Perhaps there’s no better way to understand entropy than to grasp the second law of thermodynamics, and vice versa. This law states that the entropy of an isolated system that is not in equilibrium will increase as time progresses until equilibrium is finally achieved.
Let’s try to elaborate a little on this equilibrium thing. Note that in the succeeding examples, we’ll assume that they’re both isolated systems.
First example. Imagine putting a hot body and a cold body side by side. What happens after some time? That’s right. They both end up in the same temperature; one that is lower than the original temperature of the hotter one and higher than the original temperature of the colder one.
Second example. Ever heard of a low pressure area? It’s what weather reporters call a particular region that’s characterized by strong winds and perhaps some rain. This happens because all fluids flow from a region of high pressure to a region of low pressure. Thus, when the fluid, air in this case, comes rushing in, they do so in the form of strong winds. This goes on until the pressures in the adjacent regions even out.
In both cases, the physical quantities which started to be uneven between the two bodies/regions even out in the end, i.e., when equilibrium is achieved. The measurement of the extent of this evening-out process is called entropy.
During the process of attaining equilibrium, it is possible to tap into the system to perform work, as in a heat engine. Notice, however, that work can only be done for as long as there is a difference in temperature. Without it, like when maximum entropy has already been achieved, there is no way that work can be performed.
Since the concept of entropy applies to all isolated systems, it has been studied not only in physics but also in information theory, mathematics, as well as other branches of science and applied science.
Because the accepted view of the universe is that of one that is finite, then it can very well be considered as a closed system. As such, it should also be governed by the second law of thermodynamics. Thus, like in all isolated systems, the entropy of the universe is expected to be increasing.
So what? Well, also just like all isolated systems, the universe is therefore also expected to end up in a useless heap in equilibrium, a.k.a. a heat death, wherein energy can no longer be extracted from anymore. To give you some relief, not everyone involved in the study of cosmology is totally in agreement with entropy’s so-called role in the grand scheme of things though.
You can read more about entropy here in Universe Today. Want to know why time might flow in one direction? Have you ever thought about the time before the Big Bang? The entire entropy concept plays an important role in understanding them.
There’s more about entropy at NASA and Physics World too. Here are a couple of sources there:
Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well:
- Avoiding the Heat Death, Orbiting Galaxies, and the Dangers of Space Radiation
- Black black holes, Unbalancing the Earth, and Space Pollution