Science has given humanity more than its share of letdowns. It has set limits to our technology, such as the impossibility of reaching the speed of light; failed to overcome our vulnerabilities to cancer and other diseases; and confronted us with inconvenient truths, as with global climate change. But of all the comedowns, the second law of thermodynamics might well be the biggest. It says we live in a universe that is becoming ever more disordered and that there is nothing we can do about it. The mere act of living contributes to the inexorable degeneration of the world. No matter how advanced our machines become, they can never completely avoid wasting some energy and running down. Not only does the second law squash the dream of a perpetual-motion machine, it suggests that the cosmos will eventually exhaust its available energy and nod off into an eternal stasis known as heat death.
Ironically, the science of thermodynamics, of which the second law is only one part, dates to an era of technological optimism, the mid-19th century, when steam engines were transforming the world and physicists such as Rudolf Clausius, Nicolas Sadi Carnot, James Joule and Lord Kelvin developed a theory of energy and heat to understand how they work and what limited their efficiency. From these nitty-gritty beginnings, thermodynamics has become one of the most important branches of physics and engineering. It is a general theory of the collective properties of complex systems, not just steam engines but also bacterial colonies, computer memory, even black holes in the cosmos. In deep ways, all these systems behave the same. All are running down, in accordance with the second law.