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Of Aging and Entropy

Bill Meredith

If memory serves (I wasnít actually there), it was sometime in the late 1880ís that the renowned British physicist, Lord Kelvin, announced that all of the important scientific discoveries had been made. He allowed that there would still be employment for scientists; they could still do research, but it would be on things like refining measurements of the speed of light to more and more decimals. 

The fun of real discovery, he said, was a thing of the past. Well, Kelvin was a legitimately great scientist, but that was one time he should have kept his mouth shut. Within 10 years, radioactivity was discovered, and (this is a family newspaper) all heck broke loose. In the following decade came the Theory of Relativity and the discovery of subatomic particles in physics; biologists discovered Mendelian genetics and established ecology as a rigorous discipline, and all of the other sciences made equally revolutionary innovations. 

The self-correcting processes of science went into full swing; old theories that couldnít explain these new discoveries were discarded, and new theories sprang up faster than mushrooms. By the time I was getting started as a scientist in the 1950ís, my teachers could point out that the only law of classical science that had stood the test of time without being either modified or disproved since Kelvinís unfortunate proclamation was the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It must have been sometime in my senior year in high school that I first encountered the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Mr. Rudy, my physics teacher, challenged the class to connect a generator to a motor so the electricity made by the generator would run the motor, which in turn would run the generator. It couldnít be done, of course; it was the old conundrum of the perpetual motion machine. Some of the energy in the electricity was lost as frictional heat, and could not be recovered. 

The unrecoverable heat was called entropy, Mr. Rudy said, and that was the essence of the Second Law. There was more to it than that, of course... a lot of very complex mathematics, and I never did understand it very well, but I liked to quote it because just the name of it sounded so impressive. Later, in graduate school, I learned that the Second Law is the underlying principle in the theory of ecosystems; and now, late in life, I have come to realize that it is the controlling principle of my personal existence as well. The gist of it is that whenever you have a complex structure like a cell, a human body or an ecosystem, you must expend energy to maintain that structure; and whenever you expend energy for any purpose, some is lost as waste heat.

Without the energy, order canít be maintained, and, as the physicistsí equations prove, disorder results. Ergo, entropy (the physicistsí word for disorder) tends to accumulate in the universe; whenever we release energy by breaking down orderly things such as fuels or foods, we contribute to the accumulation of disorder. This, of course, produces our body heat; it also contributes to global warming. But worse, the instant we stop using energy to maintain order, things start going downhill... disorder reigns... chaos abounds.

The best example of this that Iíve found is our basement. Every fall I sort the products of the summerís canning and arrange them on the shelves by date, newest on the left and oldest on the right, and call my wife to admire the orderly arrays of brightly colored jars; and she promises faithfully to use the oldest ones first. The year goes by, stuff gets eaten, and over the course of the next summer a couple hundred jars of newly-canned fruit and vegetables make their way to the basement and mix themselves into randomized piles on the floor. Meanwhile, the jars on the shelves mysteriously shuffle themselves both by species and date. Chaos abounds; entropy rules again.

My wife seems to have a fairly high tolerance for entropy, but she reached her limit last November when she went down to get a jar of green beans for Thanksgiving dinner and found that she couldnít reach it because too many jars of other stuff were piled in front of the shelves. Her solution to the problem, as always, was to turn to me and say, "Youíve got to do something. 

Go down there and organize [emphasis original] things." Itís not that she doesnít believe in the laws of physics; she just believes they shouldnít get in the way when she has made up her mind. So, following the annual ritual, I spent the next week or so trying to reverse the Second Law. It soon became evident that there were more new jars than the shelves could hold; the only solution was to remove the oldest jars from the shelves and carry them to a pile near the door to be thrown out. It pained me to do this, because I abhor waste; nevertheless, it probably was a good idea... one of the jars contained pickles canned in 1973, and if Iíd eaten them I probably wouldnít be here writing about it.

Lately Iíve observed that as I get older, my supply of energy is being converted to entropy faster than it used to. This came home with finality the other day when I noticed my wife was looking at seed catalogs and starting to make garden noises; just then, I remembered that I had run out of energy last November, and the pile of jars of old canned goods is still sitting by the basement door, waiting to be thrown out. Here we are in March already; the year is 1/6 gone, St. Patrickís Day will be here before we know it, and somewhere my grandfather is watching to see if I get the potatoes planted on schedule. 

I may make that deadline, but things look questionable for the rest of the year. The world seems to be in about the same shape that I am. Weíre coming out of the second-driest winter on record, El Nino appears to be forming in the South Pacific, and prospects for the garden are uncertain at this point. We can always hope; the possibility is that, come November, there will be another pile of jars to be sorted in the basement. Itís pretty certain, though, that I wonít have more energy to deal with it. Physicists have known for a long time that when it comes to entropy, there are three rules: 1, you canít win; 2, you canít break even; and 3, you canít get out of the game.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith