Entropy LO19719

AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Fri, 30 Oct 1998 19:53:15 +0200

Replying to LO19683 --

Dear Organlearners,

John Gunkler <jgunkler@sprintmail.com> writes:

>At de Lange mentioned that he was preparing
>"A Primer in Entropy" for posting to this list.
>I welcome this post, At, and look forward to it.

Greetings John,

Thank you for your encouragement. I will try my best

>As you work on it, I wonder if you have ever read a
>small monograph by Schroedinger entitled,
>"What is Life?" It was published by Cambridge
>Univ. Press in 1951.

Yes I have read it a couple of times. I used it to check and recheck
my own Systems Thinking.

>It's a vast oversimplification, but part of the message
>of one of the finest physicists we've yet had is that life
>"evades the decay to equilibrium" (that is, the 2nd law
>of thermodynamics.) While inanimate objects seem
>doomed to ever increasing entropy, or "entropy production"
>as you say, living things actually have the capability
>of increasing order.

Yes John, Erwin Schroedinger was one of the greatest physicists. Quantum
mechanics had three grandfathers, Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels
Bohr. It also had two fathers, Werener Heisenberg (matrix mechanics) and
Schroedinger (wave mechanics). It also had many prodigy sons. It is
probably because there was no frandmothers, mothers and daughters involved
that Quantum Mechanics got so stuck that the great Einstein later on
avoided it when it was possible. His words "God does not play dice" became
imfamous among quantum physicists.

The sad thing is that Schroedinger was not as keen on thermodynamics as,
for example, Max Planck was. In fact, Planck discovered the "quantum
effect" while trying to learn something new about the second law by
viewing it from the viewpoint of electromagnetic radiation. Even sadder
was that Schroedinger like most professional physicists of his day up to
today, took only little notice of what was happening in chemistry. The
last great mathematician+physicist+chemist was J Willard Gibbs. If I have
to list the three greatist scientists of all times, Gibbs will be one of
them. Clerk Maxwell, also one of the greatest physicists, once said that
they still have to learn what Gibbs probably has forgotten.

Humankind had to wait many years before another physicist, also strong
enough in chemistry, could make another break-through contribution. He is
Ilya Prigogine, who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1977 for
his work on irreversible thermodynamics and dissipative (irreversible)
self-organising systems. When Schroedinger published that little book you
refered to, Prigogine had already made his own first break-through as a
young man. He managed to derive the equation for "entropy production" by
making use of an equation which Gibbs had created. This equation of Gibbs
helped chemist some decades earlier to extend thermodynamics into chemical

Why is it sad that Schroedinger was not a chemist? If he knew enough of
chemical thermodynamics, he would have discovered a great anomaly in his
thinking which you have refered to.

>In fact Schroedinger writes: "Thus the device by
>which an organism maintains itself stationary at a
>fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy)
>really consists in continually sucking orderliness from
>its environment."

It took chemists many years to understand from Gibb's work to meausre the
necessary data and calculate the standard entropy of various compounds.
Another hero of mine, the chemist G N Lewis, had the lions share in
solving Gibbs theoretical riddle practically. The fact that Lewis never
was awarded the Nobel prize for breathtaking work, is one of the stains in
the history of this prize. Yet the very Lewis was the direct mentor of
more Nobel prize winners in chemistry than any Nobel prize winner in any
category. He was a kind man, but became deadly ferocious when his personal
motto was at stake -- "my tolerance for ignorance is zero". Such a motto
and Political Correctness do not sit at the same fire.

Now what is this anomaly? Here are some data. I can give you tens of
similar examples, but this one example should be enough. I am going to
list a some compounds which the chemist will immediately recognise as a
homolgous series. Behind the formula I will write down a number which has
the unit [joule/kelvin/mol]. Chemists will recognise it as the unit for

Methane: CH4 -- 186.2
Ethane: C2H6 -- 229.5
Propane: C3H8 -- 269.9

The numbers are the magnitudes of the standard molar entropy of each

The formulas of these compounds say much to the chemist. He knows that
the complexity of the molecular structure increases when going down in
the list. But these formulas say nothing to the nonchemist. Fellow
organlearners, these formulas tell a chemist that the organisation of
atoms in a molecule of the compounds named, increases as we go down in
the list. The numbers say that the standard entropy of these compounds
increases as they become more complex. But Schroedinger says that an
organism maintains a low level of entropy. Now what is right and what
is wrong? Let me remind you of the wise words of Robert Mayer (1851,
"The mechanical equivalent of heat"):-
If we want to know what goes on during
phenomena, we must begin with measuring.

>Living things create order from disorder, they are
>"self organizing" -- for example taking the disorder
>of a chemical soup and creating the orderliness of DNA.

Organlearners, please forgive me. In my previous contribution, answering
Leo Minnigh, I wrote that CJ Li developed Path Analysis. That was a grave
error of my tired mind. Path Analaysis was the brain child of the genetist
Sewall Wright. Li wrote that wonderful primer on Path Analysis.

John, I do not want to get into complicated things for the sake of readers
who have no background in chemistry. But since most of them have heard or
read something about DNA, just the following. If you carefully look at the
four examples above, you will see how the organisation increases by a unit
CH2 (one carbon atom C and two hydrogen atoms H). With every CH2 added,
the entropy increase with roughly 40 units. The same happens in DNA. With
every "base pair" added in the double helix together with the necessary
gluco-phospahte backbone shackels, the entropy jumps with a certain
amount. For some base pairs it is slightly less and for other it is
slightly more.

No one knows for sure how many DNA base pairs there are in all the
chromosomes of one human cell. But there are millions of them. I have made
years ago some rough calculations how much the entropy jumps on average
for adding one base pair, multilied it with a rough estimate on the number
of base pairs, and arrived at an astronomical figure - more than trillions
(10^12) of standard molar entropy units. There is no other chemical
compound known which even comes by billions close to it. The closest
"things" which come to it are the colloids in colloidal systems. To the
nonchemists -- clay paticles suspended in water are colloids. The white
substance in milk are colloids. Smog in our cities are colloids. The
physicist Tyndall discovered that colloids have the property of
dispersing-dissipating-spreading light (packets of pure energy). A ray of
light will splash out as soon as it moves into a colloidal system.

The ancient Greeks, thinking that the WATER and CLAY in our bodies which
tempered the FIRE in it kept ablaze by the AIR which we breeth, were not
completely in the dark!

>I hope this is useful and stirs some things up.

The same here. I have decided to answer you here because in the "primer" I
will follow a different route.

(Dr Steve Eskow, I will keep the dialogue up on your very import question
concerning religious judgements leading to homocides. But I am too tired
to do it now. Besides, my ganddaughter Jessica has phoned a couple of
minutes ago, asking me to come home.)

Best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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