How the Second Law of Thermodynamics Took Down Ancient Egypt

I know what you are thinking. What does science have to with the fall of arguably the most remarkable and culturally rich nation’s demise? To understand this puzzling question, we first must understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius was born to a wealthy family on January 2, 1822 in Poland. In 1840 he attended the University of Berlin with hopes of pursing a degree in history. However, he discovered a new passion and concentrated on mathematics and physics instead.[1]

Clausius became famous in 1850 when he wrote his first paper on the mechanical theory of heat, otherwise known as the second law of thermodynamics[2]. This law essentially states three important facts: 1. Heats travels hot to cold, 2. Heat cannot be converted into useful work, and 3. Every isolated system becomes disorderly overtime. [3] The third part of this law is the most important in understanding the fall of Ancient Egypt. In simplistic terms, as time continues, things decay. For example, refer to the diagram below to look at a snow flake. Snowflakes start off as orderly systems with intricate patterns unique to every flake. However, as time continues snowflakes melt and turn into water. What once was an ordered system, turned into chaos. Disorder is always more probable then order in any system.[4]


This image describes how over time systems become more disorderly. [5]


The Fall of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was one of the most influential River Valley civilizations that lasted from 3000 BCE until 332 BCE. This empire outlived Christianity by a thousand years and was already gone by the time western culture even existed.[6] The Egyptians created an empire that they thought would last an eternity. Due to its geological location, it was no surprise that Egypt became one of the most power nations in this region. Being near the Nile River and having fertile land made producing food a breeze. Having easy access to food, allowed the Egyptians to pursue other endeavors such as building the Great Pyramids of Giza (see image below). They also had an abundance of resources to create such huge monuments.

This is picture of the Pyramids of Giza. [6]

Unlike a snowflake, the Ancient Egypt’s transitions to disorder took about 3,000 years. It was very gradual, and can be broken up into 3 main periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. As each kingdom progressed, the entropy increased. Entropy measures the degree of disorder in the system.[6] As the entropy increased, this nation constantly got one step closer to destruction. In the path to demise, there where uprising, wars, corrupt rulers, oppression, droughts, and famine.[7] Finally around 300 BCE, the mighty Egyptians where defeated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What does that mean for us?  

Have you ever wondered why the world seemed to be falling apart? There is murder corruption, war, and greed seen everywhere across the globe on the daily. The world as we know it, moment by moment is getting more chaotic. One day there will no longer be a United States of America or the even the ideas in which we hold dear. There will come a day our civilization will succumb to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every day entropy in our system increases; it is just a matter of time before we become like the Egyptians.

Could Cheaper Oil and Energy Be Dangerous?

In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change.  In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2)  As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.

Figure 1: All U.S Carbon Dioxide Emission Estimates (2)



Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment. 

I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.