Rethinking the 2nd Law
of Thermodynamics

Work and Energy
in the engineering perspective

Terry Bristol
Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy
Portland State University

7:00 pm Friday
May 6th, 2016


Season Tickets and Individual Tickets Online NOW!


Or Call 800.992.8499
No ticketing charge for Season Tickets.

What I refer to as Carnot's Epiphany is that we are engineers in a world of engineering.

Terry Bristol
Institute for Science,
Engineering and Public Policy

Terry Bristol is a Philosopher of Science and Engineering who has held teaching positions at Linfield College, Portland State University, and Portland Community College. He has been President of the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, affiliated with Portland State University since 1987. He graduated from University of California at Berkeley with a degree in Philosophy with an emphasis in the Philosophy of Science. Paul Feyerabend was his Honors Thesis Advisor at Berkeley. He then entered a PhD program at the University of London, working with Imre Lakatos and the 'Karl Popper Group' at the London School of Economics, completing five years of graduate research.

Terry Bristol served as President of the Columbia Willamette Chapter of Sigma Xi (Research Society of America) for several years. He has a number of both scientific and philosophical publications and has made numerous conference presentations. He is an active member of the Philosophy of Science Association, The History of Science Society, the Society for the History of Technology, the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology, Sigma Xi,The American Philosophical Association, the American Physical Society, and the AAAS.




The new physics called for a coherent post-objectivist Participant Worldview that can both explain (subsume) the successes of all classical mechanics, but in a new (superseding) way. It has now been nearly 100 years. What is holding things up? Where is the new theory?

Quantum cosmologist Lee Smolin, addressing a new batch of graduate students: “It is now 2010 and it has become rather kafkaesque that we have made no progress at all.”
One promising path worth exploring in the search for the new physics is a rethinking of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
One clue was offered by Oxford University quantum chemist Peter Atkins in his book, The Second Law (1984). “The aims adopted and the attitudes struck by Carnot and Boltzmann epitomize thermodynamics… Carnot traveled toward thermodynamics from the direction of the engine, then the symbol of industrial society: his aim was to improve its efficiency… Boltzmann traveled to thermodynamics from the atom, the symbol of emerging scientific fundamentalism: his aim was to increase our comprehension of the world at the deepest levels then conceived.”

Atkins continued: “Thermodynamics still has both aspects, and reflects complementary aims, attitudes, and applications.” That was the shocker. I was taught thermodynamics by physicists in the physics tradition and told that Carnot’s version was ‘merely’ an historical footnote on the way to Boltzmann’s correct formulation. Atkins’s almost casual remark was one of cornerstones of my efforts to rethink the Second Law.
Columbia physicist Brian Greene relates his experience in learning about one of the absurd entailment of the Boltzmann entropic account. “When I first encountered this idea many years ago, it was a bit of a shock. Up until that point, I had thought I understood the concept of entropy fairly well, but I’d only ever considered entropy’s implications for the future. While entropy applied toward the future confirms our intuition and experience, entropy applied toward the past just as thoroughly contradicts them. It wasn’t quite as bad as suddenly learning that you’ve been betrayed by a longtime friend, but for me, it was pretty close.”
Moving beyond this historic background I will argue that Boltzmann and Carnot thermodynamics are incompatible. As with the flat earth and the spherical earth analogy one of the two thermodynamics should be a idealizing special case subsumed by the other. Quite simply either Boltzmann eats Carnot or Carnot eats Boltzmann. Since the new physics pushes toward a Participant engineering-like perspective, I will explore whether Carnot’s engineering thermodynamics can subsume and supersede the limited, idealizing Spectator scientific perspective used by Boltzmann.

Two concepts illustrate the difference between Carnot's and Boltzmann's interpretations of the Second Law: energy and work.
One of Carnot's most important insight physical discoveries was that nothing happens with complete efficiency. There is always a 'loss' that can never be recovered to serve the original work. For engineering all work is a 'doings', and the 'loss' cannot be recaptured to serve the original doing. If this were not true it would be possible to have perpetual motion machines. All action, all work in engineering projects, in the world are likewise less than perfectly mechanical.

What I refer to as Carnot's Epiphany is we are all engineers in a world of engineering doing. This irreversible separation of doings and their loss generates a history and defines the Arrow of Time.
As Cambridge physicist John Barrow has emphasized, in modern physics action-reaction symmetry entails that everything adds up to zero. There is no 'real' change, and no net universe. Carnot's dissymmetry of doings has not only generates real historical change, it also has a product: a recursively unfolding universe.