Monday, June 25, 2007


For a variety of reasons, some of them beyond my ken, I begin the week with an awareness of what I have called, using a popular, unscientific understanding, "entropy." It is the idea better expressed by William Butler Yeats in the line "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Let a business proceed without expansion and it diminishes until it dies. Let a plant cease to grow and it shrivels. We humans grow and grow until we reach a peak, then we begin our decline to death.

Things fall apart. The natural tendency of everything is toward decay and demise. The one word I have heard used to describe this is "entropy," in a figurative sense.

Now Webster's tells us that entropy is "a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system's disorder and that is a property of the system's state and is related to it in such a manner that a reversible change in heat in the system produces a change in the measure which varies directly with the heat change and inversely with the absolute temperature at which the change takes place."

Take a deep breath. I didn't understand it either. I think what it means is that entropy in science is a measure of disorder in a physical or chemical system. The greater the disorder, the higher the degree of entropy.

The interesting thing, however, is that in scientific theory -- unlike in the philosophy of humanities-minded folks like me -- disorder may well be deemed the balanced state toward which all things tend.

The originator of the concept, Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius, was concerned with the question of the conservation of energy (put simply: where does expended energy go? what will eventually happen to the universe when all energy is expended?). In the 19th century the common belief was that all matter would eventually degrade, be consumed like coal in a steam engine and literally or figuratively go up in smoke.

In 1865, Clausius became famous by concluding, with the aid of mathematics you should get someone else to explain, that "the energy of the universe is constant" on one hand, and that "the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum," on the other.

Those of us who don't really understand e=mc2 may take this as cause for relief or concern. On one hand, it's a relief that chaos is "normal." So, death, disease, decay, etc., are really OK. Moreover, the world doesn't end, somehow the energy recycles itself.

On the other hand, for those of us whose lives are built on a modicum of order -- such as is depended upon by so many things we take for granted -- it's slightly terrifying.

It seems as if I am in a canoe on a placid river, yet I keep hearing a distant and rising rumor that I fear is a Niagara or Iguazu just waiting to upset my little world. Yeats next lines were
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This was the understandable verdict of a 19th century man at the end of the Great War, when all reason, all the gentlemanly nods of common understanding, all commonly held hopes for progress had been so bloodily dashed.

But isn't it also apt for our time and fears and delusions? Have not the muddled majority best lacked conviction in the face of both the passionately intense Cheney-inspired waterboarders and the Osama-sent suicide bombers?

Our time and our lives dim with fears that such a picture is frighteningly true. The center, our heart, cannot hold.
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