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The heat death is a possible final state of the universe, in which it has "run down" to a state of no thermodynamic free energy to sustain motion or life. In physical terms, it has reached maximum entropy. The hypothesis of a universal heat death stems from the 1850s ideas of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin who extrapolated the theory of heat views of mechanical energy loss in nature, as embodied in the first two laws of thermodynamics, to universal operation.

Origins of the idea

The idea of heat death stems from the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy tends to increase in an isolated system. If the universe lasts for a sufficient time, it will asymptotically approach a state where all energy is evenly distributed. In other words, in nature there is a tendency to the dissipation (energy loss) of mechanical energy (motion); hence, by extrapolation, there exists the view that the mechanical movement of the universe will run down in time due to the second law. The idea of heat death was first proposed in loose terms beginning in 1851 by William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, who theorized further on the mechanical energy loss views of Sadi Carnot (1824), James Joule (1843), and Rudolf Clausius (1850). Thomson’s views were then elaborated on more definitively over the next decade by Hermann von Helmholtz and William Rankine.


The idea of heat death of the universe derives from discussion of the application of the first two laws of thermodynamics to universal processes. Specifically, in 1851 William Thomson outlined the view, as based on recent experiments on the dynamical theory of heat, that “heat is not a substance, but a dynamical form of mechanical effect, we perceive that there must be an equivalence between mechanical work and heat, as between cause and effect.” [1]
In 1852, Thomson published his “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy” in which he outlined the rudiments of the second law of thermodynamics summarized by the view that mechanical motion and the energy used to create that motion will tend to dissipate or run down, naturally.[2] The ideas in this paper, in relation to their application to the age of the sun and the dynamics of the universal operation, attracted the likes of William Rankine and Hermann von Helmholtz. The three of them were said to have exchanged ideas on this subject.[3] In 1862, Thomson published the article “On the age of the sun’s heat” in which he reiterated his fundamental beliefs in the indestructibility of energy (the first law) and the universal dissipation of energy (the second law), leading to diffusion of heat, cessation of motion, and exhaustion of potential energy through the material universe while clarifying his view of the consequences for the universe as a whole. The key paragraph is:[4]
“ The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and hence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever. ”

In the years to follow both Thomson’s 1852 and the 1865 papers, Helmholtz and Rankine both credited Thomson with the idea, but read further into his papers by publishing views stating that Thomson argued that the universe will end in a “heat death” (Helmholtz) which will be the “end of all physical phenomena” (Rankine).[3][5]

Temperature of the universe (Heat Death v. Cold Death)

In a "heat death", the temperature of the entire universe would be very close to absolute zero. Heat death is, however, not quite the same as "cold death", or the "Big Freeze", in which the universe simply becomes too cold to sustain life due to continued expansion, though the result is quite similar.[6]

Current status

Inflationary cosmology suggests that in the early universe, before cosmic expansion, energy was uniformly distributed,[7] and thus the universe was in a state superficially similar to heat death. However, the two states are in fact very different: in the early universe, gravity was a very important force, and in a gravitational system, if energy is uniformly distributed, entropy is quite low, compared to a state in which most matter has collapsed into black holes. Thus, such a state is not in thermal equilibrium, and in fact there is no thermal equilibrium for such a system, as it is thermodynamically unstable.[8][9] However, in the heat death scenario, the energy density is so low that the system can be thought of as non-gravitational, such that a state in which energy is uniformly distributed is a thermal equilibrium state, i.e., the state of maximal entropy.

The final state of the universe depends on the assumptions made about its ultimate fate, and these assumptions have varied considerably over the late 20th century and early 21st century. In a "closed" universe that undergoes recollapse, a heat death is expected to occur, with the universe approaching arbitrarily high temperature and maximal entropy as the end of the collapse approaches. In an "open" or "flat" universe that continues expanding indefinitely, a heat death is also expected to occur, with the universe cooling to approach absolute zero temperature and approaching a state of maximal entropy over a very long time period. There is dispute over whether or not an expanding universe can approach maximal entropy; it has been proposed that in an expanding universe, the value of maximum entropy increases faster than the universe gains entropy, causing the universe to move progressively further away from heat death.[10]

Timeframe for heat death

Main article: Future of an expanding universe

From the Big Bang through the present day and well into the future, matter and dark matter in the universe is concentrated in stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Therefore, the universe is not in thermodynamic equilibrium and objects can do physical work.[11], §VID. The decay time of a roughly galaxy-mass (1011 solar masses) supermassive black hole due to Hawking radiation is on the order of 10100 years,[12], so entropy can be produced until at least that time. After that time, the universe enters the so-called dark era, and is expected to consist chiefly of a dilute gas of photons and leptons.[11], §VIA. With only very diffuse matter remaining, activity in the universe will have tailed off dramatically, with very low energy levels and very large time scales. Speculatively, it is possible that the Universe may enter a second inflationary epoch, or, assuming that the current vacuum state is a false vacuum, the vacuum may decay into a lower-energy state.[11], §VE. It is also possible that entropy production will cease and the universe will achieve heat death.[11], §VID.

See also

* Future of an expanding universe
* 1 E19 s and more
* Second law of thermodynamics
* Big Rip
* Big Crunch
* Big Bounce
* Big Bang
* Cyclic model
* Dyson's eternal intelligence
* Final anthropic principle
* Ultimate fate of the Universe
* Graphical timeline from Big Bang to Heat Death
* Timeline of the Big Bang
* The Last Question, a short story by Isaac Asimov which considers the inevitable oncome of heat death in the universe and how it may be reversed.

The End of the Universe: Heat Death


  1. ^ Thomson, William. (1851). “On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, with numerical results deduced from Mr Joule’s equivalent of a Thermal Unit, and M. Regnault’s Observations on Steam.” Excerpts. [§§1-14 & §§99-100], Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851; and Philosophical Magazine IV. 1852, [from Mathematical and Physical Papers, vol. i, art. XLVIII, pp. 174]
  2. ^ Thomson, William (1852). “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for April 19, 1852, also Philosophical Magazine, Oct. 1852. [This version from Mathematical and Physical Papers, vol. i, art. 59, pp. 511.]
  3. ^ a b Smith, Crosbie & Wise, Matthew Norton. (1989). Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin. (pg. 500). Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Thomson, William. (1862). “On the age of the sun’s heat”, Macmillan’s Mag., 5, 288-93; PL, 1, 394-68.
  5. ^ Physics Timeline (Helmholtz and Heat Death, 1854)
  6. ^ see for a more detailed explanation
  7. ^ "An introduction to cosmological inflation". proceedings of ICTP summer school in high-energy physics, 1998. Retrieved on 2006-09-09.
  8. ^ "Black holes and thermodynamics". Phys. Rev. D 13, 191–197 (1976). Retrieved on 2006-09-09.
  9. ^ "Thermodynamics of black holes in anti-de Sitter space". Comm. Math. Phys. 87, no. 4 (1982), 577–588. Retrieved on 2006-09-09.
  10. ^ {{[1]}}
  11. ^ a b c d A dying universe: the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects, Fred C. Adams and Gregory Laughlin, Reviews of Modern Physics 69, #2 (April 1997), pp. 337–372. Bibcode: 1997RvMP...69..337A. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.69.337 arΧiv:astro-ph/9701131.
  12. ^ Particle emission rates from a black hole: Massless particles from an uncharged, nonrotating hole, Don N. Page, Physical Review D 13 (1976), pp. 198–206. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.13.198. See in particular equation (27).

Further reading

  • Adams, Fred C.; Laughlin, Gregory (1997), "A dying universe: the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects" (PDF preprint), Reviews of Modern Physics 69: 337–372, doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.69.337, arΧiv:astro-ph/9701131, 
  • Entropy and the second law (includes a brief mention regarding heat death)
  • Heat death vs. cold death
  • Spiral Rotation Model and Modified Set Model; wherein allegedly always ongoing maximizing of entropy generation.
  • Lay man's explanation of the Heat Death Theory.

Astronomy Encyclopedia

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