For any portion of existence, be it a grain of sand or a loved one you hold dear, there is an inability to remain what it is unless energy sustains it.
To help that sink in, let’s put it into words in a few more ways:
- The natural direction of the universe is decay, disorder, and chaos.
- All things, inanimate or alive, must cease to exist as they are.
- Nothing is forever.
Now, there are a couple of gut reactions we may have to these statements:
“I refuse to accept it! We will live forever!”
“Okay, well then everything is hopeless and there is no point to living.”
“My faith tells me that physical death does NOT mean there is the death of the soul/person, and/or universe!”
But before we go with our gut, let’s apply some scrutiny. Maybe we’ll find some hope there.
This page will be an homage to Impermanence through the lens of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, a provable scientific law that starkly confronts us with both our own mortality and the fate of all physical existence.
Disclaimer: There may, or may not, be some existence after physical/corporeal death — this is a matter of faith/belief.
An Explanation of the 2nd Law by Khan Academy – Elegantly worded, with minimal math. 14min
Thermodynamics – Crash Course Physics – A densely packed video for any science enthusiast, covering each law of thermodynamics with concision. 10min
The Second Law by George Porter, F.R.S – A fun vintage video of a lecture on the 2nd law, explaining in detail and providing elegant examples. It looks like we don’t teach like we used to! 34 min
What Is Entropy? – Jeff Phillips – TED Ed’s well-made video to explain the concept of entropy.
What is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?
There are a few semi-official definitions you might find:
- Heat can never pass from a colder to a warmer body without some other change, connected therewith, occurring at the same time. (Clausius)
- It is impossible for a self-acting machine, unaided by any external agency, to convey heat from one body to another at a higher temperature. (Kelvin)
- It is impossible to construct an engine which will work in a complete cycle, and produce no effect except the raising of a weight and cooling of a heat reservoir. (Planck)
- The total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time, and is constant if and only if all processes are reversible. Isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium, the state with maximum entropy. (Wikipedia)
We’ll talk more about Entropy later.
Let’s elaborate on these definitions and make better sense of them.
One of the simplest ways to understand this law is thus: it is impossible to build a machine that is 100% efficient.
Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that deals with energy in all of its forms and exchanges. Whether mechanical, electrical, chemical energy or heat, thermodynamics informs engineers and scientists on just about everything. Motors, test tubes, power plants, and even human cells are subject to the laws of thermodynamics.
This 2nd law states that when we put energy into a system, be it gasoline, heat, electricity, or we take energy out, be it motion, light, or pressure, we lose some along the way. No matter what the situation, we always lose some.
In doing so, “entropy” is increased. And the total entropy of the universe, therefore, is always increasing.
One way of understanding entropy is this:
The measurement of uncertainty of randomness in a physical system.
It can also be thought of as a measure of the number of possible arrangements of atoms a system can have. The larger a system (more atoms), the larger the entropy.
The higher the entropy of an object, the more uncertain we are about the states of the atoms making up that object because there are more states to decide from.
Theoretically, the only way to make the entropy of a system smaller is to add work. But in order to create work, energy must be used in another system and brought in, a process which itself will lose energy and increase the net entropy of the systems.
So what does all of this say about my life?
Some of the most elegant metaphors for wisdom and the human experience can be found in the laws of nature, which govern even our delicate and abstracted lives. (Not to mention quite temporary.)
And, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics goes further than simple metaphor.
What’s true of the universe or an engine — that things tend toward chaos and disorder without work — extends to the life of an individual: without work, our lives will become chaotic and disorderly.
There’s something incredible happening right now. All of the atoms that make up you in this moment are precisely arranged to do so. Those atoms could be arranged in a virtually endless number of other ways. The mathematical odds are strikingly against your existing, and yet here you are. You do work to keep it that way:
- Eat food to feed your cells
- Walk away from the tracks to avoid getting hit by a train
- Yell at your wife in desperation, defending your choice to do something which, even though it hurt her, you did to protect her, in hopes that she’ll understand your intentions and keep loving you because without her love you don’t know if you could bear to live.
This law of nature tells us that every machine will eventually cease, decay and disappear.
And yet, it also helps us assemble machines which, however impermanent, create awe, enable love, empower communication, and more. This is the story of every plant and every animal, and anything that they themselves create.
“The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature.” —Arthur Eddington
So everything is temporary.
Even our anger, even our happiness, even our ideas and our hopes.
And what does that give us? Laid out in this way, is hopelessness the natural result? It almost seems as though hopelessness is arbitrary, just as is happiness.
“The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” —Steven Pinker
- Wikipedia’s 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
- As Part of Anicca – A Buddhist perspective of the 2nd law as “Anicca,” a truth about our world and impermanence.
- Four Noble Truths and the Second Law – A short article giving another Buddhist perspective on this physical law.
- Time and Impermanence – From Buddhazine, this articles related the physical law to spirituality using graphs and charts.
- Physics and Buddhism – An awesome blog by a practicing Buddhist with an undergrad degree in Physics.
- Forgiveness and the 2nd Law – Looking at misfortune as a natural process relieves us from blame and blaming.
- The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy
- Alan Lightman on Our Yearning for Immortality and Why We Long for Permanence in a Universe of Constant Change
- Accept Impermanence, Be Happier – A brief article on Psychology Today encouraging us not to create unrealistic expectations.
- Entropy: Why Life Always Seems to Get More Complicated – Awesome, well-written article by James Clear reflecting on Entropy and it’s implications for life.
- Putting Time In Perspective – Amazing work from an amazing blog, Wait But Why. This one examines time visually, lifting the veil of many easy and automatic biases we have on history and time.
“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend…I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments.” – Niel Gaiman
“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.”