How to Resist the Heat Death Implied by the Second Law of Thermodynamics

When I was a young philosophy student I sometimes worried that the Second Law of Thermodynamics ultimately made meaningless all human perseverance toward progress. Physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek gives young philosophers reasons for hope.

(p. C4) The capstone of thermodynamics is its so-called Second Law, . . ., which states that entropy, a measure of disorder, increases over time—distinctive structure erodes. Featureless equilibrium is the state of maximum entropy, toward which the Second Law drives us.

The inexorable logic of the Second Law leads, in the long run, to a bland universe wherein nothing changes—that is, heat death.

. . .

There are several ways that our distant descendants, or other embodiments of mind in the universe, might resist heat death. Here are some ideas that occurred to me . . .:

First, it is probably possible to burn matter further than stars do. Stars rearrange protons and neutrons but do not change their overall number. Burning those particles would give access to hundreds of times more energy. Another (barely) conceivable form of fuel is “dark matter.” At present, nobody knows what it is, but there’s lots of it in the universe.

Second, future engineers also might be able to arrange controlled collisions of planets or dead stars, to tap into the energy the crashes liberate.

Third, future minds themselves might be able to run on very limited power. Recent theoretical work on reversible and quantum computers, and on time crystals, has shown that there’s no lower limit to how little energy they need to keep making progress, or at least to keep moving.

Fourth, since we don’t really understand what triggered the Big Bang, it’s conceivable that someday we’ll be able to engineer something similar, and thereby rejuvenate the universe.

For the full commentary, see:

Frank Wilczek. “WILCZEK’S UNIVERSE; Delaying the Heat Death of The Universe.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 1, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

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