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Q & A: Entropy of learning physics

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
When a person learns physics, does their entropy increase or decrease?
- Joe (age 28)
University of Maryland, College Park
A:
The average entropy in your body per kilogram depends on the temperature and the chemical composition (which is more or less the same for different people). So the biggest contribution to any change in entropy while you are learning physics is whether you gained any weight in doing so. I like to eat doughnuts while learning physics, and so my entropy increases.

That having been said, you may have been more interested in the ordering of particular pathways related to information flow within the body. The entropy of these is completely overshadowed by the doughnut effect, and by losing a little weight, you can make it go in the other direction. Richard Feynman, I believe, considered physical limitations to computing and how a computer must dissipate heat if it is to change state. By learning physics, you may have to create new neural pathways (as is the case in learning anything else), and perhaps you might even be forgetting something else while learning your physics. Some energy has to be expended to change the state of whatever it is in our brains which stores energy, and thermal energy gets dissipated to the environment. At the very least, our activity increases the entropy of the environment, although just sitting down with a book and learning about physics is one of the least entropy-increasing of human activities I can think of.

Tom

(published on 10/22/2007)

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