entropy, time, and moving on

Entropy always increases.

I never thought that the Second Law of Thermodynamics would one day inspire a post for me, but I saw a video this morning that changed the way I thought about the passage of time, the progression of life, and the irreversibility of events. Yes, all at once. As you can imagine, the only way to keep my brain from exploding was to process and share it. So here we are.

Since I was little, I’ve always thought about time: how it only flows forward, how little of it we seem to have in a day (or in one lifetime, for that matter). These musings started one day (when I was approximately nine years old) while I considered my pencil box. It wasn’t an extraordinary pencil box by any means. It was plastic, neon green, and held my hoarded collection of at least 75+ pencils. (I liked pencils, what can I say?) Then it dawned on me. It occurred to me that even if I tried, I probably wouldn’t be able to use all the pencils in this box by the time I died, given that I kept adding to the collection along the way. If I couldn’t manage to use all the pencils in my collection, what else would I not be able to do under the restriction of time? Would I ever be able to learn all the things I wanted to before passing on? Does that mean that everyone around me will eventually pass on as well? If I can’t even use all the pencils in my collection, what’s the point (no pun intended) of collecting them in the first place?

While I’m certain that not every nine year old sits alone in her living room at night, positing existential questions and contemplating her mortality, I’m glad that this fascination stuck with me.

Physicist Brian Cox explains that the universe elects high-entropy systems (less ordered) over low-entropy ones (highly ordered). Think about how sandcastles eventually crumble and how ice eventually melts. So, time flows as it does – in one direction – because it’s “easier” and more natural for it to do so.

(I wonder if the 2nd law of thermodynamics also applies to people and relationships. Could we say that, likewise, relationships end because they return us to a state of higher entropy and less stress? But I digress.)

I’ve lived through quite a bit of life since my nine-year-old self thought painstakingly about her pencil box. I’ve made and lost friends, fallen in and out of love, been to weddings, baptisms, and funerals, and done quite a bit of growing along the way. A unidirectional view of time is both a comfort and an affliction. Simultaneously, it’s motivation–to live fully and to take advantage of the time that we do have, albeit brief in the grand scheme of things. There is only forward, so let’s take a collective, deliberate step in that direction.

[youtube http://youtu.be/vLACGFhDOp0]

“The Arrow of Time dictates that as each moment passes, things change, and once these changes have happened, they are never undone. Permanent change is a fundamental part of being human. We all age as the years pass by — people are born, they live, and they die. I suppose it’s part of the joy and tragedy of our lives, but out there in the universe, those grand and epic cycles appear eternal and unchanging. But that’s an illusion. See, in the life of the universe, just as in our lives, everything is irreversibly changing.”

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