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Into the Cool

Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

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

Read an excerpt.

378 pages | 30 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2005

Biological Sciences: Ecology, Natural History

Earth Sciences: Environment

Physical Sciences: Physics--Popular Books


"Into the Cool is a dazzling exposition of an idea: that life is fundamentally not a noun, or a thing, but a verb. Building upon the beautiful subtleties of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan take us on a tour de force through biology, touching upon the origin of life, sex, evolution, ecology, and even economics. Along the way, they dethrone the idea that the gene is the central actor in the drama of life and put the focus properly back on the plot--the organized flows of matter and energy that make life what it is. This book is destined to be a classic."

J. Scott Turner, author of The Extended Organism

"The idea seems paradoxical--that the source of all the complexity of life might just be nature’s tendency to equalize things. But Schneider and Sagan’s readable book makes the notion plausible. And the authors do more than demystify thermodynamics, they make it come to life! So you didn’t think that nonequilibrium thermodynamics could be romantic? This book, fascinating as it is provocative, proves you’re wrong!"

Roald Hoffmann, chemist and writer

"In Into the Cool, the authors unravel the intricacies of cosmology, meteorology, chemistry, ecology, and even the mysteries of human aging in an unexpected but accessible and entertaining manner. It’s all very simple. It’s all very complex. The book careens between these poles like a pinball in urgent play, until the reader is forced, willy-nilly, to think in terms of energy flow, gradients, and the Second Law. This turns out to be something of a delight, like using a new tool specially sharpened and specifically made for that job that we all assume when we first ask ’Why?’"

Tim Cahill, author of Hold the Enlightenment and Lost in My Own Backyard

"In his well-known essay ’The Two Cultures,’ C.P. Snow famously remarked that an inability to describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics was a form of ignorance comparable with never having read a work of Shakespeare. It’s fair to say that these days, the Second Law gets far less press than the Bard. Enter Into the Cool, in which the authors claim that the study of thermodynamics (in some ways the neglected stepchild of the sciences) can inform our understanding of biology, ecology and even economics. The authors begin by rephrasing the Second Law—as ’Nature abhors a gradient’—and proceed to illustrate its relevance to large systems in general. Whether one is considering the difference between heat and cold or between inflated prices and market values, they 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. It’s also a book that (much like Shakespeare and the Second Law of Thermodynamics) requires effort on the reader’s part—it’s not for casual reading."

Publishers Weekly

“A well-researched and often fascinating discussion that covers an impressive range of subjects, including Maxwell’s demon, weather patterns, natural selection, the maturity of ecosystems, and the purposefulness of life. . . . Into the Cool shows that there is much more to thermodynamics than Carnot cycles and phase diagrams. . . . An engaging, non-technical introduction to a variety of topics.”

Christopher Jarzynski | Physics Today

"The book succeeds in highlighting the potential importance of thermodynamic ideas in understanding certain aspects of organization in biological systems. . . . A good reference for readers interested in exploring an area of theoretical biology whose relevance has increased with the current interest to forge a rapprochement between physics and biology."

Lloyd Demetrius | Quarterly Review of Biology

Table of Contents

Introduction: Trouble at the EPA
Part I: The Energetic
1. The Schrödinger Paradox
2. Simplicity
3. Eyes of Fire: Classical Energy Science
4. The Cosmic Casino: Statistical Mechanics
5. Nature Abhors a Gradient
6. The River Must Flow: Open Systems
7. Too Much, Not Enough: Cycles
Part II: The Complex
8. Swirl World
9. Physics’ Own "Organisms"
10. Whirlpools and Weather
Part III: The Living
11. Thermodynamics and Life
12. Brimstone Beginnings
13. Blue Planet Blues
14. Regress under Stress
15. The Secret of Trees
16. Into the Cool
17. Trends in Evolution
Part IV: The Human
18. Health, Vigor, and Longevity
19. Economics
20. Purpose in Life
Appendix: Principles of Open Thermodynamic Systems

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