The Restless universe
Introduction to The restless Universe

1 The lawful Universe

3 The irreversible Universe

3.1 Thermodynamics and entropy 1/3

3.1 Thermodynamics and entropy 2/3

3.1 Thermodynamics and entropy 3/3

3.2 Equilibrium and irreversibility 1/2

» 3.2 Equilibrium and irreversibility 2/2

3.3 Statistical mechanics 1/2

3.3 Statistical mechanics 2/2

4 The intangible Universe

5 The uncertain Universe

6 Closing items

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Other titles in the Physical World series

Describing motion

Predicting motion

Classical physics of matter

Static fields and potentials

Dynamic fields and waves

Quantum physics: an introduction

Quantum physics of matter

3 The irreversible Universe

3.2 Equilibrium and irreversibility

Part 1 of 2 | Part 2

This equilibrium can be disturbed if the system is allowed to interact with its surroundings. The entropy of the system may then decrease, provided the entropy of the surroundings increases by at least as much, ensuring that there is no decrease in the entropy of the Universe as a whole.

If we start with a system that is close to, but has not quite reached, equilibrium, thermodynamics can suggest which processes will increase the entropy and lead towards equilibrium. Heat transfers are one source of entropy changes, but there are others. If you take two different gases and allow them to mix together in a flask that is so well insulated that no heat can be transferred to or from the flask, the entropy of the mixture turns out to be greater than the entropy of the two separate gases. That is why the mixing is an irreversible process. Once mixed, the gases will not spontaneously separate. Similar considerations explain why a dropped glass can shatter into a thousand fragments, but a thousand fragments will never spontaneously form themselves into a glass. Also, an egg can be made into an omelette, but an omelette will not make itself into an egg. There is an 'arrow of time' that points from the past to the future, and tomorrow will be different from today.

Figure 1.14 Some examples of irreversibility
 (a) a smashed glass
 (b) an omelette

If these ideas are correct, the Universe must be inescapably and irreversibly approaching a state in which its entropy has the highest possible value. This will be a state of equilibrium for the Universe as a whole, where all the fuel will have been expended and the temperature will be uniform, leaving no prospect of generating heat flows and extracting useful work. In a phrase made popular in the 1930s by the Cambridge cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington, the Universe is said to be approaching a final state of 'heat death'. In this sense, the clockwork of the Newtonian Universe is running down.
Continue on to 3.3 Statistical mechanics

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