Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

March 25, 2011
in Category: process, the $ell
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The second law of thermodynamics (the entropy law or law of entropy) was formulated in the middle of the last century by Clausius and Thomson following Carnot’s earlier observation that, like the fall or flow of a stream that turns a mill wheel, it is the “fall” or flow of heat from higher to lower temperatures that motivates a steam engine. The key insight was that the world is inherently active, and that whenever an energy distribution is out of equilibrium a potential or thermodynamic “force” (the gradient of a potential) exists that the world acts spontaneously to dissipate or minimize. All real-world change or dynamics is seen to follow, or be motivated, by this law.

So whereas the first law expresses that which remains the same, or is time-symmetric, in all real-world processes the second law expresses that which changes and motivates the change, the fundamental time-asymmetry, in all real-world process. Clausius coined the term “entropy” to refer to the dissipated potential and the second law, in its most general form, states that the world acts spontaneously to minimize potentials (or equivalently maximize entropy), and with this, active end-directedness or time-asymmetry was, for the first time, given a universal physical basis.

The balance equation of the second law, expressed as S > 0, says that in all natural processes the entropy of the world always increases, and thus whereas with the first law there is no time, and the past, present, and future are indistinguishable, the second law, with its one-way flow, introduces the basis for telling the difference.

The active nature of the second law is intuitively easy to grasp and empirically demonstrate. If a glass of hot liquid is placed in a colder room a potential exists and a flow of heat is spontaneously produced from the cup to the room until it is minimized (or the entropy is maximized) at which point the temperatures are the same and all flows stop.

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