Wednesday, February 01, 2006

It Ain't Jest a Big Yaller Thang

NOTE: I am in the process of taking down my personal web page. You can find HERE. I want to make room for audio and video clips that will be linked from this blog. In the process I am going to take a few things that are up there and publish them here. This is the first one.


It Ain't Jest A Big Yaller Thang

by John Stone

I have a favorite uncle. Actually I have several favorite uncles, but this particular favorite uncle is my favorite for purposes of this story because he is the youngest uncle, and I love him, (and I know that he won't mind me joshing him a little). So he and I share more than common relatives. He is also a Baptist preacher. He knows a lot about his religion and how to put together a stirring sermon and how to balance the church's budget and how to marry and bury. But he doesn't know diddly squat about science. Which is interesting because one day he mentioned a law of Physics that is at the same time one of the simplest and one of the most profound laws.

You see, my Uncle is a creationist ... not only that, he is a "young-earth" creationist. He believes that the calculations of the generations done by Bishop James Usher (1581-1686) is the literal truth. This gives a calculation that the universe as described in Genesis 1, was created by God on October 29, 4004 BCE (Before Christian Era). That means that the age of the earth is now something like 6003 years. The creationists use a technique characterized by Counterfeit Rhetoric, Apologists and Polemics -- CRAP, for short.

Science, on the contrary, says that the earth is several million times older, 4.5 billion and it resides in a universe that is somewhere around 15 billion years old. That's some difference. My uncle says this, not because he gives much of a whit about the age of the earth or universe, but because that makes mankind, Homo sapiens only 6003 years old (minus five days) and that they were created by God, "in His image", as fully formed humans. All this stuff about ancestors of humans is just a bunch of atheistic garbage.

So imagine my surprise when my Uncle, who has never had a course in any science in his life, other than a freshman high school class in General Science, tells me that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics!!

WOW, I think ... somehow my Uncle has decided to take some really high level physics courses, learn some not-so-easy math, and come up with a scientific argument about evolution.
Wrong ... oh, how wrong I was.


First, an oversimplified lesson on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in any closed system that system will have a trend toward increasing disorder until disorder is at it's maximum. The trouble with experiments to test this is; there aren't many truly closed systems lying around. In fact there is only one that fit the definition to perfection, is the universe as a whole. And universes make for difficult experimental subjects.

But there are some rules to the thermodynamics game:

1. You cant win
2. You can't break even, either
3. You can't get out of the game


Creationists have been fond of running around saying, "The Second Law of Thermodynamics proves that evolution cannot have happened. Because all systems tend toward increasing disorder, and evolution says that organisms have become more complex." Take a tree on a forest floor they say; It becomes more disorderly, it rots into its constituents. They of course fail to note that the tree was assembled from a "disordered" collection of water, CO2 and odds and ends of elements in the earth and air.

The Second Law is a valid one. Our universe has moved steadily downward in temperature over the eons. But our earth is not the universe ... although according to the Bible and the creationists -- it is.

The earth is not a closed system, it is very much an open system. Each day, on each square meter of the earth's surface a kilowatt of energy falls -- from the sun. This is a huge decrease in entropy, the measurement of disorder. How is this accomplished, in view of the rules above.

The earth benefits from a huge, millions of times larger, increase in entropy in the sun. Each second 4 million tons of hydrogen are converted to almost 4 million tons of helium. I say almost because in that transformation of 4 million tons of hydrogen to helium, about 7,000 tons of material simply ceases to exist as matter ... it is converted to pure energy as represented by the famous Einstein equation, E=Mc2 . This energy equals the mass time the speed of light squared, a very very large number indeed. (300,000,000 times 300,000,000 meters per second.) When you multiply all these large numbers together to get an additional extraordinarily large number you arrive at the energy released by the sun in every second!!! In fact, in every second, 4.5 pounds of sunlight fall on the earth. (Dividing 7000 tons by 4.5 pounds shows that the earth receives only 0.03% of the energy released by the sun to the universe as a whole.)

After a few thousand years working it's way to the surface all this energy is radiated away from the sun in the form of heat, light, radio waves, X-Rays and all sorts of other things. Were all this energy focused on our earth we and everything else on it and in it would be turned to a crisp in a fraction of a second. But it isn't. The earth intercepts only a tiny fraction of the energy from the sun, that 1 lonesome kilowatt per square meter. But it is always there and always has been there. And over the entire lifetime of the earth, about 4.5 billion years, that represents a lot of energy that has been added to the earth.

All the rest of that vast outpouring of energy is lost to empty space, where it cools and dissipates. So the sun has a huge increase in entropy so that the earth can have a tiny decrease in entropy (to get a bit teleological).

Most of that kilowatt of energy that falls on the earth's surface is wasted. It is radiated back into space at night ... as evidenced that the earth has stayed at a relatively stable temperature over several billions of years. But a few watts of this power goes into the most fundamental life forms on earth. The plants. They assemble the fraction of power falling on the earth into bags of chemicals we call organisms, which in turn are converted by other organisms into other bags of chemicals ... and voila ... the beauty of life on earth.

So if you are in an open system, such as the earth, you can occasionally win, often break even, and when the suns stops providing that kilowatt some day we will be out of the game, permanently.

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