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Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life New edition Edition
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"In his well-known essay 'The Two Cultures, ' C.P. Snow famously remarked that an inability to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics was a form of ignorance comparable with never having read a work of Shakespeare. It's fair to say that these days, the Second Law gets far less press than the Bard. Enter "Into the Cool," in which the authors claim that the study of thermodynamics (in some ways the neglected stepchild of the sciences) can inform our understanding of biology, ecology and even economics. The authors begin by rephrasing the Second Law-as 'Nature abhors a gradient'-and proceed to illustrate its relevance to large systems in general. Whether one is considering the difference between heat and cold or between inflated prices and market values, they argue, we can apply insights from thermodynamics and entropy to understand how systems tend toward equilibrium. The result is an impressive work that ranges across disciplinary boundaries and draws from disparate literatures without blinking. It's also a book that (much like Shakespeare and the Second Law of Thermodynamics) requires effort on the reader's part-it's not for casual reading."--Publishers Weekly
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The examples and subjects used by the authors embrace the fields of: system science, chemistry, biology, ecology, meteorology, astronomy and astrobiology, evolution, medicine/health, and economics. It is easy to see how NET can be extended to other fields such as sociology, history, psychology, and even the fine arts. NET turns out--incredably--to be applicable to a broad swath of both living and non-living complex structures. There is a universal law here somewhere. The material is fascinating; you need to read the book to get all the wonderful details.
The authors do a really superb job examining the issues surrounding how complex living systems/organisms/structures can be explained as natural systems that are driven by the intake of high quality energy flows, the metabolization or processing of this energy, followed by the exporting of lower grade dissipated energy, and thus prolong life or delay death and the mandates of the second law of thermodynamics. Living organisms can come into being, grow in complexity, reproduce, and evolve by feeding on high quality energy from "outside" and thus reduce gradients (creative destruction) passing degraded energy downward for other systems to utilize. Open system dynamics are necessary for this process to work.
INTO THE COOL really ought to be read by anyone interested in the subjects mentioned above. The book has a non-mathematical approach and is easily understood; it is best studied, not just read. I am reading it for the second time.
Thermodynamics began as the study of energy transformation in closed systems. The second law says that a system left to its own devices will lose its capacity to transform energy into work, eventually reaching a state of equilibrium. What's hot becomes cool, which for living systems such as you and I isn't a good thing. Our goal is to stay near but not at equilibrium by importing energy into ourselves and being smart about how much energy we use to stay in a stable state. It's a tricky balancing act: expend too much energy and you can't sustain your self over a long lifetime; use too little and equilibrium wins, bringing you to a full stop; export too much waste in the process and you damage the sources of energy you need to keep going.
In the first part of the book, Schneider and Sagan move the discussion of thermodynamics from classical closed systems to complex open systems. They label these open systems "non-equilibrium thermodynamics" or NET. What NET systems abhor isn't a vacuum, but a gradient, which is a disparity in temperature, pressure, or some other physical force across a distance. Complex systems, living or non-living, will work to degrade gradients in the most energy efficient manner possible, becoming bigger, more organized and more sophisticated in the process. Part II is a fascinating look at how non-living systems such as Benard cells, Taylor votices and tornadoes react in complex, coherent patterns to break down gradients, almost seeming to exhibit a form of intelligence as they organize matter in the most efficient manner to reduce the disparity confronting them.
Part III examines the effect of thermodynamic action on living systems. If, as the authors maintain, the purpose of a living system is to "catch, store and degrade gradients" then "entropic dissipation propels evolutionary structuring; nature's force gives it form." You'll come away with a new appreciation of the complexity, utility and elegance of mature ecosystems such as old growth forests. The trees in such forests work over time to break down the disparity between the sun's heat and the earth's surface, helping to regulate the temperature of the planet in the process. They do this using a minimal amount of external energy, thereby causing much less ecological disruption than we do in trying to regulate air temperature. Trees make HVAC systems look primitive; we can learn a lot from them.
The last section deals specifically with humans. You, too, argue the authors, are more than a set of blindly replicating genes. Viewing yourself as a complex open system has implications for your health, mainly of the use it or lose it variety. The authors also apply NET systems rules to economics, urban planning, and political science. As with most attempts to bring physical laws into humanity's group endeavors, most of the conclusions are too general to be interesting outside the realm of systems theory - you won't learn how to predict the direction of interest rates, where the next hot neighborhood will be, or which party will take the Senate in the next US congressional elections.
The final chapter discusses the purpose of life. The higher purpose of humans is apparently to seek out and efficiently destroy energy gradients without destroying their sources of energy or their selves in the process. Procreation is the way that you as a complex, open system sustain your energy degrading function over a span longer than your natural lifetime. Or, as religious philosopher Alan Watts puts it, humans are tubes, "which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it, and in the long run wears them out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new tubes..." Understanding our purpose better positions us to understand that we're not the sum and center of the universe, and to know how we fit into the "cosmically creative process" that builds up structure, complexity and intelligence as it destroys the solar electromagnetic gradient between the extremely hot sun and the extremely cold outer space of the universe.
If the image of your self as a metastable open system that's inferior to tropical rain forests in your gradient reducing capabilities doesn't make you leap out of bed in the morning, you can use your glucose-fed mental processes to invent a grander, more comforting eschatology. You won't be the first to do so.
As should be evident by now, the authors will wade into any pool of scientific controversy - how the universe was formed, how life started, why evolution by itself is an inadequate explanation of life's direction over the past four billion years, why intelligent design is hokum. This book is a brilliant, provocative argument for why we need add a temporal, energetic element to any practical discussion of how the universe works. In an appendix, they helpfully include the organizing principles of open thermodynamic systems. It will be interesting to see whether other scientists will heed Schnieder and Sagan's call to push past the boundaries of their current disciplines and help flesh out this promising schema.
This thoughtful book is scientifically well researched and argumented, full of details poorly known. It should be a required and prerequisite reading for anybody interested in entropy 101 and thermodynamics. It is not possible to understand life without understanding the role of energy - life is a complex thermodynamic system.
Once again, this is an extraordinary book written with clarity and a very high integrity. I enjoyed every page - they opened completely new vistas and understanding of life and evolution. The book is a must reading for anybody interested in life, life's origin, about four billion years of symbiogenesis - it is a masterpiece; highly recommended.