The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy (the disorder) of our universe must always be increasing. It was introduced to me as a dry scientific principle, the kind that explains reaction spontaneity, but none of the quirks of human life.
Recently, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the second law of thermodynamics as it relates to our daily lives. I think it even explains death, which is essentially caused by all the complex systems in the human bodies becoming rearranged in such a manner that they no longer function. We are not immortal because of entropy. The great monster of entropy wins, and our gene acquires the mutation that gives us cancer, or enough cells die in a particular organ to topple its functioning, or we can no longer keep at bay the slew of pathogens which we encounter every day. In a way, all our bodies do all day is fight entropy. According to the second law of thermodynamics, they’re not likely to win that fight.
And the courses of our lives are highly entropic. There is so much randomness involved with who ends up where, doing what. I think it lends some credence to the nostalgic claim that at some unspecified point in the past, life was simpler. As entropy increases, life only becomes more and more complex, so of course life would have been simpler at some past time. It just stands to reason!
Entropy isn’t all about decay, however. I have often struggled with the idea of scientific determinism, the idea that the state of the universe at the big bang contains all the information needed to predict everything that has ever happened and will ever happen. In this view, there is no free will. We act in particular ways not because we choose to, but because the molecules in our brains interact according to a predetermined physical law. It’s almost scientific Calvinism. The second law of thermodynamics frees us from the trap of determinism. (It is at this point that I should note that the following is not my argument, but one I read somewhere… somewhere, of course, that I can no longer locate.) Basically, the highest amount of information is not conveyed by order, but by disorder. In a pattern, all you need to detect the next item in a sequence is the knowledge of the pattern, so new terms in the sequence convey no additional information. If items in a sequence are randomly arranged, however, then each additional item in the sequence conveys more information. In this way, with increasing entropy, or randomness in the universe, the total amount of information contained in the universe also increases. If the total amount of information is increasing, then the start point of the universe by definition cannot contain all the information needed to predict everything, and so scientific determinism cannot be true. In this way, the second law of thermodynamics rescues free will from the jaws of determinism. Thank you, entropy.
I’m not sure what’s got me thinking about thermodynamics. I write to you from within a shiny metal tube hurtling through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour, held up only by air molecules. For all that airplanes are conceptually surreal, the experience of them is hopelessly mundane. At least I got a seat in the exit row, though I’ve always wondered whether people in the exit row stand the most risk of death in a plane crash because they’re responsible for helping everyone else depart before they do. Sitting here also makes me wonder about the ethics of everyone who ever sits in an exit row. Are they all truly capable of lifting the heavy door, or are some people comfortable risking the lives of themselves and others just to get some extra leg room? Then again, need for leg room (height) is probably positively correlated with strength.
I’m happy I went to Topeka, even though my mode of transportation causes me to contemplate a grisly death. I loved seeing my aunt, and her cats, and I hope that I was in some way helpful to her. I am bringing back some catnip from her garden to give to my cats, but I can’t give them too much at one time because they’re pretty mean when under the influence of catnip. They are still at my dad’s because the furniture delivery to my mom’s was delayed a fair deal. I do not think the moving company she used was trustworthy. I hope she sends a complaint after recovering her belongings.
It is so nice to be returning to my home city. I love Chicago. It’s a sprawling, vibrant, welcoming city, especially in the summer. Plus, it has so much to do! I haven’t visited many of our museums in a while, so I hope to do that in the time I’m back. I actually came back a little early from Topeka to spend time with my dad, who got unexpected time off work. Often we don’t have much time to spend together, so I really appreciate the opportunity to see him.
All in all, I’m feeling pretty blessed… even though I know this situation will change, as all do (remember entropy!), I am enjoying the moment.