Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Order and Disorder: The Forces that Drive the Universe

I was late to the Jim Al-Khalili party, so I'm working through the back catalog, scrambling to catch up. So far, I've authored question sets for Atom, Chemistry: A Volatile History, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, Gravity and Me, The Secrets of Quantum Physics, and Secrets of Size: Atoms to Supergalaxies.

I still have a few Al-Khalili gems to mine. For now, I'm adding this volume to my library.

In which Al-Khalili spins a thread that carries us from ancient Mesopotamia through the Age of Steam to the origin of punch cards up to smart phones, with a stubborn demon adding to the entropy (or does he?).

1. The Story of Energy begins with Leibniz's idea of a Living Force and continues into the Age of Steam. We see Sadi Carnot driven by patriotism to put France on an equal footing with Britain in its mastery of steam. Rudolf Clausius defines entropy and sees it increasing everywhere. We move on to Ludwig's Boltzmann's tortured advocacy of atomic theory. It didn't end well for Boltzmann. In the end, it turns out rely on the inexorable transformation from order to disorder.

2. The Story of Information begins with Joseph Marie Jacquard's punch cards looming large in Lyon. Samuel Morse brings communication into the electric age. James Clerk Maxwell casts a demon into the world of thermodynamics that resisted expulsion for over a century. Alan Turing imagined what's possible, and electronic computers eventually replace human ones. Claude Shannon defines the binary digit (bit) while employed by Bell Labs. Universal Turing Machines eventually take the form of today's most popular computing machines: phones.

How I'd use it: Part 1 does a nice job of contextualizing thermodynamics, so it would fit it during or after an AP Physics 2 unit on thermodynamics. So much in the introductory study of thermodynamics can seem like Severance-style data refinement with PV cycles and such, the human history and motivations is a welcome fleshing-out. I would save Part 2 for the interregnum between the AP exam and the end of the school year. I'm not saying it's a complete 2001-style "Beyond the Infinite" ride, but it doesn't attach cleanly to the standard physics syllabus. At least not yet. 

For what it's worth, I tagged this resource on Teachers Pay Teachers as appropriate for 11th, 12th, undergrad, and homeschoolers. On most of my resources, I run the tags down to 7th grade. I though this might be a lot for a students just out of elementary school.

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