The relentless drive of the stars, the galaxies, and nebula over the cosmic ages is this. Any closed system goes from order to disorder. That is the basics of the second law of thermodynamics. In time, a sand castle on a beach will deteriorate into a pile of sand. The sand castle is order, but the pile is disorder, and the future of the universe is about disorder.
Imagine that you could live for unimaginable expanses of time, and that you were immortal. You would live on and on and on just so that you could see the entirety of the universe over this cosmic time scale.
What you would see over those trillions and trillions of years is how the stars and galaxies all winked out, became dark, and were lost. You would look up at the sky, and they would all go out, one by one, until the night sky was an impenetrable dark nothing.
The celestial objects’ deaths may be spectacular, and may last for millennia or many thousands of millennia. They would dwarf any phenomena in the universe for a moment, but no matter if they died in a pretty cosmic explosion or a silent whimper, the process is the same: chemistry and physics works on matter, and the matter release heat. At some point in the future, there will be no more matter to convert, and everything in the universe will be photons and leptons hovering at slightly above the absolute freezing point.
The silence has fallen then, and the entirety of the universe would linger on in a state of total disorder. The universe would be inert, and it would be dead. If there is a fundamental, penultimate fate of the universe, it is this one.
All other laws of physics will remain, but there will be nothing left for those forces to work on: everything from gravity to the nuclear forces, to the Higgs fields are slaves to that second law of thermodynamics. And so are human beings, even on the scale of one human life.
On that scale of time between the birth and death of stars and galaxies, life has existed on earth for a part of the time. The sun is at least a second generation star, maybe a third. There is no way of knowing anything except that it is not a first generation star. We know this because the nuclear fusion of stars can’t create some of the materials that the sun has. It must have formed from clouds of gas and matter left by another star that have become at least a red giant where the pressure and temperature are so high that these heavier elements form.
When the planets, and Earth formed about four and a half billion years ago, it took “only” a billion years for life to start emerging. By now we’re actually in the end time of the window when life is possible on Earth. We’re in the last quarter of life sustainability on Earth. In about a billion years the sun will start to grow as it enters the next phase of its life, as a red giant. When that happens, the Earth will be a scorched inhospitable rock.
The sun will live on after that for another two or three billion years until it will shed most of its matter in a giant explosion that will form the seed for the next generation of stars. The cycle of star birth and star death will begin all over again, just like with everything. But of all the stars in the universe, the sun is – as far as we know – unique in that the solar system contains life.
That life is a slave under the same processes as the stars. The second law of thermodynamics rule even there, but unlike rocks and stars and asteroids and meteorites, life has agency. Life has will. And that will could be said to rebel against the tyranny of thermodynamics.
Hidden in every cell of the human body there is a protein acid called Telomerase. What this protein does is that it functions as the book ends of the DNA double helix. The protein protects DNA from decay when the cell divides. Without it, the DNA would unravel, and that would be bad.
Like the sand castle I talked about before, the forces of the second law of thermodynamics is at work to bring this ordered structure into disorder, and over time this protection is weakened and ruined. At some point, the protein ceases to work as it should, and reduces the double helix into the disordered sand pile. Or it allow for cancer.
Telomerase is just one example which show that we are all biological machines that ultimately serve the second law of thermodynamics, just like all other forms of life. While other forms of matter convert energy through chemical reactions, life specifically converts energy to heat by breaking down the complex into the simple, by reducing the sand castles to piles of sand grains.
Don’t believe me? Wait for an evening and make sure that you wear heat sensing goggles, and put them on. Then see all forms of life around you, and you will see that life radiates heat out to the universe. Plants, insects, animals, and humans are like furnaces in the night throwing out cascades of heat. Where does that energy go? Nowhere. It just becomes photons and leptons that bounce around the universe.
Our biology, and the chemistry that run that biology, takes nutrients and matter and convert it to body temperature which is cast out. The nutrients and the inert matter is ordered, and the heat is disordered. We are disorder generating forces; every one of us. That’s why is it a bit amusing that like in a teenage rebellion against the iron rule of that second law, our aim is always to create order out of chaos.
The common purpose in that walking archipelago of cells that have formed, refined, and reshaped over thousands of millennia into a human being abhor chaos, and strive to create order. Chemistry itself, which converts energy, has become so self-aware that it wants to defeat its own nature.
We take the sand I talked about in the former segment, and we build the sand-castle. We take disorder and shape it into order. We create structure. We rebel against life’s functional chaotic purpose.
Humans have built philosophies and cults and religions to expunge our chaotic potential, that which is at the heart of our relentless chemical drive to convert energy. Our need to eat, our need for warmth, and our need for offspring is at the core just our chemical imperative to work on that sand castle and cut it to rubble.
The skies were populated with gods, the tree groves were filled with ancestors, and the bear and the lion and the buffalo became avatars of the order that the cells immutably and unconsciously need to achieve. Counter cults decried that and constructed philosophies for harmonisation with nature, or for destruction of order.
Since the age of Enlightenment we have slowly replaced the gods and the ancestors and the avatars with maths, chemistry, physics and reason. We’re not there yet, as much of our societies still cling to the mythologies. But even as we replace our gods with our science, the purpose does not change. We are still after the same goal, to create order out of chaos. It is just that we’ve found better tools in science than we ever had in religion.
The lonely hair follicle still joins with the white blood cell and the neuron to jointly shape and bend the universe on the arc toward the opposite of its nature. In a way it seems mythological on its own, this drive of life toward order against its own nature. The cells do not have minds, and they do not have will, but joined they do. The many billions of cells in each body becomes one, and that one is more than the sum of its parts as it is self-aware.
Sometimes I have this sense that the hammer and anvil of evolution necessarily creates, without purpose or plan, the conditions of minds to be born, and intelligence. Humans are only one example. There are other intelligences, even here on Earth. Evolution often creates redundancies with minute differences between the separate species.
The iron rule of the second law of thermodynamics creates the foundations for the start of life. That life, obeying the iron rule of the second law of thermodynamics, creates the foundation for the birth of self-awareness. That self-awareness rebel against the iron law of thermodynamics because life strives to keep itself.
Four billion years ago life was mono-cellular organisms, the primordial soup. Today life on Earth has achieved intelligence that can recognise the laws of thermodynamics and can see how iron-clad they are. This life has both self-awareness and intelligence, and with the drive of all life for self-preservation, our agency is to bring order to the cosmos.
It’s in our nature to do so, because that is what we always have done. Our agency is against our purpose as energy converters. To bridge the conflict, we have constructed all these theories and philosophies and religions that will either excuse our function or coerce our agency. An individual’s dreams and desires have little meaning in a cosmological time-scale, and one has to talk about functions instead of ‘desire’. But on that cosmological time scale maybe you can look at the derivative of ‘life’ and the functions that govern it. The second law of thermodynamics is one of those functions, but so is a function to describe life’s intention of preserving itself.
And there’s the thought that made me write these many words – could the preservation of life, in the end, through evolutions harsh process at the end of the window of life here on Earth make it so that life broke with the second law of thermodynamics? And what on earth would that mean for the cosmology of this universe. Could there ever be an agency of life so vast as to nullify it?