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Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

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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

362 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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Eric D. Schneider

3 books11 followers

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Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews
Profile Image for Eric.
50 reviews4 followers
September 27, 2010
The Goodreads database only lists Eric Schneider as author of this book, but the other author is Dorion Sagan, who has through his several collaborative books with leading scientists addressed some difficult scientific questions. Such as, What is Life? and What is Sex? Willing to speculate without losing track of the parameters of reason, Dorion Sagan is a great popular science author. I recommend anything he has co-authored. He happens, probably not coincidentally, to be the son of the late scientist Carl Sagan.

Part III: The Living, Chapters 11-16 convey a good sense of the assertion that thermodynamics underlies the emergence of life. This book is both great and frustrating. Great in that it pulls together so much of the research into the physical bases for complexity and for life, and occasionally helps me see the fundamental truth. Frustrating because of some poorly written, nearly incoherent chapters, and repeated assertions presented as facts.
Profile Image for Nick Gogerty.
14 reviews9 followers
May 10, 2012
Probably the best science book I have read over 20 years. Truly fascinating premise. check out the website www.intothecool.com and buy the book. An amazing explanation of why and how for pretty much everything.
Profile Image for Mangoo.
232 reviews25 followers
January 11, 2011
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.
1 review
January 13, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Blaine Snow.
141 reviews106 followers
March 1, 2022
Matter Cycles, Energy Flows, Entropy Ensures Complexity Grows: A Review of Schneider-Sagan's Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

This outstanding book on thermodynamics, evolution, and life, Schneider and Sagan's interpretation of already-existing science that explains the development of complex life on earth as nature's creative response to the requirements of thermodynamics, namely heat dissipation and entropy. Although not technical, Into the Cool is not easy reading. It requires significant knowledge of general science as the authors bounce between astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and ecology. The book earned its spot on my all-time favorites shelf because of how well it fit into and how much it added to my knowledge of the (sadly) still-marginalized paradigm of natural evolution, emergence, and complexity.

The authors' basic idea is as follows: throw enough energy for a long enough time (the sun, a star) at a standard cosmic mix of basic elements and chemicals (the earth, a planet), add a few other geophysical conditions such as the right temperatures, protective magnetic fields, and such, and – Voila! life forms necessarily arise as nature seeks every possible route to fulfilling the requirements of the second law of thermodynamics. In this view, life forms are literally nature's endlessly creative strategies for dissipating heat and bringing the system "into the cool." "Very cool," I’d say – an idea which from a scientific physics/chemistry standpoint, provides a unique view of the evolution of complexity and why it arises at all. In this view, organisms and their ecosystems become complex vehicles whose primary physical job is to cool down the planet and help dissipate heat, ultimately back into space. Entropy and nature's “need” to fulfill its requirements drives the whole shebang; life forms are simply a system byproduct that increase the efficiency of energy dissipation. “Heat moves, without recompense, into the cool” (36).

The basic principle behind this view is summed up in the phrase: "Nature abhors a gradient". The authors use this basic principle to describe why life arose within this sun/earth system. A gradient is nothing other than a difference – in temperature, pressure, density, concentration, number, distribution, probability and so forth. Because of entropy, the laws of large numbers, and the laws of probability, nature always tends or “wants” to level or equal out differences and this also means drifting towards the most probable states. It’s just another way of thinking about direction or telos – natural change from difference to sameness, higher to lower energy, or from lower probability to higher probability, from far-from-equilibrium (less likely) to equilibrium (more likely). In this view, “God” is “energy flowing downhill.”

…life’s complexity is a natural outgrowth of the thermodynamic gradient reduction implicit in the second law; where and when possible, organizations [life forms] come cycling into being to dissipate entropy as heat. Gradients, such as that between the sun and space, may be huge, and draining them may take literally eons. Nonetheless, the complex systems that come swirling into being near gradients are natural. Although they may sometimes seem to be organized by an outside force, no ‘agent deliberating’ as Aristotle put it over twenty centuries ago, is needed (xvii).

Self-organization? Well, sort of. Evolution? Yes, but with a twist. This is self-organization as an outcome of, or necessary response to, energy dissipation. Evolution as an outcome of nature continually finding better ways (in this case, through novel life forms) to dissipate energy. And of course, it can happen anywhere you have stars and planets with the right features and properties. So, with billions of confirmed exoplanets out there, in our galaxy alone, there must be plenty of other times/places/localities where some kind of complexity has arisen/will arise/is arising. One thing "goes downhill" (energy) while another thing "goes uphill" (complexity). Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine who did important foundational research on self-organizing systems far from equilibrium summarized it this way, “Entropy is the price of structure.”

Perhaps it all sounds too simple or too wacky or too irreverent or too purposeless or too something (add your own favorite reason to discount something). It may not fulfill your pet wish for the “purpose of life on earth” (which might also be no purpose) but it does help to identify ways of thinking about purpose as three kinds of telos or direction, given here in a hierarchy of complexity:

1. Teleomatic Purpose or Physical Directedness: gravity and entropy, end-producing behavior; movement as mutual attraction (gravity) or movement towards equilibrium or state of highest probability (entropy)
2. Teleonomic Purpose or Living Directedness: end-directed behavior of organisms, goal-directedness based on survival and natural selection, reproduction, replication
3. Teleological Purpose or Mental Directedness: conscious purpose goal-oriented behavior in self-reflective organisms; human purpose

Since taking shape in the 1800s, physical science remains divided into two fundamentally different camps, one centered around gravity, simple-closed Newtonian systems, and time symmetry, the other around heat, thermodynamics, complex-open systems, and time-asymmetry. The former is the reductionist God-view of the world, in Nagel’s words “the view from nowhere,” while the latter is the human-centered view which, over time, has come to take into account living systems, embodied consciousness, and human experience. The former is the worldview of physics and mathematical certainty, determinism, time-symmetry. The latter is the worldview of statistics, the laws of averages, large numbers, thermodynamics, energy flows, and far-from-equilibrium organization. The authors explain:

Thermodynamics had released the arrow of time. It went quivering into Newton’s shiny smooth apple, generating heat as friction. By and by, perpetual-motion machines were realized to be an unworkable fantasy. The past and future were different, and science could no longer ignore it. Thermodynamics gave science a wake-up call, forced it to grapple with the reality of linear time. The wake-up call is still reverberating in the collective scientific mind, still groggy from Newton’s dreams. Plato had described a timeless realm of pure Ideas, of which our changing world was only an imperfect copy… Newton was a kind of English scientific Jesus – able to access the eternal mind of God and show how he did his divine handiwork. But thermodynamics messed all that up. It measured loss, and implied that – despite the magnificent motions of the planets – time moves in only one direction. The direction of burning (37).

These are the foundational ideas of the book outlined in the first seven chapters of Part 1: "The Energetic." The three chapters of Part 2: "The Complex," describe the physics of complexity and how systems far from equilibrium can sustain organization, structure, and function through the emergence of novel ways a system responds to the requirements of energy dissipation. There’s been a ton of careful research done on how complexity emerges and evolves. Some of the newest thinking in this area is the new philosophy of science that is called “the new mechanism” or also “the new mechanical philosophy” which has no resemblance with the old-school idea of machine-based mechanisms: see Stewart Glennan’s The New Mechanical Philosophy and also the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Carl Craver entitled “Mechanisms in Science”. A more technical book on complexity emergence is Prigogine and Nicolis’ Exploring Complexity. And another fascinating volume that deals with dynamical complexity as it relates to embodied mind is Di Paolo, Buhrmann, and Barandiaran's Sensorimotor Life: An Enactive Proposal.

Chapters 11-17 of Part 3: "The Living" explore the ways in which nature abhors a gradient in the biological world, discussing the science and various views on the origin of life and biological and ecological evolution. The book was written when the exoplanet revolution was in its infancy so much of the current science of exoplanets doesn’t factor into their narrative. Chapter 15, "The Secret of Trees," gives one of the best examples of the gradient reduction principle in the book: “The tree-sun relationship is perhaps the strongest, simplest, and most pertinent example of our thermodynamic paradigm. Trees ‘reaching’ for the sun and optimally capturing and degrading the gradient between the sun and frigid outer space seems to graphically incarnate our vision of the thermodynamic part of the biological world. Go out and observe trees, and you will see living dissipative systems stretching skyward to capture available solar energy” (219-220). “Trees are thus giant dissipating systems converting high-quality solar energy into low-grade latent heat” (223). Chapter 16, "Into the Cool," gives numerous examples of how natural ecosystems cool the earth, how the more complex and diverse an ecosystem is, the better it cools or absorbs solar radiation. In Chapter 17, "Trends in Evolution," the authors survey the various views of evolution and argue a thermodynamic gradient perspective adds an important new dimension to our current understanding of evolutionary mechanisms such as gene-bound natural selection.

Chapters 18-20 of Part 4: "The Human" explore various aspects of how entropy and heat dissipation play out in human contexts, for example energy flows with regard to aging and exercise in chapter 20. Chapter 21 looks at human economic systems, supply-demand gradients, money and material flows, and the need to take into consideration unidirectional flows. The authors cite Romanian polymath Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who developed a new biological-evolutionary approach to economic theory, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971). In it he debunked the standard view of the time of the economy as a cyclical process of production and consumption: No other conception could be further from the facts. Even if only the physical facet of the economic process is taken into consideration, this process is not circular, but *unidirectional*… the economic process consists of a continuous transformation of low entropy into high entropy, that is, into *irrevocable waste*, or with a topical term, into pollution (ibid, 281).

The last chapter, number 20, "Purpose in Life," may be the most interesting. They examine the idea that “life’s purposeful nature, broadly understood, has thermodynamic origins.” Purpose is understood in this context as “end-directed behavior” and does not require consciousness to invoke an ultimate purpose for all of existence (which doesn’t explain away consciousness but rather says it’s not necessary to explain purposefulness). Nor does it require a divine plan. Life is purposeful because “living beings seek out gradients, and they show direction in their individual growth, ecological developments, and overall evolution. [It] does not mean that there is a knowable end point, or that humans are that end point. It means rather that we are part of a cosmically creative process that builds up structure, complexity, and intelligence as it destroys gradients” (300). The remainder of the chapter is a fascinating tour through the ideas of purpose, direction, and telos in science and religion. The book ends with a helpful appendix describing eleven “Principles of Open Thermodynamic Systems.”

I’ve been reading books on systems theory, self-organization, and complexity for almost four decades and in 1990 published a small systems theory guidebook (Education in the Systems Sciences: An Annotated Guide to Education and Research Opportunities in the Sciences of Complexity, available on Academia.edu). Schneider and Sagan’s book is an outstanding contribution to the literature supporting a human-centered view of science which sees life and its evolution as natural processes that can arise anywhere conditions permit. Now that we know there are literally billions of planets revolving around their own suns, and millions similar to earth right here in our own galaxy, many scientists believe that it’s only a matter of years before some form of complex life is discovered and confirmed. And the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope (Nov-2021) may be the instrument that does just that.

Post Script: the first part of my title "Matter Cycles, Energy Flows...," was taken from a book by biologist Harold Morowitz, possibly this one: Energy Flow in Biology. Others of his books fit well with the ideas behind Into the Cool.
16 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2020
I was referenced to this book by another book, 'Life's Ratchet' by P. Hoffmann, which is a great book. Hoffmann mentions it in his suggested reading as an inspiration for his (first ever) book. However, contrary to Hoffmann, who presents a novel theory using concrete evidence, and diving into the details of the molecular level, Into the Cool is what I classify as 'gossip' category of pop science : spending the majority of 378 pages discussing other scientists' theories and experiments, and worse, in a selective and subjective manner. Which would be ok if you do it with a measure, using it to build your own case. Which doesn't happen here.
The authors deal only in the scale of ecosystems, biosphere, etc, completely avoiding reductionism, which although can't explain everything, is still the basis of science. You cannot talk about living organisms, without delving into the inner workings of living creatures, the cells etc.
You also cannot explain life using just inorganic processes, just because the same physical laws apply! How can you infer that a cell works the way it does from BZ reactions and Benard's cells.. the levels of complexity are incomparable.
There is a heavy dose of Complexity theory references, but first, complexity is still in an embryonic stage and there is no consensus about anything, and second, you cannot ignore the micro and just deal with the macro. Both need to be answered at the same time.
The title of the book should be 'Nature abhors gradients', which is not a new idea, which is fine for Physics, but it obviously insufficient when it comes to explaining the levels and layers of complexity that make life.
Just because the 2nd law must be enforced, and we cannot have gradients, let's create the most complicated thing in the Universe, the cell, to increase entropy.. and create it only on one little planet called Earth. If gradient reduction is a cosmic principle, and if the 'purpose' of organisms is the most efficient elimination of gradients reduction, why isn't the universe teeming with life?
How does nature first creates huge energy/chemical differentials (Archean earth, volcanism, meteorites) and then tries to equalize them, by creating the most improbable thing, the eukaryotic cell, in a span of billions years...

That life may not violate the 2nd law does not mean life exists because of the 2nd law.
13 reviews
May 5, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Nicholas.
210 reviews20 followers
April 18, 2017
This book throws a whole new light on systems, living and otherwise, combining physics with biology it verges on a theory of almost everything, from stars to economics, ecosystems and the beginnings of life itself. I didn't find it an easy read though, and was frustrated I couldn't read it quickly enough to enjoy it more, but that's probably my fault for not being smart enough.
Profile Image for Two Readers in Love.
561 reviews14 followers
February 2, 2016
Beautiful and profound.

This book transformed my view of the relationship between physics, information systems, and biology. I believe this book deserves to sit on the same shelf as Shrödinger’s classic “What is Life?”
Profile Image for Stevie Kaschke.
Author 1 book6 followers
April 10, 2021
Giving this book 5 stars despite a couple things wrong.

The argument at the core of this book, that life degrades the solar gradient, is incomplete.
There are four main things wrong with this argument worth discussing. First is that this paradigm views life as destroying free energy from the sun. A more accurate way to define what life is doing with free energy would be to say that life is transforming and storing available free energy in the form of complex self-reproducing physical matter. Biological life isn’t just degrading free energy; it’s transforming it into a different state so that it can be used later. The more rich and dense an ecosystem, the more free energy is being stored in the form of biological life. What past researchers have glossed over is that biological life itself is a complex gradient of mater—and yes, to create life took an input of free energy (a gradient that was destroyed), but life captured part of this gradient before it’s fully degraded. Life doesn’t abhor a gradient as Schneider’s book suggests. Life is a gradient.

The second thing wrong with the gradient destruction argument is that the temperature gradient chosen is somewhat arbitrary. There’s a temperature gradient on both sides of the surface of the Earth, one below and one above. Into the Cool addresses the gradient between the surface of Earth to outer space. But what about the temperature gradient between Earth’s core and Earth’s surface? Earth’s core is very hot (reaching temperatures up to 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit). If life is cooling the surface of Earth as Schneider’s research suggests, then it’s actually increasing the gradient between a cooled surface and hot interior. Maybe life is working to preserve the temperature gradient between a hot core and cool surface. Merely by looking at a different temperature gradient, the argument that life is reducing a temperature gradient is invalidated.

Discussing the third issue with the argument next – There’s not sufficient evidence to say that life is actually cooling the surface of the planet at all. Schneider cites ecosystems like rainforests as having a cooler surface temperature than deserts. However the empirical data cited in his paper’s and book 1) doesn’t measure temperature and 2) doesn’t measure the surface of the Earth. Instead of measuring temperature, outgoing long wave radiation (OLR) is measured via a satellite. This satellite measurement is looking at the amount of light energy from the sun that was absorbed by our planet vs. what reflected. Reflected light is not an acceptable analog for temperature, and shouldn’t be used to speak to surface temperature. The surface of the Earth wasn’t measured in this data either. The satellites collecting this data scanned whatever object it came into contact with first as it looked down on Earth. For measurements taken over rainforest, tree canopies often weren’t what was measured, cloud cover is what was measured. Because of evaporative cooling, clouds (and any wet surface) are cooler than a dry rock absorbing and reflecting light. The Earth doesn’t need life to form clouds, but this is what has the biggest effect on the surface temperature of Earth as quantified by existing research.

The fourth issue we’ll briefly discuss is the problem of oceans. Two thirds of our planet is covered in water. If biological life is a surface gradient reducer as proposed by Schneider, then why isn’t the surface area of the ocean covered in biological structures that reduce this gradient? Schneider’s research only looks at land masses and doesn’t address oceans. It’s hard to imagine how subsurface life in the oceans has any meaningful impact on surface temperature looking down from outer space. This issue isn’t addressed by Schneider or other researchers publishing in this area.

Despite writing this book in an outdated and incomplete paradigm about biology and thermodynamics, I still loved this book. The authors are really thinking and their ideas are amazing. Would highly recommend this book to any eager mind wanting an explanation about life, the universe, and everything. Spoiler alert: the answer isn't 44.

Profile Image for Cole.
40 reviews16 followers
July 20, 2021
4.5 stars if I could. This was an incredible read, though also dense as hell and definitely warranted taking it in small doses. Schneider and Sagan’s tour of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the function of life in our universe is awe-inspiring, and has definitely changed the way I think about so many aspects of life and the universe.

It loses half a star for me for two reasons.

One is for what seems like serious oversights in the chapter on economics. It makes several mentions of barter economies, which have repeatedly failed to be proven as having ever existed, and they seem to give a (brief) positive interpretation of the Euro, which, to treat it in thermodynamic terms, has been awful at degrading gradients, having been a source of national bankruptcies to give just one example. I think the authors would benefit from reading Kelton’s The Deficit Myth before releasing the next edition of this book (or more broadly studying modern monetary theory, which I feel is a prime candidate for a treatment in thermodynamic terms, prioritising as it does the flow of money, which the authors suggest has parallels in energy flows).

The other reason is the book generally seems like it could do with some more stringent editing. At times I became confused as to whether I was the right audience for the material — some concepts are explained wonderfully for the armchair physics enthusiast, while other concepts resulted in some extensive googling just to follow along. This could be more ‘me’ than ‘the book’, and it wasn’t a huge detractor. However a better pass at editing could also help alleviate the many, many instances of repetition made at length, which did detract from my reading numerous times and caused me to do the occasional skip of paragraphs or even whole pages.

Overall I would recommend this book to absolutely anyone with a curiosity about life and the world we live in, with the qualifier that an introductory grasp of thermodynamics and physics in general will go a long way in making it an enjoyable read. Incredible work.
Profile Image for Boris.
107 reviews
December 3, 2020
What a book! This was the first time I have read about thermodynamics, and it has completely shifted my worldview. Into the Cool helps to see the human and non-human systems, through we navigate on a daily basis, against a cosmic backdrop.

All these processes, they argue, are fueled by gradient-reduction. Biological systems have the extraordinary tendency to reduce the gradient between the hot sun and cool space by the reproduction of new gradients, which can then be broken down by new parts of the ecosystem.

Schneider and Sagan make an effort to tie their natural science into everyday examples, with small excursions to philosophy and literature. Although the book gets technical at times, each page radiates enthusiasm about the wonders of the thermodynamic theory.

There are, nevertheless, two flaws with the book. The first is a lack of structure. Chapters vary in length, sections do not always follow logically on one another, the level of detail of explanation can shift abruptly within paragraphs... It seems like the book follows the whims of the authors, with wild associations suddenly popping up in the midst of chapters. It would have helped so much if this book made one argument, which the subsequent chapters would build towards, especially because the material can be challenging at times.

A second point of critique would be that to me, as a philosopher, not all the references to philosophy work well. Authors like Spinoza, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are more or less randomly invoked to be connected to ideas of which I did not always perceive how they would follow from their theories. But well, that's just me, a grumpy philosopher. One could still value their effort to speak of thermodynamics in other terms than strictly mathematical!

Overall, read this if you do not yet have an understanding of thermodynamics. It will blow your mind.
Profile Image for Jonathan Mugan.
12 reviews10 followers
March 11, 2018
Nature abhors a gradient, and life emerges because it is an efficient way to increase entropy.
Profile Image for Alex.
29 reviews
November 12, 2018
A+ for central ideas, and one of the better expositions on entropy.
Profile Image for Wes.
66 reviews
December 24, 2019
Def in the league of 'if you only chose one science book to read this year' type books.
Profile Image for Galen Weitkamp.
141 reviews5 followers
May 12, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Clinton King.
27 reviews2 followers
September 17, 2012
This book is an excellent and well sourced discussion of how the second Law of Thermodynamics explains biological phenomena. In a sense, it was a page-turner for me. The book is written at a high level; at times, I felt it was going over my head. There is also the slightest tone (unintentional, to be sure) of arrogance on the part of the authors. Still, the ideas in this book are so compelling that I am glad I read it.
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350 reviews65 followers
November 18, 2013
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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Author 5 books7 followers
July 17, 2016
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!
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