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Why Tornados Running Backward do not Violate the Second Law


In the 11 years since I wrote a letter to the editor of the Mathematical Intelligencer entitled “Can ANYTHING Happen in an Open System?” I’m sure I have heard at least 100 different reasons why the spontaneous rearrangement of atoms on a barren planet into intelligent brains, libraries full of science texts and encyclopedias, jet airplanes, and computers connected to keyboards, LCDs, laser printers and the Internet does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. For a more technical response to some of them, see here and here. I have recently observed that if we made a video of a tornado sweeping through a town, and showed the video backward, every one of these arguments could equally be used to argue that there was no conflict between the second law and what we were witnessing on the video. So here is a list of the top 5 reasons, taken from my notes of the last 11 years, why a tornado running backward does not violate the second law:

  1. “The Earth is an open system, tornados derive their energy from the sun, and while turning rubble into houses and cars represents a decrease in entropy, the increase in entropy outside the Earth far exceeds the decrease seen in this video.”

    This is the traditional argument used by Asimov, Dawkins and many others, it is the one I have been primarily criticizing, particularly in my AML paper, “A Second Look at the Second Law” . My arguments seem to have been effective, because I rarely hear this silly argument any more, critics seem to have been forced more and more to fall back on secondary objections now.

  2. “The second law only applies to thermal entropy, and what is happening in this video does not result in a net decrease in thermal entropy, so there’s no conflict with the second law.”

    In fact, it is universally recognized that the second law of thermodynamics applies to more than thermal entropy, it applies to other types of entropy, for example, the “X-entropy” associated with any other diffusing component X: as pointed out in my AML paper, these types of entropy are defined by the same equations as thermal entropy, and are equally quantifiable. And it is widely applied in physics texts to less quantifiable types of “entropy.”

  3. “What is happening in this video is too ill-defined and too difficult to quantify for the second law to apply.”

    Some things are obvious even if they are difficult to quantify!

  4. “Sure, tornados turning rubble into houses and cars is extremely improbable, but natural forces do extremely improbable things all the time; every time we flip a billion coins, the exact outcome is extremely improbable.”

    What the second law prevents is not extremely improbable things, but
    macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view.

  5. “There is no conflict with the second law in this video, because the second law only applies to isolated systems, period.”

    If atoms rearranging themselves into computers and jet airplanes would be forbidden by the second law on an isolated planet, because they are macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view, then they are still forbidden, if not by the same human-formulated law, at least by the same natural principle, if the only thing entering the system is solar energy, for the same reason: they are still extremely improbable.

So, if we saw a video of a tornado, running backward, would we conclude that the second law was being violated by what was happening or not? According to many physics textbooks, such as the Ford text quoted in my video “Evolution is a Natural Process Running Backward” below, the answer is YES. It is true that it would not violate the first formulations of the second law, which were all about heat, and even the more general formulations, stated in terms of “order” and “disorder,” all begin with “in an isolated system,” so it can be argued that, technically, it would not violate these formulations either. But if Isaac Newton had never generalized his law of gravity beyond “the Earth attracts apples”, would we say that the law of gravity does not apply to oranges, technically?

If we actually saw a video of a tornado, running backward, it would certainly not occur to us to make any of the above arguments to claim that what we were seeing did not technically violate the second law, as formulated in physics textbooks. We would immediately recognize that what we were seeing violated a fundamental natural principle, one at least very closely related to the second law of thermodynamics. Even if we were told that what actually happened took a long time and the video had been speeded up, we would still not be interested in anyone’s “scientific” explanation for what we were seeing in the video, we would immediately recognize that the video must be running backward, because what we were seeing was completely unnatural.

So, how does the spontaneous rearrangement of matter on a rocky, barren, planet into human brains and spaceships and jet airplanes and nuclear power plants and libraries full of science texts and novels, and supercomputers running partial differential equation solving software , represent a less obvious or less spectacular violation of the second law—or at least of the fundamental natural principle behind this law—than tornados turning rubble into houses and cars? Can anyone even imagine a more spectacular violation?

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