I Am Joe’s Blog:

September 15, 2006 • 5:43 PM

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Although I write about scientific topics from time to time and fantasize about being a mad scientist, my actual profession is that of a computer geek and writer, not a physicist. So what are the chances that twice, within a one-week period, I would be randomly queried about the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Pretty slim, I’d think…but then, I’m not a statistician either.

The first occasion was last Friday. Morgen and I were on vacation in Las Vegas, and we were having a drink at Quark’s Bar in the Star Trek-themed portion of the Las Vegas Hilton. (I highly recommend the Star Trek: The Experience Backstage Tour, by the way!) When I say “a drink,” I don’t mean just any drink, but the strongest drink in, probably, the entire galaxy: a Warp Core Breach, which contains 10 ounces of liquor (and various other ingredients), plus dry ice in the bottom of the fish bowl-sized glass to make a nice steam effect. (It wasn’t our first one of these, incidentally, though it was the first on this particular trip.)

So we’d gotten about a third of the way through this when a guy in full Klingon makeup and costume comes up to us and starts dishing out the usual “humans are so weak” insults. (We were also visited by an Andorian and, I think, a Ferengi.) We played along as best we could. I don’t remember the exact exchange, but it must have had something to do with the dry ice, and I was presumably making the point that humans could actually be pretty smart on occasion. The Klingon challenged me: “What’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics?” I couldn’t think of it and hesitated, pointing at the drink and complaining that it was affecting my cognition. “Fine,” he said, “What’s the Third Law of Thermodynamics?” I couldn’t think of that one either. The Klingon grunted and moved on.

Now, I would have loved to put a Klingon in his place, and I felt a bit ashamed at my performance there, because I am in fact pretty familiar with the laws of thermodynamics, having written about them in my article on Perpetual Motion Machines. Had my head been clearer, I might have rattled them off, if not necessarily in the right order. But, of course, due to the nature of my occupation, this isn’t the sort of material I generally need to keep on the tip of my tongue.

Then yesterday morning I got an email from someone who’d read the aforementioned article and claimed he’d invented a device that could “escape” the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He explained this little project in great detail, and although I didn’t fully comprehend it, it seemed to amount to a way of recovering otherwise lost heat energy and turning it into electricity. That, of course, is fine as far as it goes, but if it doesn’t go all the way, and clearly it can’t, then it won’t in fact violate the Second Law. Which, for the record, goes like this (at least in one formulation):

Heat cannot be turned into other forms of energy with 100% efficiency.

I’m at a loss to know what cosmic meaning I should attach to this remarkable coincidence, but it certainly reinforces the value of, for example, brushing up on my physics and keeping my distance from Klingons in bars.