Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The second law of thermodynamics

Entropy is an absolutely terrifying thing. Sometimes I look around the world and imagine everything melting towards equilibrium. Buildings crumbling; mountains toppling; cells dissolving into disorganized component parts, and then the resulting large biomolecules breaking up into smaller and smaller oligomers until everything is one large undifferentiated puddle. I can cope emotionally with the failure of humanity. Even if the big red button is pressed this afternoon, unleashing a glorious midnight sun into whose sunset all life larger than a fingernail marches doubletime, life as we know it would survive. This DNA-RNA-protein thing we have going here is remarkably robust. The extremophiles which suck heat and nutrients out of deep-sea vents wouldn't bat a proverbial eyelash. The cockroaches might temporarily start sprouting a variable number of legs, but they'd still be crawling over the ashes of our failed civilization.

Entropy, though, measures time by a thread orders of magnitude longer than that cut for any single human life. Even if earthly life manages to escape the confines of its present cosmic vehicle, it can only run from dying sun to dying sun for so long. There'd need to be a gaping loophole in the laws of physics for life to escape the eventual senescence of the universe, as all the lights wink out and all of space moves towards some uniform temperature, the ultimate unforgiving tedium.

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