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About the Book
Into the Cool is a scientific tour de force showing how evolution, ecology, economics and life itself are organized by energy flow and the laws of thermodynamics. There are natural, animate and inanimate systems like hurricanes and life whose complexity are not the result of conscious human design, nor of divine caprice, nor of repeated, computer-like functions. The common key to all organized systems is how they control their energy flow.

It bears directly on our deepest understanding of life and its operations. Among those who have developed, clarified, and tried to improve upon the foundations of classical thermodynamics are some of the greatest names in the history of science: Carnot, Clausius, Boltzmann, Gibbs, Maxwell, Planck, and Einstein. But theirs was a thermodynamics of equilibrium systems—systems that were boring, because they were headed toward stasis, an end state where nothing (or at least nothing of interest) happened. "Heaven is a place," David Byrne sings, "where nothing ever happens." Indeed, the initial investigations of thermodynamics were prematurely extrapolated to the entire universe to predict an end state more boring than heaven, colder than hell—a nonmystical apocalypse more meaningless than the most pessimistic fantasy of the most depressed philosopher. This foregone scientific conclusion was called the "heat death" of the universe...

Far from predicting cosmic burnout, modern thermodynamics shows how complex structures, living or not, often come into being, expand, and increase their complexity in regions of the universe exposed to energy flow; because the interaction of the fundamental forces of the universe (gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces) are not completely integrated, nor the total matter of the universe known, guarantees of a heat death (or even an end) are not scientifically credible. This book focuses on how thermodynamics has evolved over the past fifty years to allow for the study of a new class of thermodynamic systems known as nonequilibrium or dissipative systems because they exist some distance away from equilibrium. The structures studied by this science include thunderheads, whirlpools, intricate chemical cycles, and life...

This idea that nature abhors a gradient, one of the key ideas of this book, is very simple: A gradient is simply a difference (for example, in temperature, pressure, or chemical concentration) across a distance. Nature's abhorrence of gradients means that they will tend spontaneously to be eliminated most spectacularly by complex, growing systems. The simple concept of collapsing gradients encapsulates the difficult science of thermodynamics, demystifies entropy (as important to the universe as gravity), and illuminates how all complex structures and processes, including those of life, come naturally into being.

The classical students of thermodynamics recognized both the power and limitations of their science. They knew that they lived in a world quite separate from the highly idealized systems where maximum entropy and disorder reigned. Nowhere was this apparent conflict so dramatic as when one compared evolving life to the prediction that random processes would lead to the heat death of the universe. The second law in its original formulation foretold things inexorably losing their ability to do work, burning out and fading away until all states are in or near equilibrium with no energy left to run organisms or machines. But life demonstrates an opposite, evolutionary tendency, of complexity increasing with time.

How? This was the heart of the paradox. In this book we call it the Schrönger paradox after the quantum physicist who first focused on the need to explain life's apparent defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law, in its basic original form, states that entropy (atomic or molecular randomness) will inevitably increase in any sealed system. Yet living beings preserve and even elaborate exquisite atomic and molecular patterns over eons.

Eric Schneider had begun a mission, a scientific quest for biological-ecological bedrock. Acquainting himself with the energy ecologists, he looked for the ecological equivalent of Newton's laws, the F = ma (force = mass acceleration) of physics. Where were the simple equations such as those that describe transport in fluids (the so-called Navier-Stokes equations) for ecosystems? Did they even exist? At first it seemed they might not. Yet the search for them, detailed in Erwin Schröinger's famous 1944 book, What Is Life? certainly did. The three lectures upon which Schröinger's book was based outlined two future sciences: the molecular biology that has proved to be such a force in the world, and the thermodynamics of biology that has yet to prove its mettle. Schr?inger's second subject is the topic of the present book. Into the Cool should be considered a journey into the heart of an emerging science that combines life with physics in a mix that may some day be as potent as molecular biology and as practical as biotechnology. In this book we test our "biothermodynamic" thoughts against the data and extend them into economics, human health, the sustainability of ecosystems, and the possibility of life in outer space.

© 2005 Hawkwood Institute Eric D. Schneider Into the Cool