Entropy Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Read the FAQ

Entropy Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Read the FAQ

What is entropy? And why the heck should I care?

Entropy is an important property in nature. It’s a measure of disorder. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy increases in any process. Can a rotten pear ever change into a fresh pear? That seems obvious. A fresh pear is more ordered than a rotten pear. In that sense, a fresh pear has lower entropy than a rotten pear. But wait! What if a mother picks up her baby’s toys and puts them in the toy box? The toys were in a disordered state, scattered around the nursery, but after the cleanup, they’re in an ordered state. Entropy decreased! Not really. In thermodynamics, this is called an open system, which contains more than the toys. It also contains the mother. As the mother picked up the toys, she converted energy into motion. That conversion increased the entropy in her body and environment more than the decrease of entropy in the toys. It might be hard to understand, but it’s true. You can compute the increase using the laws of thermodynamics. But we don’t want to pester you with that. Just keep in mind that entropy is the fate of all things. In the end, billions of years from now, entropy will convert the universe into ultimate, equilibrial boringness—the so-called heat death of the universe. That’s a pretty nasty version of the end of days.

Well, nothing is sustainable… so why care?

Hey, don’t be so defeatist! But maybe it’s our fault. We shouldn’t have been so pessimistic when talking about entropy. Let’s try another spin. Entropy is a bookkeeping device that tells us about the flow and distribution of energy. For any process to occur spontaneously, entropy must increase. If the entropy decreases, then the process can’t occur spontaneously. It needs some work or energy to be added for the process to occur.

To sum up:
First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t break even.
Third Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t stop playing.

We aren’t joking.

Entropy makes us realize a lot about free lunches. 

Can that help me… in my business?

All right, all right. A bit less abstract, okay?

Let’s use the analogy of coughing. Coughing involves the transfer of energy as heat. If you cough in a quiet coffee shop, which you can think of as a system with low entropy, you cause a big change. Your cough is disruptive. On the other hand, if you cough in Times Square, a system with a lot of entropy, that same cough has little impact. You change the entropy in both cases, but the impact you have with the same cough is proportional to the existing entropy.

Now think of this example in relation to your business or organization. You’re applying energy to get something done. The higher the entropy in the system, the less the efficiency of energy you apply. The same person applying twenty units of energy in a big bureaucracy sees less impact than someone applying the same units in a smaller, sleeker setup. In essence, for a change to occur, you must apply more energy to the system than the system’s entropy can extract.

Isn’t disorder at the core of all this?

Yes. But TFLC’s approach to entropy is a poetic one. We wanted to take its core principle and use it to throw questions at our global society. We knew what inquiries we wanted to pursue, which persons we wanted to report on, and what aspects of global developments we wanted to talk about. Our feeling told us all of it would have to do with disorder and chaos, topics that influence our daily actions more and more. Entropy has its influence not because it comes into our lives with increasing pressure from outside, but because it has been an integral part of our lives since the beginning of time. Therefore, we focused on systemic elements of our society, on those areas of logic and behavior that, as all of us can see now, are why we’re heading to an end. Slowly but clearly, we can see ends looming on the horizon A multitude of threatening global, social, and ecological catastrophes are growing out of our previous normality.

How can we fight this entropy?

Unfortunately for us all, we face no evil spirit we might force back into its bottle. We face ourselves.

Now more than ever, we must ask ourselves about the place we occupy on the planet. We must question our use of resources and the indelible traces we leave behind. And we must ask about the pressure our global society has built up for centuries. This pressure has passed from one system to the next. It hasn’t vanished. On the contrary, it’s steering back toward us with increasing force.

It might sound strange, but thermodynamics indicates that economic growth leads to increasing disorder. Excessive entropy production reflects back at us in disorders such as the greenhouse effect, ozone holes, environmental pollution, and more. Sustainable development requires imposing a steady-state lifestyle on humankind. And that’s a tough call. Can it work? It must. Humans can’t fight when physics is the enemy.

What about social sciences… and art?

Social sciences have used the term entropy, although in this context, it’s a unit of measurement. Entropy describes changes in equality, in order, within a social system. The stories and conversations you can expect on these pages analyze the pressing problems of our time. They might surprise you with their approaches for a hopeful and forward-looking redesign of our reality.

We orbit entropy when we talk about our handling of food, because when we do so, we also talk about our handling of energy. Questions of climate protection, consumption, and recycling stand alongside those of how we build, where we live, what we wear, what we should avoid, and what we can do sustainably and fairly. Gottfried Helnwein, to take one example, has used his work to respond to social disorder for decades. It’s unsurprising that societal decay resonates in his interview.

Art reflects the conversations we’ve had with artists, experts, or entrepreneurs offering ways out of our current impasse with their work. Art mirrors our thoughts and actions in a joyful and inspiring way. Without it, work for a healthier society would be incomplete, as would the memo you now hold and read.

Copyright 2021 TFLC
Ideas for change