Entropy: The Direction Of Time
Imagine you are watching a movie with a car chase scene. The driver of one car rolls out just before his automobile plunges headlong over a cliff, and the car smashes against rocks as it tumbles down, breaking into pieces and finally exploding. You can easily tell whether the film is run forward or backward. If you ran it backward, you would see an explosion produce a broken and dented automobile, broken pieces jumping back into place, dents coming smooth as the car collides with rock on its way back up the cliff, and a man rolling into the backward speeding car. You can tell the film is being run backward because such behavior is never observed in real life. We do not see exploded and broken pieces produce cars as they fly up a cliff because it is forbidden by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. An intact automobile is a highly ordered piece of machinery, but exploded pieces of metal and plastic are a highly disordered state. One can readily go from the car traveling on the highway in the past to the pieces of metal, glass, and plastic at the bottom of the cliff in the future, but not the other way around. Therefore, as nuclear physicist Stephen Hawking points out, "time" is actually defined as the "direction" in which entropy or disorder increases.1
We psychologically understand "time" because it is the direction in which entropy increases. In the future our bodies grow old and our organs decay. In the past our bodies were young and their parts were supple and resilient. There is no going back in time because there is no going back to reduced entropy according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the curse of decay (death)!
When Adam revolted against his Creator, God told him he would decay. "For you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3: 19). The Hebrew word "Adam" means a morsel of red dust. In fact, we know that both man and dust are comprised of moisture, hydrocarbons, salts or their elemental constituents (calcium, sodium, potassium, etc), trace metals (e.g., iron), and nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. Platelets of clay soils actually contain water molecules that are part of the clay structure. They are called "structural water" by soil scientists and are present in the clay even in the driest of conditions.
Consequently, if you took enough dust you'd have all the building blocks for all the compounds needed to make a human. The only difference is that humans are highly complex, ordered accumulations of chemicals while dust is a very simple, dispersed, and disordered accumulation of chemicals. We are indeed "dust." Materially, we are just an accumulation of soil chemicals, walking bags of enzymes and proteins, bags of chemicals that are unwinding and breaking apart - decaying eventually into dust! God, who created incredibly ordered molecules and body parts out of dispersed dust to make humans, initiated the Second Law of Thermodynamics when He said, "To dust you shall return." Returning to dust means decaying, dying, and further decaying to a peak of disorder.
The world is humanity's delegated responsibility; therefore a curse on humans affects the whole world. Decay of the original order is observed by scientists as the law of increasing entropy (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). Peter W. Atkins, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Oxford, writes the principle this way in his book, The Second Law, "The deep structure of change is decay. At root there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos."2
Decay-Why We Have It
Yet long before science had ever thought of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the prophets of old understood the curse of decay. The Bible not only points out the fact of decay, but it tells why we have decayÃ¢â‚¬â€œsomething science could never do. To "make things happen" in the face of natural decay, disorder and corruption requires effort; "toil," "the sweat of your face" (Gen. 3: 17,19).
To write this article, for instance, I must exert effort to research the subject, check the logic, form the thoughts into sentences, and organize the sentences and paragraphs. I must be sensitive to spelling errors, typographical errors, and semantic "noise." It takes work to communicate ideas. If I applied no effort, the words and letters of this article would be nonsense; totally disorganized. Without design and organization we are left with chaos - increasing entropy.
The same is true for any other human enterprise. Those who are most successful in this world have discovered the secret of working. They have caught hold of a fundamental truth concerning the situation we are in as creatures. Everything about us naturally unwinds; we must constantly work in order to "wind things up" and keep them "wound up." This constant effort to "wind things up" is a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; the curse of disorder, decay and death upon the whole creation because of sin.
According to the First Law of Thermodynamics (and to the Bible), God left a fixed amount of energy (the created order). Then the Second Law tells us that as this fixed amount of energy changes forms, it becomes more disordered. Whenever energy is consumed to generate power or to make products, there is an overall increase of disorder. The fixed amount of energy always decays. And the energy decays even without our manipulating it, because energy is always changing forms. Energy from the sun, for instance, initiates chemical reactions in which the net effect is decay. The genetic program of photosynthesis in plants to produce complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from less complex nutrients is always outbalanced by decay in the sun's energy.
Consider an article of clothing. As it is used, it eventually becomes threadbare and worn out. The garment loses its "newness" as it deteriorates in compliance with the Second Law. Though it is cleaned and restored, it cannot maintain its original condition. Old clothes are easily distinguished from new ones. Colors fade. The fibers lose their strength and resiliency as the chemical bonds in the fibers' polymer chains break apart. And the fabric structure (how those fibers are assembled together) unwinds and loses its organization.3 These decay processes march on with relentless determination. Eventually the garment reaches a state of maximum disorder when it has degenerated into dust. The fundamental principles of textile decay represent both the increasing micro- and macro-molecular disorganization that governs all varieties of decay according to the Second Law.
Thermodynamics and the Bible
The Bible proves its grasp on truth because it said long before thermodynamics was even a word that the whole of creation is locked in the grip of decay. "Of old Thou didst found the earth; and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed" (Ps. 102:25-26, emphasis added). "Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in like manner, but My salvation shall be forever, and My righteousness shall not wane" (Isa. 51:6, emphasis added).
Fundamental decay and corruption are basic to biblical doctrines. Orthodox Christianity and Judaism have always taught that we live in a world fallen from grace because of sin. The world is under a curse of death; separated from God's eternal life-sustaining support. Therefore the whole of creation is headed toward disorder and disintegration. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35, Mk. 13:31, Lk. 21:33). "The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away" (Isa. 24:4). "The world is passing away, and also its lusts" (1 In. 2: 17). "For the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor.7:31).
Other religions, by the way, are founded upon a much more superficial observation of our world, one regarding the seasons. They speak in terms of cycles of reincarnation. They have not grasped the curse of decay, claiming that the creation itself is eternal. However, the underlying truth is different. The fundamental tendency of events underlying seasonal cycles actually proceeds toward increasing randomness, chaos, and corruption. The underlying observed phenomenon is the Second Law of Thermodynamics; "...the deep structure of change is decay..."
The work of Ludwig Boltzmann ( 1844-1906) showed that entropy is directly related to dispersal at the submicroscopic level. His work began the concept of statistical entropy, which is the foundation of probability theory. Boltzmann's major contribution to science is the Boltzmann equation, S=klogW (which is the epitaph on his tombstone). In this equation, S = entropy, k = constant of proportionality (the Boltzmann constant), log = the natural logarithm, and W = extent of dispersal, of chaos. W is a number corresponding to how many ways a system can be arranged without an external observer being aware that rearrangements have occurred; the more chaotic the system, the higher the number. Therefore as W increases, S increases. S=klogW describes the dispersal of energy transferred from particle to particle in addition to describing the dispersal of energy by the particles themselves spreading and mingling. The power of the Boltzmann equation is that it enumerates corruption in all its physical forms, down to the submicroscopic level.
The Boltzmann equation is intimately related to probability. Because there are so many more possible rearrangements of particles in a chaotic system compared to a highly ordered system, the more chaotic states are far more probable. And natural change proceeds in the direction of ever-increasing states of probability. Since the states of increasing probability correspond to states of ever-increasing chaos, natural change corresponds to ever-increasing chaos! Disorder, decay, and corruption naturally increase because they have greatest probability. This is why we must constantly work, applying intelligence and effort, to overcome chaos in a creation under the curse of sin. Natural processes are those that accompany a dispersal of energy; a corruption of the quality of energy. Natural processes (those that have greatest probability) represent collapse into chaos.
If the genetic structure of a living thing is randomly rearranged through radiation or chemical contact, etc., the rearrangement produces increased disorder per the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The original intricate complexity is degraded. Because of entropy, genetic mutations result in imperfections and less functionality in living things. And, in fact, experiments irradiating fruit flies yield deformed, damaged flies every time, not flies with improved wings, etc. An undesigned rearrangement of complexity results in greater disorder per the Boltzmann Equation. Because of the incredible initial complexity of genetic information, a chance mutation that produces significant increased order and complexity becomes so improbable as to be impossible. Calculating the probability of such an occurrence in even the most elementary living things would yield such ridiculous probabilities as to be laughable.
Modern evolutionary theory assumes that major increases in complexity occurred countless times through mutation to produce the myriad forms of life we see on earth. Yet you can't randomly manipulate pieces in a l000-piece jigsaw puzzle and expect to construct a more ordered arrangement. There is only one way you can assemble it to put together the picture, but many, many ways to assemble a disordered arrangement. The more disordered the arrangement, the more ways the pieces can be jumbled together. If you dropped the pieces on the floor you would have one of the totally disordered situations because they are the most probable. If this happens with a 1000-piece puzzle, why would you expect to add order by random change to genetic puzzles with millions of bits of information? Mutations are, in fact, part of the death process of entropy. They cause species to die out, not become more complex. With time, genetic mutations create a genetically undesirable load that eventually halts the species' ability to replicate.
Now, let's assume that the curse of relentless decay is lifted; that the law of increasing entropy is repealed; that we have "new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13). (The new heaven and earth will be necessary because the present one is running down, increasing in entropy per the Second Law; dying.) In such a case, time in its present definition would no longer exist.
Correlating time with the curse of increasing decay offers another of many evidences that the Bible is God's revelation. In the last chapter of the Old Testament book of Daniel, speaking of the culmination of the age, the prophet uses the words, "until the end of time" (Dan. 12:4,9, emphasis added). In other words, until time itself ceases. At the end of the Bible, in John's visions of the new heaven and earth, these statements are made:
"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, ...And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, '...and there shall no longer be any death"' (Rev. 21:1,3,4); "And there shall no longer be any curse" (Rev. 22:3, emphasis added). This outcome must be the case if we are to have eternal life. In eternity we shall be immortal, which means death and its process are removed ("Then will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory"' [I Cor. 15:54]). In other words, in separate parts of God's revelation, written hundreds of years apart, an amazingly accurate and complete idea is presented. The removal of the curse of death and decay coincides with the cessation of time! Time itself is directly related with the curse of decay. Long before modem thermodynamic theory the Bible presented the thermodynamic concept of time.
Such a "thermodynamic" understanding of time written more than 2000 years ago could only be revelation. If the Bible is accurate about such an abstract concept as entropy, including its intimate connection with time, we should seriously examine what it says about other things, especially about how each of us personally can escape the problem of increasing entropy.
Probability and the Rate of Change
Not only is the direction of natural change described by the movement toward disorder in ever increasing states of probability, but the rate at which that change occurs is also described by probability, which, as we've seen, is tied to statistical entropy. Here again entropy and time are intertwined. An extremely useful scientific relationship is the Boltzmann Distribution, also known as the Boltzmann Probability. As with the Boltzmann Equation, Ludwig Boltzmann derived his distribution while studying gases. A gas is a cloud of randomly moving particles dashing chaotically in all directions, colliding with each other and bouncing off whatever they strike. The terms "gas" and "chaos," in fact, derive from the same Greek word. In his study of gases, Boltzmann realized that the rate at which chaotic arrangements were produced increased with increasing temperature, because the speed at which the gas molecules vibrated and moved increased with temperature. Molecules vibrate and move more or less quickly depending on whether they are hot or cold. With higher temperatures molecules move and spread at a greater rate.
As molecules speed up, they collide with each other at a greater rate. And if when the molecules collide there is a chemical reaction, then the chemical reaction rate is increased with the increasing temperature. In his doctoral dissertation, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius applied the Boltzmann Probability to describe the rates of chemical reactions. His professors were so skeptical of his work, they granted him a pass of the lowest rank. Years later Arrhenius was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry because it turned out that his discovery was so widely applicable, useful, and fundamental.
Not only is this true for rates of chemical reactions, but in general the rate of change corresponds to the probability of change. A very high probability of certain changes taking place means a very high rate at which that change will occur.
Assume someone wants to drive across a traffic intersection without looking to see if there is any on coming traffic. If it is a very busy intersection with many cars moving very fast, the probability is very high that there will be a collision. The rate of change for the car to become a wreck is very fast. If there are very few cars and the cars are moving slowly through the intersection, the probability is low that there will be a collision, and the rate of change for the car becoming a wreck is slow. If many people try to run the intersection without looking, you can easily imagine that the busy intersection will produce many more smashed cars much more quickly than will the slow intersection. Thus the rate of change for the cars is directly related to the probability of collision.
Engineers can plot failure times in terms of Probability Density Functions (pdf's), applying statistical entropy to failure prediction. PDF curves are variations of the normal distribution (the bell curve).
One industry where process failures can lead to monumental catastrophes is the nuclear power industry. Even a trivial incident can set off frightening problems. Therefore, to prevent accidents, engineers have spent decades designing special safety systems including backup power units, redundant electrical wiring and piping, emergency core cooling systems, secondary containment structures, etc. Analysts study accident scenarios and failure probabilities of key components, estimate safety margins, and develop overall estimates of risk. They use mathematical models based on probability theory known as "probabilistic risk assessment."
Government sponsored assessments in the United States and Germany say that core-damaging accidents in nuclear reactors should occur once every 10,000 years of reactor operation.4 With approximately 500 nuclear plants in operation worldwide, there would be one core-damaging accident every 20 years (10,000 reactor-years/500 reactors). After the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979, a study by Oakridge National Laboratory in 1982 raised the risk rate to once in 4000 reactor-years. Considering that the Three Mile Island accident occurred after just 1500 years of worldwide reactor operation, while the much more catastrophic
Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 1986 occurred after only another 1900 years of worldwide reactor operation, core-damaging accidents have indeed occurred at a much higher rate.5 Scientists in Sweden and Germany have used the data to estimate a 70% probability that another such accident will occur in a 5.4 year period. Once again probability (proportional to entropy) is directly linked to time.
The curse of decay is a troubling and frustrating fact of life. Life itself is a miracle because creation of extreme order and complexity is infinitely improbable in a universe captive to increasing entropy. The probabilities of water turning into wine, of dysfunctional blind eyes suddenly beginning to see, of water molecules becoming dense enough to support a man's weight, of a few loaves and fishes being extended to feed thousands of people, of there being absolutely no fish on one side of a small boat but huge concentrations of fish spontaneously on the other side of the boat, of people who've been dead for days being brought back to life, etc., are infinitely small. These miracles of Jesus are miracles precisely because they are so remotely improbable as to place them outside of human experience.
That genuine miracles have been and are possible through Jesus Christ is a proof of His divinity. The argument (in modern terms) goes like this. If God does not exist, then true miracles are impossible since there's no way to get through the infinitely remote probabilities associated with the statistical entropy controlling the universe. The universe is all there is. If true miracles are possible, then God exists, because God (by definition) is not confined to the laws of the universe. The purpose of Christ's miracles was to point us to the Savior, Jesus Christ, since we all intuitively understand the argument. "Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed
in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (In. 20:30,31).
Yet rather than make the straight-forward conclusion that God must have wound things up in the beginning so that they could begin to unwind, humans reveal their natural bias and rebellion against God by suggesting that the universe goes through alternating cycles of increasing and decreasing entropy. This is the position of Hawking in his book A Brief History of Time. Certainly there will be some repeal of the present law of entropy in "the new heaven and the new earth." But apart from biblical revelation, this is materialistic conjecture at its highest, and should not be masqueraded as science. We have absolutely no evidence or experience of reverse entropy. The data undeniably demonstrate that the direction of change is decay, corruption, disorder and chaos; not order. And this direction defines time for us. As we have noted, the biblical revelation confirms these scientific observations. BSN
1. Hawking, S. W., A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1988).
2. Atkins, P. W., The Second Law (New York: Scientific American Library, Scientific American Books, 1984), p. 200.
3. Rebenfield, L., "Chemical and Physical Structure of Fibers in Relation to the Durability of Geotextiles, " Durability and Aging Conference Proceedings (Philadelphia: Geosynthetic Research Institute, 1988).
4. Flavin, C., "Nuclear Safety After Chernobyl," Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 21, No.7 (1987).
Mark Cadwallader; former director of research and technical development for Gundle Lining Systems, Houston, now works as an independent consultant. Mark holds an M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston, has authored nearly 40 papers on toxic waste containment, and has testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Hazardous Materials.