thermodynamics folk culture poetry

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The principles of thermodynamics are pervasive andmay be applied to many aspects of our everyday life.Some recent and random examples include application ofthermodynamics to pollution (I), starting a car on a coldmorning (2). cloud caps on high mountains (3), chemicalfirst-aid packs (4), art (5), chinook winds (6), life processes(7), scuba diving (S), and faculty meetings (9).


  • The principles of thermodynamics are pervasive and may be applied to many aspects of our everyday life. Some recent and random examples include application of thermodynamics to pollution (I), starting a car on a cold morning (2). cloud caps on high mountains (3), chemical first-aid packs (4), art (5), chinook winds (6), life pro- cesses (7), scuba diving (S), and faculty meetings (9).

    Although it is easy for us as chemists to see applications of thermodynamic principles to many seemingly unrelated areas, we often ignore the fact that these same principles are embodied in much of our folklore. The origins of ther- modynamics are intertwined with human experience and

    Wayne L. Smith' Colby College

    Woterville, Moine 04901

    attempts to make perpetual motion machines. Percy Bridgman, the eminent physicist and thermodynamicist,

    Thermodynamics, Folk Culture, and Poetry

    commented that the laws of thermodynamics are more palpably verbal and smell more of their human origins than do most otherlaws of vhvsics (10).

    . .

    Scienre may he viewed as organized common sense, and this is particularly well demonsrrnted with thermodynam- ics. We should note that most of our folklore. as charac- terized by adages and nursery rhymes, is also based in common sense. In addition, poets and songwriters over the ages have often implicitly or explicitly recognized the same common sense principles. (Defining common sense is difficult, but everyone agrees that it is not very com- mon. The favorite definition of students is attributed to Einstein who referred to common sense as a collection of prejudices laid down by inadequate teaching.)

    There is a delightful hook by Angrist and Hepler (11) entitled "Order and Chaos," which is a light-headed, non-mathematical approach to thermodynamics. In retro- spect, this book probably provided the original impetus for relating thermodynamics to folklore. Over the past several years many students have helped the author find the concepts of thermodynamics in poems, adages, nur- sery rhymes, folk sonns, and vovular songs. It proves to he . .

    a rather pleasant way for hoih chemistr). majors and non- maion to reinforce their learning of the h a m principles.

    Music, Don't Cha Know, You Gotta Pay I t to the Piper" by the Chairman of the Board. "The Impossible Dream" from Man of LaMancha can he interpreted in terms of man's quest for perpetual motion machines. Or perhaps we might designate any attempt to obtain a perpetual mo- tion machine as "Mission Impossible." The Second Law

    The second law expresses the concepts of the unidirec- tionalitv of manv events. the trend toward increasinn dis- order o; entropy, and eventual attainment of the e q d i h - rium state. All of these ideas are expressed in many facets of our everyday life.

    As children we learn the nursery rhymes of "Humpty Dum~tv." "Little Bov Blue." and "Little Bo-Peev." all of

    . " . . . which express the concept of time and entropy increasing. "Jack and Jill" and "London Bridee" sueeest that thines - -- - will tend toward a minimum energy (the state of equilih- rium).

    Many of the proverbs that we learn as we grow older embody these same concepts. Consider the following: "There is no use crying over spilt milk"; "burning your bridges behind you," "water doesn't run uphill"; "water seeks its own level"; "all things must pass"; or "things are getting all screwed up." The idea of increasing disorder is nicely summarized in the acronym SNAFU (situation nor- mal, all fouled up) from World War II. "We shall over- come," the battle cry of the civil rights movement of the sixties, expressed the desire for a more disordered state and, hopefully, an equilibrium one.

    Many songs express the ideas of increasing disorder or the irreversibility of natural processes. Examples are "All Mixed Up" by Pete Seeger; "I Want to Take You Higher" by Sly and the Family Stone; "More and More" by Blood, Sweat, and Tears; "Brokedown Palace" by the Grateful Dead; "Gimme Shelter, I'm Gonna Fade Away" or "Time is on Our Side" by the Rolling Stones; or "We May Never Pass This Wav Anain" bv Seals and Croft. Perhavs the

    The First Law best statement of 'the second law in a song is in ~ o b Dy- Ian's "The Times They are A-Changin'," which contains a The first law of thermodynamics is generally expressed line about the old order rapidly fading.

    in terms of conservation of energy for cyclic processes, and There are many poetic statements of the second law of the vrinciples of conservation and cyclic processes can be thermodvnamics. In Ovid's "Metamorohoses" are the found in many aspects of our folklore. lines

    All of the following adages express the idea of conserva- tion: "You can't get something for nothing"; "You can't There's nothing constant in the universe, make an omelet without breaking eggs"; "You can't get All ebb and flow, and every shape that's born. blood from a stone": or "You can't have vour cake and eat Bean in its womb the seed of change. it too.': Another example is Benjamin ~ranklin's dictum: "There are no gains without pains." There is even a hibli- Maxwell's demon is introduced along with the concept cal mention of cyclic processes: ". . . you are dust, and to of probability and entropy in "Paradise'Lost" by John dust you shall return." ( 12) Milton

    Folk songs and popular songs that express principles of conservation and cyclic processes include "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell; "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger; "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat and Tears, (which starts with the phrase: "What goes up, must come down"); and "If You're Gonna Dance to the

    . . .Chaos umpire sits And by decision more embroils the fray By which he reigns: next him high arbiter Chance governs all.

    One can also find Maxwell's demon and the idea of in- 'Address for 1974-75 academic year: Department of Chemistry, creasing disorder in these lines from "Mending Wall" by

    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104. Robert Frost

    Volume 52, Number 2, February 1975 / 97

  • Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down. I would say "Elves" to him,

    Admittedly it appears that here the elves are tearing down the wall, which would seem a little out of character for Maxwell's Demon. Perham one of the most deasant statements of increasing entropy and the unidirec;innilliry of events is in Robert Frost's "Yothing Gold C' im Stay"

    Nature's first green is gold, Her hardest here to hold. Her early leafs a flower; But only so an hour. So leaf goes down to leaf. As Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.

    In the "Hollow Men," T. S. Eliot expresses the idea of gradually increasing entropy and the eventual "heat death" of the universe

    This is the way the world ends Not with a hang But a whimper.

    In his poem "Under," Carl Sandherg expresses much the same ideas in the last line

    I am the crumbier: tomorrow

    Other literary statements of the second law include the lines of Touchstone in "As you Like It" by Shakespeare

    And so from hour to hour we rim and rioe

    The tale is clearly entropy. In "Essay on Man" by Alexan- der Pope, one finds

    Man is governed by two forces "self-love" and "reason." Self-love drives man, reason restrains him.

    These lines may he interpreted as representing the bal- ance between entropy and enthalpy and the drive toward equilihrium. The Third Law

    The third law can he stated in terms of the impossibili- ty of attaining absolute zero or in terms of minimal disor- der a t equilibrium at absolute zero.

    Many aphorisms comment on the unattainahility of things. The prime example is the old country saying: "You just can't get there from here." With a slight stretching of the imagination the idea of minimal disorder a t absolute zero can he seen in the political statement that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The idea of minimal disorder is also contained in the Pete Seeger song "Little Boxes," which was written by Mal- vina Reynolds. "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La- Mancha or the Rolling Stones "I Can't Get No Satisfac- tion" can easily he interpreted in terms of the unattainabil- ity of absolute zero. This idea is expressed even better in "Let I t Bleed" by the Rolling Stones

    You can't always get what you want, But ifyou try real hard, you get what you need

    The first line cited clearly refers to O"K, while the second line means 1 X 10-6"K.

    There are many songs and stories of unrequited love ex- pressing the sentiments of unattainahility; they are per- haps best exemplified by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juli- et."

    Comments The interpretation of adages, songs, and poems in terms

    of thermodynamics may he a departure from usual chemi- cal teaching methods, hut it is certainly enjoyable. As in- dicated by student comments, it is also very memorable. A few minutes taken away from Carnot cycles, fugacities, and partition functions would not hurt anyone and can even make thermodynamics fun. For nonmajors the time spent (approximately one-half of a lecture) on this less se- rious side of chemistly is certainly well spent. Even less time is required for majors. Because they have a better understanding of the fundamentals involved, the ideas are more obvious to them. A few comments in the hall are often sufficient.

    Students certainly enjoy this approach, and it does help to alleviate some of the difficulty with the unfamiliar words and confusinr notations in thermodvnamics. Manv have commented thAt they feel the songs are the highlighi of the course (13). I t is o e r h a ~ s most a ~ ~ r e c i a t e d because it is least expected; it is an'attempt to talk "their lan- guage." I t also provides one of those


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