Thermodynamics and Society

by Jake Conner
for Physics 212
Sample Case

Three Laws of Thermodynamics

"Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system."

"Entropy of any isolated system always increases."

"Entropy of a system approaches a constant value as temperature approaches absolute zero."


    To some degree human beings, cultures, societies and civilizations seem to act in accordance with these laws. If energy can be thought of as ideas then Mark Twain would say, "there is no such thing a new idea," and as Medgar Evars said, "You can kill a man but you cannot kill an idea." With this in mind, (and assuming these men are correct,) if we did manage to isolate some microcosm of humanity could we apply the first law to it?

    I probably don't need to make much of a case for entropy as humanity's unpredictability is legendary. Chaos radiates outward after traumatic events unfold. The news affects all of us. Even when we don't read it those around us are changed and they then act in ways that change us. News affects politics, laws, and opinions, and the world seems suddenly more random.

    If you think of the scarcity of natural resources and the shifting requirements of life on our planet as the literal environment of humanity, then human civilization isn't exactly a closed system, but it does seem to approach some kind of equilibrium and perpetually seems to be knocked off-course.


    Consider the way cultures and civilizations evolve. In the context of history it would seem that people's habits only undergo drastic changes when under significant levels of stress. The events of the second world war, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Assyrian invasions, these situations greatly altered human habits in different parts of the world.

    In light of this it is tempting to compare culture to a kind of heat engine, in which the temperature difference is a measure of need for change, work is actual change, and heat is hostility, civil unrest, or just hardship.


CC BY-SA 3.0,

    By extension of the second law of thermodynamics this would imply that there is some maximum efficiency, some fixed ratio of any effort to change minds of people or alter society that cannot be changed without altering the needs of society as well.

Efficiency <= 1 - Cold / Hot

    Or in our case ...

Efficiency <= 1 - Least desire / Most desire (for change)

    And of course the actual efficiency is equal to ...

What you get / What you pay

    Or ...

Change / Effort