Monday, June 27, 2011

The Irrational Fear of Entropy Production

There have been a number scientists, engineers and philosophers who think that entropy production is evil. For example, Adrian Bejan stated his book Entropy Generation Minimization, "The task of improving the thermodynamic performance of an engineering system requires the proper identification of those features most guilty of entropy production." I'm not sure what he means by 'guilty,' but this post is dedicated to showing that entropy production is not an evil to be avoided, but rather entropy generation is a nature part of living.

In a previous post on the Thermodynamic Imperative, I noted that there has been a philosophical trend to see the production of entropy as something to be avoided at all costs. This is, to some extent, due to misconceptions about entropy. We equate entropy with disorder, but this is silly. Entropy has nothing to do with disorder. It has to due with the number of equivalent microstates...it has to do with permutation symmetries, not disorder.

But because people have associated entropy with disorder, some people have objected to the generation of entropy because they think that order is better than disorder. I'd like to quote D.S. Scott (an engineering professor) and his misconceptions about entropy because there are some environmentalists who use these misguided conceptions of entropy to suggest that we should be minimizing our impact on the environment. There is no physical foundations for such beliefs, so I'd like to quote some of the misguided statements and then discuss them below.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Symmetry Everywhere

I'm taking a break from engineering and getting back physics today...

This post is intended to expand upon an earlier discussion on the symmetry of the laws of physics. In previous posts, I pointed out that nature appears to follow the Rosen-Curie principle: that the symmetry of the effect (future) is greater than the symmetry of the cause (past). And this helps to explain the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the number of equivalent (symmetric) microstates of the future is greater then the number of equivalent (symmetric) microstates of the past. In this post, I'd like to expand upon my discussion of  the underlying symmetries in the laws of nature.

Since recently reading "The Force of Symmetry" by Vincent Icke and "Why Beauty is Truth" by Ian Stewart, I've expanding a previous post on symmetry and the forces of nature. In that post, I summarized the relationship between the known forces of nature and the symmetry groups that generate those forces. I highly recommend reading these books if you have at least taken freshman or sophomore level physics in college. I'll summarize some of the major points of both books and my previous post.

More Thoughts on Feynman's Philosophy of Life: From Feynman's "The Meaning of it All"

The following is a follow-up to my post on Richard Feynman and his philosophy that the goal of life is to understand the laws of nature. In this post, I focus on the topics he covers in the book "The Meaning of It All," whereas in the earlier post I focused on the small amount of philosophy that shows up in his famous "Lecture Series." The following is my effort to present Feynman's thoughts on the philosophy of life and to discuss the implications of such a philosophy of life.
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 1) Meaning of Life

"Throughout all the ages, men have been trying to fathom the meaning of life. They realize that if some direction or some meaning could be given to the whole thing, to our actions, then great human forces would be unleashed. ...The dream is to find the open channel. What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think that in admitting this we have probably found the open channel...that it is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man. I say that we do not know what is the meaning of life and what are the right moral values, that we have no way to choose them and so on...."

I think that this is a pretty good summary of Feynman's philosophy of life: that attempts to find a meaning of life end up causing us to go to war. So, it's best for us to avoid finding meaning in life and to focus on finding the laws of nature. But I personally think that we shouldn't stop trying to find the meaning of life. Telling us to stop looking for the meaning in life is like trying to cage us up at a zoo. We are curious and shouldn't stop asking questions and proposing possible meanings of life.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On "The Existential Pleasure of Engineering"

I've read "The Existential Pleasure of Engineering" by Samuel Florman quite a few times over my engineering career. (I suggest reading the book if you are an engineer or if you're interested in the question what is the essence of technology.) I've always been a fan of the fact that he stood up for engineering when the profession was being attacked (philosophically) by all sorts of anti-technologists during the 1970's. He wrote the book in 1976 in the midst of what he called the Dark Age. Even though I tend to disagree with his main conclusion (i.e. that we should do engineering from the mere existential pleasure of engineering), I think that Florman does a really good job of presenting the arguments of the anti-technologists before dissecting them apart.

So, I'd like to summarize his book so as entice you to read it if you haven't already.

Ch1: "What was Troy to this?"
Engineers from 1850 to 1950 (i.e. the Golden Age of Engineering) worked in a bubble in which their profession was highly praised by poets and the public alike. For example, poet Percy MacKaye wrote, "Where the tribes of man are led towards peace / By the prophet-engineer."
Florman: "The engineer's works would also contribute to brotherhood by literally bringing men closer together...In short, engineers of the Golden Age were not at a loss for intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual gratifications to go along with their often not inconsiderable tangible rewards."

Ch2: Decline & Fall
"It [is] apparent that engineering's Golden Age ended abruptly about 1950, and that the profession, for all its continuing technical achievements, finds itself at the present time in a Dark Age of the spirit." What led to this decline and fall?  (Nuclear Armageddon, H-bombs, radioactive fall out from nuclear weapons testing, Korean & Vietnam war stagnation, Silent Spring, The Waste Makers, Unsafe at Any Speed, The River Killers, The Limits to Growth)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Wealth of Nations Updated: Total Work by Country using from the Latest data from the BP Statistical Review of Energy

Let me start with the real attention grabbers, and then I'll back up the statements with data from the BP Statistical Review of Energy and graphs created from that data.

1) China's economy is rapidly catching up with the U.S. economy (see below). If they maintain a rate of growth that is 10%/yr larger than the U.S., then in three years, they will be able to generate as much work as in the U.S as measured in [TW-hrs].
2) The GDP values assigned to countries appear to be biased towards the U.S., Japan and Europe.
3) The GDP values appear to be biased against China, India, Canada and most biased against Russia. For example, Russia generates as much mechanical and electrical work as Japan, but the IMF calculates that Japan's economy is four times larger than Russia's.
4) The calculations of GDP do not account for all economic activity within a country. The rural or black market activity in Russia, China and India might explain why the GDP values of these countries are less than for countries that generate similar amount of work.
5) As I stated in a previous post, the Wealth of a Nation is its ability to generate Work [TW-hrs], such as electrical work and mechanical work. This is the means of comparing the relative wealth of a nation. (Like in the Jevon's Paradox, greater efficiency ends up producing more generation of work, not less.)
6) (Opinion Discussed at the end of post) If we want to achieve economic growth rates of over 5%/yr, we probably need to tax luxuries, waste, and pollution rather than taxing income (i.e. productivity)


Sunday, June 12, 2011

How to Implement Today a Zero % Inflation Currency Tied to the Generation of Work in kW-hrs

The Federal Reserve has recently argued that monetary policy by itself can not solve the recession that we are currently facing. (Thank you, Ben Bernanke, for stating the obvious.) The goal of monetary policy is not to be Big Brother and solve our problems; only we can do that. The goal of monetary policy should be to maintain a currency with a known, constant value.

In previous posts, I've argued that we will eventually want to move to an electricity-backed currency in order to have a zero-inflation currency in which we can easily convert our money into something of tangible value.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

There is no Energy or Exergy Crisis. It's a Problem of Low Rates of Return on Investment. Understanding the Problem by Correctly Defining Energy, Exergy and Entropy

"The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names."  Chinese saying quoted in E.O. Wilson's Consilience and books by D.S. Scott


The Earth is a system far-from-equilibrium. It is continuously bathed in a source of exergy (available work) in the form of sunlight. Life on earth does not suffer from a lack of potential exergy sources. This means that we are nowhere near the limit of how much exergy we can extract from sunlight, and likewise we are nowhere near the limit of how much exergy can be extracted from fossil fuels, wind, geothermal or nuclear fusion/fission. The global ‘energy’ problem we face is not due to a lack of exergy, both of which are plentiful (for example, visit this link to The Earth’s Exergy Balance), but rather it is associated with the increasing cost to generate useful forms of work, such as electricity and movement of transportation vehicles. The increase in cost is in part due to the increasing depths required to drill for oil/natural gas, the decreasing reserves of cheap, light, sweet crude oil, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the global environmental impact of our exergy consuming processes (automobiles, power plants, etc…). It is also in part due to incorrect understandings of the second law of thermodynamics that have propagated in the West regarding minimizing exergy consumption and entropy production (i.e. we have a philosophical problem in the West in which we think that minimization exergy consumption is a good thing.) This misunderstanding came from faulty extrapolation from early work by Ilya Prigogine in the area of 'linear' non-equilibrium thermodynamics. The goal of this post is to correct some of the misunderstandings surrounding energy, entropy and exergy so that we understand the real problem we face here on Earth (our lack of growth in the West).