When I write a posting to this blog, I often start a thought without knowing where it will lead. The writing process, itself, uncovers new thoughts, and the final posting is often as surprising to me as it is to you. Steven King said the same thing. He does not first outline the plot and then flesh it out with details, as we were taught in high school. He puts his fictional characters in conflicting positions and watches them resolve it. He, himself, is as surprised as the reader to see how it turns out. If he is surprised, then the reader will be, too. This is how writing should be.
So, I was thinking about the ideas uncovered on a recent posting on aging (The Ups and Downs of Life), how we will leave this world as empty and helpless as when we entered it. All of the skills and talents we developed in roughly the first half of our lives will eventually be given back. The only question is if they will be given back quickly as in a sudden death, or slowly, piece by piece as we age. The certainty is that they will be given back. We only have them on loan. Playing the piano, singing on tune, clever with comebacks in a conversation, skills at seduction . . . all will go.
Everything in the universe eventually declines. This is a cosmic principle, governing over-ripe bananas, galaxies, and even us. And then it dawned on me. Disorder is called entropy, and I learned about it in a thermodynamics course at Penn State. There, it was presented as just another form of energy, but was really a measure of disorder in a system.
The principle of entropy is that everything—everything—moves in the direction of greater entropy, greater disorder. You can use energy from somewhere else to create order, and take more energy to maintain that order (like a perfect, weed-free lawn), but without that, decline is inevitable.
Scatter a deck of cards on the floor, and scoop them back together. In theory, they could revert back to the same perfect order as when the new pack was first opened, but we would be shocked to see this. It is very unlikely because there are billions of ways the deck can be out of order, but only one way to be in order.
Plants are no different, either. When a plant sends out a shoot, it is creating order, decreasing entropy, which is not supposed to happen. But it can happen by absorbing energy from the sun, and it will be released when the plant dies, as it surely will someday. (Keep in mind that entropy is a measure of disorder, not order. My desktop has lots of entropy. If I straightened it up, I would decrease its entropy.)
The History Channel recently had a series Life After People showing nature’s destruction of man-made objects (mostly bridges, buildings, highways, and such) once man is no longer around to preserve them, how even Manhattan Island will revert back to a forest someday. This is all about entropy. Mankind has to continuously expend energy to maintain the objects he builds. By nature, things always move toward greater disorder, just as heat always flows to something cooler by the same principle (increasing the disorder in the cooler body by warming it).
This principle of entropy does not come from a mysterious, almost divine force, but from simple statistics. Drop a drinking glass on a tile floor, and it can smash to pieces in billions of different ways, but there is only one way it can return to the original form of a drinking glass. Chances are many billions to one that it will not spontaneously re-form as it was by shaking the pieces together in a zip-lock bag. It is possible in theory, but don’t expect to ever see it happen. As they say, “You can’t unscramble an egg.”
Don’t expect to get back to the way you were twenty years ago, either.