Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

ISBN: 0226739376
ISBN 13: 9780226739373
By: Eric D. Schneider Dorion Sagan

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About this book

Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have all sought to answer the questions of why we are here and where we are going. Finding this natural basis of life has proved elusive, but in the eloquent and creative Into the Cool, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan look for answers in a surprising place: the second law of thermodynamics. This second law refers to energy's inevitable tendency to change from being concentrated in one place to becoming spread out over time. In this scientific tour de force, Schneider and Sagan show how the second law is behind evolution, ecology,economics, and even life's origin.Working from the precept that "nature abhors a gradient," Into the Cool details how complex systems emerge, enlarge, and reproduce in a world tending toward disorder. From hurricanes here to life on other worlds, from human evolution to the systems humans have created, this pervasive pull toward equilibrium governs life at its molecular base and at its peak in the elaborate structures of living complex systems. Schneider and Sagan organize their argument in a highly accessible manner, moving from descriptions of the basic physics behind energy flow to the organization of complex systems to the role of energy in life to the final section, which applies their concept of energy flow to politics, economics, and even human health.A book that needs to be grappled with by all those who wonder at the organizing principles of existence, Into the Cool will appeal to both humanists and scientists. If Charles Darwin shook the world by showing the common ancestry of all life, so Into the Cool has a similar power to disturb—and delight—by showing the common roots in energy flow of all complex, organized, and naturally functioning systems.“Whether one is considering the difference between heat and cold or between inflated prices and market values, Schneider and Sagan argue, we can apply insights from thermodynamics and entropy to understand how systems tend toward equilibrium. The result is an impressive work that ranges across disciplinary boundaries and draws from disparate literatures without blinking.”—Publishers Weekly

Reader's Thoughts

Neal Grout

This book confirms what I have already suspected for some time, that the purpose of living systems is to degrade energy at an optimal rate in accordance with thermodynamic laws and principles (although this book concentrates mostly on the entropy law). The authors present a sound evidence in favour of this argument.

Nick Gogerty

Probably the best science book I have read over 20 years. Truly fascinating premise. check out the website and buy the book. An amazing explanation of why and how for pretty much everything.

Soul Dancer

A delightful journey successfully mixing the quantitative world with the more murky matters of qualitative data. This hearty dive into the deep end of understanding - well worth the swim!

Martin Szugat

Mind changing

Galen Weitkamp

Dorian Sagan’s “Cosmic Apprentice” is a collection of speculative and celebratory essays on biology, life and the human condition. Some of these essays re-explore and extend arguments that were put forward in his 2005 book with Dr. Eric D. Schneider entitled “Into the Cool”. The main thesis of “Into the Cool” is that life is a thermodynamic phenomena that thrives on the energy gradients that characterize systems far from equilibrium. The Earth, for example, bathes in a river of radiant energy whose source is the Sun. Far from thermodynamic equilibrium the Earth evolves more and more complex ways to degrade this persistent energy gradient and find an equilibrium state that doesn’t yet exist. Sagan and Schneider point out that, like living organisms, even simple thermodynamic systems seem to display purposive behaviors as they seek equilibrium and maximize entropy. These passages, from the “Cosmic Apprentice,” express the perspectives of the earlier “Into the Cool.” “A streamer of air finds its way out through an electric outlet into a cooler cool. This is purposeful behavior.”“Our bodies are less temporary than a whirlpool; more long lasting than a match zoomed in on in a David Lynch movie, but still, we are essentially processes, not things.”I read “Into the Cool” in 2005 and was completely enraptured. I highly recommend it to the interested reader. When I saw Dorian Sagan had a new book on the market, I ordered it on the spot. He still writes masterfully and elegantly. But my recommendation for it is preceded by some hesitation. Whereas I have sympathy for his thermodynamic speculations on the nature of life, I have little or no sympathy for the deconstructionism of continental philosophers, dangerous speculations that HIV is not the causative agent of AIDS nor Otto Rossler’s silly suit to stop the Hadron Collider’s search for the Higg’s particle because it might create a black hole that will swallow the world. Nevertheless, there’s enough thoughtful observation in this short book to make the read worthwhile.

Wayne Saxe

Matrix physics and thermodynamics. Very interesting take on quantum physics.


What is the source of the complexity which surrounds us, and of which we are exquisite examples? And why does such complexity exists at all, given the inexorable descent into chaos and heat death sanctioned by classical thermodynamics? The answer, according to Schneider and Sagan, is given by science, and specifically by thermodynamics itself - by the same Second Law that is invoked to justify the entropy increase in the universe. One of the authors (Schneider) has proposed a generalized version of the Second Law (which everyone should know just like Shakespear, according to C. P. Snow) which can be stated as: "Nature abhors gradients". All complexity comes from this innate tendency of Nature. It subtends the continuum of forms, structures, organizations and entities that span from trivial heat convection to ecosystems. The book unfold to decode this synthetic statement. It starts with Schroedinger's What is life? thoughts on "order from order" and "order from chaos" which defined the two leading trends of genetics (information transfer in reproduction) and energetics of recent decades. Classical thermodynamics is reviewed in its focus on isolated systems - that is, unrealistic and exceptional ones, and yet root of the main results of the discipline which were too early extrapolated to foresee the destiny of the entire universe and which are accordingly engraved in everyone's imagination. But, again, classical thermodynamics is dedicated to exceptions: real life is instead based on interconnected open systems out of equilibrium, animated by energy and material flows. This is the object of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (NET), which is unveiling new exciting and astonishing scenarios for life and sustainability. From examples of archetypical self-organized systems like Benard cells and Taylor vortices, the book goes up the hierarchical ladder of complexity to trees, ecosystems and even economics. The lietmotif is always the same: the main source of complexity, and even of selection and variation, is the avoidance of gradients in Nature. Particularly, the Earth is posed between the Sun and the cosmic background, so it has a huge gradient to dissipate. And it does thanks to the deeply-entangled and wonderfully efficient structures we see around. The book climaxes unveiling that life has a function (passed as purpose) which is nonetheless simply thermodynamic in origin: it is here to efficiently dissipate gradients.Throughout, the book touches upon many topics which are of evident interest for the matter at hand. The reviews of physics fundamentals are not deep though adequate for a general readership, definitely shallower in comparison to (as a main reference, I would say) Progogine and Stengers' The new alliance. If more, they share the same holistic fervor and sort of anxiety to extrapolate toward life postulates even from simple features of systems, but the present book luckily lacks the bergsonian obsession of late Prigogine (whose role in the development of NET and elucidation of dissipative structures is nowhere in question, of course). We have discussions on the preeminence of genetic reproduction versus metabolism, the role of ecosystems as extended hypercycles, the importance of exercise as single best way to improve personal health and longevity, and more. Interestingly, the overall perspective of thermodynamics roots of life may be hard to accept, apart for creationists and theologists, also by hardline biologists who do not accept physics to have claims or any relevance to "their" discipline - a position more and more out of space and time, frankly.Nonetheless, this book has some limits. Personally, I was drawn to it, I realize, because of the topic - which I believe should be compulsorily embedded in biology and thermodynamics courses. You know some books just do not stand up to the target or the great idea they set for themselves. This one scores ok, but it might have done even better. First, the murdered is revealed since the beginning: life is not only not in opposition to the Second Law of thermodynamics, it derives from it. Now, making a book-long corollary to a sentence is a hard task in itself, and indeed this book derails often into boredom because of its repetitiveness (that sentence is declined when not restated verbatim, together with the variant "complexity comes from gradient dissipation", hundreds of times). Long pages comes and the reader may suspect no essentially new information is revealed - and this happens often, indeed. Second, their generalization of the Second Law is interesting, but it turns out to be not-so-out-there when compared to the work done in NET in recent decades - which is, to their merit, well documented and cited in the book. They draw, as explicitly stated, from so many authors (Lotka, Wicken, Jantsch, Morowitz, Ulanowicz, and more) that claimed very similar positions that it is difficult for the reader to distinguish where the authors' proposal novelty resides - sometime there is simply no proposal at all. I think they mainly want to present a mindframe, a framework, a perspective essentially thermodynamic in nature, which as important and even provocative as it may be is not revolutionary, so to say. It is provocative, nonetheless, because they essentially claim it is all-encompassing, as far as complexity and life is concerned, and - gladly so - because it further helps cleaning out superstitions, phantoms and reactionary approaches to the matter (not mentioning the "irreducible complexity" unavoidably coming from divine intervention). Anyway (third), though I may think they may get a solid point in supporting the claim, they incur in the same risk common to systematic theories, which is the temptation to force the inclusion of eventually-alien facts into their beloved theory. Even so, they wisely refrain to state a supposed 4th law of thermodynamics (as done e.g. by Kauffman) and reject few similar attempts by others along the way, though they may hide this (un)original sin in their generalization of the 2nd law. Finally, and mainly because of the redundancy of many paragraph and the aforementioned repetitiveness-to-death of the mantra, the book could have gained a lot in being shorter and more compact.Within these limits, the book is to be recommended to vast sets of readers who want a good acquaintance with NET. NET, as fundamental and preeminent part of complex systems science, is so fantastically-interesting, important and pervasive in daily life that it needs to be part of anyone's culture.


Interesting book which explains why life does not violate the second law. Nice discussion of the difference between thermodynamic and informational entropy. I would recommend reading the appendix and the concluding chapter first for those who might not be as interested in the historical developments and just want to get to the gist of the authors' ideas. Nice book to start with before delving into the math.


Very interesting book that links non equilibrium thermodynamics (NET) with all kinds of self-organizing systems. In contrasts to many other books (such as Design in Nature, which tried to bring the same message but fell flat) this one gives many experimental overview and cites a wealth of sources to make its point. Thermodynamics has always been my favorite branch of physics and this book nicely shows the beauty, generality and elegance of this theory.

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