One of this year’s Field Metal winners– a Nobel Prize equivalent bestowed upon scientists under 40– worked within the second law of thermodynamics to create a novel equation for calculating just how fast entropy occurs. It was an impressive feat considering that defining “entropy” alone befuddles the non-science minded. Even the Wikipedia entry is dizzying.
What the 2nd law of thermodynamics says is that left to its own devices, shit will fall apart. It occurs on the macro-level, like when the ecosystem of the planet earth is in decay, or on the micro, like when the fridge you bought six years ago stops freezing ice cubes and sopping your socks on your way to get your morning o.j., or when the relationship with your in-laws turns from tolerance to an interpersonal war zone.
Scientifically, entropy is the rate or tendency at which this eventual plunge into disorder occurs on a molecular level. Entropy as a “tendency”– one that brings various forces (heat, motion, the frequency of your erections) from its highest to its lowest potential.
The sticky wicket here is that different things fall apart at different rates. The rate at which an ice-cube melts in room temperature central coast Sauvignon Blanc is one example of entropy. Another is how long it would take for a healthy Maple tree to fall, die, rot, grow hallucinogenic mushrooms all over it, and eventually end up as the soil in which a new sapling can sprout.
Entropy is the measurement of energy each of those variegated systems releases as it flat-lines towards its’ least potential. Entropy is the great leveler. Drop some Blue Curacao into a glass of vodka and it will disperse itself evenly throughout regardless of your mixological intervention. The fact that some guy under 40 figured out a quantitative method for how this works is another discussion, but his name is Cédric Villani, and yes, the Ascot is real.
In nature, as in all closed systems, the tendency is always toward dissipation. As a system’s entropic tendencies increase, its total energy becomes less and less useful. The Big Bang was massive and hot. But as it continues to expand outward, the space between objects in motion (planets) increases and cools: this is the leveling energy of entropy on a cosmic scale. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, this will inevitably lead to the “heat death of the universe.” One can’t help but wonder what that will be like, and if a standard HMO will ever cover it.
Put into a social context, however, entropy makes perfect sense. How we go from large, loving groups of friends with boundless energy in high school and college, to a handful of friends who obligatorily put up with your bullshit by the time you’re 35, to maybe one true friend who hasn’t dumped you out of pure pity by the time your 50, to a cat who sticks around cause you feed it, can be easily attributed to the dissipating, fall-apart-ness quality of social entropy. When you’re young, the energy is bursting. Everything is new. God forbid you miss out.
But as tempest fugits, so does the energy to maintain all these relationships. Energy gets siphoned into raising kids, making money, trying not to get fired, having affairs, and avoiding people you really never liked in the first place. It was Bukowski who said, “It’s not that I hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around.” One begins to wonder, though, just where does all the energy go when it levels? We know from physics that is doesn’t just disappear, but transforms. But into what?
It’s safe to hypothesize that social energy levels off into various projects that end up as dark matter in much the same way as celestial bodies do. In high school, there are all kinds of Big Bangs: atomic groups of friends eagerly interacting, exchanging, bursting with first love, first sex, first drugs and rock and roll.
The social supernova grows bigger and brighter in college. Friendships are forged for what seems to be a lifetime. But graduation comes, and the first dissemination of energy occurs. Friends move to distant metropolitan centers. Others drop out and teach skiing in Boulder, Colorado. Others get married and pump out little ones, the ultimate energy suck. The loss of the ego occurs here. Between answering to yelping mouths and a spouse, there is barely time to service anything else, including vital Facebook updates. No one has the god damn energy.
Eventually, the great leveler will bring this fractalized energy back together temporarily: for funerals. Like a sun shining brighter before burning out, the funeral reignites the energy for one last spark-flying expenditure. It’s a courtesy mother nature offers us, while entropy silently awaits.
But a new generation arises soon enough with fresh batteries to power them through the cycles earlier generations enjoyed. There is nothing more energizing than to bathe in the wake of new aspirations. They too will face their own entropy, and the cycle will repeat for a certain period of time. But entropy will eventually prevail, and the heat will slowly fade, and all the music, and literature, and movies, and art and scientific achievements, and great sex will end up as space dust, sharing history and timelessness, like the rest of the universe’s innumerable millions of ever cooling galaxies.