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Introduction to entropy

Non-technical introduction to entropy / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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In thermodynamics, entropy is a numerical quantity that shows that many physical processes can go in only one direction in time. For example, cream and coffee can be mixed together, but cannot be "unmixed"; a piece of wood can be burned, but cannot be "unburned". The word 'entropy' has entered popular usage to refer a lack of order or predictability, or of a gradual decline into disorder.[1] A more physical interpretation of thermodynamic entropy refers to spread of energy or matter, or to extent and diversity of microscopic motion.

If a movie that shows coffee being mixed or wood being burned is played in reverse, it would depict processes impossible in reality. Mixing coffee and burning wood are "irreversible". Irreversibility is described by a law of nature known as the second law of thermodynamics, which states that in an isolated system (a system not connected to any other system) which is undergoing change, entropy increases over time.[2]

Entropy does not increase indefinitely. A body of matter and radiation eventually will reach an unchanging state, with no detectable flows, and is then said to be in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium. Thermodynamic entropy has a definite value for such a body and is at its maximum value. When bodies of matter or radiation, initially in their own states of internal thermodynamic equilibrium, are brought together so as to intimately interact and reach a new joint equilibrium, then their total entropy increases. For example, a glass of warm water with an ice cube in it will have a lower entropy than that same system some time later when the ice has melted leaving a glass of cool water. Such processes are irreversible: An ice cube in a glass of warm water will not spontaneously form from a glass of cool water. Some processes in nature are almost reversible. For example, the orbiting of the planets around the Sun may be thought of as practically reversible: A movie of the planets orbiting the Sun which is run in reverse would not appear to be impossible.

While the second law, and thermodynamics in general, is accurate in its predictions of intimate interactions of complex physical systems behave, scientists are not content with simply knowing how a system behaves, but want to know also why it behaves the way it does. The question of why entropy increases until equilibrium is reached was answered very successfully in 1877 by a famous scientist named Ludwig Boltzmann. The theory developed by Boltzmann and others, is known as statistical mechanics. Statistical mechanics is a physical theory which explains thermodynamics in terms of the statistical behavior of the atoms and molecules which make up the system. The theory not only explains thermodynamics, but also a host of other phenomena which are outside the scope of thermodynamics.