Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

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Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have all sought to answer the questions of why we are here and where we are going. This natural basis of life has proved elusive, but in the eloquent and highly creative Into the Cool, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan look for answers in a surprising place: the second law of thermodynamics. This second law refers to energy's inevitable tendency to change from being concentrated in one place to becoming spread out over time. Although the second law is usually and correctly associated with molecular chaos-and thus with aging, loss, and death-Schneider and Sagan show that it is also vital to life and complexity; it is behind evolution, ecology, economics, and even life's origin. More observable than divine caprice, more real than computer simulations, and more basic than natural selection is the organizing, complexity-giving power of the second law.

Working from the precept that "nature abhors a gradient," Into the Cool details how complex systems emerge, enlarge, and reproduce in a world tending toward disorder. From hurricanes here to life on other worlds, from human evolution to the systems humans have created, this pervasive pull toward equilibrium governs life at its molecular base and at its peak in the elaborate structures of living complex systems. Schneider and Sagan organize their argument in a highly accessible manner, moving from descriptions of the basic physics behind energy flow to the organization of complex systems to the role of energy in life to the application of their concept of energy flow to politics, economics, and even human health.

A book that needs to be grappled with by all those who wonder at the organizing principles of existence, Into the Cool will appeal to humanists and scientists alike. If Charles Darwin shook the world by showing the common ancestry of all life, so Into the Cool has a similar power to disturb-and delight-by showing the common roots in energy flow of all complex, organized, and naturally functioning systems.

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Editorial Reviews

Physics Today
A well-researched and often fascinating discussion that covers an impressive range of subjects, including Maxwell’s demon, weather patterns, natural selection, the maturity of ecosystems, and the purposefulness of life. . . . Into the Cool shows that there is much more to thermodynamics than Carnot cycles and phase diagrams. . . . An engaging, non-technical introduction to a variety of topics.”

— Christopher Jarzynski

Quarterly Review of Biology
The book succeeds in highlighting the potential importance of thermodynamic ideas in understanding certain aspects of organization in biological systems. . . . A good reference for readers interested in exploring an area of theoretical biology whose relevance has increased with the current interest to forge a rapprochement between physics and biology.

— Lloyd Demetrius

J. Scott Turner

"Into the Cool is a dazzling exposition of an idea: that life is fundamentally not a noun, or a thing, but a verb. Building upon the beautiful subtleties of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan take us on a tour de force through biology, touching upon the origin of life, sex, evolution, ecology, and even economics. Along the way, they dethrone the idea that the gene is the central actor in the drama of life and put the focus properly back on the plot--the organized flows of matter and energy that make life what it is. This book is destined to be a classic."
Roald Hoffmann

"The idea seems paradoxical--that the source of all the complexity of life might just be nature's tendency to equalize things. But Schneider and Sagan's readable book makes the notion plausible. And the authors do more than demystify thermodynamics, they make it come to life! So you didn't think that nonequilibrium thermodynamics could be romantic? This book, fascinating as it is provocative, proves you're wrong!"
Tim Cahill

"In Into the Cool, the authors unravel the intricacies of cosmology, meteorology, chemistry, ecology, and even the mysteries of human aging in an unexpected but accessible and entertaining manner. It's all very simple. It's all very complex. The book careens between these poles like a pinball in urgent play, until the reader is forced, willy-nilly, to think in terms of energy flow, gradients, and the Second Law. This turns out to be something of a delight, like using a new tool specially sharpened and specifically made for that job that we all assume when we first ask 'Why?'"
Physics Today - Christopher Jarzynski

“A well-researched and often fascinating discussion that covers an impressive range of subjects, including Maxwell’s demon, weather patterns, natural selection, the maturity of ecosystems, and the purposefulness of life. . . . Into the Cool shows that there is much more to thermodynamics than Carnot cycles and phase diagrams. . . . An engaging, non-technical introduction to a variety of topics.”

Quarterly Review of Biology - Lloyd Demetrius

"The book succeeds in highlighting the potential importance of thermodynamic ideas in understanding certain aspects of organization in biological systems. . . . A good reference for readers interested in exploring an area of theoretical biology whose relevance has increased with the current interest to forge a rapprochement between physics and biology."
Publishers Weekly
In his well-known essay "The Two Cultures," C.P. Snow famously remarked that an inability to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics was a form of ignorance comparable with never having read a work of Shakespeare. It's fair to say that these days, the Second Law gets far less press than the Bard. Enter Into the Cool, in which the authors claim that the study of thermodynamics (in some ways the neglected stepchild of the sciences) can inform our understanding of biology, ecology and even economics. The authors (Schneider is an authority on thermodynamics; Sagan is a science writer and author of Acquiring Genomes) begin by rephrasing the Second Law-as "Nature abhors a gradient"-and proceed to illustrate its relevance to large systems in general. Whether one is considering the difference between heat and cold or between inflated prices and market values, they argue, we can apply insights from thermodynamics and entropy to understand how systems tend toward equilibrium. The result is an impressive work that ranges across disciplinary boundaries and draws from disparate literatures without blinking. It's also a book that (much like Shakespeare and the Second Law of Thermodynamics) requires effort on the reader's part-it's not for casual reading. 30 b&w illus. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226739366
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,049,221
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric D. Schneider served as senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and director of the National Marine Water Quality Laboratory of the Environmental Protection Agency. His work on thermodynamics—a topic he has pursued for more than twenty years—has been widely anthologized and cited. Dorion Sagan is coauthor of Acquiring Genomes and Up from Dragons. Called an “unmissable modern master” of science writing by New Scientist, Sagan has written for the New York Times, Natural History, and Wired, among other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

Into the Cool

Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life
By Eric D. Schneider Dorion Sagan

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2005 the University of Chicago
All right reserved.


Trouble at the EPA

Energy is the only life.-William Blake

Confessions of a Government Worker

In 1971 one of us, Eric Schneider, was haunted by two simple questions: Do laws exist that govern the behavior of whole ecosystems? If so, what are they?

At the time there may have been no one in the world for whom an answer to these questions would have proved more useful. As the director of the National Marine Water Quality Laboratory of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Eric's mission was to provide scientific data to protect coastal water quality and estuaries. U.S. water-quality laws specifically gave the EPA the responsibility of protecting human health, commercial fisheries, and ecosystems within these coastal waters. Eric was expected to measure the health of ecosystems without definitions of ecosystem health and without adequate measuring tools. It was a difficult job.

Upon his arrival in 1971 as a new director at the EPA laboratory, Eric found that most of the data from the facility consisted of very simple toxicity tests done on algae and small fish. In a typical protocol, adults of the small bait fish mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus) were submitted to toxins until measurable percentages ofthem died. Numerous tests were administered on organisms such as these that "kept well." Not to put too fine a point on it (and the EPA didn't), the organisms selected were those that could survive alone in aerated pickle jars. The EPA experiments were completed within ninety-six hours, a four-day span that allowed them to be set up and dismantled within a government workweek. If not rigorously scientific, the protocol was bureaucratically convenient. The main problem is that such tough species are not necessarily representative of the health of their surrounding ecosystems. For example, some of the hardiest organisms belong to pioneer species that repopulate damaged ecosystems. Such organisms thus may signify not health but ecosystem illness. Counting how many members of a poisoned tough species died in aerated pickle jars within ninety-six hours: such was the basis of our national water-quality standards throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s.

Even though Eric's expertise was not in biology-he had graduated with a doctorate in marine geology from Columbia-it seemed clear to him that the laboratory's task should not be to protect just hardy bait fish dosed with high levels of poisons. It should, rather, be to protect whole marine ecosystems. What good was it, he reasoned, to develop a water-quality standard for a species of fish if the organisms they ate were poisoned to death at much lower toxin concentrations? What if the lives of these tough guys depended on those of weaker, more easily poisoned beings? If that were the case, then the hardy beings could be tough today and gone tomorrow. In truth, very little seemed known about the linkages among species. Weren't members of healthy ecosystems, like happy people, well connected to a vibrant, interdependent community of other beings?

When Schneider asked coworkers the obvious-why they were not testing whole ecosystems-they made comments such as, "You cannot bring a whole ecosystem into the laboratory." Or they would say, "You cannot replicate a natural system in the laboratory."

Nonetheless, a few years later, these same researchers did just that: they studied, in careful miniature, whole marine ecosystems. The scaled-down ecosystems, or mesocosms (middle-sized worlds) as they were called, were miniature versions of the Narragansett Bay. The interdependent systems consisted of many representative species living in seawater that filtered into tanks from outside the Rhode Island EPA laboratory. And they mimicked the real bay ecosystems with amazing accuracy. But it still remained nearly impossible to carry out toxicity experiments in the natural environment: understandably, the EPA and the state pollution-control officials were against spreading toxins such as mercury in the oceans or in natural salt marshes, even for the loftiest of scientific purposes. At the same time, "naturally" polluted areas such as oil spills or areas poisoned by mercury from paper production became makeshift laboratories where scientists attempted to gauge the movement of toxic materials and the recovery, if any, of damaged ecosystems. To make a long story short, in 1971 it became clear to Eric that ecosystem toxicology-a subdiscipline of ecology, and the science the EPA needed if it was to protect the environment-was in its infancy. And this held true of ecology in general. Although human habitats were increasingly endangered, the science required to understand exactly how they became endangered-and thus how they could recover-barely existed.

Since then ecology has made great progress. Ecologists study the interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. Most of what we know about this comes from hundreds of years of careful observations of changes in species, populations, and landscapes. Only in the last 150 years have these observations begun to be organized. Ecology branched out into many specialized theories: today there is population-abundance theory, predator-prey theory, niche theory, autecology, synecology, ecosystems ecology, microecology, ant ecology, human ecology, elephant ecology, as well as lots and lots of modeling. But where, Eric wondered, was the general theory that could predict actual whole ecosystem behavior? Where was the theory that would say what would happen to a given lake ecosystem if its ambient temperature were increased by 5°C? How about if this ecosystem became more acidic? What would happen then? And what would another ecosystem, with different organisms, do under the same conditions? Marine chemists had found that pollutants such as DDT, radioactive elements, and mercury were moving through the global ecosystem and taking their ecological and human toll. But what routes did these toxic materials take, what were their rates of movement, and where did similar materials accumulate in natural systems? It seemed to Eric that what the EPA really needed was a theory that explained the flow of material and energy through whole ecosystems.

Perhaps due to his training in the physical sciences, Eric was attuned to look for patterns and laws that might apply across the board, to all ecosystems. In particular, he was drawn to investigations by earlier researchers on energy flow. Might simple physical principles underlie the complexity of biology, from ecosystems to the biosphere? The relevant researchers seemed to be at least trying to deal with whole ecosystems rather than with their constituent parts. There were a few groups, mostly the students and graduate students of G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale University, who had made significant inroads in tracking energy's flow through, and effect upon, whole ecosystems. Hutchinson and his colleagues, first at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology in 1957, and later at the Brookhaven Symposium on Diversity and Stability in Ecological Systems, raised ecology's sights beyond a narrow focus on the distribution and abundance of individual species. The insights of Hutchinson and his colleagues led beyond the quantification of interacting nutrients and their effects. It was to lead Eric Schneider and a few others to the bigger question of why ecosystems behave as they do, a question directly related to the fascinating question-some would say the question of questions-of why (from a material and physical perspective) life exists.

The answer had to do with energy, and it would eventually shed light not only on ecosystems, but also on organisms and nonliving systems-the entire field of what has come to be called the sciences of complexity. Indeed, as Eric was to find out with delight and surprise, he was not alone: a most promising research program linking biology to the physics of energy was already under way. It was like finding a buried treasure: gems lingered in past theoretical work, and the energy-flow characteristics of a handful of ecosystems had already been enumerated. To his great excitement, Eric found out that there was already a young but sophisticated science of thermodynamics that specifically studies energy flow and transformations in natural systems.

* * *

Even in the beginning of thermodynamics-the science of heat's movements and energy's transformations-Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the science's founders, had important things to say about life. Scientifically speaking, life can be regarded as one of a class of complex systems ruled by energy and its transformations. As the backbone of energy flow and chemical kinetics, thermodynamics is crucial to understanding life. Theoreticians who want to understand energy flow and transformations in biology must look the science of thermodynamics in the eye, as any theoretical claim is meaningless unless it conforms to thermodynamic principles. As Eric would learn, this obscure science, which started with efforts to develop more efficient steam engines, was absolutely required to understand life. Today the sciences of energy flow that began with thermodynamics shed light on how organisms grow and develop, on the origin and history of early life, on ecosystem development and how people might live more sustainably on the Earth. Eric's search for the underlying physical principles of ecosystems became part of a whole new science, the thermodynamics of biology. Not only has this emerging science generated its share of hypotheses and ideas, but some of these ideas have been and are being confirmed using previously accumulated ecosystem data. And one of the most interesting ideas of this new science concerns not only how life is organized by energy flow, but the material reason for its existence.

The New Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics, often considered boring and irrelevant-a gray mathematical wasteland of steam tables and arcane verbiage, important perhaps for laboratory measurement of molecules, for creationists or Victorian historians, but of no concern to the ordinary scientist or person-turns out to be a most fascinating field. It bears directly on our deepest understanding of life and its operations. Among those who have developed, clarified, and tried to improve upon the foundations of classical thermodynamics are some of the greatest names in the history of science: Carnot, Clausius, Boltzmann, Gibbs, Maxwell, Planck, and Einstein. But theirs was a thermodynamics of equilibrium systems-systems that were boring, because they were headed toward stasis, an end state where nothing (or at least nothing of interest) happened. "Heaven is a place," David Byrne sings, "where nothing ever happens." Indeed, the initial investigations of thermodynamics were prematurely extrapolated to the entire universe to predict an end state more boring than heaven, colder than hell-a nonmystical apocalypse more meaningless than the most pessimistic fantasy of the most depressed philosopher. This foregone scientific conclusion was called the "heat death" of the universe.

One nineteenth-century book showed a white-haired man gazing out in wide-eyed horror at the ocean, which had frozen, in midwave. A dying sun, and an ocean of solid ice: such were the inevitable conclusions of the great new discipline whose subject was energy-how to extract it, how to understand it, and how to deploy it in engines of steam to gain the national upper hand. "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper," wrote poet T. S. Eliot. The poor universe would come to a standstill so complete that no ember or hope remained of it ever rising, phoenixlike, from its own ashes. In the frame of this last judgment pronounced by science, this atomic chaos without recompense, human striving looked ridiculous-and here the heat death perhaps provided secret sustenance for European philosophies of existentialism and nihilism, and for the aesthetics of the theater of the absurd under writers such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Like frantic ants so easily trampled, our piddling lives were ultimately ludicrous in their vanity. However civilized we were, however much we might evolve, this was so. The devout of previous centuries, such as William Buckland, had profusely thanked the providence with which the deity had deigned to lace Great Britain with abundant reserves of coal, that energetic fount of the industrial revolution and global dominion, ensuring English hegemony with God's divine favor. But later minds of a more scientific bent could not be so sure. Life seemed the supreme accident, some sort of cosmic fluke. All organization, including that of Earth, was on its way out. Life either would never last or, as the creationists liked to argue (and some still do), life was divinely ensouled, crafted, and cared for in a universe otherwise thermodynamically destined for unrecoverable destruction. And science-thermodynamics-had proved it.

Well, not so fast. Far from predicting cosmic burnout, modern thermodynamics shows how complex structures, living or not, often come into being, expand, and increase their complexity in regions of the universe exposed to energy flow; because the interaction of the fundamental forces of the universe (gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces) are not completely integrated, nor the total matter of the universe known, guarantees of a heat death (or even an end) are not scientifically credible. This book focuses on how thermodynamics has evolved over the past fifty years to allow for the study of a new class of thermodynamic systems known as nonequilibrium or dissipative systems because they exist some distance away from equilibrium. The structures studied by this science include thunderheads, whirlpools, intricate chemical cycles, and life. The proponents of this new, expanded thermodynamics include names for the most part less well known than the founders of the field, scientific stars such as Alfred Lotka, Lars Onsager, Erwin Schrödinger, Ilya Prigogine, George Hatsopoulos, Joseph Keenan, Joseph Kestin, Don Mikulecky, and Jeffrey Wicken. Upon the shoulders of these giants, thermodynamics has been both broadened-it now applies neatly to life as well as to mechanical devices-and simplified. Most exciting to us is the major simplification we show that "nature abhors a gradient" (Schneider and Kay 1989; Sagan and Schneider 2000). This surprisingly fruitful concept, which we present in detail, condenses much of the recent work in thermodynamics.

This idea that nature abhors a gradient, one of the key ideas of this book, is very simple: A gradient is simply a difference (for example, in temperature, pressure, or chemical concentration) across a distance. Nature's abhorrence of gradients means that they will tend spontaneously to be eliminated-most spectacularly by complex, growing systems. The simple concept of collapsing gradients encapsulates the difficult science of thermodynamics, demystifies entropy (as important to the universe as gravity), and illuminates how all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being.

We are familiar with nature's breakdown of gradients in one case. Nature abhors a vacuum, and will spontaneously crush a metal can from which the air has been removed. In this example, nature, without prompting or design, rectifies the pressure difference between the low pressure inside and the high pressure (fourteen pounds per square inch) outside of the can. But in this book we vastly extend the pressure example. We show that nature's abhorrence of this and many other gradients is a law of nature, an unstoppable tendency where energy flow leads to different natural complex systems including life itself. We show the great significance of this law (called the second law of thermodynamics) for the origin, persistence, and eventual demise of complex natural systems even such as the nation-state. We trace the history of scientific thought on energy and matter to where we are: on the eve of a great unification of the sciences. Energy from the sun generates, perpetuates, and elaborates new identities, from whirlwinds and flowers to economies and governments, many of which seem as if they were planned by an invisible hand or eye.


Excerpted from Into the Cool by Eric D. Schneider Dorion Sagan Copyright © 2005 by the University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : trouble at the EPA 1
1 The Schrodinger paradox 11
2 Simplicity 25
3 Eyes of fire : classical energy science 34
4 The cosmic casino : statistical mechanics 47
5 Nature abhors a gradient 72
6 The river must flow : open systems 78
7 Too much, not enough : cycles 93
8 Swirl world 111
9 Physics' own "organisms" 125
10 Whirlpools and weather 131
11 Thermodynamics and life 143
12 Brimstone beginnings 160
13 Blue planet blues 185
14 Regress under stress 207
15 The secret of trees 216
16 Into the cool 225
17 Trends in evolution 235
18 Health, vigor, and longevity 261
19 Economics 275
20 Purpose in life 299
App Principles of open thermodynamic systems 327
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2005

    Science and God: Can We Handle the Truth?

    This book is about how thermodynamic systems naturally exhibit complexity. Life is one of many purposeful systems that tap into, and are organized by energy. NET (Nonequlibrium thermodynamics) links all energy-based systems, just as evolution links all living ones. Into the Cool details how complex systems, contrary to popular belief, produce entropy (atomic randomness) more effectively than random aggregations of matter. Please visit and especially our associated blog which focuses on the creationism-evolution debate.

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