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From Steam Engines to Life?

What is the state of thermodynamics on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kelvin?

Mark Haw

Kelvin%20in%20classroomClick to Enlarge ImageOne afternoon in 1842, in the town of Walsall in the heart of England's industrial midlands, two young men stood by a canal, watching a lock fill with water. The rising water lifted a barge crammed with valuable trade goods, one small step up on its climb to some unknown industrial destination. The two men mused upon this ingenious use of power, this impressive demonstration of the simple technology underpinning Victorian Britain's industrial dominance.

The two men were brothers. One was James Thomson, a shipbuilder's apprentice later to become Professor of Engineering at Glasgow University. The other was James's brother William, destined for an even grander career. William's sojourn as Professor of Natural Philosophy—also at Glasgow—would span half a century and include fundamental contributions to an astonishing range of sciences and technologies, from the transport of fluids to the design of ultrasensitive telecommunications. William Thomson would ultimately be ennobled by Queen Victoria, becoming Lord Kelvin of Largs.

December 2007 sees the centenary of Kelvin's death. That early curiosity about energy, shared with brother James as they stood by the Walsall canal, was just the beginning of Kelvin's part in the most significant transformation of physical science since Newton. In tandem with others, such as French engineer Sadi Carnot, German physicist Rudolf Clausius, and English experimenter James Joule, Kelvin developed the science of thermodynamics: the fundamental understanding of the nature of heat, energy and temperature.

The key to the Industrial Revolution and to Britain's dominance in the 19th century was the use of energy. But what fascinated the Thomson brothers that day by the Walsall canal was the potential waste of energy. What became of the power lost when water cascaded over the gates of the lock instead of helping lift the barge? What rules determined how much power was wasted—in this or any other of the myriad technologies on which industry relied?

This question, it turned out, was not just the key to industrial efficiency, but to understanding the nature of all energy transformations—of everything that happens in the Universe, essentially. In pursuit of an answer to this question, Kelvin in Glasgow and Rudolf Clausius in Germany developed perhaps the most fundamental physical law, the Second Law of thermodynamics, which states that every exchange of energy is wasteful; perfect efficiency is impossible.

Whereas Kelvin developed many of the concepts behind thermodynamics, it was Rudolf Clausius who expressed the Second Law in mathematical terms. Clausius introduced a quantity he named entropy, which describes the state of order or structure in a system. According to the Second Law, entropy or disorder (a simpler if not entirely accurate synonym) increases with every energy transaction. Hence, entropy is a sort of dark twin to energy, one that contrasts energy's constancy (the First Law states that energy is conserved) with its own inevitable rise.

Kelvin and Clausius thus presided over the first thermodynamical revolution. The force behind it was a practical one: the need to harness energy for industry. Its dogma was the triumph of entropy and disorder. Yet a hundred years after Kelvin's death, research in thermodynamics is questioning this message of chaotic doom. Some scientists have begun to step beyond the major limitations of 19th-century thermodynamics to explain why our Universe seems characterized not by spreading disorder, but rather by a fantastic degree of structure, complexity and creativity.

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