Essay 7: Why Is Everything Such A Mess?
Today we tackle the question of why everything seems to get dirtier, messier, and more disorganized. A few weeks ago, you might have wondered why anyone would pose such a foolish question. Of course things get dirtier, messier, and more disorganized!
Now that we are viewing all questions through the lens of what we have already discovered, that the world is not what we had always assumed, I suspect that you are more open to pondering just about every state of affairs. As we have seen, our world is quite particular. In our world, things go from clean to dirty, new to old, shiny to dull. We could instead be living in a universe where everything automatically got cleaner, neater, and more organized. An adolescent’s bedroom could be a model of organization instead of a perpetual mess. Parks could be automatically free of litter. Individuals who might have been criminals in our world would instead believe that to give is better than to receive and never break a rule. Our expected paradigm of things going from good to bad and then bad to worse could be inverted. Put another way, all processes in that other world could move towards lower entropy.
What is entropy? Entropy is most simply thought of as a measure of the order of a system. Higher entropy indicates more disorder, and lower entropy is just the opposite, more order. To be more accurate, entropy describes the number of ways a particular situation can be organized. Let’s take as an example a box of golf balls. While confined in the box, the golf balls have only a single possible organization or configuration. Each golf ball is surrounded by other specific golf balls–none of the balls can move. They are highly organized–they have low entropy. If we dump the golf balls out of the box, they will be free to roll around and they now have all sorts of possible neighbors, not just the few that were seated next to them in the box. Our golf balls have gone from low entropy–a single configuration–to higher entropy–lots of possible configurations.
Returning to our earlier adolescent bedroom analogy, a movement towards higher entropy is what begins the moment after you have delivered and put away the laundry you have just washed and folded for your teenager. By nighttime, the clothes he was wearing are on the floor. Within two days, half his wardrobe adorns his desk, chair, and the foot of his bed. By week’s end, the place is a disaster area.
His room went from the order you created through your efforts–low entropy–to the disorder he initiated by tossing his clothes everywhere–high entropy. Sadly, none of his clothes automatically refolded and deposited themselves in the proper drawer. This is exactly what is predicted by The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that any system will move towards greater entropy, towards greater disorder. It will take a good deal of work–hopefully your teenager’s but more likely yours–to lower the entropy and get things organized. Lowering entropy requires energy, in this case, the labor to fold and put away his clothes.
Let’s say you are such a great parent that you also make his lunch. You take some soup you had prepared the day before and place it into the microwave. After a minute, you remove it. Steam rises from the top. He tastes the soup and tells you that it is too hot to eat, so he waits. What is he waiting for? In order to eat the soup, it must cool, meaning some of the heat in the soup must interact with the colder air above the soup and transfer energy to those colder molecules. Eventually, when enough heat (energy) is transferred from the hot soup molecules to the cooler air, the soup is ready to eat. The soup has reached equilibrium with the air. Instead of distinct areas of hot soup below and cold air above–few configurations, low entropy–the molecules are now all mixed together in a more random arrangement–lots of possible configurations, higher entropy.
In our universe, entropy progresses in a single direction, from low to high, from order to disorder, from hot soup to cold soup. It’s easy to live with soup that requires time to cool. All it takes is a bit of patience. Entropy, however, is everywhere, pushing systems to ever-increasing disorder. Keeping governments functioning, preventing bridges from collapsing, and maintaining order in society are much more challenging. Because of entropy, filth and anarchy have the advantage. Entropy is often our enemy.
We could instead be living in a universe where entropy went from high to low, from disorder to order. Imagine such a world. Pipes wouldn’t rust and break, cracked eggs would fly up from the floor and reenter their shells, and your kid’s room would organize itself. Things would go from worse to better.
That is not the universe in which we live, but all is not lost. Entropy can be reversed. If we add energy to a system, we can lower the entropy. Although the trend is always towards higher entropy–more disorder–it is not a permanent situation. Your teenager’s bedroom can be cleaned up.
While matter and energy are hostages to entropy, humanity has no such constraints. We humans in fact have a good deal of dominion over entropy. When we clean up the neighborhood park, pick up the random trash and bottles, and put them into a single configuration in the trash container, we are lowering entropy. The same is true for government. Anarchy, where anything goes, is high entropy– disorder. Organized government is low entropy–order. Democracy, of all possible forms of government, demands the greatest investment of energy to reverse the high entropy of anarchy. It’s the equivalent of trying to get the cracked egg back into its shell. That is why democracy is difficult and fragile.
There is always the option for any of us, singularly and collectively, to put in the required energy to lower entropy. Just like folding laundry or cleaning a room, we can do the work to bring order to disorder, advance from chaos to tranquility, from barbarism to civilization. Although it is true that entropy has the advantage, we humans can defeat entropy pretty much whenever and wherever the will exists to do so. We are anything but helpless. We have control over how we behave, how we treat each other, and what kind of world we wish to live in.
The ability of humans to reverse entropy is no small thing. It is a superpower. While the universe is doing all it can to increase entropy, we humans can, in at least some ways, reverse it. Now there is another clue if I’ve ever seen one.
Next: Why Don’t We Learn More From History?
When: May 4, 2022