Bad Thermodynamics: Information
A reader commented on my recent post about entropy, and asked how information and entropy are related. Creationists sometimes argue that information can’t spontaneously increase because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (they’re wrong), and then they use that mistaken understanding to try and assert that evolution is impossible. I mentioned that issue briefly in my post, but left further elaboration for later. Well, now is later.
First off, I’m not a specialist in information theory, so I can’t address anything high-level when it comes to that discipline. Encryption and data compression and whatnot are not my bag, man.
In thermodynamics, information is created when systems become more chaotic. That sounds counter-intuitive at first blush, but it’s really not when you think about what is actually meant by information.
Assume for the sake of this problem – only this problem – that you could describe everything in the universe by four variables: temperature, x-position, y-position and z-position, where x, y and z are physical locations in three-dimensional space. Let’s assume a very simple universe: one filled with a perfect crystal lattice of neutrons, each one at a precisely uniform temperature of 100 billion billion Kelvins, repeated over and over. You could describe the location and temperature of every neutron in that universe with a single equation. You could write a concise expression describing every part of existence, where every place in the whole of reality is precisely mapped, in one line of code. There isn’t much information there.
Now imagine that pockets in that perfect crystal universe began to break apart. Inside each pocket the particles begin to wander around chaotically. Things get so bad that whole regions of the universe break free and begin to clunk about wildly, with gaping expanses of hot neutron mist separating them. If you were interested still in recording precisely where every neutron in that universe were located, you’d have to add a lot more lines to your ledger. You’d need to write down the xyz coordinates and temperature of every particle in each different pocket. Because the particles wander about randomly as they bounce off myriads of other neutrons and primal-crystal blocks, you’d have no way of describing all of them unless the individual positions of every neutron and crystal fragment were tallied. Our map of the universe would become a lot more complicated, under those conditions. More information, simply by crumbling.
Take that model to its ultimate limit, where the entire universe is nothing but neutrons in chaos. Each particle wanders its own slow, random path through the cosmos, dissipating heat. Every neutron carries slightly different amounts of energy, at slightly different temperatures. Seen from a distance the universe would look like a cooling fog of neutron gas, describable according to the gas law, PV = nRT…. but not completely describable. The Cosmic Ledger isn’t interested in averages, or standard deviations, it only records the literal data on every part of existence.
To describe that ultimately chaotic universe completely, you’d have to record the position and temperature of each and every particle, individually. All neutrons, everywhere. In a perfectly entropic universe the Cosmic Ledger would be enormous, containing unimaginable oceans of raw data describing where everything was at every moment. A chaotic universe is an information-rich universe. Even as everything sails down over the long ages toward absolute zero, this remains true…. just with more zeros behind the decimal in the temperature value.
The more chaotic a system is, the more information it carries… automatically. What most people mean by information isn’t raw data… they mean knowledge. Knowledge is correlated data, information assembled into some construct that is orderly but not so orderly and boring as a crystal. Knowledge rises when a system is neither perfectly ordered or perfectly chaotic, where it is possible to have a lot of little semi-ordered, busy lumps spontaneously arise and do interesting things. Life is an expression of partially conserved order, where the surroundings are either more ordered and therefore simple and lifeless (e.g. rocks), or too chaotic to embed coded syntax (e.g. fire). Life rides that wave, balancing precariously.
On the journey from total order – as in the Big Bang, where the cosmos was one massively energetic, massively dense uberparticle – toward the eventual utterly (and literally) meaningless chaos of cosmic heat death, interesting things can occur spontaneously. We’re one of those things.