My boyfriend Eric has been gone for three days and I am basically living like a squatter in my own apartment. I’ve been eating donuts for lunch and frozen pizza rolls for dinner since he left. And right now I’m wearing the same stained Harvard Tee that I put on yesterday afternoon. I’m also writing this blog post instead of revising the draft of my [REDACTED] piece for [REDACTED] magazine.
We have been cohabitating for the past year, now, Eric and I. We rent a lovely two-bedroom on the Upper West Side, which is easily the least crummy place I have ever lived. And since we’re both freelancers, one of those bedrooms is actually a home-office. Every morning at like 6:30, Eric gets up, makes coffee and plays with Isis, the younger of our two cats (it was our name first!).
Then he showers and gets dressed for work. He puts on a button-down shirt, and pants with a belt and shoes.
He puts on shoes. Everyday. And he tucks his shirt in. Even though he knows he is going to spend the next eight to ten hours sitting at a desk in a room adjacent to the one we sleep in. And then he does exactly that: He sits. At his desk. And works.
He is the most disciplined person I know. Sometimes I hate him. Mostly I am jealous.
I can’t ever get up in the morning. In large part because I can’t ever fall asleep at night; but also, more generally, because I am the exact opposite of him. I work like a stray cat: read a few articles while lying in bed, then migrate to the living room and scribble some sentences. Then to the office couch where I read and write and delete things in no particular order. Then maybe by like 4pm, when his day is winding down and he’s breaking to throw darts or play guitar, maybe then I make it to my desk and get down to business. And maybe I’ve showered and put on an actual outfit. But probably I haven’t. Probably I’m still wearing pajamas, and my hair is all medusa-like because I haven’t bothered to re-tie the bun I put it in last night before bed. I don’t own a brush or comb, in case that wasn’t already apparent from the above picture.
I try to keep myself together well enough when he is around. But as soon as he’s gone for more than a few hours, I slide back down into slovenliness and disarray. It’s like productive energy seeps out and diffuses across the apartment, until I’m no more capable of writing than the kittens are.
It feels natural, actually, this tendency towards disorder. It feels inevitable. It puts me in mind of Chemistry 101, and The Second Law of Thermodynamics:
A spontaneous change is accompanied by an increase in the total entropy of the system and its surroundings.
A “spontaneous change” is a change that occurs without the aid of external force. “Entropy” is the degree of disorder in a given system. And a ”system” is just the thing you are studying — a reaction mixture, if you’re a chemist. But it can also be a cube of ice, a human being, or even a whole bureaucracy.
In any system, energy has a natural tendency to disperse. Heat energy, for example, always diffuses from regions of higher temperature to regions of lower temperature, until the overall temperature evens out. Think of ice cubes melting in hot water, or imagine yourself hugging someone who is very warm when you are especially cold. In both cases, heat diffuses to the places that have the least of it, so that ice melts and cold bodies are made less cold. Entropy is just the measure of that dispersal; we say that it is a measure of disorder because molecules always become less organized as they spread out.
Here’s the thing: as that energy dispersal becomes total, its ability to be converted into work is lost. The dispersal is towards inertia and equilibrium and death. Molecules spread out, energy diffuses across however much space you give it, and the crackle and spark of potential – the promise of something being done – vanishes into a void from which it can not be reclaimed.
Here’s how my chemistry textbook explains it:
The key idea that accounts for spontaneous change is that energy and matter tend to become more disordered. A hot block of metal tends to cool because the energy of its atoms tends to spread into the surroundings. The reverse change is very unlikely to be observed, because it is very unlikely that energy will collect inside a small block of metal. Similarly, although it is natural for randomly moving gas molecules to spread out all over their container, it is very unlikely that their random motion will bring them all simultaneously back into one corner.
The principle applies to any process that 1) results in a loss of order and 2) is irreversible. Spilled milk doesn’t un-spill itself. Crashed cars don’t spontaneously reassemble. And the human body doesn’t reverse-age, no matter what the beauty commercials tell you. To the extent that you do see order increasing in a given system (and I’m sure there are examples to be cited), those increases are coming at the expense of the next system over.
We know this, because all the calculations tell us the same thing: overall, entropy is always increasing – across systems and worlds, into infinity. It was lowest right after the big bang, and has been growing and spreading since then. It will be highest at the end of all time, when everything that we have and have not mapped of the universe (if not the multiverse), will reach a state of “inert uniformity,” and not even Eric will be capable of resisting the pull into nothingness.
So. You know. Why fight it?
The word, “entropy,” gets tossed around quite a bit. It’s been appropriated by a range of disciplines – from sociology to medicine to information technology – to describe the twin problems of disorder and waste. According to Wikipedia, it also factors in the title of at least two board games, one movie, and several songs and stories. It was coined back in 1865 by a German mathematician named Rudolf Clausius, though it’s denoted in equations by an S (as opposed to an R or a C).
Turns out the S is for a different guy, a guy that came before Clausius. That guy’s name was Sadi Carnot. Sadi was a Frenchman and a genius who came of age during the Napoleonic Wars. As is often the case for brilliant minds in turbulent times (especially when it comes to French scientists), he had a rough go of it.
His father, Lazare Carnot, was both an accomplished mathematician and a loyal and enduring member of Napolean’s inner circle. So loyal in fact, that he was forced into exile when Napoleon was finally defeated after his 100 Day return from Elba.
Sadi, who was just 19 at the time, stayed behind. He finished university and grew into something of a renaissance man: taking degrees in both physics and economics, cultivating a passion for music, art and literature, and becoming a talented violinist.
He was an idealist, too. He seemed to believe what his father once told him when the two visited in exile:
If real mathematicians were to take up economics and apply experimental methods, a new science would be created, a science which would only need to be animated by the love of humanity to transform government.
In the early 1820s, at the height of the industrial revolution, Sadi set out to put this particular ideal into practice by mapping out the inefficiencies of heat engines, comparing the relative efficacy of various engine types in general. Engines were the stuff of great astonishment and promise, just then, even among non-scientists. And France was well behind England in terms of engineering and technology.
Sadi’s efforts to bring his country up to speed resulted in his only book: Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, written while he lived with his younger brother, Hippolyte, in a small Paris apartment on a small military pension. It’s just 118 pages long, but it lays the foundation for the second law of thermodynamics and for the concept of entropy.
The book’s “simple, exact language,” along with its relegation of calculus to the footnotes, suggest that Sadi wrote it for a lay audience, and meant for it to be a popular success. He not only parses the pros and cons of various types of engines, but also places “a good deal of emphasis on their importance to the French nation.”
Despite one stellar review, however, Reflections sank like a stone. As E. Mendoza writes in the introduction to a 2005 reprint:
But apparently hardly anyone bought the book. A few years later booksellers had never even heard of it.
Sadi continued, none-the-less, to study the problems of energy and heat, and also to dabble in economics. He had some ideas for how taxes might be used to improve the agricultural system so that more people might be fed by it.
But then, in 1832, he was committed to a private asylum with diagnoses of mania and delirium. He had suffered a bout of Scarlet Fever, and then developed Cholera. He died a short while later of the latter. He was just 36-years-old.
Some decades after that, Clausius and Kelvin would pick up where he left off, and produce the law and coin the term. And several decades after that, the work laid out in Reflections would lead to the creation of the diesel engine, among other things. But at the time of his death, Sadi’s work had yet to be recognized. And owing to fears about contagion, many of his papers were buried along with him.
Carnot’s Reflections had been received by the world in utter silence. No contemporary reference to his work can be traced in any published paper. His close friends seemed to be the only people who had read his book and who now mourned the passing of a great physicist.
His brother, meanwhile, the one who had lived with him in the tiny Paris apartment, went on to become an elder statesman whose own son – Sadi’s namesake – would become president of France.
I wonder about that — about how well the two brothers loved one another. Mendoza notes that Sadi had Hippolyte read his manuscript to ensure that it was accessible to non-scientists, and also that Hippolyte nursed Sadi back from the bout of Scarlet Fever that preceded his mania; so I suppose the answer is “well enough.” But still. I wonder what it was like for one brother to slip into madness – an entropy of the mind, as it were – while the other found himself catching brass rings.
And those questions — about work, and love, and mental chaos — bring me back to Eric
I’ve felt a slow but seismic shift this past year. My rhythms have started adapting to his, and I’m finding it easier and easier to get up when he does, and to get to my desk when he gets to his. Which in turn makes it easier to finish the day’s work at a reasonable hour. Which then leaves time to cook a nice dinner and relax with a glass of wine, or maybe read something fun before bed. The trickle-down benefits of this new approach to life are manifold: I eat better, sleep better, work better, and call my parents more.
It’s not like I didn’t know the value of schedule and structure before Eric came along. It’s more like I was incapable of it. Or felt I was. Or felt like it didn’t matter if I was capable of it or not, because fuck it, I’m a freelancer and I can work till 4am and sleep till noon if I want. Because, why not?
I suppose the answer is that some other force, not yet named or quantified or written into the laws of physics, is propelling us against entropy and against the inevitability of our own demise, and towards life, with all its attendant joys and miseries. I won’t pretend to know what that force is. Women of faith will have one word for it, and women of science another. And those who are young and in love, probably another still.
I will say that the kittens feel Eric’s absence as acutely as I do.They’ve been running wild through the apartment at ungodly hours, knocking things over, hissing and yowling at one another, much more than is normal for them. Max tried raping Isis, at like 3:00 this morning, which I know because I was wide-awake and talking on the phone, to a friend who is also an insomniac. Max does not even have balls. Where he got this rape idea is beyond me.
Anyway, It’s become clear to all three of us that whatever the principle animating him, Eric is our only real bulwark against entropy. He is a force for order in our lives. And we are finally ready to concede that order is the thing which makes all other things possible: productivity, peace of mind, the death of paralyzing anxiety. And so on.
I’ve been turning the notion over in my head all day. I’ve been imaging a cartoon avatar of Eric fending off a cartoon avatar of Entropy, with great bravado, while the kittens and I sort-of cower behind him. I’ve been thinking about what entropy’s avatar might look like. A shadowy smoke monster, maybe. Or Napoleon fighting his way back from Elba. Or the General who finally defeated Napoleon; or the Ruler who banished Sadi’s father into exile.
Whichever it is, the kittens and I are very glad that Eric is due back this evening.