Sunday, January 10, 2010

Resolve to battle entropy

Thanks to Sean Carroll for bringing Ludwig Boltzmann back to my frontal cortex. After re-reading Ludwig's Wikipedia page I realized Lise Meitner was his graduate student! My imagination went wild thinking of the intense conversations they must have had about moral philosophy especially as it relates to evolution.

Carroll's video also triggered a memory from the ascent of man series where Jacob Bronoski is exalting Botzmann at his tomb in Vienna. This clip points out a little talked about fact - that Boltzmann was an early follower of Darwin and actually used his own theories in statistical mechanics to provide a rational for the emergence of entropically negative life forms - which always seemed to be irrational in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. Ultimately it was Boltzmann who first suggested that the surplus of energy that basks our planet from the sun is the reason life is physically possible. And he saw that evolution works in this context by trapping things that "work" or survive.  The same kind of realization came to me while reading Richard Dawkin's latest book.  While Dawkins describes studies in the evolution of e. coli metabolism he reveals how traits that increase the growth curve plateau randomly emerge and are held onto like a staircase of stratified stability. Understanding this concept is key to battling the oft used creationist argument that things like the human eye "just popped into existence!"  The eye gets to be an eye by a series of emerging genetic events that each, on their own merit, benefit the bearer.

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