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Bluff Your Way in the Second Law Of

Bluff Your Way in the Second Law Of

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Published by: catalin on Aug 07, 2010
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Bluff your way in the Second Law of Thermodynamics
 Jos UffinkDepartment of History and Foundations of ScienceUtrecht University, P.O.Box 80.000, 3508 TA Utrecht, The Netherlandse-mail: uffink@phys.uu.nl5th July 2001
The aim of this article is to analyse the relation between the second law of thermodynamics and the so-called arrow of time. For this purpose, a numberof different aspects in this arrow of time are distinguished, in particular those of time-(a)symmetry and of (ir)reversibility. Next I review versions of the secondlaw in the work of Carnot, Clausius, Kelvin, Planck, Gibbs, Carath´eodory andLieb and Yngvason, and investigate their connection with these aspects of thearrow of time. It is shown that this connection varies a great deal along withthese formulations of the second law. According to the famous formulation byPlanck, the second law expresses the irreversibility of natural processes. But inmany other formulations irreversibility or even time-asymmetry plays no role.I therefore argue for the view that the second law has nothing to do with thearrow of time.K
: Thermodynamics, Second Law, Irreversibility, Time-asymmetry,Arrow of Time.
1 I
There is a famous lecture by the British physicist/novelist C. P. Snow about the cul-tural abyss between two types of intellectuals: those who have been educated inliterary arts and those in the exact sciences. This lecture,
the Two Cultures
(1959),characterises the lack of mutual respect between them in a passage:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by thestandards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have
with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of sci-entists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company howmanyofthemcoulddescribetheSecondLawofThermodynamics. Theresponsewas cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about theequivalent of:
have you read a work of Shakespeare
Snow stands up for the view that exact science is, in its own right, an essential partof civilisation, and should not merely be valued for its technological applications.Anyone who does not know the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and is proud of ittoo, exposes oneself as a Philistine.Snow’s plea will strike a chord with every physicist who has ever attended a birthday party. But his call for cultural recognition creates obligations too. Beforeone can claim that acquaintance with the Second Law is as indispensable to a culturaleducationas
, itshouldobviouslybeclearwhatthislawstates. Thisquestion is surprisingly difficult.The Second Law made its appearance in physics around 1850, but a half centurylater it was already surrounded by so much confusion that the
British Association forthe Advancement of Science
decided to appoint a special committee with the task of providing clarity about the meaning of this law. However, its final report (Bryan1891) did not settle the issue. Half a century later, the physicist/philosopher Bridg-man still complained that there are almost as many formulations of the second lawas there have been discussions of it (Bridgman 1941, p. 116). And even today, the Sec-ond Law remains so obscure that it continues to attract new efforts at clarification. Arecent example is the work of Lieb and Yngvason (1999).This manifest inability of the physical community to reach consensus about theformulation and meaning of a respectable physical law is truly remarkable. If Snow’squestion had been: ‘Can you describe the Second Law of Newtonian Mechanics?’physicists would not have any problem in producing a unanimous answer. The ideaof installing a committee for this purpose would be just ridiculous.A common and preliminary description of the Second Law is that it guaranteesthat all physical systems in thermal equilibrium can be characterized by a quantitycalled entropy, and that this entropy cannot decrease in any process in which thesystem remains adiabatically isolated, i.e. shielded from heat exchange with its envi-ronment. But the law has many faces and interpretations; the comparison to a work2
of Shakespeare is, in this respect, not inappropriate.
One of the most frequently dis-cussed aspects of the Second Law is its relation with the ‘arrow of time’. In fact, inmany texts in philosophy of physics the Second Law figures as an emblem of thisarrow. The idea is, roughly, that typical thermodynamical processes are irreversible,i.e. they can only occur in one sense only, and that this is relevant for the distinction between past and future.At first sight, the Second Law is indeed relevant for this arrow. If the entropycan only increase during a thermodynamical process, then obviously, a reversal of this process is not possible. Many authors believe this is a crucial feature, if not thevery essence of the Second Law. Planck, for example, claimed that, were it not forthe existence of irreversible processes, ‘the entire edifice of the second law wouldcrumble [...] and theoretical work would have to start from the beginning.’ (Planck1897,
113), and viewed entropy increase as a ‘universal measure of irreversibility’(ibid.
134). A similar view is expressed by Sklar in his recent book on the foun-dations of statistical mechanics (1993, p. 21): ‘The crucial fact needed to justify theintroduction of [...] a definite entropy value is the irreversibility of physical pro-cesses.’In this respect, thermodynamics seems to stand in sharp contrast with the rest of classical physics, in particular with mechanics which, at least in Hamilton’s formu-lation, is symmetric under time reversal. The problem of reconciling this thermody-namical arrow of time with a mechanical world picture is usually seen as the mostprofound problem in the foundations of thermal and statistical physics; see Davies(1974), Mackey (1992), Zeh (1992), Sklar (1993) and Price (1996).However, this is only one of many problems awaiting a student of the SecondLaw. There are also authors expressing the opposite viewpoint. Bridgman writes:
Itisalmostalwaysemphasizedthatthermodynamicsisconcernedwithreversibleprocesses and equilibrium states and that it can have nothing to do with irre-versible processes or systems out of equilibrium ...(Bridgman 1941, p. 133)
It is not easy to square this view, —and the fact that Bridgman presents it as prevail-ing among thermodynamicistswith the idea that irreversibility is essential to theSecond Law.Indeed, one can find other authors maintaining that the Second Law has littleto do with irreversibility or the arrow of time; in particular Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa,
Actually, inthesecondeditionof 
The TwoCultures
, SnowexpressedregretforcomparingtheSecondLaw to a work of Shakespeare, due to the formidable conceptual problems connected with the former.

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