Putting Your House In Order Is a Waste of Time


The Sunday Nation


26 June 2005


There is a joke among scientists and engineers regarding the laws governing the science of heat. It is called the Fourth “law” of thermodynamics. This “law” states that there cannot be a fourth law of thermodynamics!

The reasoning behind this joke is quite interesting. In reality there are four laws of thermodynamics. Law number one is not called the first law; it is the “Zeroth” Law (that is, 0th). Law number two is known as the First Law, number three is the Second Law and number four is the Third Law. When you think about it, this is quite an awkward way to count, especially for people who are supposed to be good with numbers.

Now, the Zeroth Law was developed by four scientists, working independently and each wrote it in a different way although they all meant the same thing. The First Law, on the other hand is attributed to three people. The Second Law was written by two scientists and the Third Law was developed by one person.

Therefore, following this sequence, it would appear logical that zero people (that is nobody) will discover the fourth law. Thus there cannot be a fourth law of thermodynamics …and that’s the fourth law!

Jokes aside, the most important principle of thermodynamics is probably the Second Law – that is, law number three. It states that it is impossible to reduce the entropy of a system. That is, any change or process will either increase the entropy or leave it constant.

But what is entropy? This is a measure of the disorderliness of a system. Thus the Second Law means that the natural tendency of things is to become more disorderly. And we see this every day: It is very easy, for example, to break a drinking glass, but there is nothing we can do to the broken pieces to return the glass to the original, “orderly” state.

However, one may argue that the initial process of making the glass created a more orderly system. But at what cost? If you go to the glass factory you will find a lot of unsightly (disorderly) waste coming out of the production process. Thus order is being created in one place and disorder comes out at another point.

If we did an audit of the whole process, we will find that the disorder is greater than the order. Thus the net result is an increase in entropy.

It is the same with our bodies – throughout our lives we eat very orderly foods to make our beautiful (more orderly) bodies. But we also produce a lot of ugly waste. If all the waste you have ever produced in your life was collected in one place and you were asked to stand next to it, would the beauty of your body overshadow the ugliness of the waste? That’s the meaning of the Second Law of thermodynamics.

So, next time you want to put some order in your house, ask yourself this: Where will the (greater) disorder created by you actions go?

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