JF Ptak Science Books Post 1514
“The more the universe approaches this limiting condition in which the entropy is a maximum, the more do the occasions of further change diminish; and supposing this condition to be at last completely attained, no further change could evermore take place, and the universe would be in a state of unchanging death.”--R. Clausius, 1868
I wonder about the appearance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the Entropy Law) and its influence on creative, speculative literature. Its really about the juicier two-word interpretation--Heat Death--that I wonder about, along of course with the 1st and 2nd laws, and its influence on relating the story of the end of the world, the destruction of the Earth, the depletion of the universe. One can see the possibilities of the of the ideas of the fourth dimension in the creation of modern art and their influences on people like Picasso and Duchamp, even though that influence took decades (in the case of Marey to actually "appear" in art. Where was the influence of entropy in literature?
The business of "heat death" and the Second Law is of course necessarily based upon the First Law of Thermodynamics (and the work of the beautiful Hermann von Helmholtz in 1847), and which finds an outline of a home in the early work of Sadi Carnot (in 1824, on mechanical energy loss) and more comfortable foundations in the work of James Joule (in 1843), Rudolf Clausius (in 1850) and William Thomson1 (in 1852, "On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy"). The Second Law belongs to Rudolf ("Santa") Clausius, whose 1850 paper in the Annalen der Physik begins the establishment of the "the most universal regulator of natural activity known to science", an idea solidified in his 1854 paper (in the same journal), where the concept of "entropy" is introduced though the name not actually used (a slightly complex history of the word, to be sure, though it makes its appearance, finally, in an 1865 paper).
Von Helmholtz famously establishes the death of the sun in a popularly-written 1854 paper (at about another 20 million years) which is a fantastic/superlative philosophical something happening there five years before the Origin of Species, establishing that at some point in the not-horribly-distant future that the sun would be extinguished, and that a sooner point the Earth would go, too. Thomson would do about the same in another popular journal in 1862, saying:
"The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and hence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever. (Thomson, William. (1862). "On the age of the sun’s heat", Macmillan’s Mag., 5, 288-93; PL, 1, 394-68.)
It would seem very heady stuff, this scientifically-based end-of-all-life-and-everything-else thinking. But it really doesn't seem to have taken hold in any literary sense, at least not in a big way until the work of one of the most fertile popular thinkers of the second half of the 19th century. Camille Flammarion (26 February 1842—3 June 1925), an astronomer, scientific editor and sci-popularizer of vast proportions, an author of some 50 books, produced a fantastic end-of-the-universe story in his La Fin du Monde, published in 1893. Again, this is decades after the big scientific pronouncements on the subject. But afterwards, in the space of just a few years this sort of thinking, this megaland of fictional science writing would take itself away by leaps and bounds, unlike perhaps any other period in literature. (What is probably the first treatment of post-apocalypse Earth in speculative fiction--excluding religious writing and speculation--comes in 1885 with the novel After London by Richard Jeffries.) For example in 1895 there was Wells' Time Machine, Tsiollkovsky's Dream of the Earth and the Sky and the Effects of Universal Gravitation, and Lowell's pinch in the eye, Mars, not to mention Verne's Le Moteur. In 1897 there was Morris' The Well at the World's End and Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau, plus more realistic but nevertheless bombing-bastic things like Tracy's Final War. Then by 1898 there was Edison's Conquest of Mars by Serviss, and the great The War of the Worlds, again by the very busy Wells. I wonder where this spculation was in the 1860's and 1870's?
I really don't know the answer to that. Just like I don't know why the photographs of Marey--though very widely circulated--didn't seem to have an influence in artistic space for 30 or 40 years. Unless of course I'm missing a big piece of the history of speculative fiction....
"Presently the earth is only an invisible point among all the stars, because, at this distance, it is lost through its infinite smallness in the vicinity of the sun, which itself is by far only a small star. In the future, when the end of things will arrive on this earth, the event will then pass completely unperceived in the universe. The stars will continue to shine after the extinction of our sun, as they already shone before our existence. When there will no longer be on the earth a sole concern to contemplate, the constellations will reign again in the noise as they reigned before the appearance of man on this tiny globule. There are stars whose light shone some millions of years before we arrived … The luminous rays that we receive actually then departed from their bosom before the time of the appearance of man on the earth. The universe is so immense that it appears immutable, and that the duration of a planet such as that of the earth is only a chapter, less than that, a phrase, less still, only a word of the universe’s history." — Camille Flammarion, Le Fin du Monde (The End of the World)
I should point out that in addition t being an astronomer, Flammarion held some very colorful ideas about the possibilities of life on other worlds--near ones, at that. He was evidently much take with the "discoveries" of Percival Lowell, claiming that a superior Martian race had been trying to communicate with Earth "for years" but without success. See this NYT article from 1907: "Martians Probably Superior to Us; Camille Flammarion Thinks Dwellers on Mars Tried to Communicate with the Earth Ages Ago". New York Times. November 10, 1907. "Prof. Lowell's theory that intelligent beings with constructive talents of a high order exist on the planet Mars has a warm supporter in M. Camille Flammarion, the well-known French astronomer, who was seen in his observatory at Juvisy, near Paris, by a New York Times correspondent. M. Flammarion had just returned from abroad, and was in the act of reading a letter from Prof. Lowell." At about the same time Flammarionpredicted that the world would be destroyed by a mysterious seven-tailed comet, causing panics--again, from 1907: "Flammarion's Seven Tailed Comet". Nelson Evening Mail. 30 July 1907.
1. Thomson, William. (1951). “On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, with numerical results deduced from Mr Joule’s equivalent of a Thermal Unit, and M. Regnault’s Observations on Steam.” Excerpts. [§§1-14 & §§99-100], Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851; and Philosophical Magazine IV. 1852, [from Mathematical and Physical Papers, vol. i, art. XLVIII, pp. 174] Thomson, William (1952). “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for April 19, 1852, also Philosophical Magazine, Oct. 1852.