Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

More on Applied Mathematics Letters: Journal retracted paper questioning second law of thermodynamics

with 10 comments

Have you read yesterday’s post on a retraction in Applied Mathematics Letters yet? (If you haven’t, you’ve missed the explanation of how “Both science and spirituality came from space,” along with other oddities. We’ll wait while you go read it.) But for those of you who have, it turns out that this wasn’t the first retraction of a bizarre paper in the journal this year.

In January, Granville Sewell, of the University of Texas, El Paso’s math department, published a paper there called “A Second Look at The Second Law.” Its abstract:

It is commonly argued that the spectacular increase in order which has occurred on Earth does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because the Earth is an open system, and anything can happen in an open system as long as the entropy increases outside the system compensate the entropy decreases inside the system. However, if we define ‘‘X-entropy’’ to be the entropy associated with any diffusing component X (for example, X might be heat), and, since entropy measures disorder, ‘‘X-order’’ to be the negative of X-entropy, a closer look at the equations for entropy change shows that they not only say that the X-order cannot increase in a closed system, but that they also say that in an open system the X-order cannot increase faster than it is imported through the boundary. Thus the equations for entropy change do not support the illogical ‘‘compensation’’ idea; instead, they illustrate the tautology that ‘‘if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable’’. Thus, unless we are willing to argue that the influx of solar energy into the Earth makes the appearance of spaceships, computers and the Internet not extremely improbable, we have to conclude that the second law has in fact been violated here.

The whole paper can be found here. A theme emerges: Perhaps the spaceships in Sewell’s paper brought the science and spirituality in M. Sivasubramanian’s to Earth. But we digress.

A quick review: The second law of thermodynamics states, in a nutshell, that entropy — shorthanded as “disorder” — always increases. As Joe Felsenstein, who wrote about the Sewell paper in a post at Panda’s Thumb, points out:

Granville Sewell is a mathematician at the University of Texas, El Paso, who is an expert on numerical solution of differential equations. He is also the author of repeated arguments that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes it impossible for evolution to improve living organisms.

The obvious reply is that the biosphere is not an isolated, closed system, that to come near having one, we must also include the sun which undergoes a huge increase of entropy as it radiates energy, that more than compensates for the much smaller decrease of entropy involved in the evolution of life.

The Sewell paper was short-lived. Uncommon Descent, a blog by intelligent design advocate William Dembski, announced the publication on February 19. It didn’t take long for contributors to the intelligent design critic site to find the paper and wonder about it.

One of those contributors, David vun Kannon, wrote to Ervin Rodin, editor of Applied Mathematics Letters, to ask how it had been published. The response, published on on February 25:

Thank you very much for alerting us to the impropriety of publishing Granville Sewell’s “A Second Look at the Second Law” . We agree with you, and are in the process of removing it from our website and rescinding its acceptance.

Applied Mathematics Letters is attempting to live up to its aim of being an outlet of “rapid publication”. Unfortunately, this may sometimes lead to hastiness, as was the case in this instance.

Please accept our apologies for our erroneous judgement in even considering this paper for publication.

The paper is, indeed, now marked as retracted. There’s more at another Panda’s Thumb post.

We do have to wonder what’s going on at Applied Mathematics  Letters. Does “rapid publication” mean “not actually peer-reviewed?” We’re still waiting to hear back from Rodin, but will update with anything he tells us.

In the meantime, with thanks to our commenters and Reddit posters who’ve written about our original item, here are some choice comments from Sivasubramanian, author of the paper we reported on yesterday:

From a plenary he gave at the 7th World Scientific and Engineering Academy and Society (WSEAS) International Conference on Mathematical Biology and Ecology:

The master piece of this field is the beautiful application to coitus.

On “An easy experiment for dark matter“:

Choose a convenient dark room whose roof is made up of tiles. Make an artificial hole by slightly rearranging a tile…


The visible of particle in the path traveled by the sun light in the dark room is very bright for the naked eyes. These particles may be dark matter or dust particles. Future studies will decide this.

The dark matter stuff, we should point out, was published in a journal conveniently named Nature and Science. As in, “I’ve published in Nature and Science.”

Hat tips: Martin Hafner, Bob O’Hara, olegt

  • SG March 16, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I have to quickly start a journal called Cell, Nature and Science.

    • Bob O'H March 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      I’ll up the ante with “Penis, Cell, Nature and Science”

      • SG March 16, 2011 at 3:08 pm

        I forgot about P-nas envy.

  • Neuroskeptic March 16, 2011 at 10:39 am

    “Nature And Science” that’s absolutely shameless.

  • RM March 17, 2011 at 5:20 am

    Wow, I really hope that the answer is that these papers were indeed not peer reviewed. I do not want to imagine a world in which some randomly chosen expert in the field of thermodynamics actually read through this manuscript noddingly…

    In any event, on a personal level I think this is a bit sad. Like Anthony-Hopkins-in-“Proof”-kinda sad.

    Editor in Chief of “The Big Three”

  • sparc March 18, 2011 at 12:08 am

    You will find a copy of D. vun Kannon’s letter to Applied Mathematics Letters editor Ervin Rodin at his blog named Invisible Hand. The reply can be read here. For a short time Sewell had a copy of the journal’s retraction letter on his web pages as olegt reported here. Unfortuntely, he 404ed the page shorly after it had been linked to from olegt’s comment.

    • David vun Kannon June 23, 2011 at 10:33 am

      The retraction letter is still viewable at the end of Sewell’s YouTube video on the subject.

  • Michel S. March 19, 2011 at 5:51 am

    WSEAS — that’s one of those spammy organizations that keep organizing various low-grade conferences, right? ISTR getting many unsolicited emails from them — on pretty much any remotely academic *internal* mailing lists I’ve been on.

  • af March 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Nature and Science, are you kidding me?! I normally don’t spend time googling details of something apparently trashy, but this was a bit too much for even me: So, taken from the website of this soon-to-be tiger of scientific publishing, it is allegedly “an international journal to enhance our natural and scientific knowledge spreading in the world under the free publication principle.” Hm…
    Also, it states that “any valuable paper to describe natural phenomena/existence or report scientific researches/pursuits will be acceptable, including both natural and social sciences.”
    Does that mean we will publish anything you send to us, possibly without peer review? That would explain a lot.
    A tiny note “The journal is calling for papers and looking for more co-operators and editors”, go figure…
    This just puts me off, such cheap parasitism on respectable journals.

  • Steve D April 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Has anybody noticed that UTEP was also home to Thomas Barnes, creationist? Not to be confused with a couple of the other legitimate Thomas Barneses in science. Connection?

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