Around the twenty-first or twenty-second century, a scientific experiment finds that a certain ritual (they were trying to make cold fusion) causes a heat difference to appear in fluids. For instance, the center of a bucket of water may boil, while the outside mists up, or even gets covered in frost.

These scientists slowly conclude that the ritual is indeed doing an energy transfer that actually breaks the second law of thermodynamics, which states that temperatures even out over time, without applying work (like a fridge does).

However, the second law of thermodynamics is a law. It has been observed in the universe at large. In theory, this ritual (just requiring contact between various common molecules such as water and cheese crystals of quartz). It should have happened loads of times during the formation of the planets, even leading to the formation of various new forms of astronomical objects, like heat sources that aren't stars or gas giants.

The implications are limitless: Europa could easily have a liquid surface, and so on and so forth.

The question is, why didn't this happen? Why is this fictional universe observably similar to the real one? Why do thermodynamics seem to be valid?

Edit: The ritual literally consists of liquid water coming into contact with quartz. This reverses entropy, causing even temperatures to... unbalance. Heat migrates to the center. There is no limit to how much heat can migrate, although the rate of migration is influenced by the size of the crystal and the volume of water. Heat still moves from hot to cold, reaching an equilibrium eventually.

This "ritual" does not require human intervention, or anything similar.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ What is required to run the ritual? Couldn't the ritual be considered the work part of this energy transfer equation? I think we need more information about the ritual and less information about what thermodynamics is. $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Can you please correct the grammar issue in your third paragraph? It's not entirely clear what you're trying to say due to the sentence fragment. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid that I cannot comprehend how a ritual could have "happened loads of times during the formation of the planets". By definition, a ritual is an activity performed by people "as part of religious or other devotional service" (words from the OED). No people means no rituals. To give a straightforward example: baptism is a ritual which has the effect of cleansing sin; but simply immersing oneself in water without ritual intent, although it has the same physical appearance, does not have the same effect. In a ritual, intention is essential; and only people can have intentions. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 4, 2019 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ The ritual described does not violate the second law of thermodynamics, the ritual is the work. Thermoelectric cooling also only requires the contact of a few substances. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 5, 2019 at 4:05

8 Answers 8


Simple, De-Isolate the System

Laws like the second law of Thermodynamics rest on isolated systems, something many other areas of science might call a "closed" system. Which is to say, as long as nothing is coming in to add heat, entropy is constant. But the second you no longer have this isolated system, the second law no longer applies.

So what is this ritual doing? De-isolating the universe, even if only for a moment. The second law of thermodynamics isn't being broken, it's being circumvented entirely. This ritual is sucking energy in from somewhere else. But where? And does energy only flow one way? Those questions could be the basis of an entire novel themselves.

  • $\begingroup$ Beat me to it lol - when you say 'somewhere else' do you mean like another dimension/realm? Because if this 'somewhere else' is layered into our reality it could have other implications, like magic radioactivity! $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ @cyber101 Possible! All that matters is that the "somewhere else" isn't a part of the isolated system. Could be another dimension, another universe, or even just a part of this universe that we shouldn't be able to reach, but somehow are (ie, this ritual opens up a small wormhole and sucks energy in, perhaps from another sun, draining that sun slightly). $\endgroup$
    – Michael W.
    Dec 5, 2019 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ yep and that tale is full metal alchemist $\endgroup$
    – netalex
    Dec 11, 2019 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ Something like this happens in Asimov's "The Gods Themselves". Won't give details because spoilers, but worth a read :) $\endgroup$
    – Qami
    Dec 13, 2019 at 16:28

Because there is magic and once there is magic you can do things like "also requires intent/participation of an sapient creature". The second law is largely still valid, it just needs to be amended with "..as long as no magic happens". Or "For any system without sapience ..".

  • $\begingroup$ Instead of answering the question you just amended the law to invalidate the question. $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ If you want to look at it that way, then the question is a paradox and cannot be answered. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to keep the law intact as the top priority the only solution I see is that the experiment was flawed and that would probably contradict the entire premise of the whole situation even worse. $\endgroup$
    – lidar
    Dec 4, 2019 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is kinda covered by physics (Maxwell's demon). You could do something that 'violates' the laws of thermodynamics with a sentient demon trying to mess with the experiment. However, if you consider the demon as part of the experiment, you can look at the number of bits of information the demon is thinking with (the demon is just opening and closing a door to sort hot and cold molecules, thus producing a heat gradient without energy input, so it's brain doesn't require many bits, making the setup practical). When you account for the thermodynamic cost of information, the law stands. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Dec 4, 2019 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Zwuwdz Ah thanks! I will now go edit my question to specify that the crystal creates a large area of maxwell-demonics. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2019 at 20:44

Everyone is familiar with the old saying that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. However there's a less well known but for your purposes equally important version.

Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.

So what does this mean for your purposes?

The reason this applies is that your experimenters have found a pattern that has an effect. If you repeat the pattern it has the same effect. If you modify the pattern it has a different effect. While it appears to be magic, it's also science. It's an experiment that can be replicated. So what if it requires 7 virgins holding hands in a circle and the sacrifice of a goat less than a year old. It all goes in the report. Along with the answers to questions like whether the sex of the virgins (and the goat) or the phase of the moon matters.

Science, right?

Perhaps this means that the second law of thermodynamics isn't valid. Perhaps it de-isolates the system. Perhaps it draws energy from somewhere else and you'll pay the price for it in due time. What matters is that it's repeatable by yourself and by others.

That a particular law is shown to be false doesn't change the universe as a whole, it's just that our understanding of it needs to be recalibrated.


We do this all the time (locally)...

Ever wondered why wearing a beanie in the snow keeps you warm? The head is such a small amount of our surface area, yet wearing a beanie in very cold environments is practically essential. Why would covering such a small surface area make so much of a difference to our capacity to retain our internal heat?

It comes down to our brains of course, as most will have already guessed. The human brain is responsible for around 25% of our energy needs on a daily basis and evolutionarily speaking is a gross violation of efficiency save for the massive amount of benefit humans have gained from such a great neural processing capacity. But, using around a quarter of all our energy 'thinking' means we generate a lot of heat in our heads which has to dissipate. It also explains why we put such a critical resource outside of our torso making our necks such an exposed and important aspect of our physiology in terms of risk. But the important question here is what is the brain doing with all that energy?

It's actually creating a localised violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Whether the universe is deterministic or not is a question demanding a different answer than this one, but it needs to be stated that symmetry is a big thing in physics, and the 2nd law of thermodynamics is the ONLY law we know of that is not symmetrical in time - that is to say that you can't get the starting result by running the experiment backwards from the end result and reversing all the energy vectors. That means even IF the universe is deterministic, we can only remember in one direction (backwards) through time because the brain is laying down memories in that order. But to do that, it creates increased order locally in the brain but releases lots of heat in the process creating decreased order globally (or universally) over time.

The practical upshot of this is that your magical ritual or placement may create localised increases in order over time, but the cost is universal decreases in order. Is this likely to happen naturally? Well, there are very few processes we have observed where this happens, and inside the human brain is the only example I can think of personally so I'm of the view that this process is highly unlikely to occur in nature by accident and if it does, it would be transitory in nature - that is to say, it would rapidly decay out of the localised order that is generated.

The real 'magic' of this ritual is the human understanding of what is happening and engineering the circumstances that makes the increased localised order longer lasting by manipulating the environment in which it occurs. Note though that your magic will also come with a price.

Just like the magic of oil increases carbon emissions and leads to accelerated climate change, your magic will have its own consequences. The 2nd law of thermodynamics is a demanding mistress - creating that localised violation comes at an acceleration of decay in the global system although it is up to you how that manifests in the world you build.


It isn't

In theory, this ritual (just requiring contact between various common molecules such as water and cheese crystals of quartz. It should have happened loads of times during the formation of the planets, even leading to the formation of various new forms of astronomical objects, like heat sources that aren't stars or gas giants).

This doesn't look like magic to me. It looks like you've added an extra physical law to your universe. What is magic, anyway? I imagine magical effects specifically defy rational description. If your scientists can isolate this effect and repeat it in a lab, it isn't really magic.

The question is, why didn't this happen? Why is this fictional universe observably similar to the real one? Why do thermodynamics seem to be valid?

The whole universe, or just the parts we looked at before the 21'st century? Perhaps this particular type of quartz is just exceedingly rare locally. Laws are based on empirical observations. If your society developed on a planet without magnets, you would probably take quite some time to develop Maxwell's laws.

Also, we live in an area of the universe that looks quite different from thermal equilibrium because of the giant energy source in the sky. As a result, I suspect you could have lots of energy popping up in random locations before local observations diverge significantly. If the moon was magically 1.2x as bright, would that really change the course of history significantly, in any narrative sense?

  • $\begingroup$ I was non-specific for a reason. The materials are quite common. Also, by your definition, no hard magic system is magic. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2019 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's true. But I don't think it is a problem. Most hard magic systems are the addition of additional physical laws. How would you differentiate between the two? $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Dec 5, 2019 at 21:35

Your magic is creating an (as yet) unknown enthalpy channel. In effect it is linking another unit to the observed system.

Consider the following gedankenspell:

You create a portal, that doesn't permit molecules to pass, but does allow their bumps and jostles to pass. Think of it as a stretchy membrane between two fluids. But one side of the portal is deep in the core of the earth, and the other is in your beaker of water. Net effect: heat is transferred from the hot magma to your beaker.

Fortunately for you, your spell also preserves gravitational potential energy. Having a portal spewing molten rock may cause the custodial services to go on strike.


The real answer is "why not." There simply was not a situation where it occurred until the magic was discovered.

If I may offer a real life example, consider the law of the conservation of energy. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Everyone learns this in physics. When you get to relativity, you have to modify it slightly to say that mass-energy is conserved (relativity treats them as the same thing). We developed the entire foundation of Lagrangian Mechanics, Hamiltonian Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics on this underpinning.

Except it isn't true and has never been true. At a cosmological scale, energy is not conserved. Several cosmological scale effects do not conserve energy, such as the effects of expanding space. The universe has never conserved energy, from the moment of its conception to now. We have no reason to believe it will ever conserve energy.

So why is the conservation of energy a law? Well, it appeared to be a law. A human being penned the idea that the universe cannot act in any other way. They were almost right -- so right that their wrongness was imperceptible until we developed far better scientific instruments. And its still right enough that we teach it as a law, all the way up to the point where we have to admit it wasn't.

Likewise we have many laws built around wave mechanics. These laws do a great job of predicting how airplanes fly, until they go supersonic and those "laws" are broken. But those laws were very effective for much of the time. Very few humans have to worry about the precise properties of a shock wave (most of them are aeronautical engineers).

This is how science works. Laws are merely ideas that someone came up with which have been so hard to shake that we literally can't imagine them not being true (until the counterexample experiment is done and the results are shared).


The law is not broken, only refined.

This is just like the common discussion about Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, and quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics says that things don't work the way Newtonian mechanics say they do, that it's very different. But scientists don't say Quantum mechanics invalidates Newtonian mechanics, rather that it is a refinement. Scientists say special relativity is a refinement over what was previously known, that it takes into account more than Newtonian mechanics did, and likewise that Quantum mechanics is a further refinement over what was previously known.

Similarly: the laws of thermodynamics are just the way we currently understand the universe, but there is no reason to assume we won't make refinements later which seem to invalidate it until we understand better.

If you encounter a scientist who insists that the laws of thermodynamics must always hold, that there simply cannot ever be even a single event in the entire history of the universe which ever disobeys them, and no method of doing so will ever be discovered because that is simply impossible, then that is a very poor scientist. This is not the same as saying "all observations we have made are consistent with the laws of thermodynamics, and we expect all observations to remain consistent with these laws and will be (happily) surprised if they are violated."


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