Second Law of Thermodynamics


Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist



Don’t let the title of his essay turn you off — this is not going to be a column about physics or science. However, there are some laws of physics that impact our everyday lives. I think that we should all have a basic understanding of anything that influences us on a daily basis … even physics.

For me to understand physics, I have to keep it simple. So, if you’re a scientist, if you really have a deep understanding of the whole thermodynamics thingy, I apologize for the basic, simplistic approach I’m taking.

The three laws of thermodynamics have to do with the interrelationships between energy and matter.

The first law of thermodynamics simply states that neither energy nor matter can be created or destroyed. Matter can change from a gas to a liquid to a solid. Explosions can occur. Rapid releases of energy are common. However, nothing new is ever truly created and nothing old is ever truly destroyed. Matter and energy can be changed, but it is never destroyed. It is just changed.

The second law of thermodynamics states that, within any system, nothing ever remains the same. Change is constant. Obviously, if energy or matter is added or removed from a system, it changes. However, even if we leave a system completely alone, it changes; it deteriorates over time. This is referred to as entropy.

For example, ice in a cooler will eventually melt, a wristwatch will eventually wind down and stop, your car will stop running when it runs out of gas, streets will eventually deteriorate to gravel. There is no such thing as perpetual motion. Everything slows down. Everything, if left unattended, will deteriorate.

The third law of thermodynamics has to do with the rate of change slowing down as the temperature decreases. In fact, when the temperature approaches absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius), there is a complete absence of heat. Nothing changes at that temperature. Even molecular movement stops.

So, how does this impact our daily lives?

Good friends of mine have a house that sits on a little less than five acres. About 30 years ago, they got tired of mowing the entire lot. They loved walking to the back of their 5-acre lot and looking over their neighbor’s field. They loved watching the crops grow and the cattle and deer graze, but it took many, many hours every week to keep it all mowed.

They decided to employ the second law of thermodynamics: They quit mowing the back several acres.

Actually, they chose a walking path that meandered over their lot. They fashioned a small area near the back of their property where they could enjoy a small fire. They even erected a small platform so they could watch the wildlife. Every week, they would only mow the path. The rest of the acreage was allowed to go wild.

Today, they have a 30-year old forest on the back of their lot. It’s beautiful.

When they stopped caring for the property, it changed. It went back to nature. That is the second law of thermodynamics. If left unattended, entropy, disorder and deterioration will occur. The system will change.

The city of Wilmington can be considered a system.

Over the past decade, but particularly since 2008, local government has lacked the resources to add energy to our community. As Wilmington’s revenue plummeted, as funding from the state and federal government dried up, as the city’s cost-of-doing-business constantly increased, the city has slowly started to deteriorate.

Recently, I even heard someone say that our city was starting to look “a little shabby.” Sadly, I agree.

Streets throughout every neighborhood are aging, cracking and growing potholes at an alarming rate. Since funding for city code enforcement dried up, many private properties have been allowed to grow shabby.

As the second law of thermodynamics teaches us, anything, if left unattended, will deteriorate. That’s not just an observation about Wilmington. It’s simple physics.

To reverse this trend, to bring life back into our beloved community, for the future of Wilmington, we need to bring more energy, more funding, into our city. We need to approve the 0.5-percent city tax in November.

Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.

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Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist

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