Death sentences and the purpose of law

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Warning: Post contains graphic descriptions of a violent rape.

You must have seen the news that the 4 men convicted for the rape and murder of a 23 year old student last december have been sentenced to death by a fast track court. It is natural for us to feel outraged at the incident, as it was a beastly crime. If you are in doubt, let me refresh your memory by quoting from the text of the judgment.

The facts show that entire intestine of the prosecutrix was perforated, splayed and cut open due to repeated insertions of rods and hands. The convicts, in the most barbaric manner, pulled out her internal organs with their bare hands as well as by the rods and caused her irreparable injuries, thus exhibiting extreme mental perversion not worthy of human condonation. As convict in pursuance of their conspiracy lured the victims into the bus Ex. P-1, brutally gang raped the prosecutrix, inflicted inhuman torture and threw the defenceless victims out of the moving bus in naked condition, profusely bleeding in a cold winter night ; their unprovoked crime demonstrated exceptional depravity of mind of the convicts.

…Further, the convicts did not stop after pulling out her internal organs after the crime of gang rape / unnatural sex but then had dragged the victims to the rear door of the bus Ex.P-1 to be thrown out and when the rear door was found jammed the victims were dragged by their hairs to the front door and thrown out of the moving bus. Her intestines were so severally damaged and the suffering inflicted on the prosecutrix was unparalleled. The brutality caused to her internal organs is extreme as is evident from the medical evidence on record and hence the act of convicts call for extreme penalty.

It is an act of unimaginable horror. No doubt about that. The death penalty was the correct sentence to be awarded considering the law of the land. I cant imagine what the mind of the perpetrators would have been like when they were doing the act. There are simply no words for such acts.

In spite of all that, something about the sentence left me uncomfortable.

Look at, for example, this part of the judgment which is a quote from an earlier judgment of the supreme court.

When the community feels that for the sake of self preservation the killer has to be killed, the community may well withdraw the protection by sanctioning the death penalty. But the community will not do so in every case. It may do so ( in rarest of rare cases) when its collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect the holders of the judicial power centre to inflict death penalty irrespective of their personal opinion as regards desirability or otherwise of retaining death penalty

It starts by saying that if the society feels the necessity of death penalty for the sake of self preservation, then the principle of sanctity of human life can be withdrawn, but follows it up saying, it may do so when the collective conscience is so shocked that it will expect the death penalty from the judicial arm of the government.

Similarly, look at this one.

The protection of society and deterring the criminals is the avowed object of law and that is required to be achieved by imposing an appropriate sentence. The sentencing court are expected to consider all relevant facts into consideration bearing on the questions of sentence and proceed to impose a sentence commensurate with the gravity of the sentence. Court must hear the loud cry for justice by the society in cases of the heinous crime of rape on innocent helpless girls of tender years, and respond by imposition of proper sentence. Public abhorrence of the crime needs reflection through imposition of appropriate sentence by the court. To show mercy in the case of such a heinous crime would be a travesty of justice and the plea of leniency would be wholly misplaced.

This too begins loftily saying the goal of law is to protect the society and deter criminals. But goes on to say that the court must hear the loud cry for justice from the society.

This is what makes me uncomfortable. However heinous the crime is, it cannot be undone. So we dont have any option but to look ahead. Thus when imposing a sentence, our only goal needs to be to prevent these four from repeating what they did, deterring other criminals and preventing similar crimes. There should not be any idea of a tit for tat or revenge when imposing sentences. But look around you honestly. Look at photos of protestors. Look at the media. Look at the judgment itself. Do you really think the motivation for the death penalty was to protect society or to prevent similar crimes happening in the future? I don’t think so. It was a collective act of revenge. That is all it is. When someone commits a crime on us, we instinctively feel an urge to get back at them. It is natural, but does not mean it is correct. Let me explain.

Am I saying no death penalty at all? No. My only point is that the basis for any punishment we impose, should be rational. It should not be driven by the fact that the society’s “collective conscience is shocked” or by the tendency of the court to take it upon themselves to “hear the loud cry for justice by the society”.

To drive home what I am arguing, let me give a hypothetical example. Suppose one week from now, a new fact emerges that, all these four people were, without their knowledge, given a drug by an evil neuro-scientist as part of an experiment (to be clear, I hate that stereotype of the evil scientist doing an evil experiment), that made them do such things. The way the judgment is written today, that new  fact should not affect the imposition of the penalty. After all it still was an unimaginably heinous crime, our conscience was indeed shocked, the society did cry out of justice and so all the necessary criteria for death penalty are met. But in the light of the new fact, the death penalty to those four people would definitely not be justice.

Now imagine the death penalty was given with the goal that such a punishment would deter future criminals*  or to prevent such crimes happening in future. Now if this fact of evil scientist comes to light, we can logically change the judgment, because our goal of preventing similar crimes in future can be easily achieved by sending the scientist to prison (or by hanging him).

To reiterate, I am not arguing that the death penalty should not be imposed because some future fact might come up which will clear up the criminals’ names (it has happened before+). My argument is that even in cases where the accused himself admits of the crime thus leaving no scope for any future change of facts, punishment should not be given just because it needs to be “commensurate with the gravity” of the crime, because it is nothing but a wordy way of saying I want an eye for an eye. It should be a logically thought out, well argued, evidence based judgment with our focus on the future.

Now, some of you might argue that I can make all these points just because it was not my own mother, or wife or sister who was the victim. I admit that if I was the guy with the girl on the bus that december night, it is highly probable that I would argue differently. But if I were personally involved in it, I should be the last person to be trusted to provide fair justice. So my opinion should matter less in such cases. In fact, that I am not personally involved in the case should make me more capable of rational discussion. So dont come back at me saying, I dont understand the nature of the crime.

Another aspect to be considered, that at first glance might look very silly, is very related to the points I am making here is that we do not have free will. So moral responsibilty cannot really be pinned on any person. Thus any legal system that depends on the criminal “deserving” the punishment, is a system based on the false notion of the person being responsible for what he does. I have written about that before, and hence will avoid going into detail here. When you understand that my brain functions, at the fundamental level as a physical machine, you realise that neither can I be blamed for the bad things I do, nor can I claim credit for the good things. That idea becomes extremely important when building a legal framework for the society.

Thus, when I see protestors baying for blood, the media pushing for death penalty and the judges writing judgments hearing the people on the streets, I feel very uneasy. Democracy is not always the ideal way to take decisions. If we always trusted the majority, the minorities will always get suppressed. So, trust not numbers. Always look for well reasoned arguments. In this case though, the legal system should be revamped. With cases like these, I only get the feeling that we are still letting ourselves be driven by the instincts of our humanity’s uncivilised infanthood. When will we, as a society, grow up?

* There is an important argument that there appears to be no evidence that death penalty does indeed deter criminals, but let us keep it aside for now. That is a valid argument, but that is not the point I am making in this post. So let us, for argument’s sake, assume that death penalty does indeed deter criminals.

+ This too is a very important argument, but again, not the one I am making now.

Categories: Ethics Tags: , , ,

An old article I wrote about language

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

This blog has been in a coma for sometime, and I dont have any hope of writing anything new, in the near future. As I was listening to this podcast episode where Noam Chomsky was being interviewed about his work in linguistics, I was reminded about an article I had written a couple of years back for Science Reporter, a government run science magazine. It does not have a website where you can read the article online, but I have a scanned copy with me.

It is my longest article ever (and therefore the one with the maximum goof ups too, I guess), but given the drought on this blog, I thought I could inflict this upon you, just so you dont start raising your hopes of seeing the death of this blog. Not so soon, people, not so soon!

Here you go.

Categories: Biology, Writing Tags: ,

Does reduction in weight really help improve memory?

June 21, 2013 Leave a comment

I read an article in The Hindu today that reported a study that was presented at the The Endocrine Society’s annual meeting at San Francisco. The study claimed that in post menopausal women, reduction in weight led to improvement in memory. The study had very specific criteria of people who are eligible: post-menopausal women whose BMI (Body Mass Index) is greater than 27.

I tried to look for the source of this article. The results seem to have been presented at a meeting, and I could not claim my hands on the study (not for lack of access, I don’t see it published anywhere online). The closest I could get was to find the meeting abstract. I also found this article on Huffington Post that gave more details about the study.

I have multiple problems with the study (based on what I could gather from the articles and the abstract linked earlier).

What prompted me to find the source of the article was the sample size. Of late, I have learnt how to read science articles a little bit better. One of the key things to notice in such studies is the sample size. This study was done on 20 women. Yes, just 20. The Huffington Post article referred to an earlier study that claimed that obesity in post menopausal women leads to memory impairment. That study had more than 8000 subjects.

The second problem was the ease with which it has been suggested that it was the reduction in weight that led to better performance. The memory test given was to remember picture-name pairs and to recollect them later. The study says that after reduction in weight, FMRI scans revealed higher activity while storing the memory, and lower activity while retrieving it, suggesting that once weight was reduced, it was storing well (using more resources) and recollecting easily (using very little effort). There is nothing to indicate that it was weight loss that caused this improvement. What if the women were feeling more confident and happy after losing weight and so performed better? What if they knew that this was a post-evaluation and so had to do better as they felt obliged to show improvement? What if the post-weight loss memory assessment showed better performance merely because they had already done the same activity before losing weight and so were better at it a second time?

I am also surprised that all the 20 women they chose did indeed stick to their diets and lost weight. The probability of that happening, appears very less to me. If it were so easy to induce people to stick to a diet (this study seems to have done it with 100% success), there would be a lot less number of fat people. If this 20 was only a subset of the people they chose (the subset that did indeed lose weight), then why was that not mentioned in the abstract? Also, if they chose the people who lost weight, did they exclude anyone after post-weight loss assessment?

All of this makes me wonder whether the study established anything at all. I would say no. Of course I have not seen the study itself, but a sample of 20 is too low to establish or even suggest any sort of causality, much less suggest something about our famously complicated brains.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

I demand that my workplace offer me a room to worship Sachin Tendulkar

April 26, 2013 Leave a comment

I read an article some months back and wrote this  then. For some reason (I dont remember now), I did not post it. Hence doing it now.

I was reading this article “Muslims from abroad are thriving in catholic colleges” from the New York Times which, for some reason, stayed in my mind for long. The article is about how Christian colleges in the USA are turning out to be more attractive to Muslim students. And the extent to which some colleges go to accommodate religions are surprising. But it actually should not be news. After all, it is a Christian college and so they already believe that religion is inseparable from any aspect of life and so they can easily empathise with similar importance that others give to their religion. But somehow there were many aspects of the article that made me extremely uncomfortable.

“I like the fact that there’s faith, even if it’s not my faith, and I feel my faith is respected,” said Maha Haroon, a pre-med undergraduate at Creighton University in Omaha, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in the United States. “I don’t have to leave my faith at home when I come to school.”

Has carrying your faith to school become a good thing now? And this:

Muslim students here cite the accommodations Dayton has made, like setting aside spaces for them to pray — a small room for daily use, and two larger ones for Fridays — and installing an ablution room for the traditional preprayer washing of hands and feet.

The university also helps students arrange celebrations of major religious holidays, and it contracts with a halal meat supplier for special events.

Manal Alsharekh, a Saudi Arabian graduate student in engineering at Dayton, said, “I was in another university before that did not respect us so much.”

Wait, what? Is giving in to your every little fantasy, what you call respect? Why do you stop there then? Why don’t you ask for more respect saying they need to build a mosque in the college playground? Their sense of entitlement amazes me. Do they also want every student including non-muslims, the staff etc., also fast with then during the month of Ramzan? You might think I am exaggerating, but imagine a college that actually does that. Then, I am sure there will be somebody who will move from Dayton to that college and say “Dayton did not respect us so much”.

Being an Indian, I have been brought up with the idea that Secularism is accepting and embracing all religions. Thus if having a symbol of an om or a cross or a crescent at an event is considered communal, but having all three makes it secular. Looking back, should not that have made the event three times more communal? Only recently have I learnt that Secularism, in the west, means keeping religion out of public life. And that I think is a more sensible definition.

The problem with the Indian definition of secularism is that it will lead to public institutions yielding to every silly fantasy that could be held by any citizen on the planet. If I seriously believe Sachin Tendulkar is god and get a sizeable following to believe the same, then the Indian definition of secularism does not know how to handle this. Should they start having a photo of Sachin Tendulkar too whenever they have an om, a cross and a crescent. How far can this go? Do they declare his birthday as Tendulkar Jayanthi. Naturally, the best way out of this is to say, if you like Tendulkar, keep it at home. If you believe in Allah, pray to him at home. Nobody is stopping you, or will stop you, or will be allowed to stop you. But you cannot others to share your passion, or to make special concessions to suit your personal interest.

I realise that private colleges can do what they want and nobody from outside can dictate what they do (I have no clue about the US education system and so cant say if Dayton is funded by tax payers’ money). But this kind of bending over backwards, only adds to the idea that religion is some special fantasy (very different from someone devoted to Harry Potter) deserving something extra wherever they go. That should not be done.

Reading a paper on evolutionary psychology

April 24, 2013 3 comments

Having not much to do at work yesterday, and not having an internet connection, I started reading this paper on evolutionary psychology, that I had stored sometime back on my phone. It is an interesting and informative paper, which I intend to read again (I normally need 2-3 readings of a paper to really understand it), but there was one point in the paper where it stuck me that the authors were probably attacking a straw man. But first, we will see what is evolutionary psychology.

We are all products of evolution and have no problem in believing that our hands, eyes, ears were all sculpted by Natural Selection. So, when someone asks why we evolved eyes, we dont hesitate to say that we have eyes because it helps us find predators, so we can run away from them, find food to eat, find mates to mate and so on. But we hesitate to think that our behaviour too could be a result of evolution. Or at least, we dont attribute evolutionary purposes to our behaviour as readily as we assign such purpose to parts of our physical body. Evolutionary psychology addresses this gap. It studies our behaviour, psychology, by looking at what pressures in our ancient past would have driven us to the way we behave today. The problem today with evolutionary psychology, it appears, is that many scientists are putting forward theories that are not really testable, or at least not have been tested. Read this post from Jerry Coyne to get an idea of the issue.

Now coming back to that paper I referred to in the first sentence. It is a good paper that covers the issues in evolutionary psychology and explains them clearly, but the following question posed stood out for me.

Don’t people just solve problems using rationality? Wouldn’t one domain-general rationality mechanism be more parsimonious than postulating many domain-specific mechanisms?

In human readable English, the question means this. Dont people always use their brains and rationally think about the consequences when faced with a particular question in hand and then behave in a manner best for them? Or are there circuits in our brain that are specific to the situations we are in, which means we react immediately without any logical thought process? The authors point this out and give the following example to explain why domain general rationality does not seem to be how our brains behave.

Domain-general theories of rationality imply a deliberate calculation of ends and a sample space of means to achieve those ends. Performing the computations needed to sift through that sample space requires more time than is available for solving many adaptive problems, which must be solved in real time. Consider a man coming home from work early and discovering his wife in bed with another man. This circumstance typically leads to immediate jealousy, rage, violence, and sometimes murder (Buss, 2000; Daly & Wilson, 1988). Are men pausing to rationally deliberate over whether this act jeopardizes their paternity in future offspring and ultimate reproductive fitness, and then becoming enraged as a consequenceof this rational deliberation? The predictability and rapidity of men’s jealousy in response to cues of threats to paternity points to a specialized psychological circuit rather than a response caused by deliberative domain-general rational thought. Dedicated psychological adaptations, because they are activated in response to cues to their corresponding adaptive problems, operate more efficiently and effectively for many adaptive problems. A domain-general mechanism “must evaluate all alternatives it can define. Permutations being what they are, alternatives increase exponentially as the problem complexity increases” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994, p. 94). Consequently, combinatorial explosion paralyzes a truly domain-general mechanism (Frankenhuis & Ploeger, 2007).

I have written an article earlier on the gene’s eye view for the New Indian Express on how it is because there is a genetic advantage in loving children that we ended up being so nice to our progeny and ended it with the following paragraph.

This does not mean that every time parents tend for children, they do calculations in their heads, or that they do it for selfish reasons without genuine love. It only means that evolution has come up with emotions like love and empathy as a mechanism for the genes to achieve their goals.

So I never thought that we were always doing a rational analysis of the situation before we react to something. Our brains definitely seem to be wired for some quick reactions (imagine your son who is about to fall down and hurt himself seriously. Would you calculate how much of your genes he has got before trying to save him?) We obviously have some context specific wirings in our head. So it is hard to see why anyone would believe in such patently wrong ideas. I, obviously, do not know the history of this field and there might have been people who have argued that way, but today it seems to be impossible that there could be people who support this theory.

Assuming some one does believe in domain general rationality (assuming the straw man is not just a straw man but a real person), the author’s point of there existing too many permutations for us (men) to evaluate and to react, when we see our spouse in bed with another man, though correct, is a round about way of countering the argument. An easier way to argue against domain general rationality is that if that were true, then this man who sees his bed in wife with another man though initially gets jealous and angry (because, if his wife becomes pregnant now, he cannot be sure if he is the father) must immediately calm down if he sees that this other man was wearing a condom (which means he couldnt have impregnated his wife). I am sure those supporters of the rationality theory will also agree that this scenario will never happen? So, what are they supporting then?

Rampant sexism in Indian movies

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

My parents are here with me in the US, helping Prabha and me manage our two children. While it is very good to have them around, there are some inconveniences too, like when yesterday I had the highly nauseating experience of sitting through a Telugu movie that Prabha played for them. It is one of those regular mindless movies where the hero single handedly takes on an ex-CM, beating up ever increasing number of people every 20 mins that the villain sends to rough him up.

While that alone is enough to put me off the movie, what made me move to a different room was the way the hero preaches the heroine on how women should behave. Remember that for a considerable part of the time the movie played, Aman was testing the limits of his voice box by shouting into my ear, while Akash was trying to stand up tugging at my shorts to raise him up and so I could not really focus on the movie. But in a scene where the heroine is downing a beer, the hero preaches to her on how a woman should be. How she should not be drinking, how she must be soft, shy, wear makeup and so on. He goes on to explain how guys dont fall for extraordinary women (as the heroine, playing the role of a journalist, describes herself in the earlier parts of the movie), and that they like only ordinary women.

This kind of sexism never fails to rile me up (why else would I write about it at 3.30 AM). It makes me stinking mad. As a male myself, I don’t think I am completely free of such prejudice. I am sure that there are cases where even my privilege as a male shows. But I am working on it and when pointed out, I am ready to correct myself.

Another reason, why it makes me so uneasy is probably because it reminds me of the time (more than a decade ago) when I thought I liked Rajinikanth’s movies. His movies too are full of such utter nonsense against women (take any movie). It makes me feel sick about what my own thoughts were, when I was in school and college. Needless to say, I am today ashamed to say that I liked his movies at one point.

You might say I am fretting too much about something that is very common. But what concerns me is precisely, that such tripe is so common and that it is not talked about as much as it should be. My worry is that such movies, with big stars, are so popular that people are brainwashed into thinking that the role of women is just to play second fiddle to the men in their lives, and that any kind of assertion of women’s rights becomes something that a woman should never do. When someone does that, she is seen as being not an “ordinary” woman. Those who know not the first thing about feminism, start criticising it. I am not saying that the moment the movie is over, the men go about beating their wives and sisters. But this kind of movie making reinforces the already deeply entrenched idea in our culture, that women are second class beings.

What worries me further is that ideas like these are held my women themselves in our country, and such movies ensure they never get out of such a thought process. Women themselves think that their role is to help men succeed in their lives (as my mom does). I wonder if there are no women on the sets of the movie who will raise their voices against this. But I realise that those women who get to work as technicians in the movie do not get enough control over the process, to assert their views, but what about the heroines themselves? Is Tamanna ok with her journalist character being told that her not wearing make up, her swearing, her beer drinking are all something a woman should not do? I guess so. After all she does not mind being objectified as a mere prop in movie after movie where she gets screen time only because our movie format has five songs as an indispensable component. I can understand men being MCPs (though that does not justify it), but why are women playing along? That should give us an idea of how deep seated such prejudices are.

To get the problem into perspective, imagine a movie, where the hero tells a person, citing her caste, that ordinary people belonging to her caste, should not study in college and that they must act only as a servant of the upper castes and that if she goes to college and gets a degree, that would mean she would not be liked by the members of the upper caste? That would have raised voices from so many people asking for the movie to be banned since it promotes casteism. But, the movies that degrade women are exactly similar, and I would argue, are worse. After all, there is no caste that constitutes 50% of the population. But women who make up almost 50% (slightly less, I know) of our people are stereotyped day in and day out in the movies, and no one seems to care. Why does the censor board let such films through? Why is it not legally a problem to make sexist movies, but casteist movies are a strict no-no? I don’t have an answer, but I know it is wrong, unfair and prejudicial.

What is even more odd about the whole thing is that the women in the movie stars’ families, regularly do things that the movie star himself derides in the movie. Why is it that Rajinikanth does movies like Mannan, while his one daughter is a producer and the other a director? Cant people see the double standards?

I wonder what would happen if some filed a PIL against an obviously sexist movie asking for it to be banned? Would that raise our consciousness? The case might fail, considering that a majority of the judges too might go with the public sentiment that sexism is too common to be banned. I am personally not for banning a movie for being sexist, but I would like to see everyone associated with the movie boycotted and ostracised voluntarily by the rest of the media and people. At least the women in the media and the entire population of women. That would be very nice, but I am not very hopeful of seeing something like that happen in my own lifetime.

The big bang and my children

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Sometime back I promised to give you one more reason why my children remind me about the universe. But, thanks to them, I could not get around to writing about it till today. That is the problem with children, you do not get time for much else. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying parenthood is without its moments. The other day, I was carrying Aman around in a store, while my wife was looking admiringly at all the tablets that were on display. I was talking to him and in a bout of fatherly affection, I hugged him tight, and all of a sudden I felt a certain warmth envelop my heart. The problem with these moments are they are very fleeting. This time it ended with my wife telling me that the warmth was not from the inside, but because, Aman threw up some of the formula he just drank, onto my shirt. I digress.

Do you remember the term Entropy? I remember it from my Chemistry text book being defined as “Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system” accompanied by a diagram having two boxes, one in which small circles are arranged closely together on one side of the box, and the other box having these circles evenly spread out. The first one is supposed to have low entropy, because it is more ordered, while the second one has higher entropy, as there is less order in it. As with rest of Chemistry, I had no clue what it meant. I vaguely remember wondering, why this is even considered an important concept, but was practical enough to memorise it since it was an easy definition, and could earn me a couple of marks if it came up in my examination.

A few years back when I actually learnt what entropy meant I was blown away. In many places, entropy is defined in terms of orderliness. The higher the orderliness, the lower the entropy . A common example is that of a room neatly arranged, with all the things in their places. If you do not take any effort towards the room for some time, it will soon end up in an unordered state, what with your leaving a bowl here, a book there, a shirt on the couch, a drinking cup elsewhere and so on. Another example given is on the lines of dropping a little bit of ink into a glass of water. Initially the ink is focussed at the spot where it was dropped, but slowly it spreads out turning the entire water blue. In both these cases, the room, or the glass full of water, initially there is low entropy (high orderliness), then the entropy slowly increases (orderliness decreases). (I know that this definition of entropy is confusing, so I will try to use orderliness more frequently in the rest of this post, occasionally translating it into entropy.)

The examples are given to explain one of the fundamental laws of physics: second law of thermodynamics, which is that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease. By closed, they mean a system that does not interact with any other object outside the system. And the examples of the room and a glass of water, is meant to tell you that a room never gets organised on its own (unless you put in some effort), and though you will see ink spreading out in water uniformly, you will never see all those ink molecules come together as one blob in any part of the glass of water. But these examples are merely analogies. Not really an example of entropy. For, if you really did nothing to the room, say you locked your house and went on a vacation, the room would be as it is when you return. The example of ink in water, can be turned around with the example of oil in water. If you drop some oil into water, stir it well, the oil will spread. But once you stop stirring, the oil will accumulate on the surface of the water.

Further, this definition of orderliness stuck somewhat odd to me. After all, who decides what orderly is. If I think a spilt cup of milk on my couch is an integral feature of an orderly room, then surely orderliness can increase. So, this was never really convincing to me. Thankfully, there is a better definition.

Imagine this. You heat some water in a bowl, and you see steam coming out of it. The steam is hot. And so is the water. Have you thought of heating some milk with this heat from the steam, and the heat of the bowl of water? After all, we were told that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So we should be able to use that energy again. If you try, you will notice that you can achieve some heating of the milk, but not really much.

The question is, can energy be recycled? The problem is that there is useful energy and the not-so-useful energy. For energy to be useful, it has to be focused in a very small area. When you heat a bowl of water, you do not lose energy. Only that it becomes more spread out. As steam and as heat in the water. The more spread out it becomes, the less useful it becomes as an energy source.

Thus an easy way to think of Entropy is to think of the amount of useful energy in a system. The way this energy and orderliness can be coupled is this: If energy is arranged in an orderly fashion, it is useful energy. If it is spread out in a random manner, then nothing much can be done with it. So if you want to increase orderliness in a place A, say, to get all those atoms in a particular arrangement, then you need to spend some useful energy elsewhere drawn from a place B. And always, the quantum of orderliness gained in place A, is less than the orderliness you lost in place B. Which means, in the overall perspective orderliness always goes down. Going back to our confusing definition this means entropy will always go up.


Two improbable arrangements of atoms

What you see above are two orderly arrangements of a gazillion number of atoms (of course, so are you and me). These atoms could have been arranged in a gazillion to the power of gazillion number of other ways. But very few combinations will actually form a human being that can grow, eat and function purposefully. Thus this very high orderliness in my house should mean orderliness must have reduced somewhere else. Where did my children steal that orderliness from?

It comes from the sun. In fact all the orderliness on earth comes from the sun. It is the energy of the sun that gives us all our life. So it is the useful energy of the sun that we are converting into useless energy. The energy from the sun has high orderliness, low entropy. The energy that we release (as heat) has low orderliness, high entropy. And the closed system I am talking about is the entire universe. Our universe as a whole has a finite amount of useful energy. At some point in future, all that useful energy will be lost. So, even if we could be immortal, there is a point after which you cant eat to get energy, because there are no plants. No plants because there is no sunlight. No sunlight because, there are no stars. No stars because energy is not focused at any point any more anywhere in the universe. It is all spread out in such a manner, that the entire universe has one consistent, very cold, temperature. At that point, nothing can be done. No turning back. Life cannot exist any more.

I know it sounds all bleak, but that future is very far away. We have bigger worries like the sun dying out in the next 5 billion years. So, the universe ending up with maximum entropy need not keep you awake at night. But entropy is important because, it is one idea that seems to explain why time always flows from past to future and not the other way (more on it some other time). Another interesting aspect is that, if entropy always increases towards the future, then that means, our universe must have begun in the past with very low entropy. That is why we are able to have so much useful energy. It is as if the universe is like a clock that has been wound up, and is slowly unwinding. At some point it will unwind completely and all that is left is a clock that does nothing. So how did the big bang start off the universe with low entropy?

I really do not have an answer for that (though scientists know it). But what fascinates me is that it is this low entropy start that big bang gave to the universe making life possible in this universe. You can read a short story by Isaac Asimov on this topic here.


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