A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Less than two hours ago, I got a text message from one of my younger sisters, informing me that she would be returning to Tucson at some point in the near future.  This sister has spent most of the past 6 months on the other side of the planet, and since she’s come back we’ve only had a few hours in which we’ve been able to talk, so I was happy to hear it.  I even texted back “Yay!” which for me is a huge text message- I’m sorry, I’m never going to get used to leaving short, abbreviated messages using a device that allows you to talk directly to someone.  Seeing everything shift over to text messages always makes me wonder how the telegram ever fell out of favor, because apparently that’s what we all wanted.  Anyway, never mind the digression.  I heard from my sister, she was coming to town at some indeterminate point in the future, all was well.

Then about ten minutes ago, my sister called and said that she was (a) just outside of Tucson, and (b) needed a car and a place to stay.  I’m still really happy to see her.  I still can’t wait to spend some more time catching up.  But I’m a little less enthusiastic about it, and a whole lot more nervous.

Missing two days of posting this weekend (I’m going to write a few extra posts this week to catch up) got me thinking about entropy.  In a scientific sense, entropy is generally represented by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  As far as I know (and keep in mind that I am an English major), this law states that any transfer of energy requires some expenditure of energy- that is, when you drive your car, the amount of energy that is released from the gasoline is slightly larger than the amount of energy required to push your car forward.  Likewise, it explains why those marbles that are lined up on a string eventually stop running into each other: each time the marbles strike, there’s a transfer of energy, but some of that energy is lost.  It’s why a perpetual motion machine, according to our current understanding of physics, is an impossibility.  And I’m beginning to suspect that it’s why my room keeps getting messier and messier no matter how much I try to shove stuff into piles (that’s how cleaning works, right?

The larger scientific implications of entropy are among the more depressing theories science has come up with.  Entropy works on a universal scale- if we were to entirely cover the surface of our planet with solar panels, we wouldn’t get a fraction of the energy the sun throws our way.  And as the sun gives off energy, it comes closer to dying, and this is happening for all the stars in the galaxy, and all the galaxies in the universe.  Some stars are large enough that, upon their death, they give birth to new stars, but these new stars always have less aggregate energy than the original huge star started out with.  Life moves in cycles, but according to the second law of thermodynamics, those cycles are always winding down.

The ultimate conclusion the second law of thermodynamics leads us to is the idea that the final endpoint of the universe is a “big freeze,” a gradual breakdown of all stars, planets, organisms… even atoms might stop moving at the very end, bringing the average temperature of the universe to absolute zero.  And from that knowledge, philosophers may draw the conclusion that the creation of the universe was a strange and ultimately inexplicable freak, a burst of light and energy than began for no reason and eventually burned out for equally no reason.  It’s philosophical conclusions such as these that make me glad that our understanding of physics is still a little shaky.

Since I started this post on Sunday, a few more things have come up in my life that made me think of entropy, and I don’t want to get into all of them right now, but I will focus on one that is most relevant to my blog activity- my computer.  Computers seem so vulnerable to entropy that I always consider it a bit of a surprise that they work at all- all those circuits firing and data points, only one of which needs to be incorrect for the whole thing to stop working, and yet they generally work.  The exception to this is my desktop computer, which refuses to load without a boot disk in the DVD tray, and for most of today refused to operate at anything faster than a dial-up connection.  I am writing this on my netbook because my desktop is being such a butt right now.

Everywhere I look, my life seems to be breaking up into fragments of increasingly hard-to-organize things: clothes, dishes, reading schedules, and now my blog posting schedule and workout schedule are slowly being sucked back into the mix.  Time seems to be moving faster while my mind moves at the same speed, and even the organizing principle of this blog entry seems to be degenrating into a list of unrelated things.  Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” is probably the best poem about entropy ever written (okay, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is  pretty good too).  The first three lines say everything I’ve managed to say here in a much clearer and more forceful manner:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

Right now it feels like things just keep going that way- my sister’s arrival, serious and legitimate as  it is, seems like just another way that the universe is scattering everything about me to the four winds.  Already two days behind on blogs, I’m going to have to hustle this next week in order to catch up.  Maybe I’ll start by posting again later in the day.  For once, I find that I certainly don’t lack for subjects.


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