The first law of thermodynamics say that energy can only be converted, it can never be created or destroyed. The energy that was with us at the big bang is the energy we have now. All of it. Every single joule, and not one joule less or one joule more. Energy can only be converted, not destroyed or created.

wondersoflifeThe second law of thermodynamics say that energy tends to be converted from the ordered to the disordered. What this means is that energy of say star-light is highly ordered and potent, but reflected heat is diffuse and disordered. The universe takes light, and turns it into heat. It takes order, and returns disorder. The heat dissipates, spreads, reaches equilibrium with the rest of the environment. It’s gone as a useful form of energy and reaches an equilibrium of entropy.

Think about it, the energetic inner life of stars is reflected from the sand after a hot day. The burning of fuel in the cells in a creature on this planet is irradiated into thin air. Energy can’t be destroyed or created, but it can be converted, spent. Become more inert. That is the essence of entropy, I suppose; everything is striving toward disordered equilibrium.

One day the stars will wink out, the galaxies will fade, the black holes will contract, the entirety of the universe will reach this equilibrium where there is only the inert energy of heat left, which can’t really be used for anything because life is about converting the ordered energies into the disordered one. Whether there is dark matter or not, whether the universe will contract or not, may be immaterial because the energy in it will have become disordered heat.

At least that is a strong undercurrent in this book where Professor Brian Cox of Manchester presents. This wonderful book “Wonders of Life” where he takes a hard look at nature, and not from the point of view of a biologist or ecologist, but as a physicist.

Cox’s interest is the chemistry and physics of life rather than in the behaviour of it. Here the universal physical laws acting through life is explored. It is about how life is subject to the very same physical laws that govern the bodies of his normal realm, the stars and the galaxies and the cosmos.

And what is the agency of life but the application of energy conversion as said in the laws of thermodynamics? What is living but the complex interaction of simple chemical reactions coordinated to convert energy more efficiently? Everything from exploiting the photon gradients by the  mitochondria of our cells, to the cyanobacteria, to the trees and the birds and the blue whales work the same way on the cellular level; using chemical proton imbalances in order to extract energy and convert it to heat.

Sometimes you get books that make you go ‘wow!’, and this is one such book. It is beautifully written, and has a companion BBC series with the usual lavishness that the Beeb spends on this sort of programming. I highly recommend it, both the book and the series.

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