Entropy and complexity: the surprising paradox behind our universe

Mark Traphagen
Mar 19, 2017 · 3 min read
Image: Shutterstock — used under license

One of the many big ideas in physicist Sean B. Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself is the concept that entropy can drive increasing complexity. In fact if our universe did not have increasing entropy as one of its fundamental components, we would not have the complex world we see today, including you and me.

If you paid the slightest attention in high school science classes that should strike you as a profound paradox. Entropy, put simply, is the tendency of things to break down, to wear out over time. An abandoned house becomes a demonstration of entropy at a macro level. Without any human intervention, the house will fall apart over time, and eventually completely disintegrate into the environment.

Image: Shutterstock — used under license

Entropy is often cited by creationists as supposed evidence against evolution, or even the entire universe as we observe it today. If entropy has has been in operation since a moment after the Big Bang (and it has), how could we have the incredibly complex world we live in today?

In The Big Picture (which I highly encourage you to read) Carroll explains how entropy works as a kind of engine for complexity. As counterintuitive as that sounds, it is now a fundamental of physics. In fact, increasing entropy, the very thing that will lead to the eventual heat death of our universe, is absolutely essential to emergent complexity sans divine intervention.

In an interview with Wired, physicist Sharon Glotzer, who has been exploring the concept of emergence (how and why complex systems emerge from simpler systems) confronts the apparent paradox:

We typically think entropy means disorder, and so a disordered structure would have more entropy than an ordered structure. That can be true under certain circumstances, but it’s not always true, and in these cases, it’s not. I prefer to think of entropy as related to options: The more options a system of particles has to arrange itself, the higher the entropy. In certain circumstances, it’s possible for a system to have more options – more possible arrangements – of its building blocks if the system is ordered.

She explains that entropy sets particles to “wiggling,” and they have a tendency to want to maximize their individual “wiggle room” as it were. This can drive them into a structure that winds up being complex, when seen as a whole.

This is not only true of particles at the atomic and subatomic levels, but of much more visible phenomena such as the beautiful patterns seen as a flock of starlings gathers in the sky. These murmurations as they are called appear to involve some kind of shared consciousness or central intelligence, as if the birds were being orchestrated by some higher power. But in reality, what we witness is the emergent patterns from each individual starling simply doing it darndest not to collide with the starlings nearby.

What we now know about how complex systems emerge from simpler ones may show the path to unraveling the mystery behind the most complex system we know of in our universe: our own consciousness.

Enjoy this post? Tapping the heart below is a way to say thanks!

You might also like Yes, there are some known knowns, and they aren’t going to change

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade