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Inception: 05/07/08
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Institute of Human Thermodynamics

Study Oveview
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Research Project #13 - 2008
:: Entropy? ::
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The results of this study are shown in the following table (listed by order of polling):
Study Overview

In May of 2008, stimulated by a comment in the 2007 book The Second Law of Life, by Belgium chemist John Schmitz, that “when I ask my neighbors what they know about entropy, most of them admit they don’t know anything … some vaguely remember something about chaos, but don’t know exactly how chaos relates to entropy”, American chemical engineer Libb Thims, of the Institute of Human Thermodynamics, spent three days querying local Chicagoans with a white card with the word “Entropy” on it.  The people polled (N=81) were simply shown the card, with the word entropy printed on it, and asked if they knew what the word means? Of those polled, 64 had no idea, and 17 gave answers (21%).  Of those answers, shown in full below, the following key words occurred more than once:

Energy (4)
Heat (2)
Chaos (2)
Disorder (2)
Universe (2)  
# Answer Name
1 The theory that the world (or universe) is slowly drifting towards chaos Menos
2 Something to do with disorder Richard
3 Enter or going in Josh
4 Something to do with energy or balance Katie
5 Heat (or heat transfer) Carlos
6 When things decay Kelly
7 Something to do with philosophy or psychology Franklin
8 It happens on its own John
9 The natural tendency of the universe to move towards disorder Topher
10 Energy and chaos Sara
11 A form of energy Amanda
12 Heat; isn’t it the “S” sign from chemistry? Leslie
13 Where you degrade or “degrading” Jack
14 Lack of organization Nick
15 Something to do with thermodynamics … an unavailable quantity of energy, maybe? Jim
16 It means “nothingness” - you have creation, then you have entropy J.P.
17 Confusness Sang

Each of these answers as to what the definition of entropy is, in one way or another, has certain grains of validity to them, when discussed in the proper context, e.g. chaos (thermodynamics), spontaneity (thermodynamics), disorder (thermodynamics), etc.

The best answer, of the list, is #15: a quantity of energy that is thermodynamically unavailable, a theme from descriptions of entropy in Scottish physicist James Maxwell’s 1871 Theory of Heat in conjunction with the 1873 works of American mathematical physicist Willard Gibbs, who graphically characterized “available energy” (better known as free energy) as the total system energy less the energy related to entropy. This definition also fits with the 2005 definition of entropy in the Oxford Dictionary of Physics as “a measure of the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work”.

Answer #1, to note, stems from the 2007 movie Chaos Theory starring Ryan Reynolds. The “nothingness” definition, answer #16, is used a lot in the science fiction or fiction writing genre. The philosophy/psychology reference, answer #7, stems from the fields of philosophical thermodynamics and psychodynamics, the latter of which uses the conception of psychic entropy, a theory developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. The degrade definition of entropy was used significantly in the 2005 book Into the Cool - Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, whose authors argue that the second law of thermodynamics means to “degrade the gradient”. The “enter or going in” definition, answer #3, may stem from various dictionary definitions, e.g. Merriam-Webster, who define entropy from the Greek roots en- (to put or go into) + trope change, literally, turn, from trepein to turn, hence the idea of something (as in energy) turned inward. Other answers are standard variations of definitions found in typical English dictionaries (see, for example, entropy (Dictionary.com)).

In conclusion, this study finds that 21% of Americans have an idea of what "entropy" is and that chaos is only one of many perspectives.