Last time, I wrote about irony and the perverse universe. This time I want to write about something just as fundamental. It has the technical name, entropy, and there is a very technical definition that goes along with that name.
I’ll return to that later, but for now consider this simple truth: If you have a barrel of fine wine, and you add a teaspoon of sewage, now you have a barrel of sewage. On the other hand, if you have a barrel of sewage, and you add a teaspoon of wine, you do not have a barrel of wine.
You still have a barrel of sewage!
Programmers and mathematicians may like this bumper sticker version:
For those without the necessary background, I’ll just mention that “==” means “equals” and that “!=” means “does not equal”. You’ll have to work out the rest on your own.
Another way to visualize this is to consider how hard it is to balance on the tip of a mountain compared to how easy it is to stand on a level surface.
There is just the one mountain tip, but lots and lots of level surface.
What this shows when it comes to something like wine is that perfection is easy to ruin. The slightest imperfection and it’s not perfect any more.
Total crap — on the other hand — is hard to ruin.
This is a basic principle of the universe: perfection is a small mountain top; chaos is a vast plain.
Physicists call this the Law of Thermodynamics. It basically says, not only can you never win, you can never even break even. You will always lose. This is an inescapable aspect of reality. (Don’t despair; there’s always chocolate. And sex.)
As a life lesson, one can accept never breaking even and that life isn’t a barrel of wine. But it’s is a little hard to accept life as a barrel of sewage.
So we can mix this up by changing out the sewage for stew. If you add a teaspoon of stew to your wine (a soupçon of stew?), the wine is ruined (at least for most of us; your tastes may differ).
But adding wine to stew just makes it better. Life is best as a stew; a mixture of ingredients blended together, always a little different each time you make it. (That is, each person’s stew is a little different.) And a dash of perfection, when you can manage it, just improves the flavor.
If you try to make life perfect all the time (like a fine wine), you will either spend a great deal of energy and time, or you will be frequently disappointed. More likely both. If you see life as a rich, surprising stew, you may find it easier to enjoy.
Personally, I like stew a lot. And I prefer beer, both as a liquid in stew and as a liquid to get stewed. On the other hand, a good spaghetti sauce deserves a good bottle of hearty red wine (again, both in cooking and drinking with the cooking). Different problems call for different solutions! But stew, beer, spaghetti and wine are topics for another time.
I mentioned entropy, a term you may have encountered. Roughly speaking, it’s the measure of disorder in a system. (Don’t be put off by the word, “system.” It’s just a high-tech way of saying, “thing.” Well, sort of, anyway.) Your living space, house, apartment, condo, room, whatever, becomes messy.
That’s entropy. Hot food gets cold; cold food gets warm. That’s entropy. And the Law of Thermodynamics. It’s sort of the same thing.
That’s a rather stew-like definition of entropy. Let’s try to be precise, which is to be more perfect, and sometimes we can and do strive to be perfect. We may not reach it, but it’s still a good goal.
The first step on the way from stew to wine is the idea that entropy actually applies only to closed systems. If you supply energy from the outside, you can fight entropy.
Hot food stays hot if you keep it hot; cold food stays cold if you keep it cold. And your house stays neat if you constantly clean up after yourself.
But without that outside source of energy, heat, refrigeration, cleaning, you end up with cold pizza, melted ice cubes and socks everywhere.
Okay, ready for the wine label on the entropy bottle? It reads, Entropy is a measure of the indistinguishable states of a system. That may sound intimidating, but it’s actually fairly easy to understand.
Let’s say that you’re old-fashioned and you still have a CD collection. (If you’re really old-fashioned, you have a record collection. Or maybe clay cylinders.) And let’s say you sort your CDs by Artist, Title & Date. You also have rules for determining exactly what Artist, Title or Date means in case of any ambiguity.
What this means is that there is only one correct order for your CD collection. You would immediately spot any CD that is in the wrong place.
If your CD collection is in the state of being perfectly sorted and nothing is out of place, the entropy of your collection is zero.
You are standing on the mountain’s peak. There is just one distinguishable perfectly sorted state.
If your friend borrows one and puts it back in the wrong spot, they have introduced a degree of entropy into the collection.
However the number of possible places a single CD can be placed out of order is limited (it is based on how many CDs you have). Entropy is still low.
Consider the difference if an earthquake knocks all the CDs off the shelf into a random pile on the floor. One random pile of CDs is pretty much like any other random pile of CDs.
It would be impossible to notice any difference if someone re-arranged several CDs. In fact, it would probably be difficult to see much difference if someone completely re-arranged the entire pile.
One random pile looks much like another.
Now the entropy of your CD collection is very high. To reduce the entropy you will have to expend the time and energy to sort them back into a low-entropy state. Or you could just start using iTunes and avoid the whole business.
But indistinguishable macro states aside, the point is that we do well to view life as a rich stew, sometimes fortified with what perfect wine we can muster. Life should be tasty and surprising.
And don’t be afraid to experiment with the recipe sometimes!