The inevitable increase of entropy with time for isolated systems plays a fundamental role in determining the direction of the “arrow of time.” Everyday life presents no difficulty in distinguishing the forward flow of time from its reverse. For example, if a film showed a glass of warm water spontaneously changing into hot water with ice floating on top, it would immediately be apparent that the film was running backward because the process of heat flowing from warm water to hot water would violate the second law of thermodynamics. However, this obvious asymmetry between the forward and reverse directions for the flow of time does not persist at the level of fundamental interactions. An observer watching a film showing two water molecules colliding would not be able to tell whether the film was running forward or backward.
So what exactly is the connection between entropy and the second law? Recall that heat at the molecular level is the random kinetic energy of motion of molecules, and collisions between molecules provide the microscopic mechanism for transporting heat energy from one place to another. Because individual collisions are unchanged by reversing the direction of time, heat can flow just as well in one direction as the other. Thus, from the point of view of fundamental interactions, there is nothing to prevent a chance event in which a number of slow-moving (cold) molecules happen to collect together in one place and form ice, while the surrounding water becomes hotter. Such chance events could be expected to occur from time to time in a vessel containing only a few water molecules. However, the same chance events are never observed in a full glass of water, not because they are impossible but because they are exceedingly improbable. This is because even a small glass of water contains an enormous number of interacting molecules (about 1024), making it highly unlikely that, in the course of their random thermal motion, a significant fraction of cold molecules will collect together in one place. Although such a spontaneous violation of the second law of thermodynamics is not impossible, an extremely patient physicist would have to wait many times the age of the universe to see it happen.
The foregoing demonstrates an important point: the second law of thermodynamics is statistical in nature. It has no meaning at the level of individual molecules, whereas the law becomes essentially exact for the description of large numbers of interacting molecules. In contrast, the first law of thermodynamics, which expresses conservation of energy, remains exactly true even at the molecular level.
The example of ice melting in a glass of hot water also demonstrates the other sense of the term entropy, as an increase in randomness and a parallel loss of information. Initially, the total thermal energy is partitioned in such a way that all of the slow-moving (cold) molecules are located in the ice and all of the fast-moving (hot) molecules are located in the water (or water vapour). After the ice has melted and the system has come to thermal equilibrium, the thermal energy is uniformly distributed throughout the system. The statistical approach provides a great deal of valuable insight into the meaning of the second law of thermodynamics, but, from the point of view of applications, the microscopic structure of matter becomes irrelevant. The great beauty and strength of classical thermodynamics are that its predictions are completely independent of the microscopic structure of matter.