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The Restless universe
Introduction to The restless Universe

1 The lawful Universe

2 The clockwork Universe

3 The irreversible Universe

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

Featured Physicists

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906)

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Entropy and disorder

The statistical interpretation of thermodynamics was pioneered by James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and brought to fruition by the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann.
figure 1.15, Ludwig BoltzmannFigure 1.15 Ludwig Boltzmann
(1844-1906)
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In 1877 Boltzmann used statistical ideas to gain valuable insight into the meaning of entropy. He realized that entropy could be thought of as a measure of disorder, and that the second law of thermodynamics expressed the fact that disorder tends to increase. You have probably noticed this tendency in everyday life! However, you might also think that you have the power to step in, rearrange things a bit, and restore order. For example, you might decide to tidy up your wardrobe. Would this lead to a decrease in disorder, and hence a decrease in entropy? Actually, it would not. This is because there are inevitable side-effects: whilst sorting out your clothes, you will be breathing, metabolizing and warming your surroundings. When everything has been taken into account, the total disorder (as measured by the entropy) will have increased, in spite of the admirable state of order in your wardrobe. The second law of thermodynamics is relentless. The total entropy and the total disorder are overwhelmingly unlikely to decrease.

Boltzmann's contribution was vital, but had a tragic outcome. Towards the end of the nineteenth century several puzzling facts (which eventually led to quantum theory), triggered a reaction against 'materialist' science, and some people even questioned whether atoms exist. Boltzmann, whose work was based on the concept of atoms, found himself cast as their chief defender and the debates became increasingly bitter. Always prone to bouts of depression, Boltzmann came to believe that his life's work had been rejected by the scientific community, although this was far from being true. In 1906, he committed suicide. If despair over rejection, or frustration over being unable to prove his point, were contributing factors the irony would be great indeed. Soon after Boltzmann's death, clinching evidence was found for atoms, and few would ever doubt their existence again.

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S207 The Physical World
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