The surprise theory of everything
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NEW SCIENTIST
As revolutions go, its origins were haphazard. It was, according to the ringleader Max Planck, an “act of desperation”. In 1900, he proposed the idea that energy comes in discrete chunks, or quanta, simply because the smooth delineations of classical physics could not explain the spectrum of energy re-radiated by an absorbing body.
Yet rarely was a revolution so absolute. Within a decade or so, the cast-iron laws that had underpinned physics since Newton’s day were swept away. Classical certainty ceded its stewardship of reality to the probabilistic rule of quantum mechanics, even as the parallel revolution of Einstein’s relativity displaced our cherished, absolute notions of space and time. This was complete regime change.
Except for one thing. A single relict of the old order remained, one that neither Planck nor Einstein nor any of their contemporaries had the will or means to remove. The British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington summed up the situation in 1915. “If your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation,” he wrote.
In this essay, I will explore the fascinating question of why, since their origins in the early 19th century, the laws of thermodynamics have proved so formidably robust. The journey traces the deep connections that were discovered in the 20th century between thermodynamics and information theory – connections that allow us to trace intimate links between thermodynamics and not only quantum theory but also, more speculatively, relativity. Ultimately, I will argue, those links …
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