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The Animate and the Inanimate

William James Sidis






 This work sets forth a theory which is speculative in nature, there being no verifying experiments. It is based on the idea of the reversibility of everything in time; that is, that every type of process has its time-image, a corresponding process which is its exact reverse with respect to time. This accounts for all physical laws but one, namely, the second law of thermodynamics. This law has been found during the nineteenth century to be a source of a great deal of difficulty. The eminent physicist, Clerk-Maxwell, in the middle of the nineteenth century, while giving a proof of that law, admitted that reversals are possible by imagining a "sorting demon" who could sort out the smaller particles, and separate the slower ones from the faster ones. This second law of thermodynamics brought in the idea of energy-level, of unavailable energy (or "entropy" as it was called by Clausius) which was constantly increasing.

 In the theory herein set forth, we suppose that reversals of the second law are a regular phenomenon, and identify them with what is generally known as life. This changes the idea of unavailable energy into that of a reserve fund of energy, used only by life, and created by non-living forces.

 This is in accordance with some recent discoveries. The late Prof. William James has discovered in the domain of mental phenomena what he calls "reserve energy," which later investigation has shown to be present to a more limited extent in all biological phenomena. It remained a mystery, however, where this energy came from, and the theory of reserve energy as set forth in this work suggests a possible explanation of these phenomena.

 In relation to the universe as a whole, the theory herein set forth represents the idea of what is known as cyclical change. This idea is a very old one, being found among the philosophers of the Ionian school, and reappearing at later periods from time to time. On the other hand, the generally accepted theory of the second law of thermodynamics represents a different philosophical tendency, the tendency that considers changes once made as irreparable. Aristotle's philosophy is a good example of that tendency in ancient times, but it has appeared more recently, especially in Spencer's theory of evolution, which, it is interesting to note, is hardly more than a statement of the second law of thermodynamics in philosophical terms.

 Since the manuscript was completed my attention was attracted by a quotation from a lecture by the great scientist, Lord Kelvin, in which a theory is suggested which is very similar to mine in its general outlines; Lord Kelvin, however, does not work out the theory. He suggests that life works through a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics; and that living organisms, especially animal life, actually act the part of Clerk-Maxwell's "sorting demon." Lord Kelvin, however, regards this as an indication of some suspension of the ordinary physical laws, instead of seeking for the explanation of this reversal in these physical laws themselves.

 To quote Lord Kelvin's own words: "It is conceivable that animal life might have the attribute of using the heat of surrounding matter, at its natural temperature, as a source of energy for mechanical effect . . . .The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific enquiry hitherto entered on. Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms."

 Here the suggestion is obvious that the phenomena of life operate as Clerk-Maxwell's supposed "sorting demon," through reversing the second law of thermodynamics and utilising the unavailable or reserve energy of matter; only Lord Kelvin, instead of deriving this from the ordinary physical laws, immediately concluded that some mysterious vital force must be in operation. Under my theory, this reversal can be explained on the pure basis of the theory of probability.

 It is also to be noted that the theory which I suggest in this work solves not only the biological problem of reserve energy, but also certain astronomical paradoxes in connection with the theory of the structure of the universe and its evolution.

 The latter part of the work, which deals with the theory of the reversibility of time and the psychological aspect of the second law of thermodynamics itself, is a purely speculative section, partaking more of the metaphysical than of the scientific. However, even in that section, it is to be hoped that there will be found a basis for putting the theory of the nature of time on a scientific basis and for taking it finally outside of the domain of metaphysics.

 At the end of the work, a number of objections to my theory are stated in order to show what objections can be adduced. I do not attempt to answer these arguments, but, for the sake of fairness to the reader, simply state them and leave them unanswered, so that the reader may decide for himself all the pros and cons of the question, and come to a more unbiased conclusion.

 At first I hesitated to publish my theory of the reversibility of the universe; but I was encouraged on discovering the quotation from Lord Kelvin above mentioned; so that now, knowing that this is not the first time that it has been suggested that life is a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics, I have decided to publish the work and give my theory to the world, to be accepted or rejected, as the case may be.


[Tuesday,] January 6, 1920.



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