06 October 2006


I recently read 'Parallel Worlds' by Michio Kaku. It's a wonderful book which put new and complex images into my head regarding M-theory and multi-dimensional space. I can't comprehend the mathematical side of these subjects but this physicist author has a way of using his words (and a few diagrams) skillfully to create strong mental images of complex scientific ideas.

The book also brought up the subject of entropy, which is a concept I've come across in other books. I find entropy fascinating. It is a measurable variable in physics equations but seems somehow intangible. This is perhaps because it's an idea that people don't really wish to face.

Entropy is a measure of chaos and disorder. Matter can change in ways which increase its entropy. For example burning an old chair turns a functional and 'ordered' piece of matter into a chaotic and disordered cloud of ash and smoke. It's straightforward to accelerate entropy by burning the chair but it's impossible (currently) to reassemble the chair from the resultant ash and smoke. I use the word 'accelerate' rather than 'create' because the chair is already subject to entropy. The current manifestation of the molecules in the chair will degrade over time through 'natural' processes such as rotting but setting fire t0 the chair speeds up the process.

Everyone and everything is subject to entropy, so there can be no absolute 'permanence'. The persistence of a particular material manifestation can only be measured relative to other material manifestations. We don't generally worry too much about our sun using up all its energy, burning Earth to a crisp then fading to a cold cinder, because relative to our short lifespan that era is such a long way off. Relative to the lifespan of the universe our sun's life is an eyeblink.

But entropy doesn't just affect matter. Physics tells us that a measure of entropy is always present. I think that it also affects ideas and relationships. Perhaps there is a kind of memetic entropy where certain memes, even though they have been around for a long time suffering 'natural' wear and tear, reach the threshold point where they can no longer hold their cohesion and seem to dissipate suddenly. Some relationships only last a short time because the individuals involved don't take steps to limit the entropic effects of arguments and discord.

Entropy is a measurable variable within the limits of 'closed' systems. But is hard to define a closed system. There is no doubting the acceleration of entropy caused by the pollution of our planet but our planet may not be a 'closed' system for much longer. That doesn't mean that we should be content to despoil systems beyond our own, just that we are evolving entities that will spread and use ever more energy, accelerating entropy as we go. We will also be increasing intelligence, and we don't know where that will lead us, because we can't conceive it yet.

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