What does “entropy” really mean?

I'm currently taking a course of introduction to biophysics in college and we currently covered a subject called entropy (S). We did some maths based on the Carnot cycle and came up with the following formula for this state function:

$$\partial S = \partial Q /\partial T$$

However the professor later stated that this function we call entropy measures the ability of a system to do work. How exactly does $$\partial Q /\partial T$$ gives us that information??

I'm confused, can someone please explain that to me in layman's terms? I'm not a physicist.

I'm confused, can someone please explain that to me in layman's terms? I'm not a physicist.

The mathematical aspects of entropy are probably beyond layman's terms. Insofar as the link provided by @Jonas, although it's good, i'm not sure how helpful it would be to a layman.

Probably the most intuitive explanation of the second law and entropy that most folks can understand is rooted in everyday experiences. It has to do with the natural direction of processes. For example we all know

1. Heat only flows naturally (without help) from hot to cold objects and

2. Rivers always flow down-hill

And one that you, a biophysics student can relate to:

1. People always grow old

These are all examples of what we call irreversible processes (they don't naturally reverse). For each process, entropy is generated. But all of these processes obey the first law of thermodynamics, which is basically conservation of energy.

For example, if heat flowed naturally from a cold object to hot object, the heat lost by the cold object would equal the heat gained by the hot object and energy would be conserved. But we never observe this to happen.

If water flowed naturally up hill it would lose kinetic energy and gain gravitational potential energy and energy would be conserved. But we never observe this to happen.

As far as the third example is concerned, ask your teacher how the second law applies to it.

Scientists (Notably Clausius and Carnot) realized that there must be another law and property governing the direction of processes in addition to the law of conservation of energy. Enter the second law and entropy.

Now as regards to the definition of entropy, the proper form of the equation is

$$dS=\frac{\delta Q_{rev}}{T}$$

Which says that a differential change in the property called entropy equals a reversible transfer of heat $$\delta Q$$ divided by the temperature at which the transfer occurs.

Entropy is generated when the heat transfer is irreversible, i.e., when it occurs over a finite temperature difference. This entropy generation may result in the lost opportunity to do work. A mathematical explanation is needed to show how. Your teacher should be able to help.

Hope it helps.

• "People always grow old ... they don't naturally reverse" - from a purely chemical perspective, without arbitrary attribution of object identities, I see people constantly being reversed in age. Worms eat dead flesh, that goes into plants, those are eaten, and then a human is again recast in the womb. What sort of reversibility would you otherwise have in mind? One where the worms assemble an elderly person, who eventually crawls back into a womb to be digested for nutrients? I think such grand claims of non-reversibility would need more specifics and substantiation. – Steve Jan 26 at 12:19
• I don't see your point. The objects identity is highly relevant to the example. There is no doubt that aging is an irreversible process. That's the point. – Bob D Jan 26 at 13:17
• Just because the baby eats the dead person’s flesh, doesn’t mean the dead person is getting younger. The point with “people always grow old naturally” is that DNA unravels and becomes more disorderly with time, and so does the human body. – Adam Rubinson Jan 26 at 13:18
• @AdamRubinson Thanks for that. This article seems to support your statement (though I confess I know little or nothing of the subject) ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2134939 – Bob D Jan 26 at 13:28
• @BobD, but the identity is only ascribed by human convention - like the "grandfather's axe". There is no physical reality to that aspect. That's why I think these sweeping claims about biological irreversibility should be substantiated in far more detail, or withdrawn. – Steve Jan 26 at 14:00

A somewhat similar question answered by me may be helpful in this case (please read that up untill the equations, at least, and continue here).