“The Universe is Powered by Laziness”
(I obviously need more practice – I’m still not sure how coherent this explanation is to anyone but me. Comments welcome here – or if you prefer, you can contact me via XMPP (“Jabber”, “Google Talk”) at XMPP:firstname.lastname@example.org )
There you have it, the big secret that is at the heart of every single thing that happens in the natural world. Everything is the result of the Universe’s laziness. This is more or less what the Second Law of Thermodynamics says. In more proper language, it’s the observation that the total “disorder” in the universe is continually and unstoppably increasing.
I like to think of the universe as a big, fat, obnoxious sports fan. Picture him slouching in his couch. In one hand he’s holding a gigantic can of the most awful “lite beer” you can think of – you know, the one that only losers like – and in the other he’s got a giant foam hand with the logo of that team that only complete weenies like. He doesn’t even bother cheering – he just sits there, slouching as much as possible, maybe drooling a little, and wishing he could relax until he was nothing but an ever-spreading lump of flab…
So, what does this mean? Firstly, that there are always some “losses” whenever something happens. Basically, the universe can never manage to open a fresh can of that awful Lite Beer that it drinks without spilling at least a little bit of it on the floor. Secondly, that any bit of the universe you might happen to look at always wants to slouch a little further if it can.
That first part is what accounts for the “losses” in light of the “nothing magically disappears” observation previously mentioned. In the real world, no matter how carefully you build something, you can never quite get as much energy out of something as you put into it. You might get nearly all of it back out if you’re really careful, but no matter how carefully you hand 12 ounces of beer to the Universe, it always seems to end up with only 11.999999999 ounces of beer to drink. Or a lot less. It didn’t “disappear”, it just ended up soaked into the Universe’s filthy carpet where it is no longer available for anyone to drink. That beer-spillage is what physicists call “Entropy”. Or, “Heat no longer available to do Work“, if you want the proper physics definition.
The second part relates to the fact that there is a certain amount of “energy” inherent in the way any kind of matter is arranged. Matter, being part of the universe, is lazy, and doesn’t like having to hold onto all that energy. If you give it an opportunity, a piece of matter will tend to want to rearrange itself so that it’s not holding onto as much.
As an example, if you mix together some chemicals that will burn together if you light them, then seal them completely in a solid container, and set them off (by adding just a little bit of energy), you’ll find that the weight of the sealed container stays the same before and after…but it got really hot. That means there was energy released, and apparently a lot more than the little bit that started the whole thing – where did it come from?
The answer is that it was “built in” to the structure of the chemicals. Setting them off with a little bit of energy shoved the chemicals together just hard enough to let them recombine in a way that they didn’t have to hold on to all the energy they had up until then. All the energy the lazy chemicals let go showed up as heat. The little bit of energy you had to put in to get things started is what chemists call “activation energy”. It’s just there because those molecular slackers sure weren’t going to put out any extra effort to start rearranging – but once a couple of them are shoved together hard enough to make them get started, the energy they release is enough to shove a few more molecules together and get them to release more energy…and so on.
Because cool science types seem to avoid using whole words whenever possible, this energy that comes out is referred to as ?G. The total amount of energy that is “built in” to a particular molecule is referred to as “Gibbs’ Free Energy” (named after William Gibbs.)
So, for the last horrible analogy for now, let’s return to our big fat slob of a Universe slouching on his sofa. He’s been drinking that disgusting beer of his all night, and his bladder’s full. He’d really like to go to the bathroom but, eh, it’s too much effort to stand up. However, if you get behind him and shove hard enough to push him off of the sofa, then he figures while he’s up he might as well hit the bathroom before he sits back down. And, yes, I suppose that means it is my fault if next time you go camping, you end up waxing poetic and describing the nice, comfy campfire as “urinating heat and light on everybody”.
Microbiologically, that means that for a microbe to be able to live on some kind of “food”, it’s got to be possible to convert the food into substances with less energy built in, in such a way that it can capture and store some of the released energy in the process for its own use. It also means that if the microbe needs to make more of, say, some kind of enzyme (a more “ordered” combination of smaller molecules) it’ll have to shove in some energy to make up for the increased “order” while it assembles the parts.
Finally, what enzymes (or any other kinds of catalysts) do is reduce “activation energy” for a particular reaction, so bacteria don’t have to burst into flame in order to “burn” sugars for energy (for example).
And now I think I ought to go back to Microbiology posts before I get myself lynched by angry chemists and physicists for making a mess of this explanation…