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Friday, April 4, 2014

Out-Creating Destruction, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Entropy

Here is the last painting I finished, which I am calling "Sinus Olei Britannici" (transl: Gulf of British Petroleum). 

It and this post pertain to an idea that has been much on my mind of late: artistic creation as an attempt to out-create destruction. Perhaps because I was listening to War and Peace as I painted, I started thinking big meta-thoughts about what I originally conceived of as a painting with no outside signifieds. (If that's a thing.) At inception, it wasn't intended to point to anything beyond itself. It was an excuse to paint sea critters. And yet I ended up believing, to the extent a painting is about something, this one just might be about creation itself, and the wacky persistence of life in the face of certain death.

The first image I concocted and drew was the two-headed sea monster. I populated his underwater world with a variety of completely factual aquatic critters. Soon, I was envisioning some time, far in the future, when certain life forms have changed dramatically from what we now know...possibly with the aid of some man-made catastrophe. 

Then, unsurprisingly, I thought about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and the British Petroleum oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. If you look closely you can pick out the BP sunburst logo on an oversized cork at the bottom right of the painting. High technology.
I then decided that this bizarre future undersea-scape would be most complete with a set of sailors gazing into the depths...and so naturally I imagined a technologically retrograde, post-apocalyptic future and threw in a Viking ship.
I included a 19th-century, Vernesque underwater diver in the margin for good measure.
The implication of my historical mixing sounds pretty mundane: we are the far future's deep past. But the temporal prison that life on our planet occupies makes this mundanity feel profound as it is lived. To imagine the detritus of our existence lurking, completely unseen, in the nooks and crannies of some future civilization's world gives me goosebumps, the good kind. I like picturing that scenario better than one where the future civilization examines our detritus and tries to "know" something about us. And that gets me thinking about the detritus itself and its relationship to us. 

Every day, for - so far as we can tell - as long as homo sapiens have existed, we have been committed makers of things. 

Now, life in general is the superlative maker. Life makes itself. Hooray! Among life that we know, there are a variety of critters who make other things; famously termite-poking sticks, but also arenas and structures to do with mating rituals, and then of course nests, beds, dens and homes of various kinds.  But, quite obviously, no other critter makes as many things, as often as people critters do.

I loathe the human-exceptionalism-wagontrain of entitlement upon which many philosophies have placed humankind, so I am not arguing that this makes us especially grand. With the unintended buffoonery innate to our species, much of our creation ends up assisting destruction. Precisely such disasters as Fukushima and Deep Horizon illustrate the dark flip side of our impulse to create, a dark side where we create at all costs, at any cost; and, germane to nuclear and oil extracting technologies, where we create via destruction of other life, of our planet and of ourselves.

But that is the dark side. On the more buoyant, ingenuous side we have quotidian creation, from sexual reproduction to gardening to weird little paintings of two-headed sea creatures.

I ask myself why I paint. I earn very little money from it. It occupies a lot of time. Sometimes it makes my hand hurt. Yet I intend to paint until I cannot. And, amazingly, this impulse is utterly normal, completely comprehensible to the vast majority of folks. Creation using one's own hands to attempt to physically realize something that exists only in the mind, is its own reward. It supplies a soul-contentment, a sense of accomplishment, a moment of wonder that you made something. But like all wonderful things, these feelings are fleeting, mostly leaving you with the impulse to do it all over again. And again. And again.

The most tragicomic aspect of this impulse to create - aside from its pregnant, inextractable possibility of ending up destructive - is this Sisyphean nature. The act of creation expresses a striving that never quite achieves satisfaction. It sates primarily while it occurs but not long after. There is something in the act itself, and only incidentally in the product, that satisfies the creator's weird compulsion to make things. "Make" is more operative than "things" in that construction.
I call it "weird" because I cannot explain the human desire and habit of making things, even when I find it in myself. But actually it is rather primordial and obvious; linked with the rhythms of life and death, not just of we fragile biological organisms, but of the whole grand shebang.

Considering the rhythms of the universe itself, its life and death as it were, and how this bears on human creativity, I begin to think about entropy.

Bear with me.

The second law of thermodynamics, to the extent it talks about more than the attainable efficiencies of heat engines, pertains to entropy as a function of state describing the state of equilibrium of a thermodynamic system.


My humanities background encourages me here to offer some illustrative metaphors, definitions and paraphrases that will probably make the eyes of the science-minded roll. But I think they're used to that, living as they do in a nation full of people who know more about Kim Kardashian's ass than about the laws of thermodynamics.

The word "thermodynamics" derives from Greek words meaning heat and power. It refers to a branch of physical science that studies the relationships between heat, energy and work. The four laws of thermodynamics contain some of the most basic postulates concerning the behavior of matter and energy in given systems and under given circumstances. They are fundamental to many areas of science and also have been applied rather metaphorically in less scientifically-delineated situations, which I readily admit is my mode of engaging good ol' Law #2 and entropy. [Panel from Ryan North's hilarious Dinosaur Comics at right.]

Heat engines and their maximum efficiency do not specifically turn my crank. Entropy is another matter. Although, to be clear, entropy is not matter. Entropy is a quantity; that is, a characteristic that can be measured or counted, that there can be more or less of, that can be quantified. And its definition in thermodynamics differs from, but is related to, its definition in statistical mechanics. Insofar as I understand these differences, I believe they have to do with the ability to describe entropy at a micro- versus a macroscopic level. I do not think this difference bears overly on my thoroughly unscientific purposes so I intend to ignore it.

So! Entropy describes systems and is a function of state, which means it describes a system at a specific moment (i.e., in a specific state) without regard to what occurrences, developments or causalities preceded that moment. In this way, it reminds me of Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics. Language as a system can be studied historically over time (diachronically) or at a given moment without concern for historical antecedents or differences (synchronically). Entropy is a synchronic quantity.

There is an equation that can determine entropy. In its simplest form it looks like this: ΔS = Q/T where Q is heat and T is something I do not understand. This use of entropy has something to do with a work-heat-energy-blah-blah differential-something-something called the Carnot Cycle, which again, bears so much on the operations of a heat engine it inhibits my ability to either (a) decipher it clearly or (b) care.

What I do think is cool, is that all of this math and technical language ("differential-something-something" and "work-heat-energy-blah-blah", I'm looking at you) describes something that, when removed from heat engines and extrapolated into other systems, we each experience daily and expect intuitively from the universe.


Phillip K. Dick talked about it using his concept of kipple.

In over-simple and likely flawed terms, entropy is the amount of energy lost (i.e., made unproductive) in a system. To explain my use of "unproductive", think of a Newton's cradle.

You lift one ball, let it hit the next one and watch as the energy of that initial impact moves back and forth through the balls, until the momentum runs down. The fact that it runs down - that perpetual motion machines cannot exist - owes to the loss of energy through friction and ball elasticity. Energy becomes unproductive when it is lost, redirected or dissipated in some way. It stops being able to accomplish its "purpose"* in the system under scrutiny.

In the above example, energy is rendered observable by the motion of the balls. In most examples one finds of entropy, unsurprisingly given its thermodynamic roots, temperature is the observable marker of the energy at work versus the energy being lost: e.g., an ice cube melting or a hot pan cooling.

Each of us has observed entropy so often that we mostly do not think concertedly about it as an experience, but rather naturalize it into one of the ways things just are: anything not actively heated or cooled becomes room temperature, buildings with no upkeep eventually crumble. This is just the way the universe works. And it is. It is also entropy.

In metaphorical terms, entropy is the tendency of disorder to follow order.

I have read several science writers display annoyance over the association of entropy with disorder. I appreciate the frustration attendant on non-professionals misunderstanding or negligently co-opting specific vocabulary and using it inaccurately. However, I also think metaphorical relationships constitute their own truths. If someone is mistaking entropy-as-disorder for the scientific thermodynamic use of entropy, that's a problem.

If someone, say me, is using a highly specific and technical term self-consciously in a loose and/or metaphorical way to discuss a small part of what it is like to live on our planet, then I think the science bloggers and protesting professors can chill out. Words are capable of containing more than one meaning. Sometimes "lay" people even understand this about language. It's really true.

As far as I can tell, in the development of scientific understandings of entropy, there exist historical reasons why it was ever mentioned in the same breath as disorder. These reasons have to do with statistical mechanics, possible molecular movement and the likelihood of molecular movement. But to be clear about my own interpretive take on this point: as I grasp it, entropy represents a system achieving equilibrium through energy loss (or conversion).

Disorder indeed sounds like the opposite of achieving equilibrium...except when you consider that the human idea of placing things "in order" implies that everywhere all the time, unless we actively work against it, our universe is disordered. I toy here with the suggestion that, perhaps, humans perceive equilibrium as it is achieved naturally in our universe as disorder. Conversely, we tend to see wild imbalances, especially in nature, as orderly (I'm thinking, for instance, about farming or urbanization). New studies of ecology and the dramatic climate changes observable all around us (whatever you attribute those changes to), may be starting to change this attitude. Still, ideas of a "natural order" notwithstanding, we humans continue to maintain a strong association between ordered things and man-made things, just as we have traditionally relegated the natural world to a wild, untamed (disordered?) place.

Viewed in this way, the vast majority of human activity on the planet has so far attempted to thwart a basic law of science. We try to memorialize ourselves with huge buildings, we create monocultures, build dams, pave things. And then we work vigilantly and persistently to maintain them despite the imbalances they introduce. We fight entropy constantly. Because our "order" looks a lot like nature's lack of equilibrium. I am not observing this to make a larger comment about our dysfunctional relationship with Earth...although I believe that's a valid observation. I would really like to begin considering the philosophical and creative implications of metaphorically seeing entropic equilibrium as disorder.

Fighting entropy is not the most elegant, efficient activity we could engage in. But after all of these millennia, most human societies do indeed build structures, assertively manage land, use non-renewable fuels for a variety of purposes, and concretely live in ways that cannot possibly be maintained in perpetuity; moreover, these behaviors leave few to zero traces over any geologically-significant time span.

Deep time and its habit of eradicating evidence of our existence tends to unsettle humankind. Small groups of folks periodically have developed philosophies that do not shudder at the reality of our collective utter impermanence (some atheists, Jains, scientists and certain pastoral nomads leap to mind).

I myself am not overly troubled in an existential sense by the tendency of things to fall apart. The eventual non-existence of myself, of the house or town I live in, of the city or civilization I live in, of humanity itself, does not seem particularly upsetting when I think about the civilizations, creatures and ecosystems that have already begun, flourished and died on our planet. Why would I enjoy imagining myself apart from all of that?

On a personal emotional level, however, we all have to deal with the ramifications of entropy and no amount of cultivated intellectual distance can keep us from feeling its effects. From the persistent, baffling accumulation of dust bunnies to the breakdown of cells, all of life is on the road to death and our very universe is winding down to eventual heat death. Moreover, reality - in the form of our fragile bodies, for instance - seems to point this out to us at every opportunity, like a twirpy kid repeating words you wish she'd forget.

Little wonder then that humans are uniformly eager to engage in small or large ways with the futile enterprise of out-creating this omnipresent destruction. I, for one, will certainly continue with my tiny attempts. It would sure be something, however, if we could target our grander creative efforts in ways that do not fight equilibrium so dramatically, but take it into account, respect its power. We might even hitch us a free, if temporary, ride on the energy of that ebb tide.

* I use "purpose" not to imply that naturally-occurring systems possess teleology, but because this word choice carries semantic content related to end results and work productivity.

1 comment:

  1. Brava, this was so beautifully written (and a beautiful painting, too)! I never thought of art through the lens of thermodynamics before ;-) I wonder if every artist sort of needs to learn to "let go and embrace disorder" in order to keep working. Sure, there's hubris in deciding that you're going to create something out of nothing, but if you insist on every piece turning out as perfect as you imagined it in your mind's eye, you'll never get to the next one. And maybe your adoring public actually prefers the imperfect/ incomplete/ disordered version. And, like you said, once you begin focusing on everything that went wrong the whole business of creation ceases to be fulfilling and becomes as much of an annoying chore as anything else!