Reflections on the Motive Power of Life

In 1824, Sadi Carnot published a paper, titled Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which is considered the seminal work on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If the First Law spoke of Work, Energy and their transformation, the Second Law spoke of the constraints to that transformation.

There are several statements for the second law, which can all be summarized simply as the impossibility to create an engine that works with 100% efficiency. No matter how perfect the design and material are, only some amount of energy received as input will be converted into work, the rest gets wasted in the process; discarded to a heat sink. Thus, in real world the resulting action will always be lesser than the energy supplied for it, irrespective of the process. And, I want to discuss how universal this law is, but first let’s take a detour.

Successful individuals have always been the subject of keen scrutiny and research. Mankind has invested a lot of effort and resources to understand its greatest achievers and categorize their attributes. The curiosity is the facade to a widespread desire of formulating genius and mastery. A hope that exists despite the collective and historically proven lesson that rules may never fail but they have to be broken for reaching greatness.

There’s one aspect to greatness that stands out, primarily because it is almost always perceived as a fault by us lesser mortals. In an act of self-righteousness we blame the super achievers for a severe lack of balance, questioning their sanity, butting it (with a heart full of self-defeating malice) against our own ability to handle every aspect of our lives with equal attention and poise. But, is this balance responsible for our mediocre life? Let’s see.

The lack of balance in successful people is the direct result of an ability to focus on the task at hand to an extent that everything else drowns out, becomes indistinct chatter. This ability, in turn, comes from the complete disregard for the result. Let me explain. When we set out to do something, we meet failure more often. Success always seems like an elusive dream, within sight but never reachable. Being hard-wired to seek immediate results, every such disappointment comes with a strong urge to give up and follow the beaten path, embrace the mediocracy. Obviously, it is difficult to pursue your dreams with a mind busy seeking social approval and progress. This tendency to fixate on the result, never lets us obsess about our work, giving us a balanced perspective, but a common life. But then, how do the Greats resist the urge to seek gains? Are we the ones prioritizing it incorrectly? And here comes the Second Law to the rescue.

In life, just like in any other thermodynamic system, input exceeds the resulting output. You cannot expect all your effort to turn into fruitful gains, because a large chunk of it, inevitably, gets wasted. Since every action results in a definite loss of your faculty and resources, what you achieve in life is always less than what you invest to get it. So, if the sole motive behind your endeavour is success, or tangible gains, you might as well not take any action at all. Sitting and metabolizing should be your best bet, the path of least dissipation. Unless you discover a non-tangible gain which balances your loss. Unless you realize the joy of doing, the pleasure of finding simple and elegant solutions to complex problems, the revelry of manufacturing immaculate assemblies and precise fits, the beauty of designing intuitive and organic processes, the sheer exhilaration of using graphite to turn a blank piece of paper into an idea which ends up changing the world. Unless the only thing you care about is the task at hand (and not the success you might achieve if you happen to complete it).

Love of Science

This is an excerpt from an address at the Physical Society, Berlin, on the occasion of  Max Plank’s sixtieth birthday. The words belong to one of the greatest scientists that ever lived on the face of earth. Any guesses? You can see the entire address by the speaker at this link: Principles of Research

IN the temple of science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside…

..now let us have another look at those who have found favor with the angel. Most of them are somewhat odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, really less like each other, in spite of these common characteristics, than the hosts of the rejected. What has brought them to the temple? That is a difficult question and no single answer will cover it. To begin with, I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.