Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Order your Death

(This is an article inspired by a lecture in my Thermodynamics class by one of my favorite professors at IISER-K, Dr. Narayan Bannerjee. I have used the fundamental principle of entropy and have attempted to explore a bit of Philosophy with its aid.)

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe can only increase. It takes time getting used to the notion of Entropy, but a simple way to imagine it is as a degree of randomness or disorder of a system. The more disordered a system, the higher is its entropy. Thermodynamics allows us to calculate the entropy of various systems undergoing different processes, analytically. But a simpler way to analyse entropy is to simply talk of whether it increases or decreases in a given process. If a system absorbs heat, it molecules shake around more vigorously, making the system more randomized and thus increasing its entropy. If a system gives off heat, its entropy decreases.

Now that we’ve had the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get down to business. I was trying to figure out if entropy increases or decreases in the process of being born. But I was having difficulties deciding whether heat is absorbed or released during birth (wish I had been born with a thermometer in hand). So then I thought that it would be easier if I figured out the entropy change of death first.

We, being warm-blooded animals, maintain a constant body temperature throughout our life. But death puts a hold on our thermostat and a dead body cools down rapidly, finally achieving room temperature. For that matter, living things can be defined as machines which carry out molecular processes, taking in energy and utilizing it in order to prevent themselves from falling into equilibrium with their environment. So the body cools down and loses heat as it does so. I guess that is what they mean when they say that dying is “becoming one with the universe.” The body also starts decomposing after death, and that too releases heat. This release of heat can be seen as a decrease of entropy. So a dead body is more ordered than a living one! When a person dies, disorder decreases, and this can be seen as achieving peace and nirvana.

Coming back now to our original problem of entropy change in birth. I was still finding it difficult to put a finger on whether heat is, on the whole, absorbed or released in the nine month human gestation period. So I decided to simplify the problem a bit by considering not the entire pregnancy but only the Eureka moment. The Eureka moment for the child is its moment of formation, i.e. the moment when the two gametes fuse to form a single cell, the zygote. This process, called fertilisation, is easier to analyze than the entire nine months. When two cells combine to form one, the most considerable change in energy is the one in the surface energy. Free surfaces of cells, soap bubbles and similar stuff have an energy associated with them, known as surface energy. The larger the free surface, greater the surface energy of the object. It is to minimize this surface energy that things like bubbles, when left to themselves assume a spherical shape. Anyways, when two cells combine, the resulting surface area is lesser than the sum of their individual areas. So, the surface energy decreases in cell fusion. This decrease in surface energy is released in the form of heat during fertilisation. If heat is released then that means that entropy decreases when the gametes fuse and give rise to a new life. So birth involves a decrease in entropy and a corresponding increase in the order of the system. So being born is more ordered than being unborn.

Having established that, we also consume a lot of food on a daily basis, throughout our lifetimes. Where does all this energy go? We, being warm-blooded, use this energy for maintaining our body temperatures. Our surroundings are cooler than us and so, this energy, in the process of keeping us warm, is lost out to the environment as heat. So does this mean entropy is decreasing? Well, it doesn’t. The reason is that we are supposed to look at the net energy exchange. The net energy exchange is zero since our body temperatures are constant. All the food that we consume is thrown out as heat. So our entropy remains more or less a constant during our lifetimes. And finally, as we have already seen, death too causes a decrease in entropy.

So, we attain a greater order when we are born, then our “orderliness” remains unchanged in our lifetimes, and finally, it increases again when we die. So, we are at the peak of our orderliness after death. So is being born and then dying equivalent to never being born atall? It seems that the answer is no. You would be more disordered if you happen never to be born in this world.

But one may ask if being more ordered or disordered really matter. What difference does it make in the long run? I confess, I really cannot imagine any importance whatsoever that one’s orderliness might have in the afterlife. But one thing is for sure. In case it is preferred to be more ordered than disordered, then one question is bound to arise. We may ask that if during our lifetimes, our orderliness remains constant, and will increase only when we die, then what is the need to experience this agonizing life at all. Why not take a shortcut and move towards greater order? If order is all that we want, then why not, order your own death?

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