espoused systems thinkers who are predisposed towards towards finding an equilibrium (or maybe one amongst multiple equilibria), a discussion about entropy can raise discomfort.  In the systems sciences, the second law of thermodynamics — as an entropic process — is often cited by the learned as a universal law applicable across physics, chemistry, biology … as well as social systems.

In economics, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen drew attention to the inconvenience that “perpetual motion of the third kind is impossible“.  Thus, “a closed system that does work forever at a steady rate” violates the second law of thermodynamics.  Towards unpacking the implications of this universal law, we drew on David L. Hawk for expertise.

This video has been archived on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
March 14
[20220314_ST-ON EntropySecondLawOfThermodynamics HDPlus.m4v]
(HDPlus 1073kbps 836MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

Audio downloadable onto mobile devices was transcoded from the video into MP3.

March 14
[20220314_ST-ON EntropySecondLawOfThermodynamics.mp3]

Developing and appreciation for entropy — let alone the controversies within correct scientific use of the second law of thermodynamics — is challenging, at best.  If we really wanted to get serious about understand living systems, we might look into the thermodynamics and ecology writings of James Kay, or read Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan (2005) Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life.

Whenever I get into a discussion about entropy, it’s a toss-up whether I’m become less confused after the conversation, or more confused.  Participants in this session may have found the same issue.

Here is the original Systems Thinking Ontario session description.

Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, is foundational to the systems sciences. Since the field aims for isomorphies (i.e. patterns that apply across many discipilines), a variety of interpretations of entropy can create a lot of confusion!

David L. Hawk, in his 2019 book, remarks:

“Entropy, something I had no idea about when first told, then began to understand it on second encounter, then knew I would never understand it when I met it the third time. Then, not being able to ever get over it on fourth encounter.” [….]

“For Einstein, then Steven Hawking, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics was sacrosanct. [….] Many leading scientists have gone deeper in arguing why they agree with Einstein, then Hawking, and feel so strongly about entropy is a supreme law of nature and must be factored into what humans do.”

With this caution, David Hawk has agreed to guide us towards some understanding of entropy, and how it shapes (or misshapes!) the human condition.

The pre-reading list, below, has been annotated, to encourage participants to gain some familiarity in advance of the interactive discussion.

Recommended video

  • Dan O’Neill. 2021. The Laws of Thermodynamics and the Economy.
    • Comment: At 7m36s in length, an easy introduction to entropy (and its relation to ecological economics)

Suggested pre-reading:

  • Wade, Nicholas. 1975. “Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen: Entropy the Measure of Economic Man.” Science, October. Also at , accessible when logged into the Toronto Public Library at . [Referenced on Google Scholar]
    • Excerpt: What Georgescu-Roegen is saying is both profound and yet very simple. He asserts that the entropy law rules supreme over the economic process. The physics student who considers that an obvious truth should try looking for it in an economics textbook. He won’t find it, because standard economists (says Georgescu- Roegen) assume a physical model of the world in which everything is perfectly reversible, in which after every disturbance the system comes back into equilibrium and all goes on as before. Standard economists teach that economics is a closed, circular process, an endless pendulum movement between production and consumption in which the exhaustibility ot natural resources raises no problem, and the cure- all for pollution is simply to get prices right. Such conceptions are based on the mechanistic framework which economists borrowed long ago from physics, and which they have never revised to redress its basic omission, that of the law of entropy. [p. 448]
  • Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1986. “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in Retrospect.” Eastern Economic Journal 12 (1): 3–25. . Accessible when logged into the Toronto Public Library at . [Alternate search on Google Scholar]
    • Excerpt: A new fourth law – as I have called it — completes the old laws of classical thermodynamics.
    • Perpetual motion of the third kind is impossible
    • By perpetual motion of the third kind I understand a closed system that does work forever at a steady rate.[6] And we should not fail to note that this statement does not require a measure of material degradation. Although such a measure would be highly advantageous, it does not seem attainable at present. The obstacle is that the various forms of macroscopic matter (matter in bulk), unlike energy, are not reducible qualitatively to a single form. But the validity of the irrevocable dissipation of matter is not affected thereby.
      • [6] Let us recall that perpetual motion of the first kin is a system that does work without absorbing energy. Perpetual motion of the second kind is a finite system that provides work by continuously using heat only from a source of uniform temperature.
    • The important upshot is that, as the Earth is virtually a closed system, some materials vital for ‘the current hot technology will sooner rather than later become extremely scarce (in the available form), even scarcer than the available energy from fossil fuels.[7] The same conclusion also exposes the logical weaknesses of the promise of ecological salvation by a steady-state economy so convincingly marshalled by Herman Daly (1973).[8] [pp 7-8]
      • [7] I have in mind the metals the resist both high temperature and corrosion. These happen to exist in very low crustal abundance. for example, in parts per million, there a vanadium (150), tungsten (69) columbium (24), cobalt (23) and tantalum (2.1). Deposits of mineable contents are naturally rarer still.
      • [8] For the thermodynamical critique, see NGR [Energy and Economic Myths: Institutional and Analytical Essays, New York: Permagon Press, 1976] pp. 22-26; [“The Steady State and Ecological Salvation: A Thermodynamic Analysis“, Bioscience, 27 (April 1977): 266-270]. The fact that large sections of mankind have lived for long historical periods in virtually steady states does not prove that the same may happen forever. Daly’s thesis has naturally been highly applauded in the economically advanced countries where it is viewed as an optimistic promise — to continue forever at the present extravagant comfort.
  • Corning, Peter A., and Stephen Jay Kline. 1998. “Thermodynamics, Information and Life Revisited, Part I: ‘To Be or Entropy.’” Systems Research and Behavioral Science 15 (4): 273–95.;2-B. [Referenced on Google Scholar]
    • Excerpt: Inevitably, the confusion that has plagued various interpretations of the second law over the years has also infected the disciplines of information theory, economics and biology, where terms like `entropy’, `negentropy’ and even the concept of `information’ are used in a bewildering variety of ways. Worse yet, the various attempts to meld thermodynamics and information theory, not to mention the recent efforts to apply these paradigms to the explan- ation of biological evolution, have only served to thicken the already dense theoretical fog. The story told by Tribus and McIrvine (1971, p. 122) about how the pioneer information theorist Claude Shannon came to call his formal theoretical function `entropy’ is revealing in this regard. Shannon was thinking of calling it simply `uncertainty’, but mathematician John von Neumann suggested that he use the term entropy instead, first because it was being used for a similar function in statistical mechanics, but `more important, no one knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage’. [p. 274]
  • Levallois, Clément. 2010. “Can De-Growth Be Considered a Policy Option? A Historical Note on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome.” Ecological Economics, 69 (11): 2271–78. [Alternate search on Google Scholar]
    • Excerpt: The self disfranchisement of Georgescu-Roegen from ecological economics has been attributed to his bitterness caused by “the failure of the profession to give his work the recognition that it truly merited, and in part by his own irascible and generally demanding personality” (Daly 1995, 154; Røpke 2004, 310–311). Not denying the possible role of those factors, we rather want to retrace how his insistence that a reversal of growth was inevitable, and his sharp criticism of any contribution suggesting a milder view on the topic, contributed to set him apart from the other critics of unbridled growth — as exemplified by his joining the Club of Rome (which commissioned the report Limits to Growth), soon followed by his resignation over this issue. Our aim here is not to chant the merits of la decroissance, or to rehabilitate Georgescu-Roegen as a heroic, misunderstood figure in science. We are more interested in the reasons which render a particular discourse successful or unsuccessful in the realm of environmental economic policy: why did Georgescu-Roegen judge that his views on the decline of the economy were not appropriately represented by the Club of Rome, and why were Georgescu-Roegen’s views indeed difficult to translate into a practical economic policy. [p. 2271]
  • Hawk, David L. 2019. Too Early, Too Late, Now What? AuthorHouse. [Cached on]

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