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The Essential Link Between Life and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

The overall direction of change in the universe is from less probable (more organized) states to more probable (less organized) states. Life does not "oppose" this but rather makes use of it. The "downhill" movement can be used to raise things "uphill" (just as water flowing downhill through a water wheel can be used to raise a weight). There is, however, always a net loss of organization in the process.

For life on earth, the dissipation of energy from the sun is the downhill movement. Photosynthesis creates "uphill" molecules which in turn can be used in cellular respiration to create additional "uphill" molecules from which, in turn, all of the "uphill" organization of life and culture derive.

All of biological and human organization represents a state of improbability very much less than that of the concentration of energy in the sun, and one which would quickly dissipate if the sun ceased shining (or there was some disturbance in the chain of water wheels which link the sun to biological and cultural organization).

24 June 2001
Stories are inevitably incomplete, and this one is no exception. Frank L. Lambert, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Occidental College, provides important extensions, particularly with regard to "... would quickly dissipate ...". Lambert appropriately and eloquently points out that "Chemical kinetics holds time's arrow in the taut bow of thermodynamics for a microsecond or millenia". "Activation energy barriers" and feedback mechanisms both act to stabilize physical/biological/cultural organization so that, for varying periods of time, they would, to varying degrees, persist (though slowly degrading) in the absence of an energy flow such as that provided by the sun. The general story of life "using" rather than "opposing" the overall direction of change in the universe is not altered, but a new chapter is needed. And provided by Lambert:


Paul Grobstein, November, 2000


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