Thermodynamics is the science of energy conversion—how heat dissipates and work gets done. It’s an odd science, rich with nineteenth-century language and personalities. Thermodynamics is, essentially, the study of how and why we can’t build perpetual motion machines. Thermodynamics is the field in which entropy, the tendency that systems have to become more chaotic, was first recognized. Thermodynamics defines the boundaries for humans’ ability to transform the real world.
But if thermodynamics can define the upper limits for the efficiency of our power plants and cars, it can also help us find the lower limits for energy consumption. And in a time when it seemed the nation’s energy industry was out of ideas and money, ...