The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

There is Only Entropy:
Unifying the Narrative of Science

In Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, Niels Bohr wrote that initial attempts to unite the scientific story failed because scientists lacked a broad narrative for the history of science. He believed that quantum physics could unite with biology for a more comprehensive theory of scientific understanding. He wrote:

…the reasons for the shortcomings of these pioneer efforts to utilize physics and chemistry for a comprehensive explanation of the properties of living organisms are evident. Not only had one to wait for Lavoisier’s time for the disclosure of the elementary principles of chemistry, which were to give the clue to understanding of respiration and later to provide the basis for the extraordinary development of so-called organic chemistry, but, before Galvani’s discoveries, a whole fundamental aspect of the laws of physics lay still hidden. It is most suggestive to think that the germ which, in the hands of Volta, Oersted, Faraday, and Maxwell, was to develop into a structure rivalling Newtonian mechanics in importance, grew out of researches with a biological aim.1

It is important to revisit Bohr’s idea now because researchers in all the disciplines of science are, in some way, aware of the centrality of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, since the Second Law was not really expressed until 1824 (and not really noticed by theorists for nearly a century or so afterward), it came well after physics, biology, and chemistry had already been established as separate fields with separate nomenclature and historical narratives.

The compartmentalized nature of science prevents this understanding from coalescing into a coherent narrative, and this had led to much confusion in the narrative of science. A single concept can unite the history and philosophy of science, but this will require a thorough understanding of how every significant scientific insight can be described as a variant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A coherent understanding of science leads to a coalescing of the scientific narrative under the one conceit that is true across the branches of science: there is only entropy.

I: The Traditional Narrative

The Pre-Socratic philosophers of the Greek tradition developed an “Ionian Enchantment” (E.O. Wilson’s term from his book Consilience2) beginning in the 7th century BCE. The Pre-Socratics were obsessed with a single question: what is the fundamental nature of matter? The answers ranged from water (Thales), to hypothetical unbreakable particles (Democritus), to whole numbers (Pythagoras), to shades of a perfect mathematical world (Plato). The Pre-Socratics asked questions beyond what the technology and mathematical sophistication of the era could answer.

Medieval Indian mathematicians developed the numbers 1–9, created a heliocentric theory, and understood that the Earth rotated on its axis. By 500 CE the number “0” developed in India. A couple of centuries later, mathematicians in the Islamic Empires incorporated those numerals into new kinds of mathematics, creating Al-Jabr, or algebra in the process.

Western society was held back mathematically by Roman numerals. Some people in the West admired Eastern mathematics but few in the West used “Arabic” numbers until the 13th century mathematician Fibonacci explained how beneficial 0–9 could be for making money on interest payments.

Between 1250 and 1500, the compass allowed for Europeans to sail to the Americas. Exploration, according to David Wootton, created the entire concept of “discovery” that is so central to science.3 Aristotle, and his mistaken concepts of motion, became central to the medieval scholarly institutions, and block printing synthesized with metallurgy to create the printing press. Gunpowder, brought from China by the Mongols, synthesized with church-bell making technology to make cannon. Suddenly, spheres flying at high velocities could be observed and they flew in arcs, not straight lines.

Then, the Protestant Reformation of 1517 shattered the authority of the Catholic Church, and not long after, the Polish astronomer Copernicus theorized a heliocentric “solar” system. In the early 17th century, Galileo used his telescope to observe the night sky and provided hard evidence to support Copernicus. The printing press allowed for ideas, including scientific ideas, to “stick” in society in a way that they never had been able to during similar eras in China, India, or the Islamic world.

Although Galileo’s challenges with the church are well-known, the “natural philosophers” of the day recognized his achievement and in 1620, Francis Bacon codified the era’s intellectual shift in his book Novum Organum. Bacon’s book was a work of educational theory; scholars should look to create knowledge through experimentation rather than just study the old knowledge created by the ancients.

Then, of course, there was Newton, who created a theory of universal gravitation, including the Inverse Square Law. Putting Newton’s myth-making about the apple aside, he really superimposed the physics of small spheres (cannonballs) moving in relation to the Earth’s gravity onto big spheres (planets) as they moved in relation to the Sun’s gravity.

Modern physics, and the concept of gravity, therefore developed before modern chemistry which was not really created until Antoine Lavoisier concluded that mass could be neither created nor destroyed, thus developing the famous Law of Conservation (1789).

Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species was written based on biological facts collected from the natural world, and he made no reference to chemistry or physics in his work. Not long after Darwin, the Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev created the Periodic Table of Elements.

The development of major theories in physics, chemistry, and biology came through traditional experimentation and observation, but the Machine Age seems to have driven the mind of French natural philosopher Sadi Carnot who noted in Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire (1824) that every interaction that takes place in a machine ultimately results in a loss of heat.

This finding, which would eventually become known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, came too late to be incorporated as the central ideology in the other sciences. Carnot’s book did not garner the same level of attention as, for example, On the Origin of Species, and the concept of entropy (heat loss) remained relatively obscure.

In the early 20th century, Einstein developed E=MC2, thus answering the pre-Socratic question about the fundamental nature of matter: the answer is “energy.” This was followed by the development of quantum mechanics.

This narrative is not wrong, but because the initial question of the Pre-Socratics has its limitations, because the concepts of gravity, and conservation of mass and energy were developed before entropy was understood, and because writers of the scientific narrative tend to focus on specific discoveries, the whole history becomes a confusion of various disconnected narratives.

II: Understanding Entropy

The 20th and 21st centuries have led us to understand that entropy is central to virtually all scientific phenomena. Consider the fact that vision goggles work in the absence of light because living animals radiate. The center of the Earth is hot because even stable elements radiate, and when packed together, they create heat. Stephen Hawking proved that even black holes radiate, which is another way of saying that Black Holes are subject to entropy.

As Sadi Carnot noted in 1824, energy was always lost in any machine interaction.4

What if this had been discovered in 1600 and then incorporated into the other sciences as they were being developed? What if the Pre-Socratics had asked “why does everything decay?” rather than “what is the fundamental nature of matter?”

Such “what if” questions about the past are useless as intellectual exercises unless they help us to rethink the centralization of the narrative. Consider what happened when quantum physics was developed after the understanding of the Second Law.

In his 2017 book Now: The Physics of Time, Richard Muller correlated the Second Law of Thermodynamics to time.5 The Second Law is not absolute in every interaction, but an increase in entropy is guaranteed through the law of large numbers. This is why time goes forward. Further, if energy is always lost in an interaction, that produces heat, which is what makes a perpetual motion machine impossible. Physicists broadly understand this, but the correlation between entropy, chemistry, and physics has still not been unified, even though Niels Bohr is generally credited with having brought physics and chemistry together in the early 20th century.

This might seem obvious, but everything important in science got discovered out of order. Let’s start over and piece it together again, knowing what we now know.

III: There is Only Entropy: Restructuring the Narrative

Superimposing entropy back to the beginning of the universe creates a possibility for a more coherent scientific narrative.

“Time” is a relational concept, regarding movement, between two objects. A clock keeps steady movement in a world where movement is often chaotic. Temperature is a more direct measurement of movement precisely because work creates heat. Time began, therefore, with movement. Scientists can identify only one known state where there is no movement, and that is in a pure crystalline substance at 0 degrees Kelvin (see: The Third Law of Thermodynamics).

We might ask ourselves, then, not “why is there something rather than nothing?” but “why is the universe not 0 degrees Kelvin?” The answer to that may simply be that there are more ways to be not 0 degrees Kelvin than there are ways to be 0 degrees Kelvin.

This must be said because, while it makes sense that if the universe is expanding then it must have once been closer together, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to posit a single infinitely dense particle, because that equation indicates heat, and if there’s heat then there is movement, and therefore time.

We might therefore imagine, with some statistical certainty, a dense particle that was cold (0 Kelvin) and not moving. If the universe is expanding, then it is always at peak size. However, if it is always trending towards disorder, then it is also always at peak entropy. Reversing the concept of entropy to a singularity makes more sense than reversing movement to a singularity for reasons to be explained.

The emission of a beta particle from a 0 degrees Kelvin singularity (similar to Hawking radiation) can be seen as the first movement. This would be more in keeping with a modern understanding and prevents us from conjuring up mathematical models based off of predictions (postdictions?) that get less likely to reject the null hypothesis the further back they go.

Because of the concept of a “big bang” is based on reversing motion, it requires that the physicists posit the idea that we can measure the movements of that explosion by putting a hypothetical earth in rotation around a hypothetical sun, and then setting that outside of the real movements of particles so that modern scientists can have the reference point of a “year.” The universe does not allow us this hypothetical reference point. This is why reversing entropy to a singularity makes more sense. No reference point is needed.

In the beginning, there was radiation, which is entropy, which is movement, which is time. From that, what we call “energy” should be defined as one object’s temporary capture of another object’s entropy. The Sun doesn’t shine, it is radiating away and the Earth captures this temporarily to create temporary order. Entropy fuels biological evolution but also ensures only temporary order in an organism, hence the pressures on life to replicate for a future generation with greater capabilities to capture entropy.

The Pre-Socratics asked “what is the fundamental nature of matter” not “why does everything decay?” This, plus Aristotle’s ruminations on motion, framed the scientific enterprise in a particular way so that, in 1666 Newton focused on why the apple fell, not why it rotted. It does no violence to the inverse square law to say that Newton “discovered” that the law of large numbers can determine that atoms move away from each other in a force proportional to their mass. The Inverse Square Law can just as easily be used to describe how entropy’s movement allows for objects to separate. The law of large numbers, not discovered until 1713 when the Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli worked out the equations, joins Newtonian physics with the quantum in a coherent way.

Newton’s calculations just happened to be worked out in a particular place and point of time where the Earth’s mass was large enough to temporarily hold back the entropy of the apple on a macro-scale. On a micro-scale, the apple still radiates away, which is why it rots and decays over time. Had Newton known about entropy, he might have described the elongation of the force of entropy as objects separate, rather than the gravitational force of objects coming together.

If enough entropy is borrowed from another decaying source, then the apple’s entropy can escape. The reason this is hard to see is because the ratio of the Earth to the Apple is not really that skewed. If the Earth was made as heavy as a black hole and the apple as small as a beta particle, then we would now accept the fact of its radiation.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is not linear and absolute, in the sense that not every interaction causes radiation that can be detected, but in the aggregate, the interactions create heat. This means that, exothermic reactions produce entropy while endothermic reactions temporarily absorb the entropy from another interaction. It does no violence to Einstein’s equation if we make the E stand for entropy rather than energy. It makes more sense to say that nuclear physics releases entropy, because that force does not become energy until it is temporarily captured by another object.

This makes everything clear, because we can think of the elements on the Periodic table as being arranged based on their temporary resistance to entropy. When elements interact, they release heat just as surely as Carnot found that machines do. Humans evolved on the surface of the Earth, absorbing a certain amount of entropy from the Sun and becoming resistant to most of the radiation (entropy) in the objects on the surface of the Earth. If we come into contact with materials that radiate faster that what are cells are used to, this can tear away DNA and caused defects and cancers.

What caused confusion at the dawn of quantum physics was the fact that equations in both physics and chemistry were based on the macro-level where the law of large numbers creates a ratio disparity between particles that makes entropy unimportant for temporary purposes. It doesn’t matter, really, if there is some small level of heat loss that occurs when sodium and chloride are combined, as long as table salt results. Stoichiometry assures a balanced equation that is practical to use, but not exactly accurate. The balanced equation on the right is a little less than the balanced equation on the left. The same is true of how large objects, composed of aggregated particles, act in relation to each other.

But quantum mechanics is the study of the radiated particles, and, individualized, the law of large numbers no longer applies to their behavior. This is why, as Heisenberg discovered, quantum equations are not commutative. If there is an interaction, then there is heat loss, and that cannot be reversed. (In a real way, this is measurable as the paper you write your equation on is slightly hotter after the writing than it was before.) Matrix algebra allows for the quantum physicist to equate the position of a particle to a state of heat loss based on the interaction, but that cannot be reversed.

This is why work creates heat, but heat does not create work. The Second Law is not commutative because time cannot go backwards overall, entropy can be borrowed temporarily to reverse some processes, but overall, everything decays.

Entropy keeps the arrow of time moving; today is less ordered than yesterday, and this is certain. If we extrapolate this concept backwards, through our scientific narrative to the origins of the universe, then we must postdict a universe that was once ordered only through its lack of movement, which means it was frozen. But even then, as Galileo once said of the Earth, eppur si muove, but it does move. And if it moves, it creates heat, and understanding that creates a more coherent scientific narrative. END

About the Author

Chris Edwards, EdD, teaches AP world history and an English course on critical thinking at a public high school in the Midwest and is the author of To Explain It All: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Popularity of World History Today; Connecting the Dots in World History; Femocracy: How Educators Can Teach Democratic Ideals and Feminism; and Beyond Obsolete: How to Upgrade Classroom Practice and School Structure. He is a frequent contributor to Skeptic magazine.

  1. Bohr, N. (1961). Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge. (p.15) Dover Publications
  2. Wilson, E.O. (1999). Consilience: The Unification of Knowledge.
  3. Wootton, D. (2016) The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. Harper
  4. Carnot, S. (1824) Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire. (p. 19) Dover Publications.
  5. Muller, R. A. (2017) Now: The Physics of Time. W.W. Norton and Company
  6. Nash, L.K. (1962). Elements of Chemical Thermodynamics. (p. 56) Dover Publications.

This article was published on February 21, 2023.

Skeptic Magazine App on iPhone


Whether at home or on the go, the SKEPTIC App is the easiest way to read your favorite articles. Within the app, users can purchase the current issue and back issues. Download the app today and get a 30-day free trial subscription.

Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, available on the App Store
Download the Skeptic Magazine App for Android, available on Google Play
SKEPTIC • 3938 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara, CA, 93105-3114 • 1-805-576-9396 • Copyright © 1992–2023. All rights reserved • Privacy Policy