Thermodynamics Says Disorder is Natural
entropy is good, actually
“The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.”
This has been stuck in my head since I read a chapter on creating order in An Outsider’s Guide to Humans, a book by autistic computational biologist Dr. Camilla Pang.
She explains how keeping her room clean is actually a struggle against the second law of thermodynamics:
“What the second law tells us is that, through naturally occurring processes, the energy in a system will always move over time to a less ordered, less productive state.”
Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. Like ice that melts if you leave it in a glass, everything tends toward entropy. Putting the ice in the freezer will keep the molecules ordered, but keeping the fridge running will cost you.
The terms order and disorder have recently fallen out of fashion in chemistry — scientists now use the term dispersal, as the state of entropy involves a wider distribution of molecules.
But I think the order/disorder binary is poetic, and lends itself to useful lessons:
“Creating order is hard work because it requires external energy…If we want to create order, we are going into battle to some degree with thermodynamics. It will cost us energy in some way or form.”
It’s a trade-off — we have to decide how much energy we are willing to exert to keep things in order, because we’re going to have to push back against the universe a little bit.
“Disorder is in the system, as unavoidable as gravity.”
But we do try so hard to avoid disorder. The shame people feel about their messy spaces and lack of “time management” feeds the ADHD industry. It makes the lifehack listicles go viral, pays the life coaches, and sells the amphetamines.
We feel bad about not being able to keep things in order, but science tells us that we are fighting a losing battle, pushing a boulder up a hill forever in pursuit of some mythical equilibrium.
In thermodynamics, equilibrium refers to a state where chemical reactions stop changing, “with both the forward and reverse sides occurring at the same rate”. The catch is, true equilibrium is not really possible for us, because life requires an imbalance of energy:
“..When the body has reached that final equilibrium with its surroundings, it is considered dead..
..To crave and thrive off this pursuit for something both unachievable and fatal is a curiously human condition.”
The answer, Pang says, is compromise, both with ourselves and with others. We have to lower our expectations:
“The more precise your vision, the more energy it will take to achieve.”
Maybe it’s not worth the energy for us to keep our own rooms in order all the time, but it is worth it to clean up the kitchen to preserve our housemate relationships. Maybe your housemate can deal if the dishes aren’t done for a day, but they absolutely cannot handle the scent of an overflowing trash can.
If your vision is “clean the house” but you don’t have the energy required, then you’re going to have to settle for just taking out the trash. We have to make trades with our limited energy, and bring our expectations closer to the ground.
I’ve always felt ashamed at being someone who half-asses things, but really, joke’s on everyone who doesn’t, because it’s the more thermodynamic way to live. If my house is going to tend toward entropy anyway, it’s fruitless to use up all my energy putting everything in perfect order.
Better to maintain an unbalanced, imperfect state I can live in. If I burn up all my precious energy on a never-ending fight, I won’t have any left for the fun stuff, like art, and play, and wonder. I’ll reach equilibrium when I’m dead.