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No. 2294:
The Internet Contaminated

Today, I'll contaminate the Internet. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The other day, a friend showed me his program for the Tom Stoppard play, Arcadia, which he'd just seen. The play has a lot in it about early 19th-century science and technology. It's hailed as a kind of meeting ground for C. P. Snow's two cultures, the sciences and the humanities. The program notes made much of that and said that the play incorporates Newton's second law of thermodynamics. So I Googled Newton's second law of thermodynamics and got 3270 hits. Now, when I post this script, there'll be even more. 

In any case, my friend was rightly appalled. For this is right up there with the flat earth and denials of evolution. When Newton wrote his second law of motion, he completely altered the way we deal with our world. But the subject of thermodynamics would not arise for another century and a half. 

Newton's second law says that to accelerate any body we have to apply a force equal to its mass times the acceleration. The much later second law of thermodynamics says that the potential of energy for doing useful work is constantly degraded by irreversible events. That knowledge was also destined to radically alter our world view. 

The two laws are completely unrelated. Irreversibility is unknown in the world of Newton's laws. Stoppard's actors recognize that fact. One character says, flat out, that the newly formulated laws of heat flow threaten Newton's determinism. 

So a blunder was made in the program notes. No big deal by itself; we all make mistakes. But this one was so quotable that it echoes down through the Internet's corridors. The Internet leaves an indelible record, and too few people know enough to question it.

Just this morning, a newspaper feature on scientific illiteracy listed ten things we should all know and gave a brief explanation of each -- stuff like DNA, evolution, relativity, the big bang, quantum mechanics. It was all good stuff, but it did not include the older -- and still essential -- laws of physics. 

It did include statistics, where so many of us trip, but what about handling simple numbers? I just went to the web and typed in "Joan of Arc, Noah's wife." I got fifteen thousand hits. Article after article reported the fraction of Americans who thought that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Some said six percent, others ten, twelve, twenty -- I even saw sixty percent. 

That shows pretty low respect for numerical accuracy from the very people concerned with illiteracy. It also gives me pause. As I do my dance in favor of technological literacy, how much mischief do I sow among people listening with half an ear? Well, I've really done it this time -- by posting this script, I've created one more citation to Newton's non-existent second law of thermodynamics on that un-erasable mirror that we call the Internet. 

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

T. Stoppard, Arcadia. (Faber & Faber, 1994.)

C. Cookson, Numbers + Symbols = Confusion. Life & Arts, Financial Times,Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007, pp. 1-2

I am grateful to Charlie Dalton, UH Mechanical Engineering Dept. for showing me the "Newton's second law of thermodynamics" blunder.

Authors of the two second laws