Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

A while back I wrote a series of half-serious posts entitled Peak n’Oil. In them I attempted to pick out some tracks to listen to as we tumble down from the heights of Hubbert’s Peak. At the time, as far as I was aware, nobody was actually writing songs about peak oil and the associated civilizational decay, so most of the tracks I picked dealt with it tangentially.

All that has changed with Muse’s latest album entitled The 2nd Law. So when I got this album at Christmas it was, well, like Christmas for me. Not only had my favourite current band released a new album, but the lyrics and subject matter of the music was all about peak oil.

Well, not quite about peak oil. The Second Law of Thermodynamics concerns entropy, and what from our point of view we might as well call energy death. It states that isolated systems always evolve towards a state of thermodynamic equilibrium and therefore maximum entropy. Energy flows from zones of higher temperature to areas of lower temperature. My cup of tea is doing a very good demonstration of it right now. They also flow from concentrated form to diffuse form, providing said energy is not locked into a chemical state. To get out of that state it needs a catalytic agent.

Scale up from my cup of tea to the entire planet and that’s our peak energy problem in a nutshell. We humans have been taking the concentrated forms of energy – oil, coal and gas – which were formed over geological time, and have been turning them into diffuse heat in the atmosphere. It’s what we do every time we drive a car or turn on the kettle. In this way we have placed a single complex biological organism – us – at the centre point between concentrated and diffuse energy forms.

Doing so has enabled us to have a fossil fuel party for a couple of centuries, and we have configured our economies, societies and cultures as if we were always going to remain at this central pivotal point between concentrated and diffuse energy. Our ability to do this has marked us out as a successful species, easily able to replicate our DNA and perpetuate our progeny, because the ability to leverage other forms of energy in favour of the agent species is what marks it out as successful. That’s why foxes eat rabbits.

If you believe that we can maintain our pivotal position ad infinitum that marks you out as a cornucopian. If, however, you harbour doubts about whether this is possible, or indeed desirable, then you belong to the reality-based community who recognise that our default position is not at the exact centre of that energy equation and may be starting to drift off target.

Matthew Bellamy, Muse’s frontman, is a thoughtful chap and recognizes this. Who knows, he might even be lurking out there in the peak oil blogosphere under a pseudonym. He’s only got it slightly wrong, reason would suggest, in that the Second Law is concerned with closed systems and planet Earth isn’t a closed system as it gets inputs of solar radiation from the sun, and leaks heat back into space as well. But never mind that, it shouldn't spoil your enjoyment of what, in my opinion, is Muse’s best album to date.

Incidentally, if you're in north America, you can catch them on their latest tour. They are well worth seeing live.


  1. A good friend of mine that I often jam with introduced me to Muse, and I fell in love with them immediately. They have some amazing riffs! I stumbled across one of their new songs, "Unsustainable," on Youtube. I couldn't believe my ears when I heard it because it directly referenced the issues that are common in the peak oil blogosphere. It also _almost_ made me like dub step.

    It must be that I'm now more sensitive to issues of energy, the economy and the environment because I've noticed popular culture's dawning awareness of our predicament. It gives me hope that maybe people will wake up in time to make a somewhat graceful transition to a post-oil world.

  2. Maybe human industrial civilization is simply an agent of entropy. That's a sad thought...

  3. http://www.musewiki.org/Guitar_and_equipment_smashing

    I cannot really combine this behavior with the theme of their latest album. Thanks for mentioning this Muse-album though, and the video. Interesting.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.