Exploring Thermodynamics: How can we use concepts for everyday life?

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How did I get here? What made me start to look at the Laws of Thermodynamics? You can blame Charlie Munger for that.

The name Charlie Munger might not ring a bell to many of you, but it probably should. He is the silent partner of Warren Buffet, and really only speaks at the annual shareholders meetings for Berkshire Hathaway and some other companies that he partially owns. Whenever he speaks though, his correlations between business, science, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology cause people all over the world to fight for a seat in the audience. Charlie talks about how he uses mental models from nearly all disciplines and walks of life to aid him in his investment decisions. One of these models is Thermodynamics, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look it up.

The word Thermodynamics seems like it would have to do with heat, but it is more than that. It talks about how heat, energy, and work function, and also how they relate with each other. It then goes more broadly in talking about how objects and systems in the universe behave with each other and within themselves.

There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, which I will explain just a bit below. First and foremost though, I have to mention that the Laws of Thermodynamics are considered “universal”, meaning that they even apply outside of our Earthly environment. This is an important aspect and probably what inspired me to keep researching.

First Law of Thermodynamics

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that heat is a form of energy, and thermodynamic processes are therefore subject to the principle of conservation of energy. This means that heat energy cannot be created or destroyed. Think of a car’s engine. You put gas in, which contains a certain amount of energy. As it burns, that energy will turn into heat. The heat is used to make pistons move, so it is converted one more time into what scientists call work (when the car moves).

In life, we can keep this in mind when working to achieve our personal and professional goals. As we put energy and attention toward a task, no matter how small, the accomplishment of that task will build momentum and provide inspiration to seek the same accomplishment in another task.

US Navy Admiral William H McRaven speaks and writes about this idea as well, by stating that if you can change the world, you should start by making your bed. This small and easily-achievable task starts building that energy momentum for your day and allows you to continue achieving until you go to sleep.

There is also a Japanese concept called Kaizen, which means to continuously make small improvements over a long period of time. In our house, we describe this idea by asking “How do you eat an elephant?” As any of my kids can tell you, the answer is “One bite at a time.”

Second Law of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is about the quality of energy. It states that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. This introduces the concept of entropy. Entropy is wasted energy, and this is where the scientists came back down to earth and recognized that there are no perfect systems, as the first law talks about. Energy will gradually fade away.

The best example of this statement can be a hot cup of coffee left on a table. The coffee will eventually cool down, showing that heat only flows from high temperature to low temperature without the aid of something external adding heat (like a microwave).

This is a very importance concept for us. People will often say that you need to take some time to reset, recharge, or relax. This is especially the case right now, when many of us are working from home and putting in far more hours than we normally would. If we keep grinding day in and day out without some sort of external source of energy, we experience burnout. As an example, I enjoy getting involved with my kids’ sports, trying not to burn things on the grill, and fixing stuff around the house. If you noticed, those activities almost never involve IT or security.

Third Law of Thermodynamics

The Third Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy of a system approaches a constant value as its temperature approaches absolute zero.

There are no practical examples of the Third Law of Thermodynamics, but it makes sense when you think of it abstractly. When the willpower and motivational “fire” run out, we become stagnant and the likelihood that we will change becomes less and less. Think about this. The longer we sit in a chair, the less likely we are willing to get up. The longer we get into a bad habit, the less likely we are to change it.

In the Army, we called this “short-timer’s syndrome”. It meant that as soon as you accepted the fact that you were about to leave (changing stations, separating, retiring), there was high likelihood that you were going to skate by and do the bare minimum for the remainder of your time. What we can do with this information is to recognize when our motivations start to dwindle and find one of those external sources that we’ve already covered.

Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics

Zeroth? What’s that all about? Scientists consider the fourth law so essential and universal to Thermodynamics that they thought it should come before all the others. And instead of renumbering them, scientists decided to call it the Zeroth Law.

The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics states that if two thermodynamic systems are each in thermal equilibrium with a third one, then they are all in thermal equilibrium with each other.

The easiest example of this law is to think of a thermometer. In the old days we primarily used mercury thermometers to check the temperature. We don’t use them as much now because if the glass holding the mercury became broken or started leaking, the mercury would contaminate the air and poison us. Obviously you would be cautious about putting such a device in your mouth. However, let’s say we did use a mercury thermometer to check our temperature. Our body, through our mouth, heats the glass, then the glass in turn heats the mercury, causing it to expand and showing what our temperature is. Our mouths and the glass get to a state thermal equilibrium, while the glass and the mercury also get to a state of thermal equilibrium. Even though our mouths and the mercury aren’t touching or directly exchanging heat, we know that they are also in thermal equilibrium. 

It may be a stretch, but I like to think of the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics in the same way that I think of the Six degrees of Kevin Bacon. When we think of those systems as people, we can use this principle to remind ourselves that no matter what we are struggling with now, someone else either has or is struggling as well. There is always someone out there who we can lean on or share our troubles with. Nobody is alone. This is especially important in the information security community.

Thank you for bearing with me and the science. If you’ve made it this far, you have both my congratulations and my condolences. I sincerely hope that you were able to get something out of these thoughts and observations.

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