Monday, 28 November 2011

Entropy - A Sad and Yet Inspiring Revelation

Many people who know me well will remember, at some point or another, having a light-hearted drunken conversation with me about the future of the universe and how one of my greatest fears is that the universe will end in a great contraction, much the same way it started, into a singularity. I argued that the alternatives, continuous expansion or eventual equilibrium, would be much better because they offered the slight possibility of living FOREVER, no matter how unlikely this would be.

A few days ago I watched a documentary called "Wonders of the Universe". It is a beautifully made series and in one of the episodes, University of Manchester's Brian Cox discusses a concept called ENTROPY.

What was curious to me at first was that I somehow could not remember ever learning about this even though I took A-Level physics and you would think I would know at least something about the "second law of thermodynamics" (given that I know the 1st and 3rd laws). So suddenly I was glued to the screen in eager anticipation.

I wont be a bore and go into details of the science, but I will mention one notion that stems from the concept of entropy:
ORDER tends to DISORDER
Think of a sand castle you have made. As time passes, the thousands of sand molecules are far more likely to loose their ordered form, from existing in such a way so that someone passing by would identify the sand castle, to eventually becoming nothing more than a pile of sand.

Disorder can only increase from an ordered state explaining the single direction of time

Similarly, over trillions of years, if the universe does not collapse in on itself, all the stars will burn out, the earth will long ago have been destroyed by our own sun and the version of the universe which lasts forever, will be one where the universe is a vast expansion of cold nothingness - all the order that once made up our stars and planets, will have become a vast equilibrium where every inch of space is exactly the same... just like our deserts. This was sad to hear; so much for living forever.

But just as this sad thought came and lingered, Mr Cox pondered out loud:

"It is not so strange that order tends to disorder, but rather, we should wonder why there was order in the first place?"  
Curious...

Brian had managed to explain to me, using the concept of entropy, why we die; but I wondered why he had failed to attempt an answer to the question of why we live?

In a world where over time order tends to disorder, what lead to the miracle that billions of atoms should come together to create life, and not just any life, intelligent life, and not just intelligent life, but my life, someone who can stare back at the universe and contemplate its very existence? This is a question I love to think about. Mathematicians will tell us that this is not such a strange phenomenon in a universe this large, for while the likelihood of intelligent life existing somewhere is low, it is still positive. We are the one in a zillion places, the lottery winners of the universe.

Still, I thought deeper...

ENTROPY, is it possible it not only applies on a cosmic level, but also in our day-to-day lives. Could it possibly provide a reason as to why so few people are rich, why so few succeed, why so few live meaningful lives? We are born innocent and with unlimited potential, and yet time, parenting, our environment, the loss of energy and ambition as we age all seem to be signs of entropy in action. To fight against the strong pull towards disorder in our own lives is our one chance to make our lives mean something.


To build sandcastles in the sand, make something out of nothing, come up with inventions that change the world and grow businesses that outlive us. In a fight with entropy, man would resist the temptations that lead to mediocrity, avoid making poor decisions and he would have the will to act when most would do nothing. In this epic struggle, should we win, it feels like one little insignificant life on Earth can defy the very laws of science.


And suddenly a very sad thought was transformed into a happy one. Should we fail to find meaning, we should perhaps create it.
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