When things go wrong – AND THEY DO – it’s sometimes nice to remember that we’re not privy to the ‘big picture’ for which things might just be going right. We’re like football players on the losing team having to listen to the players on the winning team thanking God in false humility for their win. If we believed them, we would have to wonder why God doesn’t like us. In the somewhat more scientific big picture, we and all our associated ‘things’ involve dense clumpings of uncountable numbers of small things. Those small things act in ways that defy the clumping and over whose behavior we have very little control — it’s like herding cats, only more difficult to the point of impossibility. Entropy, remember? We, and the things that are dear to us in one way or another, are ensembles in a larger thermodynamic system that is not enthralled with ‘our’ dirty business that deals with products and services that may be good for us and ‘good enough for government work’ but in no absolute sense.
Thermodynamics is a theory, that concerns itself with these small things and their behavior that typically make our lives difficult, but applies exclusively to ideal systems. It applies to systems for which the ‘ideal gas law’ applies. So the problems it solves are limited to those for which reasonable approximations to ‘ideal’ gases pertain. This may not seem very useful, but it actually works very well. That is because thermal systems that are not in equilibrium (ideal gas situation), actively strive to become ideal. Whereas we are used to ‘whatever can go wrong, will go wrong’ because of entropy, entropy is actually what fixes a thermodynamic system by enforcing the sharing of excessive speeds of particles that defy the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution with the less fortunate in the system. You may have noticed that our social and political systems do not work that way; the regulations that would drive our social systems to an equilibrated ideal situation are broken. Would that there were such enforced laws and regulations as a graduated income tax and that Bezos, Musk, Kochs, Gates, the Waltons, the Sacklers, etc. all submitted themselves to such laws for the betterment of our entire society. But alas, they put in billions of dollars in campaign funds to further corrupt any ideal situation.
Entropy may be the scourge of us all, but it is what drives systems to ideal situations of equilibrium. So although entropy wreaks havoc with our orderly everyday processes, it is as close as one could ever get to a process that strives for the ideal. But that kind of ideal is not what we typically mean by the term; it is certainly not what the Koch brothers mean. Engines work by cycling through stages of bringing in resources from outside the system to force a non-ideal situation that drives a piston and benefits us from the system’s propensity to reestablish equilibrium – to undo the damage we have done to it. Using a thermal system to produce ‘work’ requires an energetic influx from outside the system. Perhaps billions of lobbying dollars to make the system work for you. A portion of that energy influx will be converted into work that was intended, the rest will be incorporated into a reconstituted system that will then strive to attain a new equilibrium. Once a system reaches an equilibrium condition it can do no more work; it may have incorporated a tremendous amount of energy but that energy is unavailable for exploitation. It needs more. There is no free lunch.