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Entropy is Everything
How physics gives us purpose
Physics is the law, everything else is merely a recommendation. Yet, most people today still fail to realize a fundamental truth: the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates just about everything in our lives. The Second Law, the notion of “Entropy,” gives each of us meaning, purpose, and makes human progress profoundly important.
What is Entropy?
The concept we call Entropy is a natural consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. For the unfamiliar, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. The Second Law states that in an isolated system “entropy” will never decrease. These are universal truths, physical laws that cannot be broken.
So what does this mean? Entropy is a measure of “disorder,” the higher the entropy, the more disorder. In our universe, it is a law that everything always trends from order to chaos. This concept is a fundamental force acting on everything we are and everything we do.
The easiest way to think about Entropy is to imagine that you are given a new puzzle in a box. Should you dump the pieces onto a table, will the pieces land perfectly ordered into their final picture? No, they will not. Instead, the pieces will land in a completely random fashion, completely disordered.
Why? While it is technically possible to dump the pieces out and for them to bounce and arrange themselves into a perfectly ordered final picture, the probability of this happening is inestimably small. There are nearly infinite ways, on the other hand, for the pieces to land in the “wrong” or disordered fashion.
Another way to think about Entropy is to imagine building a sand castle on the beach and returning a few days later. In all likelihood, your sand castle is long gone, the grains of sand returned to a random arrangement of particles on the beach. Why? There is only one arrangement of sand grains that builds the castle, but nearly infinite arrangements otherwise. The universe, absent intervention, will always return order to disorder.
Purpose and Meaning
This is not bad news at all. While a random collection of atoms will succumb to entropy, a specific arrangement of atoms and molecules can resist: life. By definition, life brings order to the chaos. Cells take in nutrients, they build complex organelles, and they divide and reproduce. Trees absorb sunlight, growing taller and wider, creating structures of order from the energy and atoms around them.
Life is capable of carving a slice of order from disorder. Life can stand firm against the laws of the universe itself. Indeed, this preference for order may be so deeply rooted in biology that we are naturally wired to be attracted to counter-entropic forms, from flowers to architecture. Beauty may not be in the eye of the beholder, but more objective than we realize.
But as I have written, humans are unique compared to other life forms. We are bipedal and have opposable thumbs, giving us a unique ability to manipulate tools. Our large brains and ability to communicate through vocal vibrations enable us to plan, wonder, reason, and spread knowledge. As far as we know, we are the only arrangement of atoms capable of discovering and understanding the very laws of the universe that contrains us.
It’s perhaps ironic that we are comprised of atoms born from the universe, the matter of dying stars, and yet our bodies can, for a while, resist the very laws of that universe. Thus, everything we are and everything that we do is the struggle against the inevitability of entropy.
Without our constant attention and care, our homes fall into disrepair, our cities decay, our cars break down, and our bodies grow frail. And while we cannot counter entropy forever as individuals, as a collective species, we can do so for a nearly infinite time.
This struggle against entropy gives us purpose and meaning. Not just for ourselves but for the whole of humanity that we are inextricably a part of. One day, an exhausted Sun will expand and boil off Earth’s oceans, if not consume the Earth entirely. All life on the pale blue dot will end, the sole known bastion of life’s resistance against entropy, and all of its counter-entropic beauty will cease.
The only hope for life as we know it…is us. Progress has bequeathed our species, once a small group of cave-dwellers, with technological wonders. With this power, the power of progress, we have the unique ability to leave this planet, taking life with us. We can spare life total annihilation from the Sun, we can continue resisting entropy as stewards of the planet.
That is our purpose and the only way we succeed is through progress.