How the Law of Entropy Wears Everything Down
If you walk through the halls of a museum that houses Greek and Roman statuary, you will see that few of the figures are whole. Many have no limbs or heads. And the places where the arms or legs were lost have been smoothed down. We instinctively know that the accidents of time are responsible because we experience this in all aspects of our own lives.
Virtually no structure, human or natural, survives intact no matter how strong or resilient.
It was not until the 1870s that a German scientist tackled this phenomenon and explained it. Ludwig Boltzmann developed a simple but profound equation he called “the law of entropy.” The equation for calculating entropy is inscribed on his tombstone.
Entropy is the tendency of ordered systems to become disordered over time, principally from the accidents of life.
The broken statues in the museums demonstrate entropy’s inevitability as well as the breadth of its reach.
The law of entropy is built on statistics and probability and applies to systems with a large number of possibilities — complex entities such as our bodies, society, natural ecospheres, and even the universe. Left to themselves, all of these will either fall apart or decay. Weeds will overtake gardens, people will age, and mountains will erode.
Over time, everything either wears down, deteriorates, or becomes less organized. Even the universe. A doomsday scenario called the heat death of the universe is how cosmologists currently expect it all to end. Fortunately, it won’t happen for another googol (that’s 10¹⁰⁰) years.
Complex Systems are Inherently Unstable
As humans, we find the inevitability of decline not only disorienting but ultimately unacceptable. Which is why we continually fight back, hoping to either slow the decline or, if we are smart enough, to reverse it completely.
The problem is that entropy differs from the usual physical laws that govern the universe. Unlike Einstein’s law of self-energy or Newton’s laws of motion, the fundamental laws of physics do not describe what happens when the pieces of a system can assume a gigantic number of arrangements. When this occurs, randomness prevails and randomness is the arena in which the law of entropy reigns.
Imagine filming a drop of blue ink falling into a tank of clear water. As the ink drop spreads throughout the tank, the water turns a light blue color. But when we run the film backwards, we see all the ink molecules reassembling at the place where the ink drop had fallen into the water. Then we see the drop rise into the air again, whole. But in the real world, because of the infinite number of molecular collisions, this will never occur — the random arrangements will never reassemble into the drop.
Why? Because, at the microscopic level, nature doesn’t have a preference for doing things in one direction or in reverse. But, when we get to large collections of atoms, an arrow of time emerges for the direction in which events take place. And that direction is always toward entropy.
Order is Always a Trade-Off
If we want to make a system more ordered, we have to work on it. Work, in this regard, can be defined as the input of either new or additional energy. This occurs when carpenters and painters restore an aging building when steel workers repair bridges, or when physicians heal our aging bodies.
But here’s the rub: While inputting energy into a system makes the system more ordered, it conversely creates more disorder in the world as a whole.
Think of the human body. It is among the most organized phenomena in the universe. We are a marvel of order. We consist of a complex array of cells, about 10 billion, billion, billion, billion in number. Each of these cells requires nutrients and a stable environment to survive and replicate. They constantly need tending and repair.
To effect these repairs, we provide our cells with nutrients, grown from plants and animals. As we ingest food and water, we decrease the entropy in our own bodies by re-organizing and rejuvenating our cells and organs. However, because we are taking energy from one system and injecting it into another system, the world — in this case the natural world of plants and animals — becomes more disorganized.
Entropy as a Metaphor
Entropy is a factual law of the universe. But perhaps its most intriguing use is as a metaphor. Because the world around us is constantly changing — some would say deteriorating — the concept of entropy appears to be applicable to all aspects of our lives, both personal and societal.
Relationships is just one example. Anyone who has been married or involved in a committed relationship knows how hard it is to keep that relationship alive and intact. People grow older, circumstances change, and entropy slowly erodes the bond between them. If nothing is done by the partners to inject new energy into their relationship, it begins to wither away and die the same as flowers in a garden we fail to water.
Society serves as another example of entropy as a metaphor. As time goes on every country chooses its direction from a multitude of diverse paths. Because a country can take so many possible choices, its entropy is very high. Some of these paths lead to decline and even catastrophe, while a very few keep the country vibrant and powerful.
Even a democracy as brilliantly conceived as the United States can fall unless fresh “energy” is added to the system.
One of the most powerful sources of this new energy comes from immigrants from other cultures with other worldviews. They contribute their knowledge, capabilities and creativity to help ensure that our democracy will be able to face the unknown challenges of the future.
Immigrants help to build a bulwark of talent to fight the eroding power of entropy that pervades every political system and eventually brings it to ruin. Which is a strong argument for why we should open our borders and welcome everyone who wants to join us and contribute.
We cannot change the law of entropy. But by continuously adding fresh energy slows its corrosive impact, we can keep our country vibrant and healthy.