When we look at the stars, we are amazed. The more we learn about the universe, the more predictive it becomes. We have learned how our solar system works and what forces keep it going. We are better at predicting physical systems, because we have learned the laws that govern the movement of stars and galaxies. We learned about gravity, space-time, properties of energy and we keep on learning. In addition, we assume that those laws are valid through most parts of the universe. There is nothing, which is NOT subject to those universal rules. Most probably, those rules apply to every living creature on this planet. And, of course, to humans. We are all subject to the same rules that cannot be bend or broken.
The observation of the universe shows us, that it works like a clockwork. An infinite large, infinite complex clockwork, where one event leads to another since the beginning of time until the end of it. There does not seem to be an intervening hand that rescues suns from exploding or that stops asteroids from crashing into planets. All the parts are obedient to the rules. The universe is like a machine.
Somehow, we have gotten used to the thought, that life is special. We could not find it elsewhere in the universe, so it is a miracle. Earth is a special place that is exempt from what is happening in the rest of universe. An oasis in which humans are the princes and princesses defying the universal rules. Possible? Most probably not! What if we looked at life, i.e. all the living things on earth, just as something that happens because the laws of the universe allow it to happen. If the universe works like a machine, without feelings, then nature is the same, since nature is a part of the universe.
“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, [the] universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by a special act. -Charles Darwin.
The laws of the universe might not always be easily detectable for us. The effects of several laws can overlay into an observation that does not seem to follow any law. That is just an illusion. All waveforms, no matter what you scribble or observe in the universe, are actually just the sum of simple sinusoids of different frequencies. The Fourrier transformation is a method to break complex waveforms into simple one. Eternal, universal laws guide everything – we just might not be able to detect them, yet.
If we understand the rules of the game, we can align our thinking with it. We can accept what happens, we can anticipate what will happen and we can maximize our effectiveness in life because we know what the rules allow – and what not.
What are the laws of the universe? I do not claim that the following, few pages contain everything in detail or are exhaustive. This is just a working base to refer to. There are some fundamentals, which we should know at a basic level.
It’s all about energy
In physics, energy is the quantitative property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on an object or heat it. Roasting coffee beans to change their aroma – energy is used for chemical reactions. Cooking coffee – energy is used to heat the water. Lifting a cup of coffee to take a sip – energy is used to move matter.
Energy can be stored within an object and be released. When it is stored, we speak of potential energy, when it is transformed into some sort of movement, we speak of kinetic energy. Depending on the specifics, we speak of different forms of energy. The elastic energy stored by stretching solid objects, the chemical energy released when fuel burns, the radiant energy carried by light, and the thermal energy due to an object’s temperature.
It is hardly conceivable for us in everyday life, but mass and energy are interchangeable. Imagine you had a super-sensitive scale; you could actually measure how a piece of metal becomes heavier as it heats up. Mass can also be converted to energy and that is what happens when a nuclear bomb explodes. Matter is converted into energy in a huge blast.
Every phenomenon, everything we observe in our lives is dealing with energy. From making coffee, to doing sports, to talking with a friend, to driving a car, to the movement of a single person or to migration of peoples. The drifting of continents, the movement of the moon around the earth, the movement of planets in our solar system, the movement of our galaxy…from tiny to infinitesimally large, it is all about energy. Energy is the universal currency
The law of energy preservation
The scientific discipline of thermodynamics deals with the flow of energy. There are four laws of which we will address the first and the second .The first law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy and matter in the Universe remains constant, merely changing from one form to another. We can assume that the universe is a closed system and that the energy in the universe is constant. Also, the amount of matter is constant.
When we look at plant earth, this is of course not true. Matter on planet earth is relatively constant – we shoot some matter out into space, and we gather matter when hit by asteroids, but the changes are not big. However, we have a constant flow of energy onto earth from the sun. We cannot destroy energy, or create it. We can only transform it.
The law of destruction and decay
Why do things happen only in one direction? Why does coal burn and release light and heat, but never do we see the spontaneous creation of coal. Why does a ball roll downwards but never upwards? There seems to be a directionality to the way things happen in the world. Some things happen spontaneously, some do not. Some events seem reversible while others are irreversible.
Since approximately 1650, scientists and engineers were setting out to increase the efficiency of early steam engines. In particular, the French physicist Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot had great influence. He formulated a process by which work could be performed through the heating and cooling of gas (The carnot cycle). By investigating the mechanisms behind the flows of heat and gas, the branch of physics called thermodynamics came into existence. It deals with heat and temperature, and their relation to energy, work, radiation, and properties of matter. This section is about the second law of thermodynamics.
However, we do not have to work on steam engines to realize a very basic observation: Nothing heats up spontaneously. A steak on a plate won’t grill spontaneously. This is a fundamental law of the world. Heat, i.e. energy, will only flow from hot to cold, from concentrated to diluted, from tight to wide.
Physicists have found a way to explain this phenomenon using the concept of “chaos”. The term physicists use to talk about chaos is called entropy (the official SI symbol is “S”). According to the second law of thermodynamics, an exchange of energy can only occur if the chaos in the universe INCREASES.
That’s right. A chemical reaction can only happen, when chaos increases in the process. The same goes for a ball rolling down a hill.
What does chaos mean? We can use the word disorder synonymously to chaos, which means that there is no energy available to do work. We could picture it like three hills with each a toy-car on top. That is three cars capable of rolling downhill and thereby able to do work, i.e. transporting a puppet. This is an ordered state. A salt crystal, a stone, a tree and a human body, a sun, a galaxy are ordered structures. If one car rolls downhill, the chaos has increased, less work is possible. Yet, there are two more left, some order remains. If all cars have rolled downhill, the system has reached maximal chaos. If no energy is left in “high energetic states”, i.e. on top of a hill, no energy is left to do work. We have reached maximal disorder.
Whenever a process occurs, some energy is converted to heat. Although some heat can again be transferred into movement, a portion of it will be trapped in the lowest energetic state, from which it cannot be transferred to other states. Therefore, whenever a process occurs, e.g. a chemical reaction, a ball rolling down a hill or a bird flying from tree to tree, some energy is lost in form of heat forever to further usage.
As the universe evolves in time, more and more of its energy becomes trapped in irreversible states (i.e., as heat or other kinds of increases in disorder). This is referred to as the inevitable thermodynamic heat death of the universe. In this heat death, the energy of the universe does not change in amount, but the fraction of available energy available to do work has become zero and entropy/chaos/disorder is at its maximum.
In consequence, this law states, that a transaction (a chemical reaction or a movement) can only occur if the chaos in the universe increases.
“Hold on”, you might exclaim, “but why do structured, orderly things exist? If everything strives to increase chaos, shouldn’t there be chaos everywhere?” The theory goes, that order can exist locally and temporally as long as chaos increases globally, i.e. universally. How could that work?
First, the universe began in a more orderly state than were we are now. Although no stars or galaxies existed yet, at the time of the big bang, everything was crammed into the size of a soccer ball. This was the state of highest energy. The top of the mountain. From there on energy flowed downhill ever since.
Secondly, the apparent order we observe is never permanent. It is just a transition phase. We might not see it, but every object decays continuously. In the figure the ball rolls down onto the plane and nearly stops moving. It rolls super slow, but keeps rolling – looks stable but is not. Maybe it is blocked by a small bump and cannot roll further without further energetic input. This is also called a metastable state. In any case, the ball is now at a state of lower energy, i.e. universally higher chaos. Once it reaches the next downhill slope, it will progress to the next lower state of energy. This is how we could imagine inanimate things like a stone. Its formation used up energy (rolling down the first slope). Where it is right now, it looks stable (the plane). However, there is still energy stored in it, which is released when it reaches the next slope. Even a stone will eventually disappear.
Last but not least, living things also undergo decay. Once we die, we dissolve quickly. Yet somehow, while alive, we can uphold order. How? By burning energy. Imagine a solar powered robotic arm. Continuously little bits of metal fall of. The robotic arm uses energy to pick up the pieces to repair itself. This is exactly what happens in nature. Plants capture sun light to form glucose. Plants use the glucose to fight chaos and keep order. Herbivores eat plants and use the available energy to move and reproduce. Carnivores eat herbivores and use the energy stored in their muscles to move and reproduce. In the end all living things are depending on solar energy to transform high state energy into low state energy (heat), increasing chaos in the universe Living means keeping order.
If physicists are right, this is the most important law of all. Everything is wasting and decaying. Being alive means burning energy to fight chaos so we can uphold order.
A fight we will eventually lose. We are heading to total chaos; any order is only temporary.
“Change is the only constant in life” – Heraklit
The law of irreversibility
Let’s come back to the ball rolling downhill. I said it is an irreversible transaction. You might object that you can easily roll the ball upwards, put it on the exact same spot, and it is as if nothing happened. It looks like a reversible process. Of course, that is not true, because you used the energy stored in your body to move the ball uphill. A part of that energy, again, is lost to do work forever.
Whatever we do, whatever happens in the world, even if it seems to be reversible, like waving an arm from left to right or lifting a glass of water to your mouth, is irreversible. You can only reverse it by spending more energy.
This also means, that time has a direction. We can’t undo what happened without spending MORE energy, which means we are “trapped” in the present and ultimately drawn to the future. This fundamental paradigm is verbalized as the “arrow of time”. Time has a direction and it points to disorder. Every trans-action is irreversible.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” ― Heraclitus
The law of gravity
Everybody on earth experiences this law every second of his or her life. If I hold an apple in my hand and let it go, it will fall down. This natural phenomenon is known as gravity (from Latin gravitas, meaning ‘weight’), or gravitation. All things with mass or energy, including planets, stars, galaxies, and even light, move toward (i.e. gravitate) one another. It is gravity that gives weight to physical objects. In the beginning of the universe, it was the gravitational attraction of the original gaseous matter, which caused atoms to aggregate and therefore culminating in the formation of stars, planets and galaxies. Gravity is responsible for many of the large-scale structures in the universe. Importantly gravity has an infinite range, although its effects become increasingly weaker as objects get further away.
Gravity is most accurately described by the general theory of relativity (proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915) which describes gravity not as a force, but as a consequence of the curvature of space-time caused by the uneven (see Asymmetries) distribution of mass. However, for most applications, gravity is well approximated by Newton’s law of universal gravitation. It describes gravity as a force causing any two bodies to be attracted to each other. The larger the mass of an object, the larger the pull on other objects. The earth pulls on us, and we pull on earth.
Physicist differentiate four fundamental interactions, with gravity being the weakest of all. The strongest is called the “strong interaction”, which holds together the building blocks of atoms (protons, neutrons). The next force in line is “electromagnetic interaction”, which causes magnets stick and electrically charged particles to come together. Thirdly, the weak interaction is the force holding together the building blocks of atoms – quarks. Last in line is gravity. However, gravity is the dominant interaction at the macroscopic scale, and is the cause of the formation, shape and trajectory (orbit) of astronomical bodies. It is also the major force affecting our day-to-day life.
So what’s it all to do with power? Simple. Whatever you want to do, you have to overcome the pull of gravity. As trivial as this sounds, it is significant!
The laws of moving masses – Newton’s laws
Our lives are a lot about moving things from A to B. This is true for our bodies, which move food from the stomach to the muscles and the brain. And it’s true for us, when we build our houses. Stones and wood need to be moved from the source to our construction site.
The Mathematician, physicist, astronomer and theologian Sir Isaac Newton formulated the three laws of motion, which laid the foundation for classical mechanics. His laws are useful for us to understand how energy and mass interact – relationships we observe and witness every day in our personal lives
If a soccer ball was flying in an imaginary space where nothing influences it, then I could kick it, and it would fly forever. However, if I did not kick it, it would stay there forever. Therefore, the learning is quite simple: Nothing moves without energy, and a movement can only be stopped by exerting additional energy. A bullet flies because of the force of gunpowder. In space, it would continue flying until it hits an obstacle. It could fly forever. On earth, it slows down because of the friction of air, a force acting on the bullet. The first Newton law states that “In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.” Moving objects requires energy
Everyone, who has ever ridden a bike or driven a car can relate to the following law. The faster you want to go, the harder you have to push. Or, the harder you have to put the pedal to the metal. Riding a bike fast is more exhausting than cruising along at a comfortable pace. We need more energy accelerating and keeping the speed than in a normal pace. A car guzzles up much more fuel when accelerating or when driving very fast. Additionally, the heavier the car, the more fuel we need. This is so intuitive, that we hardly ever think about it. Yet, it has profound consequences for everyday life. The second Newton law states, that “In an inertial frame of reference, the vector sum of the forces “F” on an object is equal to the mass “m” of that object multiplied by the acceleration “a” of the object: F = ma. (It is assumed here that the mass m is constant)” The heavier an object and the faster we want to accelerate it, the more energy is necessary to do so.
We sometimes refer to this law loosely as action-reaction, where the force exerted is the action and the force experienced, is the reaction. If I jump up into the air, I push into earth. Earth directly pushes back, propelling me into the air. Since Earth is very heavy, the energy I used for my jump is too little to move earth in any direction, but the energy is enough to lift my weight. This law represents a certain symmetry in nature: forces always occur in pairs, and one body cannot exert a force on another without experiencing a force itself.
The third law states, that “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.” You can’t act on an object, without the object acting back on you. Every action causes a re-action.
The law of asymmetry
Matter and energy are not equally distributed in the universe. There are vast stretches of universe with no visible matter and then there spots where matter aggregated – galaxies, suns and planets. The same applies to earth. There is water and there are patches of solid land. Some areas have more gold, and iron, some have silver and aluminum. Some experience everlasting cold, some everlasting heat.
We have learned in the section about gravity, that matter attracts more matter. It is a reinforcing feedback loop. Matter aggregates and increases its force on surrounding matter and becomes even bigger. Therefore, it can attract even more matter etc. This dynamic is evident in any network or system in our world. We call it “cumulative advantage” or “Matthew effect” (The apostle Matthew talks about it in the bible – Link).
If I win a sports competition, which grants me money, and thereby increases my chances of winning the next one, then eventually I will dominate every sports competition.
When we conduct a thought experiment and imagine a universe with an equal distribution of atoms, no flaws, then no chemical reaction could take place. Nothing would happen. However, now imagine one atom randomly jumps out of place and hits another atom, sticking together. The both of them would then attract more atoms in the vicinity. This initiates a DOMINO effect. Let this continue for billions of years and you end up with MASSIV asymmetries. One infinite small asymmetry will lead to huge ones over time. So asymmetries persist, because of accumulative advantage and chance.
Every-thing in existence is an accumulation of matter and therefore an asymmetry. Our bodies. Our houses. Our cities. Our societies. If we were able to remove all asymmetries and install perfect equality, then we would reach total equilibrium: the end of all existence.
However, every asymmetry represents a state of order/potential energy. As we have learned in the law of decay, the universe only tolerates order, if it helps to create more chaos, somewhere. In consequence, when asymmetries grow, the pull of the force of chaos on it grows, too. The potential energy stored in the ordered state increases and at some stage, it grows fragile – and collapses. If you build a tower from toy building blocks, a small tower usually does not shake. The higher you build it, the more instable it becomes, and collapses.
This happens ad infinitum: asymmetries build up and collapse, just to give way to other asymmetries. Even if we don’t like it in our social life, the world is asymmetrical. Unfair. Unequal.
There is a certain pattern to it, too. The wave.
It’s not a law, but it is the most important pattern in the universe. The wave.
As we have learned in Newton’s law of Motion #3, for every power there is a counterpart. This means, that nothing can grow infinitely without the counterforce acting on it and dragging it back to the mean. In statistics, this is called “regression to the mean”.
Whatever we look at, we will find a wave. Even if the pattern looks like a crazy zick-zack – it’s just many waves superimposed. Due to interference we cannot recognized them as they are. If we look at the world, we see the wave everywhere. Energy fluctuation in a photon, our heartbeat or the rise and fall of populations.
The wave is characterized by a slow start, strong increase, reaching of a infinitesimally short turning point, the rapid decline and then a slowing down to reach the next infinitesimally short turning point.
To me, that’s what the taijitu symbol, the yin and yang, represents.
Every high will eventually come down. Every low will eventually rise.
The wave is at the heart of every process in the world.
The law of evolution
Most of us have come across the term evolution in connection with biology. The evolutionary theory can explain how, in a world only governed by “blind” physical laws, such a plethora of complex, animate things can develop. The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “the blind watchmaker”. How can incredibly complex, highly adapted and functional systems develop without a conscious watchmaker? Evolutionary theory is the answer.
At the most fundamental level, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution states that organisms evolve and adapt to their environment by an iterative process. We can understand it as an algorithm searching the space of possible forms by trial and error (the fitness landscape) for the ones that are best adapted.
The theory is not only applicable to biology, but to any recognizable pattern, phenomenon, or system. Examples of patterns that undergo variation and selection, and thus adaptation, are genes, ideas (memes), theories, technologies, neurons and their connections, words, computer programs, firms, antibodies, institutions, law and judicial systems, quantum states and even whole universes.
Evolution is substrate-neutral, meaning that evolution not only works with genes, but with any entity that can form patterns: molecules or even invisible things like information.
In the next section, I will speak about patterns. A human body is a composition of many patterns. Human society follows patterns. The simplest replicating system are crystals, and they build patterns. Evolution is about patterns. Let’s explore what the fundamental principles of evolution are.
Information: The internal physical properties of the pattern’s components give rise to the pattern’s shape and structure. Alternatively, as is the case for living things, some part of the pattern, the DNA, encodes for the characteristics of the whole pattern.
Survival: The pattern can survive in the given environment. That means it can utilize energy sufficiently effective and efficient to withstand the forces of destruction by maintaining its structure.
Reproduction: The pattern has minimally viable units that can act as seed for new growths of this pattern. This means that the pattern can spread and occupy new territory. Humans exploring new lands or crystals covering the bottom of a river. This is important. As long as something keeps the ability to reproduce, it stays in the game. If it dies too early to reproduce…it’s gone forever.
Variation: The pattern’s internal information can change and these changes modify the pattern’s properties. The composition of genes within an organism changes, genes themselves change through mutations, crystals incorporate different atoms. This is usually (but not necessarily) considered to be blind or random.
Negative selection: This is commonly referred to as “competition”. If a pattern is too weak to withstand the external forces (other patterns, gravity, electromagnetic forces etc.) it will cease to exist. Only systems that can muster enough energy to sustain its structure are survive the current environment. It is important to stress that it is NEGATIVE selection. Patterns that survive, no matter whether barely or greatly, have the possibility to reign the universe one day – given that the conditions disfavor the other patterns. A pattern that is highly effective in transforming energy in a given environment will of course leave other patterns with less available energy. Hence, put pressure on other systems. This has massive implications for our day-to-day life and it shaped the behavior of many animals. There is a continuous filtering of instable patterns (ineffective energy converters). Survival is top priority.
Let’s look at an example: The peppered moth once had white color. This was encoded in their DNA. However, in industrial London with soot-covered buildings it was easily spotted by predators. Hence purely white moths died easily. If a moth had, by chance, offspring with slightly darker color, encoded in their DNA, it was harder to spot and therefore survived longer. That led gradually to the development of dark moths and the disappearance of white moths. More examples can be found here.
Any pattern, anything in existence today can be viewed as an accumulation of information, and hence adaptations, over time. The more stable the environment the more complex patterns can grow, while a volatile environment favors simple, small patterns. Evolution seems to be the process by which all complex things come into existence.
The law of maximal energy transformation
From the law of decay and the law of evolution follows an interesting consequence. We have learned that the universe “wants” to transform energy to reach maximal chaos. We have also learned evolution leads to patterns/systems, which adapt to the environment in a way to ensure survival. This means ensuring the transformation of energy to maintain order. Taken together, this led Howard Odum, based on works by A. Lotka, to the idea that evolution of systems always leads to the maximal energy transformation in a given environment. “systems organize and structure themselves naturally to maximize power“ (Gilliland 1978, pp. 101–102)
Imagine two strains of bacteria swimming in the same pond – the law of decay will favor the one strain that is best adapted to the environment. What does that mean? Well let’s assume it can swim 5% faster and digest a greater variety of molecules for energy. What will happen? It will reproduce much more effective than the other strains, and soon the other strains have disappeared. Now, this strain experiences a mutation and a second strain evolves, which, again, is 5% faster. The story repeats; however with the grave consequence that in total we will see a rising population of bacteria burning more energy than at the beginning of our thought experiment. The bacteria will continue to increase energy throughput until the pond is depleted of nutrients and there is no space left for bacteria to swim.
The story doesn’t end here. Because by evolutionary mechanisms small bugs developed, who left the pond and went crawling around on land. A new territory beaming with resources. Again, we will observe that the space will be taken and an arms race takes place to outcompete the other species.
Nature only saves energy, if it leads to an advantage in spreading life and burning MORE energy overall. When we think about it, what does nature do? What do all the plants, bacteria, fish, birds, mammals etc. do? Bottom line: they transform energy. They increase chaos. And the universe likes that. So the universe favors energy churning systems, that help to reach the final destiny. Chaos.
Laws, So what?!
Ok, now that’s all fine and good. We have formulated certain laws to make sense of the world. We can observe these laws and test their validity. Some experimentally, some only theoretically. In general we can say that life is about transforming energy. Nature produces infinite lifeforms, which do just that. Nature is not an active agent but the forces of the universe drive everything we see. How does that help in everyday life? It helps to understand why the world is made of flows.