Entropy, or not

I learned a new word last week when I watched the first episode of ‘The Wonders of the Universe’ on BBC2.  Brian Cox talked about ‘entropy’; a word, which, if I had to have guessed at its meaning I would have thought was something in the medical sphere.  I would have been wrong.

He described it as the tendency of things to go towards chaos, or otherwise fall to bits; and explained that it is one of the fundamental principles of physics, defined by the second law of thermodynamics.

My trusty Oxford Concise dictionary gave me the definition as ‘Measure of the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work; measure of the degradation or disorganisation of the universe.’


I’m not sure I fully get the Physics concept, except to the extent that it explains that ice, usually an organised shapely form, will melt in a warm environment, leaving behind a wet mess on the table.

Tulips defying disorder

When I told a friend that I had learned this new word, she told me that she too had recently heard it for the first time, not in a scientific context but instead as part of some theory of management, presumably an acknowledgement of the universal truth of an organisation’s inevitable journey towards disorder, unless some new reporting lines, or checks and balances are introduced to manage more effectively.

It seems that all that is required is for time to elapse and nature (and business) will gradually fall into disorder.

Yet most human endeavour is a striving towards making order of things; notwithstanding the certainty that we will fail to create anything that will last.

Just because I know it will soon be a mess again shouldn’t mean that I won’t tidy my home; putting my books in alphabetical order by author doesn’t mean I won’t lend them out and leave them in the ramshackle pile by my bed when they are returned.

Science seeks to explain the world and what we see around us; technological developments attempt to harness the power of the wind or waves to produce electricity.  And yet we know, this week more than most with so much destruction in Japan,  that when Nature really gets going there is nothing we can do to stand in its way.

But that won’t stop a massive repair and reconstruction effort to restore home and order in the coming months and years.

'Puppy' Bilbao, (Jeff Koons) defying being temporary

Perhaps it is because chaos is potentially just around the next corner, or coming after the next storm, that so much art is about finding design, pattern and interlinking connections around us; to draw an order out of something random.

Plots of novels arrange events into a comprehensible and satisfying pattern, in a manner which may mimic a distillation of certain parts of life, but isn’t a copy of it, in the same way as ‘dialogue’ is never like real speech.

As a reader, I’m a fan of detective fiction, the essence of which is of experiencing a puzzle, but one which is cleverly unpicked and resolved for me by the end of the book.  Random confusing things are brought to order; an apparent antitheses to entropy.

Writing this made me think of the ‘Puppy’ sculpture by Jeff Koons in Bilbao.  It is a giant copy (43 feet) of a West Highland Terrier, familiar from many a key ring and game of ‘Monopoly’,  made out of a steel structure covered with bedding plants with an integral irrigation system .

Originally only meant to be a temporary exhibit beside the Guggenheim it is now on permanent display in front of the Museum and visible from many vantage points around the city.  It has become one of the symbols of Bilbao, appears on every postcard and  is available to buy in miniature as a souvenir.

Somewhere along the line, there must be some sense in it, meanwhile  I shall continue to imagine random order.

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1 Comment

  1. margaret nickels

     /  March 15, 2011

    Is there not a sense that order is in the eyes of the beholder ? I know many ‘messy ‘people who seem to manage to lead very effective and organised lives when to my simple mind they are living amidst chaos .


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