Favorite Writings: Peter Atkins

Peter Atkins in a British Chemist and author of many books ranging from classroom texts to popular science on energy, elements and scientific theory. The following excerpt comes from his book 'Creation Revisited' and describes energy, decay and how unlikely it is that we should exist at all. 

Why Things Change 

Change takes a variety of forms. There is simple change, as when a bouncing ball comes to rest, or when ice melts. There is more complex change, as in digestion, growth, reproduction, and death. There is also what appears to be excessively subtle change, as in the formation of opinions and the creation and rejection of ideas. Though diverse in its manifestations, change does in fact have a common source. Like everything fundamental, that source is perfectly simple. 

Organized change, the contriving of some end, such as a pot, a crop, 
or an opinion, is powered by the same events that stop balls bouncing
and melt ice. All change, I shall argue, arises from an underlying collapse
into chaos. We shall see that what may appear to us to be motive and
purpose is in fact ultimately motiveless, purposeless decay. Aspirations, 
and their achievement, feed on decay. 

The deep structure of change is decay. What decays is not the quantity
but the quality of energy. I shall explain what is meant by high quality energy, 
but for the present think of it as energy that is localized, and potent
to effect change. In the course of causing change it spreads, becomes chaotically       distributed like a fallen house of cards, and loses its initial potency. 
Energy’s quality, but not its quantity, decays as it spreads in chaos. 
Harnessing the decay results not only in civilizations but in all the events
in the world and the universe beyond. It accounts for all discernible change, 
both animate and inanimate. The quality of energy is like a slowly unwinding
spring. The quality spontaneously declines and the spring of the universe
unwinds. The quality spontaneously degrades, and the spontaneity
of the degradation drives the interdependent processes webbed around
and within us, as through the interlocked gear wheels of a sophisticated

Such is the complexity of the interlocking that here and there
chaos may temporarily recede and quality flare up, as when cathedrals are
built and symphonies are performed. But these are temporary and local
deceits, for deeper in the world the spring inescapably unwinds. Everything
is driven by decay. Everything is driven by motiveless, purposeless decay. 
As we have said, by ‘quality’ of energy is meant the extent of its dispersal. 
High-quality, useful energy, is localized energy. Low quality, wasted
energy, is chaotically diffuse energy.

Things can get done when energy is localized; but energy loses its potency to motivate change when it has become dispersed. The degradation of quality is chaotic dispersal. 
I shall now argue that such dispersal is ultimately natural, motiveless, 
and purposeless. It occurs naturally and spontaneously, and when
it occurs it causes change. When it is precipitate it destroys. When it is
geared through chains of events it can produce civilizations. 
The naturalness of the tendency of energy to spread can be appreciated by
thinking of a crowd of atoms jostling. Localized energy, energy in a circumscribed
region, corresponds to vigorous motion in a corner of the crowd. 
As the atoms jostle, they hand on their energy and induce their neighbours
to jostle too, and soon the jostling disperses like the order of a shuffled pack. 
There is very little chance that the original corner of the crowd will ever
again be found jostled back into its original activity with all the rest at rest. 
Random, motiveless jostling has resulted in irreversible change. 
This natural tendency to disperse accounts for simple processes like
the cooling of hot metal. The energy of the block, an energy captured
in the vigorous vibrations of its atoms, is jostled into its surroundings. 
The individual jostlings may result in energy being passed in either direction; 
but there are so many more atoms in the world outside than in the block itself, that it is much more probable that at all later times the energy of the block will be found (or lost) dispersed. 
Illusions of purpose are captured by the model.

We may think that there are reasons why one change occurs and not another. We may think
that there are reasons for specific changes in the location of energy (such
as a change of structure, as in the opening of a flower); but at root, all
there is, is degradation by dispersal. 
Suppose that in some region there are many more places for energy to
accumulate than elsewhere. Then jostling and random leaping results in
its heaping there. If the energy began in a heap initially organized elsewhere, 
it will be found later in a heap in the region where the platforms
are most dense. A casual observer will wonder why the energy chose to
go there, conclude there must have been a purpose, and try to find it. 
We, however, can see that achieving being there should not be confused
with choosing to go there. 

Changes of location, of state, of composition, and of opinion are all at
root dispersal. But if that dispersal spreads energy into regions where it
can be located densely, it gives the illusion of specific change rather than
mere spreading. At the deepest level, purpose vanishes and is replaced
by the consequences of having the opportunity to explore at random, 
discovering dense locations, and lingering there until new opportunities
for exploration arise. 

Events are the manifestations of overriding probabilities. All the events of
nature, from the bouncing of balls to the conceiving of gods, are aspects and
elaborations of this simple idea. But we should not let pass without emphasis
the word probability. The energy just might by chance jostle back into
its original heap, and a structure reform. The energy just might, by chance, 
jostle its way back into the block from the world at large, and an observer
see a cool block spontaneously becoming hot or a house of cards reforming. 
These possibilities are such remote chances that we dismiss them as wholly
improbable. Yet, while improbable, they are not impossible. 
The ultimate simplicity underlying the tendency to change is more
effectively shrouded in some processes than in others. While cooling is
easy to explain as natural, jostling dispersal, the processes of evolution, 
free will, political ambition, and warfare have their intrinsic simplicity
buried more deeply. Nevertheless, even though it may be concealed, the
spring of all creation is decay, and every action is a more or less distant
consequence of the natural tendency to corruption. 

The tendency of energy to chaos is transformed into love or war
through the agency of chemical reactions. All actions are chains of reactions. 
From thinking to doing, in simply thinking, or in responding, the
mechanism in action is chemical reaction. 

At its most rudimentary, a chemical reaction is a rearrangement of
atoms. Atoms in one arrangement constitute one species of molecule, and
atoms in another, perhaps with additions or deletions, constitute another. 
In some reactions a molecule merely changes its shape; in some, a molecule
adopts the atoms provided by another, incorporates them, and attains a
more complex structure. In others, a complex molecule is itself eaten, either
wholly or in part, and becomes the source of atoms for another. 
Molecules have no inclination to react, and none to remain unreacted. 
There is, of course, no such thing as motive and purpose at this level of

Why, then, do reactions occur?

At this level too, therefore, there can be no motive or purpose in love or war. Why then do they occur? 

A reaction tends to occur if in the process energy is degraded into a more
dispersed, more chaotic form. Every arrangement of atoms, every molecule, 
is constantly subject to the tendency to lose energy as jostling carries it away
to the surroundings. If a cluster of atoms happens by chance to wander into
an arrangement that corresponds to a new molecule, that transient arrangement
may suddenly be frozen into permanence as the energy released leaps
away. Chemical reactions are transformations by misadventure. 
Atoms are only loosely structured into molecules, and explorations
of rearrangements resulting in reactions are commonplace. That is one
reason why consciousness has already emerged from the inanimate
matter of the original creation. If atoms had been as strongly bound as
nuclei, the initial primitive form of matter would have been locked into
permanence, and the universe would have died before it awoke. 
The frailty of molecules, though, raises questions.

Why has the universe not already collapsed into unreactive slime?

If molecules were free to react each time they touched a neighbour, the potential of the world
for change would have been realized long ago. Events would have taken
place so haphazardly and rapidly that the rich attributes of the world, 
like life and its own self-awareness, would not have had time to grow. 

The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies
upon restraint. Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the
richness of the imagined worlds of literature and art—the human
spirit—is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse.