11
$\begingroup$

What force causes entropy to increase?

I realize that the second law of thermodynamics requires the entropy of a system to increase over time. For example, gas stored in a canister, if opened inside a vacuum chamber, will expand to fill the chamber.

But I’m not clear on what force, exactly, is acting upon the molecules of gas that causes them to fly out of the opened canister and fill the chamber.

Just looking for a concise explanation as to what is going on at the fundamental level, since obviously, the second law of thermodynamics is not a force and therefore does not cause anything to happen.

$\endgroup$
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ If you know it isn't a force then why are you asking what the force is? $\endgroup$ – Aaron Stevens Apr 12 at 0:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Entropy doesn’t have inertia, as far as I know. $\endgroup$ – Dale Apr 12 at 3:20
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Your concept of how gasses work is backwards, and that is impeding your ability to reason correctly about entropy. The question is not "what force causes the gas to escape the container?" The question you should be considering is "what force keeps the gas inside the container?" Gas doesn't require a force to expand into a vacuum; it requires a force to not expand into a vacuum! The force is provided by the walls of the container. $\endgroup$ – Eric Lippert Apr 12 at 6:02
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I'd say that this "force" is called statistics. $\endgroup$ – Eric Duminil Apr 12 at 16:10
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Entropy is just the observation that there are many more ways for something to be disordered than ordered, and if any one way to be chosen at random, it wouldn't be likely to be the ordered way. It's the same reason why destruction is so much easier than building. When you build something, there's only a small set of specific desirable end states in particular that you're trying to achieve. When you're demolishing something, you're much more vague in your expectations, so many more end states "fit" your need. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 12 at 17:21
29
$\begingroup$

This might not be as detailed as you want, but really all the second law says is that the most likely thing will happen. The reason we can associate certainty with something that seems random is because when we are looking at systems with such a large number of particles, states, etc. anything that is not the most likely is essentially so unlikely that we would have to wait for times longer than he age of the universe to observe them to happen by chance.

Therefore, as you say in your last paragraph, there is no force associated with entropy increase. It's just a statement of how systems will move towards more likely configurations.

For the specific example you give of Joule expansion the (classical) gas molecules are just moving around according to Newton's laws as they collide with each other and the walls of the container. There is no force "telling" the gas to expand to the rest of the container. It's just most likely that we will end up with a uniform gas concentration in the container.

$\endgroup$
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ To elaborate on "all the second law says is that the most likely thing will happen"... Let's say that you are about to do an experiment where you plan to flip a coin 1 billion times. Before you start, I come up and say, "I bet you my entire life savings that you don't get heads 1 billion times in a row". And you say, "Oh yeah, what is the force that is going to prevent the coin from being heads 1 billion times in a row?" Well there is no such force. It is absolutely possible that I could lose the bet. But it's not very likely. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Kiracofe Apr 12 at 21:25
14
$\begingroup$

From your question, it seems that you call force whatever may be considered as a cause of something happening. However, this it is not the way the concept of force is used in Physics nowadays.

For instance, after Galilei, the uniform motion of a free body far from any other system is an process which does not require a force to happen. At variance, it is the fingerprint of the absence of a net force, according to the Newton's definition of force.

The case of the canister is similar. It is the "closed" configuration which implies the presence of a force to constrain the gas molecules to remain inside. When you remove the constrain (open the canister) motion of molecules continues without the confining force. The result is their diffusion in the whole available volume just because that is the most probable macroscopic configuration.

$\endgroup$
7
$\begingroup$

All forces increase entropy if they result in change. The only systems not increasing in entropy are either perfectly static, or already at maximum entropy.

In the case of gas expanding to fill a vacuum, the molecules in the gas are moving around chaotically inside the container. When the seal breaks, that random motion allows molecules to cross the boundary as a matter of course. Given that all the molecules start on one side of the boundary, the next event is certain: a molecule crosses the boundary into the "vacuum" side. Molecules can cross in both directions, but the "into the vacuum side" possibility remains more probable until the molecules are evenly distributed in the new space. At that point, movement in both directions is equally likely, and the system has reached its new maximum entropy.

$\endgroup$
6
$\begingroup$

This is a bit "out there" but it has been conjectured that entropy is in fact what defines our arrow of time. It's not that entropy increases with time, but rather that our perception of time aligns with entropy increase.

Notably, the thermodynamic arrow of time ties the two together by definition: the thermodynamic arrow of time is simply defined as flowing in the direction of entropy increase.

It is arguably impossible to test experimentally whether our perception of the arrow of time is due to the thermodynamic arrow of time, thus potentially relegating this topic to fringe science. It is however well established that information processing and entropy are intrinsically linked: information processing necessitates a certain entropy increase to occur. This is "widely accepted as physical law" by mainstream science; see Landauer's principle.

Taking this one step further, while disputed, it has been suggested that consciousness may essentially be a form of information processing. Connecting this and the Landauer principle, one can conclude that someone like us asking questions about entropy will necessarily live in a world where entropy increases with time (by anthropic principle).

Obviously this topic sits firmly in the gray area between natural science and metaphysics/philosophy, so take this with a big grain of salt, but it is certainly an intriguing explanation for why we see entropy as increasing.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I don’t think fringe science is required to recognize the relation between entropy and computation. All that is required is to take Sir Francis Bacon super-literally: knowledge is power. How fast can a computer or brain identify someone by their face and make a judgement based on some information it already had about them? $\endgroup$ – CommaToast May 2 at 17:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.