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The Auto Industry and Entropy

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There is a letter circulating around the Internet, purportedly from a “senior level Chrysler employee,” which — like many bits of so-called information that make their way around your Web machine — is completely false. However, in the pay-it-forward spirit of false Internet rumors, I will repeat it here.

Members of the Obama administration’s auto task force, the story goes, met with David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, and suggested that the Second Law of Thermodynamics could possibly be repealed by Congress in order to speed development of a hybrid electric and liquid natural gas vehicle.

Quick physics lesson: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in crude terms, says that all the stuff in the universe tends to go from order to chaos. Yes, we’re all on the road to entropy, or disorder. When you think about it, the U.S. government just might be taking on the forces of the universe in its attempt to revive the U.S. auto industry.

But that’s neither here nor there. I checked with Cole. The story’s not true. However, also in the spirit of urban legend, many of us would very much like it to be true because it illustrates the general consensus around these parts that the government is simply out of its depth in trying to micromanage the auto industry. Cole, himself, in a written statement debunking the letter, could not resist getting in a dig that lends credence to the spirit of the false rumor. Cole wrote, “The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a minimum understanding of manufacturing (including the auto industry and its critical role in our economy).”

And that was Cole being tactful. Last year, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft put it more bluntly, calling politicians “ignorant” and in need of an education on what exactly it takes to compete with the Asians in plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle technology.

Which brings us back to physics. Government has a knack for creating a kind of Schroedinger’s Cat, where simply the act of observation forces the feline into a state of life or death. Government was the harbinger of death for corn ethanol and nickel metal hydride batteries.

Yes, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything goes from order to disorder. But, you know, it does seem like anything the government touches is hurried along that entropic path. No wonder it would make sense for Congress to try to repeal that inconvenient law.

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  • Doug Hunter

    The second law of thermodynamics has always fascinated me. I still believe there is a chance, and one worth researching, that there could be a way to violate it. In fact, the law doesn’t even hold at quantum levels. It’s a numbers and statistics game not a physical mechanism that prevents it.

    Wiser men than me have pointed at the foolishness of thinking the laws of thermodynamics can be defeated but it nags at me that the very concept of the universe, it’s existence, and the big bang certainly appear to violate the laws as they are understood to apply to us. (i.e. energy cannot be created or order arise from chaos)

    The second law is not about creating something from nothing, it’s about ordering things that already exist. Working around it would allow us for example to recycle heat energy over and over. Air conditioners would serve as generators instead of power consumers. Just reordering alone, without creating something from nothing, would provide energy for the world at many, many times it’s current level of usage.

    Defeating the second, or other, laws of thermodynamics would be far and away the greatest technological feat of all time and would usher humanity into a period of prosperity (and likely peace) that would be unknown and even unimaginable to humans up to this point. For that fact alone the government should be investigating heavily any chinks in their armor.

  • Zep Mannaerts, NL

    It is noteworthy that for some reason we have a problem to face the truth when inconvenient. The truth about the Second Law is that it is ill-understood and it should be our first concern to create a working minority that does grasp it.

  • Howard Lovy

    And, the Internet urban legend keeps popping up, this time from David Galland of Casey Research.