There is a famous-ish quote from Ludwig Boltzmann, which, in English translation, reads (emphasis added):

The general struggle for existence of animate beings is therefore not a struggle for raw materials - these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available - nor for energy which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat (albeit unfortunately not transformable), but a struggle for entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.

This is a beautiful quote, partly because Boltzmann, writing in 1886, foresaw concepts that wouldn't be fully developed until well into the 20th century.

However, the quote (in this English version) isn't quite correct, because it's not entropy that becomes available, but negative entropy, the same quantity but with a different sign. Boltzmann gives a definition of entropy earlier in the essay, so I know he's using the same sign convention we use today. It's always seemed odd to me that, being one of the first people to understand these ideas, he would make such an elementary mistake.

So my question is whether the original German text (below) can be read as meaning something different from the "struggle for entropy" of the English translation.

Specifically, is he really talking about a struggle for entropy, in the sense that entropy is the resource that organisms compete for, or could he instead be indicating a general struggle regarding entropy, in which organisms compete for something related to entropy, but not necessarily for entropy itself?

Der allgemeine Daseinskampf der Lebenswesen ist daher nicht ein Kampf um die Grundstoffe - die Grundstoffe aller Organismen sind in Luft, Wasser und Erdboden im Überflusse vorhanden - auch nicht um Energie, welche in form von Wärme leider unverwandelbar in jedem Körper reichlich enthalten ist, sondern ein Kampf um die Entropie, welche durch den Übergang der Energie von der heißen Sonne zur kalten Erde disponibel wird.

Of course, it's possible that Boltzmann made a mistake or (more likely) decided to simplify things for a popular audience - I'd just be interested to know if this is really what he said.

The English translation is from Theoretical Physics and Philosophical Problems (1974), p. 24, and the German original is from Populäre Schriften (1979), p. 41. (Here's a direct link to chapter, which seems to have a pdf link.)

(P.S. if this is more appropriate on History of Science and Mathematics please let me know. I thought it might be better here, since it's really about the German language.)

  • 1
    Since this (Page 103) and this (Page 52) suggest that you might be right, and he really meant negative entropy, you should also ask this question in another SE, where there are experts in these subjects :)
    – mtwde
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 10:04

4 Answers 4


I beg to disagree with some of the other answers. To me, Boltzmann's German text is OK - though some alternative wording may have been more clear. The difference is that the German version is not directed, while the English version has a direction, and the wrong one.

In contrast, the English translation is clearly wrong.

  • German Kampf um can mean any combination of battle for and/or battle against. Battle for does not cover the whole meaning, and it is the wrong choice here.
  • something is disponibel if you can shift it around/assign it freely/as needed. (To me it has a connotation of resource planning. Someone doing staff planning may have some "Springer"[floaters (?)] which are disponibel, i.e. workers who can be put at short notice to whereever they are most needed.)
    So it can be translated as disposable, but I'd say not in the "throw away" sense but as in disposable income, more like movable. But that of course includes "move/shift away".

Long version:

IMHO the German "Kampf um Entropie" could be somewhat more literally translated to English "battle about entropy", "battle for entropy" corresponds more directly to German "Kampf für Entropie" - which would be wrong.

"Kampf gegen [against] Entropie" would have been a more precise choice of words, yes.

The German Kampf um x is not (as) directed as Kampf für/battle for or Kampf gegen/battle against are, it may have connotation of two sides with opposing direction (one of which would then be the 2nd law of thermodynamics). But is is also regularly used in everyday language to express one side, and whether that side is for or against x must be concluded from context.
Examples where I have the against side as first association would be: "Der Kampf um die Mülldeponie/den Klimawandel/die Anliegergebühren".

I think "Kampf um die Mülldeponie [garbage dump/landfill site]" may serve well as analogous construction to the "Kampf um die Entropie" since that can also read as many living beings all wanting to not get the Mülldeponie (or the Entropie). The German Kampf um can be fought in a "negative" way, i.e. in order to not get x rather than in order to get x.

(I'm native German speaker and I'm chemist with major subfield physical chemistry, I studied/learned thermodynamics mostly in German language)

All in all, this looks to me like just one more example where the translation of deceptively easy technical language went subtly wrong.

  • Thanks! This is what I sort of suspected. What about the word "disponibel" shortly after? In the English translation this becomes "available", but in German could it be taken as something else? (The sentence would make sense in terms of physics if it meant "able to be disposed of".)
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 5:13
  • I do not agree. If Boltzmann would have said "Kampf gegen die Entropie" or "Kampf mit der Entropie", then it would be absolutely clear what he wants to express. "Kampf um X" means that someone wants to acquire X. See example 1, example 2, example 3.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 0:03
  • In their struggle for existence beings do not want to acquire entropy, but want to struggle against entropy. Here you can see that the editor of Boltzmann's German text added a footnote to the word Entropie which says "More precisely: Negative entropy (Schrödinger), i. e. negentropy (Brillouin)". The reason for this footnote is the lack of clarity of Botzmann's words. Yes, we do understand what he wants to say, but it requires some reflection. At first reading one certainly stumbles upon the phrase Kampf um Entropie.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 0:04
  • This is similar in your example "Kampf um die Mülldeponie". A Google search does not give hits, but shows websites containing "Kampf gegen die Mülldeponie". Okay, the phrase "Kampf um die Mülldeponie" could make sense from the perspective of its proponents. But coming back to the question, animate beings are certainly no proponents of entropy.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 0:10
  • Concerning "Kampf um" see also dwds.
    – Paul Frost
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 0:28

As first question there is:

if Boltzmann really meant "Kampf um".

and as second part as I read your question it is about if the pair

a struggle for entropy - ein Kampf um die Entropie

makes a useful translation.

I will use this link as "an original text" (PDF, wiley.com, print of 1976, p. 338, publisher note states that he reconstructed quasi invented this text which was a speech from 1905)

I'd like to go a bit into physics:

  • the exchange between work and heat is only partially reversible - that is why there is no perpetuum mobile and why "producing" entropy is the "overall" result for a process
  • as another aspect of the same:
    • when entropy is a measure for disorder, a system by its own will tend to be in maximum disorder = all objects are as random as possible distributed
    • so any "ordered" situation is some kind of destroyed or negative entropy
    • as life on earth usually creates plants and animals = ordered situations, there is need for "negative" entropy to "produce" some while growing
  • as the sun is much hotter than the earth, the energy income allows a loss on entropy for the earth - as the irreversible conversion from sun's energy to "ordered situations" like plants produces lots of entropy (german description - or english wiki)

So Boltzmann is describing the fact that the creation of plants are "fighting for the right to create entropy". What he describes as "by catching more of the sunlight than neighboured plants and use the sunlight for chemical synthesis".

A well known term coined by Charles Darwin is "survival of the fittest", around the same time Boltzmann was doing his work. So the idea that "negative entropy" comes in and that the plants have to fight for it, sounds quite reasonable. Boltzmann simply goes the next physical step "what are plants fighting about". On high level, they compete for water, nutritions, light, heat. On a lower level they compete for the "right" to "produce" entropy. And a competition is often enough described as a fight.

Would you say this is a natural way to interpret the German text?

So yes, historically I think the "Kampf um die Entropie" is correct in the context of life. Leo.org lists with struggle many translations that fit very well to something that decides about life or death. It is neither a battle nor a combat nor a campaign.

So no, nowadays the term "Kampf um die Entropie" would mainly be used in terms of populism. Because today a physicist would know the rules and a biologist would know that there is nothing close to "Kampf". As battle or combat or campaign require the awareness of opponents and context.

While the survival of a plant is on a very low level determined by entropy - it sounds less useful to describe it even as a competition. The more basic/fundemental mechanisms are needed to explain a behaviour, the less complex situation is given. So I'm stuck on the observation level with light & water etc. to use words like competition or struggle. I can observe that plants grow where this fits best - and that it might fail due to ... . I cannot observe if and how plants grow because of entropy. The result just stays the same - the race about survival is among other things a race about light which is basically a race for entropy.

  • In terms of the physics this is also what I had guessed he might mean. (I'm an expert on thermodynamics but not at all on the German language!) My question really is about whether the German text supports that interpretation. In English the phrase "struggle for entropy" can't really be read as "struggle for the right to produce entropy", but that could be a problem with the translation. Would you say this is a natural way to interpret the German text?
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 6:20
  • @Nathaniel: sorry for missing that part. I added, that in my opinion in a scientific text I would avoid Kampf/struggle. And additionally: when you are the first to discover some fundementally new mechanisms, you might still be connected to common sense before that point. Einstein also did not believe for some time, that his theory would indicate xy (forgot the topic). He later admitted it. Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 14:32

Boltzmann uses the (very rare) word "disponibel", which according to LEO can be translated as "available". However, I think the secondary translation "disposable" might be more fitting and closer to the intended meaning. He is talking about (the potential for) change of entropy (as far as I understand) and the sign would then indicate a transfer of entropy (towards the sun).

If he really meant "available" in its ordinary meaning, he would have used the common word "verfügbar". He deliberately chose a rare technical term that derives from French "disponible". According to Merriam-Webster the word also exists in English and means "capable of being placed, arranged, or disposed of as one wishes".

Note that Boltzmann also uses the definite article. German has slightly different rules regarding use of articles than English but here he most likely means to refer to a specific entropy as specified by the subordinate clause.

Thus a better translation might be:

... but a struggle for the [that?] entropy, which becomes disponible through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.

  • leo flags your second translation as "from the financial world". So I don't think you can use this one like that. Especially when you consider what disposable can mean and what would be completely contrary to the original.
    – mtwde
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 9:28
  • @mtwde That flag only means that it is an appropriate translation for finance. It doesn't mean it can't be appropriate for physics. Anyway, I think Boltzmann means "verfügbar im Sinne von abgebbar". If you have a better translation to that meaning, I'd welcome it.
    – user6495
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 9:32
  • +1, I agree, "disponibel" is a rarely used word, and Boltzmann probably chose it carefully to express exactly the fact that the temperature difference enables life on earth to dispose of entropy and build some order. So the translation is incorrect here, it should say disposable -- which of course is a bit harder to understand.
    – HalvarF
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 11:51
  • The translation "a struggle for entropy" seems unfortunate, too. It's more like "a struggle about entropy" (if that's possible to say in English).
    – HalvarF
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 12:36

My question is whether the original German text can be read as meaning something different from the "struggle for entropy" of the English translation.

No. Boltzmann says "Kampf um Entropie" which is correctly translated by "struggle for entropy". The German text has exactly the same problem as the English translation: It is confusing if we read it as it is. Of course we can understand what he "really" means, but this requires knowledge about various concepts of physics and especially thermodynamics - so it is not self-explanatory, but needs interpretation.


Shegit Brahm's answer contains this link where one can find the text. It ends with enter image description here

As observed by Shegit Brahm, this makes clear that the text was invented by the editor, so we do not know whether Boltzmann really said anything like "Kampf um Entropie".

In mtwede's comment we find one more interesting Link which quotes the text in the modified form "Kampf um die (Neg-) Entropie" - certainly because the original phrase is confusing also in German.

Since the whole text is a fake, in my opinion it would be better to rephrase it as

... struggle for energy, which flows from the hot sun to the cold earth and becomes available to organisms.

  • 1
    If you rephrase with energy, it should be Gibbs' free energy/Gibbssche freie Energie.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 20:00

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