The Sciences

From Eternity to Book Club: Chapter Nine

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMar 9, 2010 12:41 PM


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Welcome to this week's installment of the From Eternity to Herebook club. Now for something of a palate-cleanser, in the form of Chapter Nine, "Information and Life." Excerpt:

Schrödinger’s idea captures something important about what distinguishes life from non-life. In the back of his mind, he was certainly thinking of Clausius’s version of the Second Law: objects in thermal contact evolve toward a common temperature (thermal equilibrium). If we put an ice cube in a glass of warm water, the ice cube melts fairly quickly. Even if the two objects are made of very different substances—say, if we put a plastic “ice cube” in a glass of water—they will still come to the same temperature. More generally, nonliving physical objects tend to wind down and come to rest. A rock may roll down a hill during an avalanche, but before too long it will reach the bottom, dissipate energy through the creation of noise and heat, and come to a complete halt before very long. Schrödinger’s point is simply that, for living organisms, this process of coming to rest can take much longer, or even be put off indefinitely. Imagine that, instead of an ice cube, we put a goldfish into our glass of water. Unlike the ice cube (whether water or plastic), the goldfish will not simply equilibrate with the water—at least, not within a few minutes or even hours. It will stay alive, doing something, swimming, exchanging material with its environment. If it’s put into a lake or a fish tank where food is available, it will keep going for much longer.

This chapter starts with something very important: the relationship between entropy and memory. Namely, the reason why we can "remember" the past and not the future is that the past features a low-entropy boundary condition, while the future does not. I don't go into great detail about this, and we certainly don't talk very specifically about how real memories are formed in the brain, or even in a computer. But when we get to the next chapter, about recurrences and Boltzmann brains, it will be crucial to understand how the assumption of a low-entropy boundary condition enables us to reconstruct the past. It's hard for people to wrap their brains around the fact that, without such an assumption, our "memories" or records of the past will generally be unreliable -- knowledge of the current macrostate wouldn't allow us to reconstruct the past any better than it allows us to predict the future. (Which is only logical, since it's only this hypothesis that breaks time-reversal symmetry.) The rest of the chapter, meanwhile, is more about having fun and mentioning some ideas that are not directly related to our story, but certainly play a part in understanding the arrow of time. Information theory, life, complexity. I'm not an expert in any of these fields, but it was a lot of fun reading about them to pick out some things that fit into the broader narrative. The Maxwell's Demon story, in particular, is one that every physicist should know (up through it's relatively modern resolution), but relatively few do. And I think Jason Torchinsky did a great job with the illustrations of the Demon.

A lot of big ideas here, of course, and much of this stuff is still very much in the working-out stage, not the settled-understanding stage. We're still arguing about basic things like the definition of "complexity" and "life." It's relatively easy to state the Second Law and explain how the arrow of time is related to the growth of entropy, but there's a tremendous amount of work still to be done before we completely understand the way in which the universe actually evolves from low entropy to high.

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