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Driver's Seat
On the ins and outs of entropy
Article published on Tuesday, May 13, 2014
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For years I’ve heard engineers and other smarter-than-average persons speak of something called entropy. I wanted to ask them what the word means, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to understand their explanation. But I finally researched entropy on the Web, and here is what I learned.

Entropy has several meanings. Most of them pertain to energy, heat transfer, thermodynamics and other stuff that will give you a headache if you don’t own a Ph.D. in physics. But a possible corollary I’ve latched onto is this: “Entropy is the tendency that when left alone, without any outside interference or attention, things will descend into chaos and fall apart.” That’s only my rough definition, so don’t hold me to it.

Now that I’m pondering entropy, I begin to see it everywhere. I realize I’ve been living with entropy for years in my home – my kitchen, my office, my living room. About three times a year I get my condo unit in shape. I clean, vacuum, toss out junk, store books where they belong, wipe off spaghetti stains from my stove – the whole assault. Exhausted, I stand there and enjoy the scene. I say to myself: “Once more I have climbed out of slobbovia and have rejoined the respectable middle class. I am no longer ashamed to have visitors.”

But within one day, entropy has re-entered the picture. Already there’s a half-filled coffee cup in the sink. Two unread magazines lie on the floor. My desk is cluttered with several bills to pay. And so on. A week later, because of my procrastination and refusal to spend 15 minutes a day cleaning up the joint, entropy is in full command. My home life is falling apart.

I believe that entropy may be a major cause of our high divorce rate. On their wedding day, two persons – very much in love – enter the complex system known as marriage. The happy pair begin to pursue their dreams, some shared, some not. Then, as time passes, life intrudes in the form of children, careers, a mortgage or two, outside unshared hobbies and ambitions. Without the couple realizing it, entropy has come into the picture. The couple’s organizing principle – their marriage and their feelings for one another – has not received enough attention. Unless that changes, entropy may increase until the system (i.e., the marriage) will decline and fall apart.

Entropy is commonly seen in food spoilage. Place a loaf of bread, a banana, a glass of milk and the remains of a roast chicken on a kitchen counter in room temperature. Come back in 10 days and see what has happened. The odors and shades of green that will greet you are the manifestations of entropy in full bloom. (Your children may wish to do this experiment for their next show-and-tell assignment at school. Or not.)

One or two other examples of entropy occur to me, although they may not exactly fit the term’s requirements. One is the water that covers most of this fragile globe we live on. Five thousand years ago the world’s oceans were relatively clean. The cities and humans that bordered the seacoasts had only begun to use the ocean as a dumping ground for waste matter such as sewage, garbage and destructive chemicals. Today our oceans have been transformed into cesspools, relatively speaking. With a few exceptions, efforts to save the planet’s ocean system have been relatively absent. Entropy has taken over.

To a similar degree, the same thing has apparently happened to earth’s entire climate. Even after conceding that climate change would occur even if the earth were uninhabited by humans, most reputable experts have concluded that we the people of the world have managed to alter our shared climate in many ways, most of them harmful. We have divided our earthly political system into about 190 distinct independent nations. The likelihood is small that enough of these countries will combine their environmental policies to stave off the climatic catastrophes that are now predicted. But as my grandmother used to say, “We live in hope, even if we die in despair.” Now, there’s a cheerful quote for you.

To further stretch the meaning of entropy, I offer the continuing degradation of the American language. Our tongue is alive and vibrant (witness the many new words invented each year), but we’re also adept at getting rid of old but still useful words, phrases and linguistic attitudes, in the name of brevity, stylishness and reduced mental effort on the part of speakers and writers.

Bob Driver is a former columnist for the Clearwater Sun. His email address is tralee71@comcast.net.
Article published on Tuesday, May 13, 2014
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