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<   No. 431   2004-04-01   >

Comic #431

1 Me: {looking at computer} Oh. My. God. More emails about Coruscant. "Star Wars is clearly unrealistic anyway, what's your problem?"
2 Me: "It's not Lucas' fault; Asimov started it with Trantor." "I see a way to cool it down using the Time Cube!"
3 Me: {reading a physics textbook} The three Laws of Thermodynamics can be paraphrased: "You can't win. You can't break even. You can't get out of the game."
4 Me: Who ever thought they also applied to making comics about Coruscant?

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The saga continues: #386, #393, #396, #399, #417, #420...

Yeah yeah, I said in #420 that I was finished with this topic. But the emails keep rolling in, and the possibilities just keep getting bigger! I only have so much self-control...

I do want to make one thing absolutely clear though. I am intensely amused by the ongoing discussion over this particular topic, and not at all angry. It's just an act for the sake of the comic. ;-)

On the Laws of Thermodynamics:

These are physical laws that govern the transfer of energy. They can be explained in simple terms thus:

  1. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is conserved. You can't create energy from nothing, nor can you destroy it. Since heat is a form of energy, you're stuck with it, unless you convert it into some other form of energy or move it away. Since you can't get something for nothing: You can't win.
  2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that heat will only flow from a region of higher temperature to one of lower temperature. To move it the other way, you need to supply some extra external energy to do the work. So moving energy in any useful direction that doesn't happen naturally requires you to put in additional energy. You can't even use the First Law and say "the total heat content is equal, so just move the heat from the cold place to the hot place" - it won't happen: You can't break even. However, the efficiency with which you move energy around is related to the temperature. The colder the better. If you could get to absolute zero, you could break even, just. But:
  3. The Third Law of Thermodynamics states that it's impossible to reach absolute zero. As you make a system approach absolute zero, the process that you are using to cool it down slows down. It sucks smaller and smaller amounts of heat away (and you're using tons of energy to power this über-refrigerator), and you can never suck away that last bit of heat to get it to absolute zero. Since you can't even get to the place where the Second Law lets you do things with 100% efficiency: You can't get out of the game.
Physics is a bastard sometimes.

Anyone who has studied physics at university, by the way, might recognise an early edition of the venerable Resnick and Halliday (or Halliday and Resnick as I believe they are these days) textbook. Yep, I studied this stuff that long ago.

And if you keep reading this comic long enough, you won't need to study physics. You'll learn it all right here. And have a heck of a lot more fun than I did studying thermodynamics, let me tell you.


2013-03-15 Rerun commentary: This series of strips about the thermodynamics of Coruscant was at least part of what led to my tradition of providing explanations for the physics or wider science behind some of the more obscure or intellectual comics to come. And much later on I would write a more comprehensive rundown of the laws of thermodynamics.

That write-up also introduced:

  1. The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, which states that any two systems which are in thermal equilibrium with a third system are also in thermal equilibrium with one another. In other words, if A is equally as hot as B, and B is equally as hot as C, then A is equally as hot as C. The "hotness" is what we call temperature.
This one can be expressed in the humorous terms of the other three laws as: There is a game. (An alternative that is sometimes quoted is "You must play the game", but this is really the same thing as the third law stated as a positive instead of a negative. Asserting the mere existence of a game is more in line with what the zeroth law actually says about thermodynamics - it asserts that there is such a thing as temperature.)

This makes the four laws of thermodynamics:

  1. There is a game.
  2. You can't win.
  3. You cant break even.
  4. You can't get out of the game.

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