Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Convenient Myth of Time

When I set up easel painting for preschoolers, I typically give each child three tidy cups of tempera -- red, yellow, and blue -- with a brush for each cup. Some children strive to keep it that way, carefully using each of the primary colors, keeping them separate in the cups and on the page so as to not mix them with the others. These are generally the children with extensive easel painting experience: they know that if they want to paint a yellow sun, they'll need to do it right away, while the paint is pure, in order to avoid it taking on a green or orange cast. 

Most children, intentionally or not, mix the colors on the page. Others mix the colors, intentionally or not, in the cups.

What they all come to know, however, is that no matter how careful you are with this set up the colors will inevitably tend to taint one another. Maybe the pure red you are using to paint an apple will just touch the blue you've used for the sky. That faint line of purple that emerges represents the beginning of something new. 

Maybe you'll absent-mindedly drop the blue brush into the yellow paint and the purity of the primaries will be over in a second. 

Experienced painters know that all else being equal, over the course of a morning and dozens of painters, the final stage will be paint pots that contain shades of brown and gray, colors that exist in the real world, but that do not appear on the spectrum. And they know that the colors will never spontaneously separate themselves. The only way to go back is with a fresh cup of paint, a fresh brush, and fresh paper. This is Isaac Newton's second law of thermodynamics: the total entropy of a system either increases or remains constant in any spontaneous process; it never decreases.

These painters also know that if they keep adding paint, if they keep swirling it together on their canvas, that eventually the paper will disintegrate until they are painting directly on the easel itself. That paper will never spontaneously re-assemble itself. Again, the second law at work.

Although, this scientific concept bears Isaac Newton's name, it wasn't invented by him. It was named by him, it was first quantified by him, but the practical implications of the second law have been with us as a part of nature for as long as there has been nature.

What he did invent was time as we know it. Prior to Newton, "time" was a way for humans to count or assesses how things changed. Time was inextricably attached to the thing being considered. It never occurred to anyone before Newton that time could be something independent of those specific things and that it could be used as a standard measure. I imagine it was a mind blowing thing for most people who had always known a different world, much in the way that discussions of Einstein's Theory of Relativity continue to befuddle most of us today. It's also a bit mind-blowing for us today to consider that for most of human history, time was something else.

Children do not need to be taught the second law of thermodynamics, but they do need to be taught about the post-Newton concept of time. They know without our instruction that once their cereal is soggy with milk, it will never be crunchy again, but the idea of schedules ruled by clock will never occur to them without learning it, one way or another, from other humans.

Of course, now, since Einstein, we know that Newton's concept of time is a convenient fiction. Yes, it allows us to have reliable train systems and uniform work days, but the only reason it works is that from our perspective in the universe, time appears to have an arrow. I often think that when our young children behave as if time doesn't exist, they are, in fact, closer to the truth of nature than are we adults who have bought into the Newtonian agreement about time.

We've known since the day we were born that it's a mistake to assume that the world is as it seems. After all, it wasn't that long ago that our birth took us, irreversibly, from the dark, warm, wet world of muffled sounds and a mother's heartbeat, into a loud, cold world beyond the womb. It's a world that had always been there, even as it was inconceivable right up to the moment we discovered it. 

"Children grow up and discover that the world is not as it seems from within the four walls of their homes," writes physicist and philosopher Carlo Rovelli. "Humankind as a whole does the same."


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