Caution: contains traces of science

by Gretel

Stereotypical societies admire order, cleanliness, architecture, tidy homes, and beautiful people. All these things require specific placement of their components: it would seem that humans revel in a lack of entropy. Personally, I thrive in an organised environment and love to tidy (perhaps more than is strictly necessary). Life itself is based on the fact that the natural state of the world and second law of thermodynamics – that reactions proceed to maximise entropy – must be dodged*. As soon as the first cells of life emerged, entropy needed to be minimised.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes randomness is beautiful and should be left to thrive. Let fairy lights fall and twinkle in random disarray. Let children run amok over a playground in entropic bliss. Let confetti drift in a messy tumble, and let’s hope that flowers on trees never blossom in straight lines.

However, the human drive to minimise entropy is extreme and so innate in the universe we’ve created for ourselves. We partition our cities into districts, and subdivide our districts into zones for shopping, living, transport and socializing. Our books are stored in libraries by author, “A” through to “Z”. Children’s bedrooms (an entropic nightmare) are rarely tolerated, and always hidden before grandparents arrive. It seems that many of humans’ desperate desires to reduce entropy are necessary to run a thriving community; however, many of them are not.

This begs the question “what drives our (almost) universal desire for tidiness?” Why do we celebrate symmetry, order and pretty displays? I theorise that it’s an intrinsic side-effect of being alive. To maintain life, every living cell must be organised to an infinitesimally extensive degree. Every molecule has its place, every reaction has its timing. Entropy must be utterly obliterated, requiring an enormous energy input (food!). Just imagine if a cell’s perfect bilipid membrane was left to disintegrate; we couldn’t exist! Life is simply not valid if entropy is left to thrive, so perhaps tidiness and order are deeply primitive instincts programmed in humans. We must minimize mess, we must reduce chaos. It’s a by-product of being alive.

We all know some people who seem to have fallen off the evolutionary band-wagon when it comes to reducing entropy. The people to whom “tidying” is a challenging task and “order” is a foreign concept. I think, though, that we all praise entropy when it’s beautiful, yet exalt in tidiness when it’s agreeable. Although I might be alone in my love of cleaning.

Image*If you’re interested in learning more about entropy, and how life manages to minimise it while still obeying the second law of thermodynamics, you’re in luck: start with Professor Brian Cox and his famous sandcastle video at http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/wonders-with-brian-cox/videos/wonders-of-the-universe-entropy.htm then read about how life manages to find a loophole in an entropic world at http://letstalkaboutscience.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/entropy-and-life/. (But if you’re doing this in your spare time, you might need to get out more…)

Advertisements