Posted by: Robin | January 17, 2009

Entropy

entropy

Entropy is a measure of randomness, a measure of disorder, an energy broken down, irretrievable heat. What might appear to be chaos, even decay, is really a system’s way of smoothing out differences, its search for equilibrium. Where language might fail us, the poetries of math and physics bring clarity, observing spontaneous changes in isolated systems. Entropy is our yardstick. measuring progress, defining the boundaries of a story, a beginning and an end. Entropy has a unique ability to choose a particular direction for time, the arrow of time. Uncorrelated parts interract and find their connections in an evolving system. So from one perspective, entropy is a clock, charting the irreversible.”
Charles Eppes’ character voiceover introducing the 1/11/09 episode of Numbers

This quote has haunted me for the past week, so much so that I had to go back to it ON DEMAND and laboriously go over it piece by piece, rewinding and replaying (ironically), to be sure I had it right, and I think I do. I regret immensely that I chose not to take advanced math or physics in high school and college because “I’d never use them.” One reason is that I covet the comprehension of truth, mystery, beauty and poetry that can be found in those disciplines, which reveal aspects of each which my discipline of words cannot. Another is that entropy gives me insight into subjects I have always cared about: social dynamics, psychological and spiritual growth, language and the creative process. It gives definition to how things work and why. Perhaps most of all it gives comfort amidst conflict and chaos, and maybe a greater sense of responsibility as “an uncorrelated part,” for me to find those connections that can only be found in chaos and that send the “arrow of time” toward constructive equilibrium.

While the character, math genius Charlie Eppes, is reading the words he has written as an introduction to a lecture, the viewer watches two different montages of action happening simultaneously: his brother Don sitting in a synagogue reading the Torah, trying to find meaning, hope and comfort amidst the chaos and apparent randomness he is immersed in daily as an FBI agent, and a teenage criminal Don arrested breaking out of prison with three other inmates with the intent of coming after Don. We watch as these individual choices, made in order to find resolution for their own lives, connect and set in motion a series of conflicting and chaotic events, that ultimately lead to a resolution of deeper truth than either man could have imagined.

One of the reasons I continue to watch Numbers is because its stories illustrate the patterns and connectedness I have intuitively sensed but do not have the tools to verify or quantify. I have no idea how accurate the math principles are or how much they lose in the dumbing down (which often still goes over my head in its abstract form). A psychologist friend once told me that my highest area of  intelligence was associative. While many think linearly or even linearly and horizontally, my thought process is more like a web, always seeking connections, even when things appear to have none. Sometimes this web-like thinking gives me an insight or idea that allows me to hit one out of the ballpark, but more often it leaves me muddled. When I hear and read mathematicians and physicists speak about what they do they speak in almost spiritual terms of the beauty and the patterns of their world, and I feel a sense of loss that I can’t see it, lacking both the tools and the right kind of conceptual intelligence. But more even than that is frustration because if I could understand how things work, understand their patterns, I might be able to help . . .

This post is another meandering of my mind born of hooking into something intuitively that I sense is true, powerful and even wise, but which cognitively I haven’t comprehended well enough to be sure what I mean, let alone how to express it. In another random connection, in today’s The Writer’s Almanac (http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/), a birthday blurb about an early 20th-century poet named William Stafford included the following lines of poetry:

In the winter, in the dark hours, when others
were asleep, I found these words and put them
together by their appetites and respect for
each other. In stillness, they jostled. They traded
meanings while pretending to have only one.

Connections in chaos. Below these words the Almanac says that Stafford said of his writing, “I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” I have felt that way profoundly as I write, and that is the final reason I feel I need to understand entropy: so I can write in a way that rings true. Life, people, events–they are always changing and moving. We do not live in a closed system with boundaries of our own choosing. Other people’s choices, often ones we will never know but by their consequences, as well as seemingly random events, throw us into chaos. That chaos both destroys and creates on its way to a restoration of equilibrium. As a writer, if I don’t acknowledge that dynamic in my characters and my fictional world it will be false.

So the adage, “the more I know, the less I know” strikes again, but The Writer’s Almanac kindly gives me their trademark words to help me focus again as I grapple with ideas too big for my brain: “Be well, do good work & stay in touch.”

See hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/…/entrop.html for explanation of graph illustration.

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Responses

  1. I was watching Numbers specifically because I gravitate towards systems and associations.

    When I heard the quote I and immediately recorded it and looked up on Google.

    Wile I found the quote from the episode as moving as you did. I found your thoughts on
    it as wonderful as the words themselves.

    I believe you hit the mark.

    I have not seen an intro that compelling in ages.


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