Orange cat takes on creationist argument regarding thermodynamics
December 6, 2012By Faye Flam
If entropy decreases somewhere, it will increase somewhere else. Life can not only exist but can evolve without breaking any laws of physics. Even the origin of life from inanimate molecules is not a breach of the second law of thermodynamics, any more than is the cleaning of our apartment. — Higgs
An interesting point came up in the discussion following my pseudoscience column. A reader named Jonathon said he thought that physics supported creationism. Here's how:
"I'd be willing to bet that nobody will be able to present a plausible argument in support of evolution in light of the second law of thermodynamics. However, it's not your fault, nobody can be an expert on everything, and I've spent a lot of thought and time determining that there is a God and that He is not a crutch, but rather a reality that must be accepted."
How much would you like to bet, Jonathon? The second law is the one that involves entropy, and while I've used entropy in equations, explaining it in English is a whole different ball of wax. Luckily, I have a cat named Higgs who is something of an armchair physicist and would like to take on Jonathon's challenge. He believes he has a good refutation:
Higgs: Hi. Higgs here. Just as a little refresher, the second law of thermodynamics is the one that says something called entropy increases. Think of entropy this way: If it's a warm day and your water bowl is getting warm and your human pours cool water into it, the cool water won't stay in one patch, but will mix in so the whole thing will be lukewarm. You are astronomically unlikely to spontaneously get warm and cool patches of water in your bowl. The mixed up, lukewarm state is higher in entropy.
People often equate entropy with disorder, and there is a connection. As time goes by and our apartment gets messy, entropy is increased. If I go up on the counter and push my kibble bag onto the floor and it's not closed all the way and kibble goes everywhere, energy is dispersed. Entropy goes up. It's highly unlikely that the kibble will get back in the bag and up on the shelf by itself.
The second law of thermodynamics is often misinterpreted to say that entropy can never ever decrease and therefore order can never come from disorder and unlikely things can never appear. If you throw together a bunch of organic molecules, they will not randomly land in the form of an orange tabby – the most exalted form of matter possible.
Does that mean that the existence of tabbies proves there must be God? It's tempting to think so. But that's not the way things really work. Order does sometimes appear locally, even in our very own house. It gets messier and messier and then once in a while it gets neater. How? Well, that's where it gets interesting. It's not magic.
My companion human and I both eat food every day. I am the king of beasts and so I eat high on the food chain. My human can consume mostly plant matter. The common thread is that we both get energy from our food.
The second law obviously doesn't forbid entropy from decreasing locally, or life would be impossible as would housework. A plant would never grow from a seed, new kittens would not come into existence.
One way to decrease entropy is to do work. Work has a specific meaning in physics, but it's not that different from the vernacular meaning.
I don't care for work of any kind. My human gets energy from food and that allows her to do work. She picks stuff up off the floor, and folds things into improbable configurations they would be unlikely to assume on their own. I sit by and offer inspiration.
So to summarize, there are two ways to rebut the old entropy argument rolled out by some creationists. One is to remind people that lots of things we accept as part of life seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics but they really don't because they're getting new energy from the sun. The sun feeds the plants that feed the animals that feed us.
The other way to refute the entropy argument is to remind people that even though the entropy of the entire universe is apparently on the rise, entropy can still decrease locally, like eddies in a flowing stream.
If entropy decreases somewhere, it will increase somewhere else. Life can not only exist but can evolve without breaking any laws of physics. Even the origin of life from inanimate molecules is not a breach of the second law of thermodynamics, any more than is the cleaning of our apartment.
The second law of thermodynamics is a bad excuse for creationism but a pretty good excuse for not cleaning your room. It will just get messy again.
Thank you for letting me speak my mind. May I have a treat now?
(Physicists Len Finegold from Drexel U and Sean Carroll from Caltech also deserve a treat)