Published in Futures 40 No. 9, November 2008, p851. doi 10.1016/j.futures.2008.07.019

Reflections on Floyd's paper on Entropy

Dr Richard Whaley, Director Business Trends Library, 2 Rotherwick Court, Alexandra Road, Farnborough, GU14 6DD, 01252 548115

Abstract Floyd (Ref 1) discusses the thermodynamic entity entropy and its property of increasing and being related to disorder. These Reflections, using the definition of entropy and the narrow conditions in which it applies in thermodynamics, rules out it having significant connections with FR or TF issues. It is further shown that the entropy concept is flawed in its use to life forms and man.

Key words Entropy, thermodynamics, order in life forms, economic history, civilisations, technological forecasting, futures research.

Floyd debates the extent to which the thermodynamic entity Entropy means that disorder must always increase, and this should apply to Technological Forecasting (TF), Futures Research (FR) and related studies. It is a deduction in physics that entropy has some connection with disorder, and that the entropy of a thermodynamic system must always increase, hence the purported conclusion that so must disorder. However the physical context in which this applies is very limited.

Floyd's paper does not state the basic Laws of Thermodynamics, nor define Entropy.

  1. Energy is conserved
  2. Heat does not pass from one body to another at higher temperature unaided by an external agency
  3. Contribution of the entropy of a system by each aspect which is in internal thermodynamic equilibrium tends to zero at absolute zero of temperature

The first two are common sense, and served to help remove the medieval and post medieval obsession with alcemy and perpetual motion and other attempts to get something for nothing. The Third Law is hardly likely to have any relevance to futures studies and can be ignored.

The definition of Entropy is from the relation dS = dQ/T
where dQ is the small quantity of Heat supplied to a thermodynamic system, T is the absolute temperature, and dS is the small change in Entropy which results. However the definition is only valid if the change which has occurred to the thermodynamic system is reversible (Ref 2). This is rather a limiting condition, and does not apply to any irreversible chemical reaction. In my study of entropy for my degree I concluded that it was not a real entity and had very little practical use. Floyd makes a similar point that it is an abstraction of an abstraction.

It also needs to be realised that what is being described by a thermodynamic system is rather simple. It can be imagined as billiard balls (representing atoms) moving about in a 2D frictionless billiard table, where the speed of the billiard balls is a function of the system's temperature. Some of the balls move slowly, some very fast. Where some of the billiard balls are clumped together to form solid crystals then these billiard balls will also be vibrating among themselves as a function of their temperature, and likewise they may also be rotating. When the high speed balls crash into a crystal clump of balls it may knock one or more balls out of the clump. The crystal clump represents a high degree of order, and knocking a ball out may give an insight of how disorder is being increased. However, the formation of the crystal in the first place results in a considerable increase in order but is outside thermodynamic considerations and the definition of entropy.

I do not believe this thermodynamics of matter as solids, liquids and gasses can be shown to have any significant connection with FR or TF issues. It is up to advocates to show vigorously that the limitations in the definition of entropy, and what thermodynamics is dealing with, can nevertheless give the disorder conclusions relevant to FR and TF issues, and what sort of issues may be affected. There is also substantial contrary evidence.

Firstly, the earth as we know it and its place in the solar system and wider universe is not formed on simple considerations of thermodynamics and entropy. We see considerable order around us, down to atomic and nuclear structure.

Secondly, life forms are clearly contrary to entropy disorder. The creation of a seed or egg and its growth into a plant or animal are clearly giving rise to a large increase in order while it is growing. It cannot be said that disorder is always increasing. From its maturity to death and decay there will be increasing disorder, but not before - but here its own seeds or eggs will be doing the opposite. DNA replication does not seem subject to entropy.

Thirdly, human systems seem far more likely to create order (in addition to human organisms merely growing as on the above paragraph) in masses of different ways - their homes, towns, cities (some other life forms do this, especially the social insects). Civilisations do this over long periods of time and geographical area.

Thus the Roman military superiority, plus their diplomacy in treaty making, with their law and its administration, their propensity to absorb the technologies of the people they took over and make them widespread, led to the first of nations with over 100 million people. The warring city states of antiquity were moulded into a growing economy, with peace, growing trade and prosperity. Their roads linking their cities also caused their field boundaries to be parallel and right angles to their roads - which can still persist in the modern landscape. In anyone's definition, order was extended over many hundred years over increasing geographical boundaries.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire may be taken as an example of increasing disorder from the period of its zenith. But even here one meets the cyclic nature of history, where in one civilisation in decline, more of its knowledge passes to its successor growing civilisation. Thus the Roman Empire's decline passed on its accumulated knowledge (largely stored in the eastern Roman Empire) to Europe. In this way, man's order coefficient is cyclic upwards with time, rather than secular downwards as an entropy world would suggest. In this way the fall of a civilisation is limited, and its successor rises to new heights.

Some examples are given in the published Sectors of the Business Trends Library, Ref 3 & 4. The decline of the Roman Empire did not take conditions to the lowest economic level, but about two levels down. The largely barbarian invaders did not want to destroy it - but gain for themselves the advantages of the Roman economy. Unfortunately they were not up to running such a complex entity, which declined over the centuries.

It is found that growth into the Industrial Revolution mirrors quite well the developments in the Roman period in most Sectors. The Romans did not have the structures to develop mass markets - slavery was the obstacle - and that had to wait till the later 1800s.

In all man is showing increasing order with time. The entropy concept of increasing disorder is flawed in its application to life forms and man, and its particular reversible thermodynamic conditions are not met.


1. J Floyd Thermodynamics, entropy, disorder in futures studies Futures 39, No.9, Nov 2007

2. J K Roberts, A R Miller, Heat & Thermodynamics, Blackie & Sons 1928 - 1965

3. Richard Whaley, Data Bank on the Future Business Environment, Long Range Planning 17, No. 4, p85 , 1984

4. Richard Whaley Interactions and Impacts among business futures, Futures 17, No. 3, p271, June 1985

Dr Richard Whaley is a Director of Planning & Control Investments Ltd, and of the Business Trends Library, 2 Rotherwick Court, Alexandra Road, Farnborough, Hants GU14 6DD. He has been Chairman of the Business Futures Study Group of the Strategic Planning Society, London, and a member of its executive. He was also largely responsible for the initial conception and development of Futures. He is physics graduate. Email