A Dinner Party and A Philosophical Look at the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

In my time as a butler, I have tended many parties. As M’Lord frequents the high life, he entertains many folks of high status at his estate. This past night was no different, and he had invited all manner of esteemed individuals from parliament, the academy, the church, etc. They enjoyed elegant food and elegant debate, at least that is what I was instructed. Though this one evening I was struck dumb and experienced a chaos that I never thought would occur.

“To maintain order”, that is my job as a butler. To do so with grace, that is the way. Yet in this I have failed. While the dinner service was enjoyed peacefully, I noticed that the wine had emptied more than expected. No matter, there was plenty in the cellar. I went to fetch it as the debates got under way. When I returned, I was pleased to see how the conversations were progressing with surprising enthusiasm and energy. They of course requested more wine as soon as they saw me. Yet while I was compromising in allowing a select few to enjoy their cigars indoors as it was only a slight sacrifice to my fussiness, what I witnessed thereafter I could not control.

In the midst of heated debate, both sides were unwilling to budge. One might expect progressive conversation to diffuse into reason, not so. Instead one shouted “Then we shall settle it through brawn! Move the dinner table, we shall arm wrestle.”

I chuckled for a split second of calm silence, before the lot of them sprung into action. The doom of the new flooring was set in that moment. And more to come after that. Yes, I am writing in its aftermath trying to determine if I could have maintained some semblance of order. Oh yes, that event was only the beginning, as an entire tournament erupted thereafter. I shudder at the thought of the curtains, which by some manner got red wine spilled all over them.

Have I failed in my duties, or was it an inevitable force of nature at work?” I ask myself as I consider writing that letter of resignation.

The story of the Butler and the Dinner Party is my storytelling introduction to The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Poor Butler, perhaps if he had known about The 2nd Law, he might have better understood that at the beginning of the party things were highly ordered. He should have expected the amount of disorder to increase. The 2nd law states: in an enclosed system, the amount of disorder will always tend to increase. For layman’s purposes, we can safely replace the term disorder for a variety of other analogues: entropy, chaos, disorganization, etc. However, one of my favourite parts about this topic is that its rather simple in definition, and therefore can be extrapolated further to investigate different conclusions, both scientifically, and in life. Let’s explore.

From the 2nd law of thermodynamics, in addition to the aforementioned, we can extrapolate a few more things about the way the universe works. They cover:

  1. Probability of States
  2. The Direction of Time
  3. Energy Transformation
  4. The Universe’s Destiny

In terms of statistics and probability The 2nd Law tells us that the probability of a perfectly ordered system occurring spontaneously (without additional energy / resources) is essentially zero. Here’s a popular example: observing all the milk molecules in a mug of coffee spontaneously re-order themselves to the top is, while not impossible mathematically, unimaginably improbable. If I wanted to relate this to life, I would say that it has something to do with our state of mind. There are some states that are rarer or harder to be in than others: motivation, discipline, patience. When they come around cherish them. You’ll see why in a moment.

The direction of the universe is something we can also explore due to The 2nd Law. Processes involving the exchange of heat energy will always tend towards an equilibrium; where hot objects cool, and cold object heat up to meet each other. Certain reactions may appear to go forwards and backwards equivalently, however there is always some energy loss via heat. We consider these reactions irreversible, which indicates to us a single direction of time evolution. Oh, it’s certainly difficult to get back into an advantageous mind set once it has evolved into a more chaotic one, wouldn’t you agree? Though, I am reminded that through building good habits we can slowly shift that final equilibrium around, such that the net change from our ordered state to our disordered isn’t so drastic.

Lastly, While it fairly easy to understand that any given type of energy has a quantity associated with it, The 2nd Law tells us that they also have a quality. Perhaps you’re familiar with the idea that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. Well, the quality of energy is an extension of this. It is a way to describe how well a particular object, or system can perform work, where work is a measure of the process of transforming energy from one form to another. So when we say “This system is highly ordered, so it contains a low amount of entropy (high order), and therefore it should have a high potential to do work”, what we mean is that it has high potential to transform its energy to something else. This one is easy: the right state of mind offers us a high potential to achieve things and be productive.

I’d like to finally introduce the discussion on The 2nd Law as it refers to the universe overall, as its own system. As far as we know, there is no additional energy being funneled into it: it is a closed system. By The 2nd Law, we expect the universe to slowly approach a state of maximum disorder, where all its energy is dissipated and uniformly distributed (high entropy or disorder) across the cosmos in a form of “heat death”. It’s a rather ominous thought, but don’t worry, that future time is irrelevant to us now. Cherish the time you have, because it all ends at some point. Though, while it’s common nowadays to throw around the phrase “I have no time”, in truth you may have a lot more than you think.

Concepts like The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics are  big reasons why I enjoy this field of science. It’s not always the pure scientific conclusions that I enjoy. It’s often the different perspectives we can view things with that I appreciate most. Exploring them, I feel, enriches the self. The human body is an ordered system, too. Make no mistake, The 2nd Law does support our existence, but what’s the catch? It takes a lot of inputted energy to maintain it. Life follows this trend too. It wishes to be chaotic, and similarly takes a lot of energy and discipline to keep it ordered. Perhaps in better understanding The 2nd Law, our Butler might’ve been less shaken up. While he was an agent of order in an environment of disorder, he forgot that order and disorder are two sides of the same coin. If the universe was any other way then perhaps his job wouldn’t be as important? So too in our lives: when we get caught up in the stress and hectic chaos of it all do we forget that life’s current moves in that direction by law. It’s hard to keep it ordered, though without the constant struggle against the current, the achievements contained within might not be as meaningful.

One thought on “A Dinner Party and A Philosophical Look at the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

  1. Loved this post!
    Keeping the chaos at bay and striving to live in a more orderly fashion is something I’ve been thinking about recently as well. The insight you offer here into chaotic states of mind was wonderful to read!

    Liked by 1 person

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