Thermodynamics, Again

| 56 Comments

A while back Mark Perakh wrote this essay dissecting the attempt by mathematician Granville Sewell to revive the thermodynamics argument against evolution.

Actually, Sewell's argument was so bad that I felt there was even more to say beyond Mark's fine analysis. The fruits of my labors are now available at CSICOP's Creation and ID Watch website.

56 Comments

It seems like this is the third time Jason’s linked to this thing. Maybe I’m misremembering.

Jason linked to it once at his blog. Sadly, there are people who read PT who do not read his blog.

Steve must’ve seen someone else link to it then. When he read it on Jason’s blog it was already to him a repeat.

Wamba decries the practice of referring to oneself in the third person.

Sewell’s claims are easily refuted by everyday occurrences. As Jason pointed out, many processes happen that decrease the entropy of the (open) system. Rusting is an easy example. In the formation of rust, the entropy of the system (iron, oxygen, water) decreases, but the entropy of the universe increases. Does rusting violate the SLOT? Of course not, as one can see if one has a basic understanding of the SLOT. Thanks, Jason, for pointing out that Sewell does not.

What’s next, Mr. Sewell? Intelligent Rusting? Rust the controversy?

Sewell is a fantastic gift to the evolutionists. Because he causes the ID supporters to say howlingly stupid things and then we can all fall on the floor laughing and wiping tears from our eyes.

What the creationists never seem to understand is that if their understanding of SLOT was correct, then it would also be impossible for a zygote to develop into a mature adult. That process even requires a ‘net increase in information’ in the form of epigenetic modification of the genome.

As a physicist, I find the thermodynamic arguments used by the ID/Creationist crowd (starting with Morris and Gish, and now Dembski et. al.) so stupid they take your breath away. It is as stupid as someone who tells everyone that two and two can’t possibly add up to four because it violates the “Laws of Odd Numbers” and then proceeds to make a big public issue of it, mocking and criticizing mathematicians and scientists for their narrow-mindedness. I find it difficult to believe that anyone can be this stupid without working very hard at it, and in fact, I think this is just what they are doing; working very hard at it. These people have had more than enough time to learn what thermodynamics is all about (it’s not hard), but they persist in getting it wrong every time. That can’t be a coincidence.

More than any of their other arguments, the thermodynamic arguments reveal that their motives can only be sociopolitical. They are playing to their gallery, desperately trying to gain as much recognition and adulation as they can from their constituents by tweaking the noses of the scientific community. What they want is power and authority, and they are capitalizing on the culture wars to get it because they can’t get it legitimately by doing real science. I see very little difference between these jerks and the con artists who peddle perpetual motion machines, or the scam artists who take money from old and sick people.

The best answer to give when someone says living organisms defy the second law of thermodynamics is simply “OK, please quote the second law of thermodynamics for me, and tell me which part applies to biological systems”?

Betcha they can’t, and they often look stupid trying.

Just for reference if they do answer correctly (usually given as something like “In a totally isolated system entropy increases over time”) hammer on that totally isolated part.

In my branch of the woods, an argument I hear over and over again from otherwise good, well meaning, churchgoing folk is the example of a newborn baby, a living creature developing and getting more complex every day, clearly in defiance of the second law.

I reply that as a thought experiment - and just for the record, I’m not suggesting we actually do this - let’s make sure that little bundle of joy is actually operating as a closed system, perhaps by sealing him in a five gallon bucket and leaving it in the back of a dark closet for a few days.

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect entropy will increase dramatically.

OK, I get a lot of weird looks when I shoot down their argument this way, but I can live with that.

I suspect that creationists have a practice of recycling the argument that was least recently refuted, in the hope that their audience might not remember the last time that argument was debunked and discredited.

Speaking of howlers, we had a creationist engineer at my university (formerly) publish a letter in the local paper last year claiming that evolution violates the SLOT because a dead possum on the side of the road will not come back to life no matter how long it sits in the sun. When I e-mailed him and pointed out that this was a gross error, he claimed that I was distorting his argument. I replied by quoting him – he never answered (or changed his mind, that I know of).

Perhaps this illustrates that, in concordance with the SLOT, neural tissue that is completely isolated from stimulation in an intellectually padlocked cranial vault will increase dramatically in entropy.

I suspect that creationists have a practice of recycling the argument that was least recently refuted, in the hope that their audience might not remember the last time that argument was debunked and discredited.

Huh. I’ve just been reading “Red Queen” by Matt Ridley (excellent author, highly recommended) and apparently there’s a very similar situation with disease - immune systems tend to develop to ward off the most common strains of disease, with the result that older variants can often re-emerge. Or something like that.

Can someone pass me the bleach please? :P

My favorite rejoinder:

The Second Law of what?

Um, thermodynamics.

What does that word mean? Let’s see: thermo, sounds a bit like thermos. Must be temperature-or maybe heat, ya think? Dynamics. Hmmmm, movement, right? So it’s about heat moving around, right?

Um, what did that have to do with DNA again?

Usually works pretty well.

Re “perhaps by sealing him in a five gallon bucket and leaving it in the back of a dark closet for a few days.”

For some reason, that reminds me of Schrodinger’s (sp?) cat…

Henry

Syntax Error: not well-formed (invalid token) at line 1, column 61, byte 61 at /usr/local/lib/perl5/site_perl/5.16/mach/XML/Parser.pm line 187.

Oops. What I meant to say is that entire thread is a train wreck! “Heat entropy is not the same thing as information entropy.”?!?!?! LOL!

Have you seen that algebraic exercise in which you can prove 2=1 if you divide by zero? That’s what’s going on over at UD. Start with a flawed premise (e.g., Sewell’s article) and you can “prove” anything you want!

Basically the ID/Creationist thermodynamic argument is, “if you put a mouse in a thermos bottle, seal it up, and put it on a shelf for, say, a billion years, when you then open it up, a cat won’t come out.” Duh!

An argument that looks reasonable to me, relating SLOT and life, is the thesis in the book “Into the Cool”. As a non-biologist, I would be interested in what biologists think of it. If sound, then one could just say “Have you read ‘Into the Cool’?”

In response to Davie B. Benson (Comment #96531), here is a repeat of a post I made on another thread some months ago. Sagan and Schneider develop a theme that is another variation on teleological-like themes that often appear in physics. It is an interesting theme, almost poetic, but it can also be abused to argue for purpose (by a divine being?) in the same way that the ID/Creationist (IDC) promoters do. Thermodynamics gets a lot of abuse because it sounds esoteric and deep to the unsophisticated ear.

The idea expressed by Sagan and Schneider is an example of the least-action themes that are common in physics problems, but these don’t necessarily reflect a teleological reason for the way things behave in the universe. Instead, they reflect a somewhat obvious characteristic of the universe, namely that it is stable enough to exist; otherwise we wouldn’t be here discussing it. There are a number of common examples.

Consider a photon leaving point A in a medium, crossing a boundary into another medium at point B, and arriving at point C in the second medium. This is a Snell’s Law problem in elementary physics. However, to actually find the path it is useful to state that the path the photon follows is the one that makes the travel time a minimum. Notice that this is a teleological-like statement. It then becomes a simple calculus problem of taking a derivative, setting it equal to zero and solving for the location of the boundary crossing that produces the minimum time of travel. Alternatively one can get Snell’s Law from the solution.

Now the question that arises is, “How did that photon leaving point A know how to aim itself so as to intercept the boundary at the correct location and then proceed on to point C in the least time?” A little thought reveals that it didn’t proceed with any such a purpose. Any photon that left A at a different angle would have crossed the boundary at a different location D and then passed through a different point E in the second medium. The path for this photon would also have been a minimum-time path, but the travel time would be different.

Another example is a bead chain suspended between two points in a uniform gravitational field. The shape of the curve (a catenary) is the one that minimizes the potential energy of the entire chain. It sounds as though the chain knows to minimize its potential energy. Another is the famous brachistochrone problem in which a ball rolls down a curve (a cycloid) that gives the minimum time of travel.

Many Christians who have made peace with evolution see this as evidence of “God’s sustaining grace”, the idea that the universe cannot even exist without this aspect of God. Whether or not this is a satisfactory transitional line of thought for folks coming from a fundamentalist background I can’t say. Many fundamentalists are terrified of allowing any such thoughts to enter their minds. For them it is a start on the slippery slope to damnation. It is not an unassailable position for religious thinkers, but it is at least a non-scientific interpretation of what science has shown. But, on further reflection, we see that neither science nor religion gives a definitive answer to the existence of the universe. We are still left with an awesome puzzle that can’t be expressed in words. Maybe this in itself is the source of “Hope” that religious teachers and mystics speak of.

However, some of the more interesting religions seem to be those that have no words whatsoever. The real problem is that no one really understands or can express what religion is. Most of the historical practices of religion have been men coercing men to do their bidding. Perhaps the whole perspective on religion needs to change before there can be any fruitful dialog.

Most of the historical practices of religion have been men coercing men to do their bidding.

You are, of course, referring to European-centered religions. And you are pretty much correct.

I don’t recall many of the Asian or Native American religions leading to much in the way of coercing or holy wars, though (except for the Aztecs – and they really weren’t trying to coerce others to join their religion) . … .

hah, that daveScot quote is a classic, here is a hard copy incase he tries to cover up yet another blunder

http://fortress-forever.com/upload/[…]tupidity.png

https://www.answersingenesis.org/ho[…]dont_use.asp

Even Answers In Genisis is saying Creationists should’nt use this old worn out arguement anymore. Point out this link to them, and watch the fun!

Have you seen that algebraic exercise in which you can prove 2=1 if you divide by zero?

a=b

a^2 = ab

a^2 - b^2 = ab - b^2
---------   ---------
a - b        a - b

a + b     = b

Even Answers In Genisis is saying Creationists should’nt use this old worn out arguement anymore.

I wonder how much of the recent schism in AiG was due to the reaction from other fundies about their “dividing the movement” with their “arguments we shouldn’t use ‘cause they make us look stupid”?

You are, of course, referring to European-centered religions.

And you are pretty much correct.I don’t recall many of the Asian or Native American religions leading to much in the way of coercing or holy wars

This isn’t really true. For instance, there is plenty of Hindu fundamentalism, and Muslims and Hindus have been battling for centuries, as discussed in this 2003 article in Time Asia :

In the eyes of many Hindus, no Muslim can ever truly belong in India. The origins of this antagonism are centuries old. In essence, hard-line Hindus regard as a national humiliation the Islamic influence that pervades India’s history, starting with the Mughal Renaissance in the 16th century, continuing with the birth of Islamic fundamentalism in Asia at Deoband in northern India in the 1860s (the same creed followed by the Taliban) and enduring even today in India’s national symbol, the Mughal mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. This distrust of Islam has only increased since independence in 1947: modern India was founded in the Muslim-Hindu bloodletting of partition of the subcontinent, in which a million people died, and since then tensions have boiled over into three wars against Islamic neighbor Pakistan.

Also of course, the present European religions are not indigenous.

Sewell’s argument would only begin to make sense if he made the ridiculous claim (that some creationists indeed have made) that the 2nd Law requires entropy to always increase even in an open system. He agrees though that entropy can decrease in the case of some simple physical processes, but not in a way that can “create computers” and such. Well once you’ve made that concession, your SLOT argument is shot to hell, and you’re back to some argument based on complexity.

From Stevaroni’s quote

Stevaroni Wrote:

In my branch of the woods, an argument I hear over and over again from otherwise good, well meaning, churchgoing folk is the example of a newborn baby, a living creature developing and getting more complex every day, clearly in defiance of the second law.

evidently some people don’t even buy the argument that their own existence contradicts the idea that the SLOT doesn’t allow evolution, or other processes resulting in an “increase in information”. Instead, they apparently believe that a child’s growth isn’t allowed by SLOT either, requiring continuous supernatural intervention, and proving that such occurs. We might as well believe that gravity is in fact caused by the beating of angel’s wings. Or , uhhhh, maybe they don’t fully grasp the concept.

J G Cox Wrote:

What the creationists never seem to understand is that if their understanding of SLOT was correct, then it would also be impossible for a zygote to develop into a mature adult.

Some old scientist IDiot named Davison says that development violates the second law, therefore there must be some kind of magic in there, that science can’t explain.

At the height of fundy hypocricy a “scroll” is “unearthed” which suggests that Judas is a saint.

Coincidence?

The evidence speaks for itself.

“Some old scientist IDiot named Davison says that development violates the second law, therefore there must be some kind of magic in there, that science can’t explain.”

You see! That’s exactly why we shouldn’t automatically accept theories of development that discount an intelligent developer! We need to see a complete causal chain of events that describes the whole naturalistic developmental process before we can ignore the holiest of holies - the Developer. Even then, the developer may act in subtle, undetectable ways, so you will never shake my metaphysical foundations!

Teach it. TEEEEEEAAAACH IT! Or else developmental biologists are all atheists!

On the other side of the world, a muslim says, “We must resist this christian abomination known as developmental biology…”

This post has nothing to do with this thread but I thought this creature was interesting and wanted to share it with all those who like to eat to eat bamboo shoots.

Dear Dr. Steve,

You probably don’t know me. I live in southern Brazil my name is Kannabateomys amblyonyx, BTW I’m much cuter than you. I eat mostly bamboo like you. I also have a strong aversion to people who believe in intelligent Design. You should come visit me in my native bamboo forrest sometime. I’d love to show you around!

I subscribe to a list where this was posted [Enable javascript to see this email address.].

From: REVISTA CH 224 - MARÇO DE 2006 - PRIMEIRA LINHA Sobre ratos e pandas Pequeno roedor brasileiro tem hábitos semelhantes aos de famoso urso chinês The article about me was written in portugues by: Roger Borges da Silva e Emerson M. Vieira Laboratório de Ecologia de Mamíferos Universidade do Vale dos Sinos (Unisinos)

PS I do not personally know the two scientist cited above and they have not given me permission to post this information but I don’t think they’d mind…

In the eyes of many Hindus, no Muslim can ever truly belong in India. The origins of this antagonism are centuries old. In essence, hard-line Hindus regard as a national humiliation the Islamic influence that pervades India’s history, starting with the Mughal Renaissance in the 16th century, continuing with the birth of Islamic fundamentalism in Asia at Deoband in northern India in the 1860s (the same creed followed by the Taliban) and enduring even today in India’s national symbol, the Mughal mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. This distrust of Islam has only increased since independence in 1947: modern India was founded in the Muslim-Hindu bloodletting of partition of the subcontinent, in which a million people died, and since then tensions have boiled over into three wars against Islamic neighbor Pakistan.

Sounds like plain fold-fashioned nationalism to me. They’re neither arguing over religious doctrines nor attempting to force their religions onto each other. Referring to it as a “religious conflict” is akin to calling the nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland a “religious conflict” between Catholics and Protestants. It’s not.

Also of course, the present European religions are not indigenous.

Indeed. But they certainly are European-CENTERED.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but even if the Earth were a closed (or isolated) system, one still could not conclude that evolution contradicted the second law without a calculation, no? In which case, “show me the numbers!” is an appropriate answer to the creationist blather too.

Laser: Amazing, too, since these guys are pushing what amounts to medieval theology, and they don’t know the ex falso quodlibet sequitur law of elementary logic. You’d think that with that fancy old-timey name they’d have heard of it.

But they[imported Levantine religions] certainly are European-CENTERED.

Thank g_d for the Greeks and the Romans otherwise we would have a form of sharia law based on the “One true word of g_dTM who art in Jerusalem”.

Comment #96633

Posted by ‘Rev Dr’ Lenny Flank on April 15, 2006 08:43 AM (e)

Sounds like plain fold-fashioned nationalism to me. They’re neither arguing over religious doctrines nor attempting to force their religions onto each other. Referring to it as a “religious conflict” is akin to calling the nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland a “religious conflict” between Catholics and Protestants. It’s not.

Actually, Pakistan didn’t exist until Lord Mountbatten, the last English Governor of India partitioned India into two countries. The subsequent population migration (about 7 million Hindus from Pakistan and 7 million Moslems from India) is one of greatest, and bloodiest Diasporas in modern history with an estimated 200,000 to 1 million casualties in the inter-faith conflicts as members of both religious groups preyed upon their “enemies” in the migratory populations.

But the conflict is a very old conflict that pre-dates the partition of India (and the establishment of Pakistan) by nearly 1000 years and has its roots in historical religious persecution.

Amazing, too, since these guys are pushing what amounts to medieval theology

Indeed, their stated aims and goals are precisely to undo the Enlightenment and return us all to religious rule a la the 14th century or so.

While the quote from DS (that he violates SLOT by writing a sentence) is side-splittingly funny, a mere two posts later he sets another record for stupidity by claiming that building a single-photon calorimeter demonstrates that a single photon has a “temperature”. I may have to start reading UD for the comedy.

Another thing about the fundie’s trouble with SLOT is that if you grant them (for the sake of argument) that the development of a child violates SLOT, then that would mean SLOT IS NOT A LAW - there are boundless examples all around us of it not being true. Of course they can’t grasp that SLOT is a genuine physical law BECAUSE we never find examples of it being violated. I think this is because they are so used to belief coming from authority that SLOT must be a law given by God, not just figured out by man based on never finding contrary examples no matter how hard we look.

k.e. Wrote:

Thank g_d for the Greeks and the Romans otherwise we would have a form of sharia law based on the “One true word of g_dTM who art in Jerusalem”.

Sharia is actually descended from early Christian law, which developed in turn out of the legal system of the late Roman empire. So saith my rhetoric & legal studies prof, anyway, who did research on that subject.

She and another British professor taught our Western Civ class; on the last day they told us that if we American students took one thing away from the class, it should be the understanding that Afghanistan is a Western civilization already, inasmuch as it owes as much to the Greeks, Romans & early Christians as we do.

Keith: I think the only Latin they know is vita ex dei (I hope the endings are right. I haven’t had Latin since high school, over 20 yrs ago.)

Anton Mates Wrote:

Sharia is actually descended from early Christian law, which developed in turn out of the legal system of the late Roman empire.

And Sharia was, by the standards of the day, relatively humane. Execution by beheading, for instance, is more humane than many of the alternatives and in the West was for a very long time reserved for those of the upper classes who were condemned. The rest of us were strangled by hanging, drawn and quartered, broken on the wheel, burned, etc.

Of course time’s moved on and it now seems like a very harsh system of justice …

Even Answers In Genisis is saying Creationists should’nt use this old worn out arguement anymore. Point out this link to them, and watch the fun!

That page is fun. Sorta cute to see creationists make their grudging concessions to observable reality…

Comment #96514 posted by Mike Elzinga on April 14, 2006 02:37 PM

These people have had more than enough time to learn what thermodynamics is all about (it’s not hard),

I disagree. I think that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLOT) is hard to fully understand. It is an abstruse law in science and engineering. There are several different statements of the law, and most have no apparent connection to biology. For example, perhaps the most popular statement of the law is as follows – “It is impossible to construct an engine which, operating in a cycle, does nothing but draw heat from a single reservoir and perform an equivalent amount of work.“ One of the reasons why some people use the SLOT as an argument against Darwinism is that they don‘t fully understand the SLOT.

How about the following simplified explanation of SLOT: All useful energy eventually turns into low grade heat and diffuses away.

One of the reasons why some people use the SLOT as an argument against Darwinism

What the heck is “darwinism”?

Is it anything like “newtonism” or “einsteinism” or “faradayism”?

is that they don’t fully understand the SLOT.

More accurately, they use it because their intended AUDIENCE doesn’t understand thermodynamics. Or much else in science.

Lenny, you tell me what Darwinism is. R. Dawkins uses it on page 196 of “The Selfish Gene”. Thanks.

There has been a lot of talk recently on whether the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics has any bearing on the subject of origins. I have tried to make the case that it is irrelevant to the ID/evolution discussion. I the post below is a copy/paste from my blog. Please see the blog post for all the relevant links - there are lots of them!

Link: http://tinyurl.com/mqqb7 or http://gnosos.blogspot.com/2006/04/2nd-law-of-thermodynamics-irrelevant.html (Can’t seem to get this to post right – use the tinyurl)

This second law discussion is popping up all over the web at the same time as it is being discussed here. This debate now has that exciting real-time quality to it! (If you need a layman’s refresher on basic 2nd Law principles, check this one out (PDF).)

For the history of the discussion on this site, this post talked about an American Spectator article by UTEP mathematics professor Granville Sewell that reformulated the argument that the process of evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. On the Panda’s Thumb, retired Cal Fullerton physics professor Mark Perakh wrote an extensive critique of Sewell’s idea. My conclusion on my first post was that Sewell’s argument, stripped of its complexities, breaks down to this paraphrased statement:

“There is no process that can decrease the entropy of an undeveloped earth in such a way that would result in the biological complexity around us without violating the second law of thermodynamics.”

Thus, I perceive that we are back in the realm of biology, discussing whether evolution is a reasonable mechanism to produce biological complexity. This does not really seem to augment the ID/evolution discussion; it just gets us to the starting point of the debate in a novel way.

But much more has recently been said! Let me lay out the most interesting points of discussion here, and let the reader wrestle with them along with me. (Come up with your own opinions and read the articles yourself. Frankly, my opinion on these matters means little, for my formal training in physics has reached its expiration date.)

First up, Arthenor, a former home schooler and current community college student (both experiences I have shared), posts a detailed response to Perakh’s argument. However, Arthenor gets mostly tied up in parsing both Perakh’s and Sewell’s spurious and confusing analogies. His conclusion does not progress the discussion:

“[I]t is EXTREMELY IMPROBABLE that such an outcome [the order found in nature] should occur or be expected and the fact that the system is open does not change that any more than the system being open allows me to fly by flapping my arms. The point, again, is that while entropy may decrease in an open system, that does not suddenly cause miracles.

Once again, the question left unanswered is whether evolution is a plausible mechanism to account for this local decrease in entropy without violating the 2nd Law. And once again, we must look to biology for the answers, and we’re back at the starting point of the ID/evolution debate — not a conclusion.

Much more interesting than Arthenor’s discussion were questions raised in comments on my site by “A Friend,” who is a mathematical physicist nearing the end of his PhD studies. He reformulates Sewell’s conclusions into a set of questions:

“I’d like to follow up for a moment on my first comment where I mentioned the interaction of different “kinds” of order. If there were only thermal order, and the thermal distribution follows a diffusion equation as is commonly accepted, then there would be no escaping the implications of the 2nd law for the development of life. However, our universe doesn’t work like that. There are different kinds of particles, different chemicals, and all sorts of intricate interactions that can occur between them. So, the question that is important in the evolution debate is not one of equilibrium thermodynamics (dominated by the diffusion equation, entropy increases, and the second law) but rather one of non-equilibrium dynamics (where the interactions of the various types of distributions is taken into account mathematically). Can the large thermal gradient generated by the sun drive the entropy (of some non-thermal parameter, like the distribution of carbon atoms) down? Will it be driven down sufficiently for “rare” reactions to occur spontaneously? Specifically, can it drive the biochemical reactions necessary to produce life?”

The answers to these questions are perhaps not given but at least framed, by Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematics professor from just up the road at James Madison University. He has just published another response to Sewell. This one, like Perakh’s, does not honor Sewell’s request for respectful discussion sans personal attacks, but he much more effectively and concisely frames the problem with Sewell’s argument:

“[F]ormulating the second law mathematically makes it clear that Sewell cannot merely assert that some process (evolution by natural selection in this case) violates the second law. There is a very clear test to pass to show that a given process really has a second law problem.

“You see, any claim that evolution violates the second law must be backed up with a calculation. Sewell believes that the second law is a problem for evolution? Very well. Let him evaluate the integral I mentioned [see the article] and show that the change in entropy has been smaller than it should be. Anything short of that is no longer an argument based on thermodynamics. It is just ye olde argument from personal incredulity, in which Sewell is expressing nothing more than his own disbelief that biological complexity could have evolved naturally. Since every formulation of the second law allows for local increases of order and complexity, the mere observation of such increases does not constitute an apparent violation of thermodynamic principles.”

His discussion, in a way, supports my assertion that we have once again reached the starting point of the ID/evolution debate. Sewell’s argument makes no comment — except the argument from incredulity — on the quality of evolution by natural selection as an explanation for the observed order in nature.

This begins to provide answers to A Friend’s questions. Until Sewell can accomplish the virtually impossible task of proving that abiogenesis and evolution definitively violate the 2nd Law, we must rely on other observations to inform their plausibility. While it is well beyond the scope of this post to list them, there are enough observations in favor of evolution that many are convinced that it did occur and that, being the concrete law that it is, the 2nd Law must not have been violated.

This is somewhat like arguments for the existence of God. Theists put it on the atheists to prove that God cannot exist; atheists put it on the theist to first prove that He does. Here, the evolutionists are putting it on the creationists/IDers to prove first that evolution violates the second law before they will throw away a theory that is otherwise well supported. The creationists/IDers prefer to claim that it is likely that it does violate the second law, and ask that the evolutionist prove that it does not before claiming it is true. Given the impossibility of a formal proof or disproof in this matter, I think it is better that we look elsewhere for evidences for or against evolution, realizing that the arguments of Sewell and his detractors can never ultimately comment on the question of whether man’s origin is explained best by naturalistic or divine causes.

A few articles for future reading: * Jacob Bronowski’s “Thermodynamics and the Arrow of Time,” another evolutionary rebuttal to the creationist 2nd Law argument. * Granville Sewell’s 2004 article “Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (PDF), an extended discussion about his earlier theory of evolution’s violation of the 2nd Law. This includes rebuttals to Rosenhouse’s early claims. I haven’t read it yet, but it may be worth more comments in a future post.

Comment #96532 posted by Mike Elzinga on April 14, 2006 05:03 PM

Consider a photon leaving point A in a medium, crossing a boundary into another medium at point B, and arriving at point C in the second medium. This is a Snell’s Law problem in elementary physics. However, to actually find the path it is useful to state that the path the photon follows is the one that makes the travel time a minimum.

Another example is a bead chain suspended between two points in a uniform gravitational field. The shape of the curve (a catenary) is the one that minimizes the potential energy of the entire chain. It sounds as though the chain knows to minimize its potential energy. Another is the famous brachistochrone problem in which a ball rolls down a curve (a cycloid) that gives the minimum time of travel.

I don‘t see any reason why it should be assumed a priori that the proton will choose the path of minimum travel time. The brachistochrone problem is different because there the rolling ball follows a constrained path. The brachistochrone curve that gives the minimum travel time is determined by using the calculus of variations to find the best compromise between the shortest path – i.e., a straight slope – and the path that gives the maximum initial acceleration, i.e., a vertical drop followed by a short bend followed by a horizontal path.

Also, the freely hanging bead chain – or a completely flexible cable or rope – might not know how to minimize its potential energy, but it does know how to balance all the gravitational and tensional forces acting along its length. The derivation of the catenary curve in my engineering mechanics text does not assume minimization of potential energy but derives the curve by means of a force-balance calculation performed on a section of cable (though I presume that it is also possible to derive the catenary curve by assuming minimization of potential energy). Changing the catenary shape of a free-hanging cable disturbs the equilibrium of forces and thus adds potential energy to the cable, and this potential energy is returned when the cable is allowed to resume its free-hanging catenary shape. So the catenary shape is the lowest potential energy state of the cable, in the same way that a pendulum‘s bottom position is the lowest potential energy state. So again, as in the case of the brachistochrone, there is a reason for minimization, but I do not see any reason for minimization in the case of the proton.

BTW, a cable carrying a uniformly distributed horizontal load that is relatively so large that the weight of the cable itself may be neglected (e.g., one of the main cables of a suspension bridge) assumes the shape of a true parabola. I think that a lot of people do not know that a freely hanging cable – i.e., one carrying only its own weight – assumes the shape of a catenary rather than a true parabola. The reason why the curve is a catenary rather than a parabola is that the horizontal distribution of a cable‘s weight is non-uniform in a sagging cable, and this non-uniformity becomes greater as sag increases.

Least Action — This is a convenient way to describe and state the equations of motion. Other, more cumbersome, methods are possible. Physicists need some means of communicating the ideas to students. So teleological explanations are often used, indeed may be the best, or at least quickest, way to explain the concepts and equations to physics students.

The reason why the curve is a catenary rather than a parabola is that the horizontal distribution of a cable’s weight is non-uniform in a sagging cable, and this non-uniformity becomes greater as sag increases.

This is right, but it’s a hard thing to put into words, so if anyone wants to understand this, check out the Wikipedia page on catenaries.

I think E. Bergen (#96664 & #96695) missed the point of my comment #96532 about stability of the universe. He is unlikely to find what he wants in an engineering text. These textbooks have a different objective and therefore don’t normally explore the deeper scientific issues illustrated in the examples I mentioned.

The path of the photon might have been the one with the shortest spatial distance (which it is, as long as it propagates in a single medium), but it turns out that in the more general case, the path between two points in space minimizes the time. I think I will leave this as an exercise for Mr. Bergen to work out why this might have something to do with the stability of the universe. The answer is very interesting. (Hint: Some adjunct ideas involve what is known as Lenz’s law. And he may want to look into some relativity.)

As to the abuses of thermodynamics, Morris and Gish were doing this back in the 1970’s, and here we are in 2006 still seeing the same abuses in the hands of the ID bunch. It doesn’t take 30 years or more to learn thermodynamics well enough to stop abusing it. Most of my students could learn it in a couple of semesters of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. So I still claim it is not that hard. Of course, it is taught differently in physics courses than it is in engineering courses.

Re comment #96633: I’m afraid Lenny you have got your facts wrong about the so-called “conflict” (as the IRA likes to put it) in Northern Ireland. The troubles here are very much a religious conflict. Many people have been killed simply because they are protestant or catholic. In a lot of cases these atrocities were dressed up in a political guise in order to justify them. I should know. I’ve lived here for the past 50 years and witnessed many events which weren’t headline news in the rest of the world.

Just in case your memories have been clouded:

http://www.victims.org.uk/darkley.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/[…]/2550869.stm

And it happened on both sides, just in case you think my memory is clouded:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern[…]/3816669.stm

The troubles here are very much a religious conflict.

Nonsense. Ireland has been fighting for political/economic independence for centuries; the latest “troubles” are only the latest round.

No one there is killing each other over the fallibility of the Pope, or transubstantiation, or purgatory, or interpretations of the Bible. It’s a fight between those who want to stay in the British Union, and those who don’t.

The troubles here are very much a religious conflict.

Nonsense. … political/economic …

I have this crazy notion that the demarcation between religious and political is fuzzy, at best. To segue back to the topic at hand, Sewell’s essay would be equally at home in “The American Spectator” or “World Net Daily”. But not in “Science” or “Nature”.

It may very well appear to the “outsider” that the latest “round” in the troubles is political/economic, but I can testify that it is very much religious as well. I know this from everyday life here. Both communities are still very segregated. Many people have a deep mistrust of the other side, even now. This hatred is still strong enough to kill for, despite the recent progress politically, and the regeneration of Belfast as a city for example. Much of the present conflict has its roots in the reformation (Martin Luther and so on), the so called “glorious revolution” of 1688 when Prince William of Orange ascended to the throne of England and defeated James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690, and the subsequent plantation of Ireland. In those days they really did kill each other over transubstantiation, the fallibility of the Pope, purgatory etc.

There are really two ethnic/religious groups on this island. The native Irish (mostly catholic) and the Ulster Scots (mostly Protestant). I’m sure you are aware Lenny, that many of the American presidents are of Ulster Scots stock. President Andrew Jackson’s “homestead”, for instance, is only a few miles down the road from here. Perhaps this is why creationism is so strong in the US !

I live at 68218 Commonwealth in Seattle. Been up here before?

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This page contains a single entry by Jason Rosenhouse published on April 14, 2006 12:10 PM.

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