Entropy is commonly defined as;
‘A measure of disorder or randomness.
A closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.’
As a physics undergraduate student, this never made sense to me. If things are only able to proceed to a greater and greater state of disorder, where did the order we see come from in the first place? This paradox could only ultimately be answered by bringing in an additional factor not mentioned above; one that acts in opposition to entropy. I later realised that factor is life.
Yes, we do indeed see plenty of examples of entropy around us. ‘Inanimate’ objects do fall apart; we see mountains being eroded by the forces of wind and water, rocks being broken into smaller and smaller pieces, cars rusting and so on, but is that such a bad thing?
Or are we just so afraid of change, that the very idea of entropy scares us? Just look at the things we make; plastics are a great example of something we made to last forever and then we realised what a bad idea that was. When we’d finished with them, they just wouldn’t ‘go away’. They just sat there performing no useful purpose, locking up important raw materials and preventing nature from making something new from them.
In nature, nothing stays in one place for very long. Resources are constantly being moved around and exchanged, and as we have previously noted, this process increases in efficiency where nature creates complex edges. The more ‘edge’ there is, the more opportunities there are for life to thrive in.
So what happens when things fall apart? They develop more edge! A collection of small rocks, have considerably more surface area than the large rock they once made up. So as things fall apart, the opportunities for life increase, in this case the lichens and bacteria that may initially make their home there. Lifeforms take broken down raw materials and make something new with it. Entropy is actually a vital process that provides the ingredients for life’s amazing recipes. And that includes you and me!
So remember that when you next consider accepting a plastic bag at the supermarket checkout…