Battling chaos: why your desk will never be tidy
Guru is a science-lifestyle magazine supported by a Wellcome Trust grant. In this extract from one of the recent issues, Jon Crowe describes how chaos is really the default state.
It began with the sound of a tyre rim grinding on the surface of the cycle path I’d been riding along. The sudden sensation of being on a bike that was moving through treacle told me that my rear tyre had punctured. And so it was that, not for the first time of late, I found myself resenting the seeming futility of life: of having the bad luck to get the puncture; of having to spend time and effort buying and fitting a new inner tube – and of my life being enriched not one iota by the whole experience.
As I trudged home that evening, wheeling the now-useless bike beside me, I reflected on the many situations we encounter that mirror this experience – when we find ourselves having to invest time and energy, only to be no further forward.
Life is…running to stand still
Why is it that we have to invest energy merely to maintain the status quo? Why do we find ourselves running, effectively only to stand still? The answer lies in an intrinsic property of all matter; an inescapable universal truth; an order of our existence. This reality has been captured by its own law – the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that, in a nutshell, we are living in a perpetual downward spiral in which things just get worse. The universe, and everything in it, is gradually crumbling into a state of ever-increasing disorder. A cheery outlook on life, if ever there was one…
This property of all matter – this collapse into disorder – is given a name: entropy. Things that are disordered have greater entropy than things that are relatively more organized. A glass of water, in which the molecules of water itself can move around relatively freely, is more disorganized – it has greater entropy – than a block of ice, in which the molecules of water are trapped into a neatly organised, rigid network.
Anything that increases disorder (with its associated increase in entropy) is a spontaneous one, and one that happens without us having to do work to bring it about: a coffee mug dropped on the floor chaotically shatters into dozens of fragments. And there is one important corollary: a decrease in entropy – a move towards a more organised and ordered state – requires us to do work to make it happen. This is arguably why housework feels like a chore: a living room doesn’t spontaneously tidy itself, just as mending a mug needs work. We need to invest effort to reverse the spread of disorder, and bring order to whatever degree of chaos had befallen our living space since we last made the effort to tidy up. We are essentially swimming against the natural tide of entropy, with disorder setting in the moment we take our foot off the proverbial pedal. Life’s tendency for disarray takes place everywhere – from the biggest to the very smallest situations.
Nature’s building blocks
When we zoom in to the molecules and cells of our bodies, we continue to see an ongoing battle with entropy: a never-ending tussle between order and disorder. Consider proteins, the molecular machines that carry out many important functions. Proteins are made in the cell from building blocks called amino acids, with amino acids being progressively joined one after another like links of sausages being extruded from a sausage-making machine.
However, in the last stage of manufacture, these protein chains must be bent into specific shapes to function correctly. This folding represents an increase in order, and hence a decrease in entropy. Swimming against the tide of entropy comes at a cost: the cell must work hard to make such events happen. Remarkably, much of the food you eat every day is not for moving or exercising but to give the cells of our body the energy they need to fight against disorder.
Even the very continuation of life is a battle against disorder: when we give birth to the next generation, genetic information is passed from one generation to the next. In fact, every time a cell divides to replace itself, it must pass on a copy of its DNA to its progeny – and that copy must be a faithful replica of its parent. But this copying process is not immune from the eroding effects of entropy. Errors – themselves manifestations of disorder – creep in, just as if you tried to re-type this article word-forword, letter-for-letter. Errors in biological information cannot be tolerated, though – none of us want mutated genes! So, the cell invests energy and resources to overcome them, using sophisticated proof-reading machinery to errorcheck DNA as it is copied, and repairing as many infelicities as possible before the copying process is complete. And much like making proteins, this needs energy – and is another important reason to eat.
Keep battling on…?
Despite the best efforts of our cells to resist its effects, however, the Second Law still ultimately reigns supreme, and the relentless march towards disorder continues. The same is true of galaxies and stars, which ultimately break down and become ever-more chaotic. Likewise, a tarmac road will eventually lose its smoothness, develop potholes and – unless repaired – become little more than a gravel path.
So next time you’re faced with an office strewn with paperwork, or an inbox you’re no longer in control of, don’t just blame yourself. You are in a constant battle against one of the most basic laws of the Universe. From time to time, it may be worth asking yourself whether it’s really worth struggling against the power of entropy, or whether you shouldn’t just go with the flow…
A textbook editor based in Oxford, UK, Jon Crowe publishes other peoples’ writing by day but expresses his own fascination for science when the day is done. A biochemistry graduate and lapsed musician, he’s currently testing the hypothesis ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ by trying to learn the bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter @crowe_jon.
This article is an extract from Guru, a science-lifestyle magazine supported by the Wellcome Trust. Read it at Gurumagazine.org