Chasing the everyday chaos - the effect of Entropy
Feb 16 '22 • Written by Yassen Shopov
📖 10 minute read
It’s awesome how many physical and mathematical concepts can be explained with just a handful of basic scenarios from our everyday life.
The particular concept I have in mind is Gibbs Free Energy, a term that explains the behaviour of particles in a closed system. It’s a very complex set of equations, but what it boils down to is that if we assume there is a finite amount of energy in a system, it will keep getting transferred from one particle to the other and from one form to another. As you may have studied in Physics at one point - “energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another“ .
So in an ideal world, there is no lost energy. And technically, no energy is lost. It’s just that our definition of “useful” is very subjective.
When an electric current runs through a wire, you end up “losing” some energy due to the wire heating up, so the amount of energy you receive at the end of the wire is less than what you started with. But the warming up of the wire could also be used as a type of energy. Think of a kettle, where the warming up of the water is a direct effect of the “lost” energy due to the current through the heater.
And still, even if we manage to metaphorically catch and find the use of every single Jaul of energy we have available, some still would escape our grasp. This is because we as humans are not infinite sources of energy, and neither is the world around us. Say, you want to keep a campfire burning. You start by throwing some wood, then some more, then some more… At one point, you run out of wood and you gotta chop some more. Then the wind starts blowing, so you need even more to keep the fire. If this goes on forever, you will end up chopping up every piece of wood nearby, and at one point, you will either give up due to exhaustion, or the fire will go out.
It’s a sad reality, but most processes in our lives resemble this. They take up constant maintenance, otherwise, they go to ruin. Sometimes slower, sometimes faster. The order in your garden outside will turn to chaos far faster than the order in your room inside since it is not exposed to the elements. But even then, give it a few years, decades even, and the room may get a new owner, could be destroyed in a fire, and so on, and all order is gone.
Now, you may ask yourself, “What the hell am I reading and what does it have to do with productivity?“. And it is not a bad question to be asking yourself, since I did go a little bit overboard with the nihilistic examples above.
In this article, I will be explaining the effect of entropy, or the general inclination of things to go towards chaos rather than order, and I will talk about the way we as humans try our best to bring order - as a form of expressing control over a situation.
What is entropy?
As defined by Britannica, entropy can be described as “a measure of the molecular disorder, or randomness, of a system“ .
It is the reason why diffusion occurs - the innate energy of particles naturally pushes them apart, which spreads them further. Other natural processes, like the campfire we described in the previous paragraphs like the melting of ice, the boiling of water, all ensue because of entropy.
Now, the purely physical definition doesn’t leave a lot of space for philosophizing. However, when you put the phenomenon in a social or psychological setting, you can derive quite a lot of meaning from the phenomenon that is entropy.
As I’ve said in the title, we are chasing the everyday chaos - whether we want it or not. We get energy from things like food, sleep, socialising (especially the more extroverted people), and we then spend this same energy. We exercise, we walk, we cook, we order our rooms, we use our computers. All of those activities - and most activities, to be frank, can be summarised into the phrase “using our energy to move atoms from one place into another“. Those actions may seem meaningless to an omnipotent being watching from the outside, but to us, all those actions have a subjective meaning.
The instinct to bring order
As humanity has progressed, just like other animal and plant species, we have found ways to optimise our work and get more benefit.
Just as how bees use hexagonal patterns when constructing their beehives since it takes up less space and can make for a stronger structure, we also tend to do things in ways that take less time and help us in the long term. This is one of the things that helps species survive across generations - the ability to withstand hardship in the short term to achieve safety and prosperity in the long term.
These mechanisms we have include: living in cities to optimise for efficiency in transportation and logistics, keeping our streets and living spaces clean to avoid contamination and illnesses, exercising and pushing our bodies to their limits while they are still young and healthy, so we don’t suffer from diseases when we’re older.
All in all, you can notice the pattern. All of those include using up your current energy for something relatively trivial, which doesn’t seem to benefit you in the given moment Exercising in the gym is the perfect example of something that brings you momentary pain in exchange for long-term benefits.
So, as you see, not all effort is futile. Even if we consider that all life will come to an end (which, given the advancements of modern medicine, might as well not be the case), there is still some point in trying to increase the quality of our lives with some short-term effort and sacrifices.
What you may consider as “lost energy”, like cleaning your room, or working out, may turn out to be the vote in the right direction that makes the difference for you. We have no way of measuring the symbolic entropy in our lives, but we do have the power to limit its destructive potential.
Can we find balance?
It was after one particularly heavy cleaning session that I realised that battling entropy in life is a matter of dynamic balance. This is different from static balance, where there is no movement because everything is put into place. In life, we play by the rules of entropy and the dynamic balance - you can’t just put everything into place and expect for it to stay that way forever.
However, this doesn’t mean that anything you bring order to will turn into a chaotic mess minutes after. The duration of time before things get messy depends on a ton of circumstances, and luckily, we have quite the degree of control over some.
For example, by creating a folder system on your computer, you can make the process of weekly cleaning much easier, since you know where everything needs to go already - you just need to move it.
You could also think of it this way - the more often you put the small effort of cleaning up your room, the less effort it will require. Firstly, you build up the discipline and motivation to do your weekly and daily chores, and secondly, objectively you will have less to clean if you don’t let it pile up for months on end.
All in all, battling chaos in our lives is an ongoing battle. The lucky news is that we are the ones in control of the battlefield.
 Law of conservation of energy. (n.d.). Energy Education. https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Law_of_conservation_of_energy
 Entropy. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/entropy-physics