Heat Death

On to the last misuse. Some say that there have been only four or five fundamental watersheds in physics. Sandwiched in between Newton and the 20th century behemoths of relativity and quantum mechanics is the science of thermodynamics.[10]

[10] We might mention in passing that, around the time of the American Civil War, our friend James Clerk Maxwell, building on the empirical work of Michael Faraday before him, recast electromagnetism in a beautiful mathematical formulation. It made electricity and magnetism understandable as aspects of one theory, and it is stunning. It enabled, in some sense, modern telecommunications to be born; for example, Marconi and his radio came after. So it is not to be downplayed. Yet to me Maxwell's equations are a mathematical tour de force; much of the physics and phenomenology was well understood at the time of Maxwell's work. For example, we know that the laying of the transatlantic cable was interrupted by the Civil War, so that telegraphy was in place well before Maxwell's Equations.

Thermodynamics really shook things up. Here is where our modern ideas of energy conservation come from. Here is where the relationship between work and heat becomes clear. Here is where we show that perpetual motion machines are impossible. But most intriguing of all, here is where we get an entirely new concept: entropy.

So today we hear statements such as this:

"Large companies are doomed to failure, because entropy inevitably takes over."

Entropy is a measure of disorderliness. And one of the key tenets of thermodynamics is that entropy is always increasing. The most common example given to students is intuitively very appealing. Take a box that has a partition down the middle, and fill one side with oxygen molecules and the other side with nitrogen molecules. Remove the partition, and the molecules will continue to move about spontaneously. After some time, we observe that there is a uniform mixture of oxygen and nitrogen in the box. We can wait forever, and the molecules will never, of their own accord, find themselves back in the state with all the oxygen on one side and all the nitrogen on the other.[11] The mixed state is considered to be more "random" or disordered; the segregated system more ordered. The entropy of the final system is greater than that of the initial system.

[11] Theoretically, you can compute the probability that this will happen. It is very close to zero, believe me.

In any closed system, entropy spontaneously and naturally increases. Eventually the system reaches maximum entropy, or total randomness. In applying this phenomenon to the universe, physicists refer to it as heat deathhence, the title of this section.

Seems logical, and by and large it is. Most systems, left alone, will tend to a more disorderly state. Just look at my desktop.

But somewhere along the line, lay people started extending the concept to economic and social systems. And this is where I think it took a wrong turn. Note that the previous quotation is not entirely without merit. It is certainly true that the larger an organization becomes, the more communications links it must support; as Kenneth Arrow pointed out many years ago,[12] this may eventually limit its growth. Certainly it becomes harder for large organizations to coordinate activities, and even more difficult for them to respond quickly to changing circumstances. On the other hand, it is a mistake to assume that entropy must inevitably win.

[12] Arrow, Kenneth, The Limits of Organization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974).

Although it's certainly true that a closed system, left alone, will tend to a state of maximum entropy, economic systemssuch as the company you work forare not "closed." They are open to the flow of matter and energy. And we don't tend to leave our companies alone. We add raw materials to them all the time; we do work on the system; we expend energy to combat entropy. Just as I work to clean off my desktop and make it more orderly (less entropic), I can invest work in the communications channels and mechanisms in my company to reduce the disorder.

Now this work is roughly equivalent to the energy a machine might expend to overcome friction; it is not, in some sense, "useful" work. On the other hand, it does provide us with a rationale for continuing human enterprise. With the correct balance, we can at least hold off entropy while we make progress on the "real" objectives. One philosopher, long since forgotten, pointed out that we spend our whole lives combating entropy. It's how human beings and societies survive. In effect, the social organizationscountries and enterprisesthat do a better job of beating back entropy ultimately win over those that are less successful in this fundamental enterprise.

The key thing to ask when someone refers to the inevitability of entropic disorder is: "Is it a closed system?" If not, then the spontaneous and inevitable increase in entropy is not a given.

The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
The Software Development Edge(c) Essays on Managing Successful Projects
Year: 2006
Pages: 269

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