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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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III. An Organic, Conducive, Habitable MultiUniVerse

E. A Thermodynamics of Life

    The sterile, mechanical universe of 19th century theories was conceived as a closed, isolated system tending to quiescent equilibrium. As predicted by the second law of thermodynamics, it must inexorably expire as all available energy is spent doing work and converted to entropy. The “noonday brilliance” of the human moment is thus for naught as philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote early in the 20th century. But a major revision is underway by which life has become known as an open system infused and organized by a sustaining flow of energy and information. The gloomy pronouncement has been superseded by far-from-equilibrium version, due much to Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine and colleagues, which can describe and qualify the florescent rise of life and its human phase. An effort to articulate a “fourth law of thermodynamics” counter to the second law is now in progress. Altogether these efforts explain a vital "physical" source for and impetus to biological and cultural evolution, which again serves to reunite organic beings with a conducive cosmos.


Annila, Arto. www.helsinki.fi/~aannila/arto. The University of Helsinki website for the professor of biophysics, circa 2014, whose integral philosophy is posted next. From that page can be accessed a series of innovative papers, often with colleagues, that seek to integrate living systems with far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics. For an example, Genes without Prominence: A Reappraisal of the Foundation of Biology with Keith Baverstock, in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface (11/20131017, 2014) and Natural Emergence with T. K. Pernu, in Complexity (17/44, 2012). In Natural Games, with Jani Anttila in Physical Letters A (375/3755, 2011), this energetic arrow is seen as an “accumulation of information,” a vast stochastic learning process. Most writings are also available on arXiv.

Holistic worldview: Nature is rich but not random in its diversity. Also complexity of nature is astounding but not arbitrary. We do recognize rules and regularities that we know as laws of physics and chemistry, or those that we refer to as relations in biology, economics, behavioral and social sciences. Disciplinary canons are not disconnected from each other but relate via ubiquitous characteristics of nature. These are skewed distributions that accumulate along sigmoid growth and decline curves which in turn display mostly as straight lines on log-log plots, i.e., follow power laws. These all-embracing commonalities make no distinction between living and non-living or between microscopic and cosmic, which implies that there is a universal organizing principle. Hence, while an observation could be interpreted by some specific theory, all observations ought to be understood by the same general tenet.

Science by submerging to specialties supplies us with detailed information whereas by recognizing universalities it provides us with thorough comprehension. Indeed, as our delusions of uniqueness have narrowed, our worldview has widened toward entirety. Whatever fallacies still remain will vanish in examinations by the natural principle of least time. As apparent from papers below many phenomena, puzzles and paradoxes can be comprehended by this supreme law of nature.

Akih-Kumgeh, Ben. Toward Improved Understanding of the Physical Meaning of Entropy in Classical Thermodynamics. Entropy. 18/7, 2016. A tutorial review by the Syracuse University professor of mechanical engineering and director of its Thermodynamics and Combustion Laboratory which reviews the state of this fundamental art some century and a half after its origin. We note this entry, along with Philippe Faist’s doctoral thesis below, as evidence that scientific studies of this basic field, broadly defined, still proceed apace.

The year 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of “entropy” as a concept in classical thermodynamics. Despite its central role in the mathematical formulation of the Second Law and most of classical thermodynamics, its physical meaning continues to be elusive and confusing. This is especially true when we seek a reconstruction of the classical thermodynamics of a system from the statistical behavior of its constituent microscopic particles or vice versa. This paper sketches the classical definition by Clausius and offers a modified mathematical definition that is intended to improve its conceptual meaning. In the modified version, the differential of specific entropy appears as a non-dimensional energy term that captures the invigoration or reduction of microscopic motion upon addition or withdrawal of heat from the system. It is also argued that heat transfer is a better model process to illustrate entropy; the canonical heat engines and refrigerators often used to illustrate this concept are not very relevant to new areas of thermodynamics (e.g., thermodynamics of biological systems). It is emphasized that entropy changes, as invoked in the Second Law, are necessarily related to the non-equilibrium interactions of two or more systems that might have initially been in thermal equilibrium but at different temperatures. The overall direction of entropy increase indicates the direction of naturally occurring heat transfer processes in an isolated system that consists of internally interacting (non-isolated) sub systems. We discuss the implication of the proposed modification on statements of the Second Law, interpretation of entropy in statistical thermodynamics, and the Third Law.

Albrecht, Andreas. Cosmic Inflation and the Arrow of Time. Barrow, John, et al, eds. Science and Ultimate Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Current speculations on the thermodynamic flight of the universe.

Andresen, Bjarne. Joint European Thermodynamics Conference 10. Journal of Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics. 35/3, 2010. An Introduction to a special issue of papers from this biannual conference held at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, June 2009. This discipline springs from the lifetime corpus of Ilya Prigogine and colleagues to articulate proper theoretical explanation for open, dynamic living systems that can break free from the closed second law. A select paper from this issue could be “Physical Foundations of Evolutionary Theory” by Arto Annila and Stanley Salthe.

Attard, Phil. The Second Law of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics. Advances in Chemical Physics. 140/1, 2008. A lengthy treatise by the University of Sydney physicist and author of the 2002 text Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics which avers that dynamic living systems which are by definition open to energy and information flows are so special that they merit an equivalent “second law” to counter Boltzman’s that can aptly convey their progressive increase of complex, sentient order.

The philosophical and conceptual ramifications of the non-equilibrium Second Law are very deep. Whereas the equilibrium Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that order decreases over time, the non-equilibrium Second Law of Thermodynamics explains how it is possible that order can be induced and how it can increase over time. The question is of course of some relevance to the creation and evolution of life, society, and the environment. (83) Whilst one can argue about the mathematical analysis and physical interpretation of these studies, there is little doubt that the broad picture that emerges is consistent with the non-equilibrium Second Law. At its simplest, the argument is that life exists on the energy gradient provided by the sun. (84)

Aunger, Robert. Major Transitions in ‘Big’ History. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 74/8, 2007. In a similar approach to Eric Chaisson and Fred Spier, (search) a London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine anthropologist proposes to cast cosmic to cultural evolution in terms of an intensifying, constructive energy usage. See also a companion paper in the same issue “A Rigorous Periodization of ‘Big” History.”

‘Big’ history treats events between the Big Bang and contemporary technological life on Earth as a single narrative, suggesting that cosmological, biological and social processes can be treated similarly. An obvious trend in big history is the development of increasingly complex systems. This implies that the degree to which historical systems have deviated from thermodynamic equilibrium has increased over time. Recent theory suggests that step-wise changes in the work accomplished by a system can be explained using steady-state non-equilibrium thermodynamics. This paper argues that significant macro-historical events can therefore be characterized as transitions to steady states exhibiting persistently higher levels of thermodynamic disequilibrium which result in observably novel kinds or levels of organisation. Further, non-equilibrium thermodynamics suggests that such transitions should have particular temporal structures, beginning with sustainable energy innovations which result in novelties in organisation and in control mechanisms for maintaining the new organisation against energy fluctuations. Big history thus obeys law-like processes, resulting in a common pattern of major transitions between steady-state historical regimes. (1137)

Avery, John. Information Theory and Evolution. River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 2003. A biologist views life’s evolution as an open thermodynamic system infused by solar energy which drives it toward greater complexity. As a result, its main parameter is seen as an increase in semiotic information from genetic molecules to language and on to a global culture now able to take over this process.

It seems probable that thermodynamic information derived from free energy was the driving force behind the origin of life. This is the “general law” which Darwin guessed might someday be shown to underlie the principle of life. All of the information contained in the complex, beautiful, and statistically unlikely structures which are so characteristic of living organisms can be seen as having been distilled from the enormous flood of thermodynamic information which reaches the earth in the form of sunlight. (ix)

Ballesteros, Fernando, et al. On the Thermodynamics Origin of Metabolic Scaling. Nature Scientific Reports. 8/1448, 2018. University of Valencia, Spain complexity scientists including Andres Moya, along with Lucas Lacasa, Queen Mary University, London attempt to resolve of issues over how to quantify life’s energetic basis across small and large animals by way of thermodynamic theories.

Boon, Jean Pierre and Constantio Tsallis. Nonextensive Statistical Mechanics: New Trends, New Perspectives. Europhysics News. 36/6, 2005. Université Libre de Bruxelles, and Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Fisicas physicists introduce a review issue on Tsallis’ theories. Among entries are Extensivity and Entropy by Tsallis, Murray Gell-Mann, and Yuzuru Sato, Complexity of Seismicity and Nonextensive Statistics by Sumiyoshi Abe, et al, Nonextensive Statistical Mechanics and Complex Scale-Free Networks by Stefan Thurner (search) along with papers about cosmic, quantum, neural, and economic applications.

Branscomb, Elbert, et al. Escapement Mechanisms and the Conversion of Diswquilibria: The Engines of Creation. Physics Reports. Vol. 677, 2017. Senior scientists Branscomb, Tommaso Biancalani, and Nigel Goldenfeld, University of Illinois, and Michael Russell, JPL, each also with NASA Astrobiology Institute, advance theoretical understandings of the dynamic forces and agencies which are found to impel and form malleable matter into increasingly animate stages. Although in abstract terms, in translation what is being credibly quantified by our human observance is an innately organic milieu which evolves and develops by its own vital propensities.

Virtually every interesting natural phenomenon, not least life itself, entails physical systems being forced to flow thermodynamically up-hill, away from equilibrium rather than towards it. All organized and dynamic elements of creation, from the galactic to the atomic, can be viewed as powered by, or being the result of, engines of disequilibria conversion; each a link in a great hierarchical cascade of conversions. We attempt here to describe and justify what we assert is the correct alternative view of how phenomena are powered in nature, focusing especially on the molecular-level conversion processes (often called “energy conserving”) that power life and that must, then acting in an entirely abiotic context, have driven it first into being. (Abstract excerpt)

It is our position that the emergence of life and the emergence of “bioenergetics” as here understood, are an indivisible continuity and that life’s fraught emergence is a story within the story just told. One, that is, in which the essential enabling events in the transition from inanimate to animate organizations of matter involved the abiotic conversion of geophysically and geochemically-supplied disequilibria into the prerequisite founding disequilibria of life. There were necessarily particular conversions; specific as to the driver and driven process pairs being inter-converted, and specific as to the chemical, mineralogical, and physical properties of the environment in which the conversions were taking place. (41-42)

Buchanan, Mark. Dissipate to Replicate. Nature Physics. February, 2015. An introduction to a section on cross-fertilizations of non-equilibrium thermodynamics with living system theory, such as reproductive behavior. Typical papers are Diverse Phenomena, Common Themes by Christopher Jarzynski, Quantum Many-Body Systems Out of Equilibrium by Jens Eisert, et al, and Thermodynamics of Information by Juan Parrondo. The mid 2010s reintegration of life and cosmos proceeds apace as we learn how these dual aspects of ground and genesis are ever more akin to each other.

Buiatti, Marcello, et al. The Living State of Matter. Gell-Mann, Murray and Constantino Tsallis, eds. Nonextensive Entropy – Interdisciplinary Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The next quote is an example of our conceptual dilemma over what kind of universe we are in. Although about a new thermodynamics for self-organized viability, this chapter and the whole book labors within the old model where life and its evolution remains an “anomalous” exception in an otherwise moribund cosmos.

The living state of matter, while obviously obeying physical and chemical laws, does exhibit some peculiar features which taken altogether, distinguish it from the rest of the natural world. ….these include, among others, hierarchical organization, individuality, invention, and homeostasis. (221)

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