Have we unknowingly evolved to destroy our universe and is our quest for energy efficiency actually putting our far future existence in danger?
Background: Evolving Unavailability
The discussion begain with the German physicist and mathematician Rudolf Clausius’s work “On the Concentration of Rays of Heat and Light, and on the Limits of Its Action” in 1863 and was extended by the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann in 1875.
“The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials — these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available — nor for energy which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat, but a struggle for entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.”
— Ludwig Boltzmann
Boltzmann suggests that lifeforms vie to make use of the “hot sun” to “cold earth” transition, which we can understand in modern parlance as available energy to unavailable energy, or entropy.
Thermodynamics and Entropy
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the total entropy of a closed system¹ must evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium where that equilibrium is the state of its maximum entropy.
A discussion of entropy itself is beyond the scope of this article, but we shall consider it to be a measure of the amount of unavailable energy, or disorder, in the closed system described above.
A common example is to consider a simple, manually powered, potter’s workshop as the closed system. Constructing an elaborate item such as a vase would decrease the entropy of its constituent atoms as it involves rearranging them into a more ordered state. But, the very act of organising these atoms uses energy — some of which has been converted into heat — which cannot go on to be recovered. Thus overall, the entropy, or state of disorder, has increased.
If we consider the universe at large, since the Big Bang, natural processes have evolved continually in order to increase the overall entropy.
It has been forecast by cosmologists that one possible end for the universe is when entropy has been maximised, everything being at the same temperature, and no further work can be performed — and life will cease as there would be no chemical processes to power it. This is referred to as the Heat Death of the Universe.
As the universe condensed from its original state and gravitation attraction caused stars to form, it would be logical to assume that the universe was falling literally into a more ordered state. This, naturally, is not the case. The gravitation collapse of dust clouds from which stars form releases heat as a consequence, which itself is ultimately unrecoverable, and contributes to a rise in overall entropy.
When stars have enough internal temperature and pressure to begin the process of nuclear fusion within their cores, atoms of hydrogen are fused together to produce helium, liberating tremendous amounts of energy which radiates out into the universe.
These stellar foundries are the primary precursor of all consequent actions regarding energy usage, or conversion, in the universe.
I posit that as the universe began its evolution its natural inbuilt imperative was to maximise the efficiency at which energy could be converted to unavailable forms such that the Second Law of Thermodynamics was the basic underlying principle driving rule.
On planets themselves, formed from the earlier self-destruction of stars via supernova events, heavier elements mutate slowly through radioactive decay releasing yet more energy.
Complex systems of chemicals coalesce on suitable planetary surfaces, atoms bonding together at random, forming systems that as Boltzmann hints with his comments on life, compete for ordered energy that they can convert into disorder forms.
Did life arise as a direct consequence of this, a more efficient way of mutating ordered systems into unordered ones? Life evolves to respire, to photosynthesise, to consume available resources and leave chaos in its wake.
The evolution of life can thus be viewed as inevitable, and in any form, which furthers the efficiency of energy conversion in this way.
Progression and Efficiency
As life evolves naturally to further complexity, the principle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics drives the temporal selection of lifeforms that are better adapted to perform this imperative.
Plant life simply starts with the sun and ground nutrients, animal life begins in the oceans rich with nascent biology and crawls onto the land.
As life becomes more complex, it requires more energy to sustain, and must consume more resources in order to grow.
Life is dictated to evolve to more complex forms, not merely through natural selection and survival of the fittest, but on the dictatorial energy imperative.
If a life form fills its niche, becomes top of the food chain, comfortable in its environment, then it must continue its evolution into complexity.
After billions of years humans evolve and start to fashion tools, gather into groups, develop language and technology and the human animals themselves begin to fashion machines to aid them in their own evolution.
This is the point we are at now.
As a species we design and manufacture a vast array of technology that is increasingly incredibly efficient at using up available ordered energy and rendering it useless to us.
We are at the pinnacle right now, burning our fossil fuel, pumping heat into the atmosphere and universe at large, and producing more and more things for people to consume.
This may have begun as the chemically powered vastly inefficient heat driven internal combustion engine, moved onto the electronic calculator and powerful modern computing devices, and now resulted in a global drive to electrically powered transport.
Electronics has become key infrastructure for all technology. Electronics requires energy to produce and run and energy generation, storage, and usage all produce waste heat.
Even the energy efficient ‘renewable’ resources cost energy to create and maintain and only act to delay the inevitable.
But, for all this progress, as we make strides for energy efficiency in our technology and research and develop more efficient ways of generating power — are we actually putting ourselves at risk of extinction?
More Efficiency Ways to Be Inefficient
Could there come a time when humanity has achieved technology that limits our entropy production to the absolute minimum possible?
Perhaps we have constructed a Dyson sphere around the sun, are recycling everything possible, and aggressively act in all ways to minimise our impact on the universe.
Would the imperative of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, acting out over the far future, bring into existence something that surpasses the human race in energy conversion and would we, humanity, be in the way?
Ultimately we may pass our peak and evolve through our own volition into an efficient species that although tiny plays its part in pushing the universe toward heat death.
But, we should be careful — lest there be other species, entities, or natural as yet undiscovered processes that appear in our future that view us as a hindrance to the natural progression of the universe.
: For all intents and purposes, and that we currently know no better, we consider the universe to be a closed system (Charged vacuum emboitments aside).