Daily Entropy: rock bottom

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Brownian motion

To understand why entropy is beautiful, you have to hit rock bottom, or try to hit rock bottom.  It’s hard.  The work of removing all of the energy from a system is phenomenal.  At the atomic scale and below, all of that entropy bleeding away from macroscopic phenomena, all of the wave energy dissipation and dispersion, starts to bounce back.  Brownian motion has no entropy equivalent.  This is not to say there is no friction at that scale, only that friction excites the atoms and makes them move faster, rather than slower.  The movements are chaotic, so there’s no free energy here, but there is a lively dance that is not at all like dispersion or the heat death of the universe.  Life depends on the random dance of particles in water.  Proton pumps wait for brownian motion to propel hydrogen ions randomly into their channels.  Like a lock system in a canal, the gate closes behind and opens in front and the proton pops out.  The cell doesn’t make energy in this way, but the extra protons create an electromagnetic gradient that does physical work.  And remember, the cell isn’t a heat engine powered by thermodynamic gradients.  At the proton’s scale, wave energy can’t disperse any further and entropy hits rock bottom, but then it bounces back.  Thermal and kinetic energy are no longer distinguishable, and they’re not distinct from mass or information.  Atoms can’t slow down without cooling down, but there’s nowhere for their heat to go, so they dance and shove one another.  At that scale, entropy is exciting, not depressive.   In cells, the entropy of chemical decay bounces back from proton pumps into electromagnetic potential and then multiplies into the massive kinetic motion of muscles.  After it hits rock bottom, entropy dances and shines.

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