Humans are innovators on steroids. Sure, gorillas build bridges and polar bears have been known to throw chunks of ice at their prey. Humans have created computers that allow us to find our way almost anywhere on Earth with GPS systems. We can accelerate particles to 99.997% the speed of light. We have planes that carry us across continents and windmills that generate electricity for our homes. While there are still many more places for us to explore and an endless amount of information for us to learn, we have a pretty good understanding of the universe we live within, especially as we have made discoveries about the fundamental laws of it as physicists. And the more we understand, the more we are able to harness the power of, well, power. In fact, it is one thing that has made all of this possible for humans: our grasp of electricity.
As I’ve begun reading Hans Christian Von Baeyer’s Warm Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat, I’ve noticed a fascination with the limits thermodynamics places on our human world. Baeyer notes one of the most crucial turning points of humanity: our discovery of fire. And more importantly, I think, the electricity that came with it as flashes lightning burned the sky.
One of the ways humans have climbed to the top of the intellectual pyramid has been by harnessing and manipulating energy. This energy has revolutionized the food we eat, our means of transportation around the world, and our interaction with our environment us as we operate daily surrounded by computers and robots. When Baeyer quotes P.W. Bridgman at the start of his novel, he states that “The laws of thermodynamics smell of their human origin.” I think in doing this, Baeyer is acknowledging that electricity has changed humanity in ways so pivotal that it has become one of the very things that make us human. Our intricate relationship with thermodynamics from the beginning of our journey as humans, as well as our success due to our grasp of the possibilities electricity lends, earns thermodynamics the title of humanity’s sidekick.