The Thermodynamic Game

In order to understand what it means — and what is doesn’t mean — to be a human, I think it’s important to understand the laws of thermodynamics.

These laws were originally developed to describe the behavior of steam, and the intent was to understand better how to build a steam engine.  They turned out to be pretty darn good rules; in fact, they turned out to be so fundamentally true, they are now accepted as key descriptors of reality.  They say something about how all energy is handled in the universe, and they apply to really big issues, like what happened after the Big Bang and how evolution happens.

These laws don’t have to be difficult to understand, but most of us don’t understand them very well.  That’s because your high-school science teacher didn’t understand them.  I’m going to fix that.

First, let’s remember how the whole thing started.  We are going to start with a box of steam, think about what happens to that steam, and figure out how to get some work out of it.  I know steam engines have a heat source — there’s a fire in there somewhere — but we are going to ignore the fire for now.

Here’s what we know.

  1.  That box of steam isn’t going to get any hotter, just sitting there.
  2. In fact, it’s going to cool off eventually.  How cool it gets just depends on the environment.  If the box is sitting outside in Florida in August, it won’t get much cooler than 90 degrees.  If it’s in Minnesota in February, it’ll get pretty darn cold.
  3. If the box gets cold enough, the steam will eventually turn into ice.  Once it turns into ice, it isn’t going to change any more regardless of how cold it gets.

That’s really pretty much it.

If you’re building a steam engine, you need to look at rule 2 and figure out how to take some of the heat in the steam and turn it into work before it cools off too much.

If you’re trying to figure out what it means to be a human, you have to look at rule 3 and understand where the whole thing is going.  Now, the actual rules of thermodynamics don’t use the term “ice,” because we are talking about everything, not just water.  So we made up a term called “entropy” to describe the end-state of systems as it pertains to their energy budget.  This is where the confusion comes in; people don’t understand what entropy is.

So let’s start with a discussion of entropy.  Then we will drill down into the actual laws of thermodynamics, and we will express those laws in terms of game theory.  Finally, we will see what those laws tell us, and don’t tell us, about the game of life.