Why things fail

Jan. 9, 2017

There is one scientific law that never gets the attention it deserves—the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In scientific terms it explains that in every exchange of energy, entropy always increases. No exceptions. It is kind of depressing. It predicts things will always fail.

Industry provides many examples. An article in Wired magazine pointed out that in, “Ford’s Tough Testing Center, the company evaluates nearly all of its non-engine parts, from seat belts to axle assemblies. The facility is a monument to a dark truth of manufacturing: Even the best-engineered products fail. Some percentage of all mechanical devices will break before they’re expected to. “Companies come to me and say they want to be 100 percent failure-free after three years,” says Fred Schenkelberg, whose firm, FMS Reliability, estimates the lifespan of products. “But that’s impossible. You can’t do it.”

“In 2009, Mohawk Industries—one of the largest makers of carpeting in the country—was forced to discontinue an entire line of carpet tiles when the tiles failed unexpectedly, costing the company millions. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson had to recall 93,000 artificial hips after their metal joints started failing—inside patients. [I just found out that my recent hip surgery was not due to any defect in the metal hip the UW Hospital put in 10 years ago. It was due to a weakened bone—my femur—that I broke in my fall and I had inherited some 90 years ago.] In 2011, Southwest Airlines grounded 79 planes after one of its Boeing 737s tore open in mid-flight. And just this past summer, GE issued a recall of 1.3 million dishwashers due to a defective heating element that could cause fires. Unexpected failure happens to everything, and so every manufacturer lives with some amount of risk: the risk of recalls, the risk of outsize warranty claims, the risk that a misbehaving product could hurt or kill a customer.”

In the political realm fellow travelers with Communism is a more important example. As I wrote in a blog a few years ago, “Most fellow travelers were sincere, intelligent, and had good intentions. They supported, and in many cases led, progressive movements that brought genuine progress in the West, including women’s liberation and civil rights. They also did their best, however, to blunt efforts to combat the international movement that wanted to remake the world into a socialist utopia where Marxist-inspired command economics would theoretically bring freedom and prosperity to all.

“The price of this mistake was high. Over one hundred million people lost their lives to the command-economy brutality needed to pursue a socialist utopia. Which never arrived. The price was paid in citizen massacres, slave labor camps and government-caused famines that added up to more misery and death than all the wars of the 20th century combined.  As a French fellow traveler, Paul Noirot, wrote in despair after the Cold War ended, ‘At the end of the day we built nothing that lasted: no political system, no economic system, no communities, no ethic, no aesthetic. We wanted to realize the highest human aspirations and we ended up birthing monsters.’”

The Second Law in everyday life also explains why things in ordinary life fail. Why you can’t unscramble an egg; why when you drop your peanut buttered bread it always drops peanut buttered side down; why, despite the ads, you will never win $5000 a week for life in a lottery. It also explains why wind and solar power can never replace fossil fuels

The last example demands a little explanation. Nature has taken a few million years to figure out a way to convert sunlight into food. The way nature chose we call photosynthesis. It is pretty efficient—1-2% of the sunlight reaching earth is converted into chemical energy by green leaves. When you compare that with modern solar panels, which have an efficiency rating of 10% or more in transforming sunlight into electricity, solar panels look pretty good.

But nature has a strong advantage. Chemical energy (as captured in fossil fuels) lasts a whole lot longer than electricity coming from solar cells or wind. Like millions of years longer!Of course we might improve the battery methods or invent some other way to store the sunlight panel-converted energy of electricity. But that is speculative and hasn’t happened yet. (Windpower has the same sunlight source and the same storage problems.)

Until, if ever, we solve the storage problems both wind and solar panels will continue to offer supplementary help but fossil fuels, especially when it comes to mobile energy, will continue to be our basic energy source for many years to come. Politicians can boast all they want and will about the large number of jobs created by alternative energy sources (wind and solar) but the search for chemically stored energy (fracking, drilling, and mining) will inevitably create far more jobs (and just as important, jobs that in the long run are far more efficient—that is profitable—hence adding to the nation’s wealth).

This gloomy fact need not discourage us though.

The other side of the second Law of Thermodynamics is the anthropologist Loren Eiseley who once wrote, “we are made of dust and the light of a star.”

In other words, the long road of evolution has led to you and me. This long and fruitful evolution effectively contradicts the gloomy Second Law. Our fertile brains have evolved from many many centuries (nay, many many millennia), just as fossil fuels have.

All of these structures—fossil fuels, plants, animals, and humans—are indeed made of  “dust and the light of a star” (our own star, the sun).

It is what it is. And that is pretty wonderful. And efficient. And profitable. And impressive.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. There was a (small) leap in the sales on my new book, Bill’s Blogs. I am grateful and no longer am moping.

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