In the wee small hours of one morning, three years ago, I had one of those elusive moments of clarity; in fact, one of those moments so aptly described by Kona Macphee on the introduction of her excellent blog site in December 2010. Apart from the lack of sleep, this was a consequence of watching a documentary about the universe – always guaranteed to stir my brain into action – combined with thinking, as I am wont to do with my recently discovered propensity for getting in touch with my literate side, about the human condition, our general outlook on life and how we deal with it; pessimism and a lack of eagerness on the one hand; optimism and enthusiasm on the other. It is a perspective, in other words, but one that fills me, not only with hope, but also with wonder, especially when you view that perspective in the dramatic light of the universe. This essay seems also to tie my thoughts in rather well with those, recently published on Terri Stewart’s excellent and stimulating ‘Begin Again‘ blog, of J R Cowles in his mind-blowing essay on Schroedinger’s Cat.

Copyright 2012 John Anstie
Moon in Blue over Whitwell Moor [Copyright 2012 John Anstie]

I am talking about BBC2 television’s documentary, the ‘Wonders of the Universe’. Episode one was shown in March 2011. It is presented by Professor Brian Cox, who somehow manages to demonstrate, well, at least convince us, that, just as the universe had its beginning – the so-called ‘Big Bang’ – about 13.7 Billion years ago, so it is predicted that it will have an ending, albeit rather a long time hence! He concluded this, the first episode, with an extraordinary perspective on time and of how we can come to terms, not only with how long the universe has existed already (ibid) but also with the mind-boggling amount of time it has left to exist – before all matter contracts into ‘Black Dwarves’, which then dissolve into non-matter; suffice to say there was an awesome count of zero’s on the end of the number he quoted (trillion, trillion, trillion several times, in years!). Then, as if to dash our hopes to fears of the nearness of the end of the world, presenting this documentary, as he does, with an element of drama that would lightly grace the screening of a roller-caster Hollywood thriller at your local cinema, he then explained that life in the universe, that is effectively our life here on earth, was represented by an extremely small fraction (with an awesome number of zero’s on the bottom line this time) of a percent of that total time. But worry not, dear readers, because we still have an estimated one billion (thousand million) years to go before our own sun begins to die, by expanding and enveloping the planets in our solar system!

So, in spite, or rather, because of the awesome scale of all of this, there is a great deal of optimism that should be felt as a result, but not necessarily for the most obvious reasons. I know some people have great difficulty coming to terms with the results of scientific research into the evolution of the cosmos, and some I know actually cannot accept the concepts (I refer you again to Schroedinger’s Cat and the overarching principle that nothing is ever absolutely one hundred percent certain), which relate to its make up and that are propounded by scientists, that seem to deny that the universe, or at least the earth, had a genesis and was therefore created. These alternative views need to be respected; I would go on to propose that the two views are not actually mutually exclusive, but this discussion will have to wait for another time.

Out of the three core subjects, Maths, Physics and Chemistry, I always remember enjoying physics most of all. It was perhaps the more visible nature of most of its disciplines, that appealed; understanding the principles of heat, light, sound, electricity, magnetism, gravity, force, energy and all the experiments that were done to test and prove the theories. During the latter stages of my further scientific and engineering education, I also had to study that branch of physics, which was known as thermodynamics. I found this subject very tedious, but on reflection this was mainly due to the horrible mathematics that were inevitably required to define and measure its principles; and maths wasn’t my favourite discipline! The one principle, or rather variable, which is in fact fundamental to the second law of thermodynamics, which I have always retained in my memory, is ‘entropy’. Ent-what? I hear you ask! Well, the description of entropy I was taught is that it is a measure of the “tendency toward disorder”.

Brian Cox introduced entropy by going to a disused diamond mine in the desert of Southern Namibia, which was abandoned over fifty years ago, the remains of which is a picture of decaying buildings, which are in the process of gradually being taken over by the desert’s sand and dissolving into nature. He illustrated the principle of entropy by comparing a simple pile of sand with a sand castle, which he made in a good old square shaped seaside sand bucket. The former, pile of sand, he described as having “maximum entropy” because there were an almost infinite number of ways it could be re-ordered without significantly changing its shape or structure. In other words, it was very ‘disordered’. The shaped sand castle, on the other hand, with its flat sides and four little corner castellations, had a very defined and specific shape and structure; it was very ‘ordered’. The second law of thermodynamics basically states that the quality of matter deteriorates gradually over time; likewise, usable energy, which is inevitably used for productivity, growth and repair, is converted into unusable energy; hence the tendency toward disorder. So too the sand castle, left to the natural forces of the desert, over (a relatively short) time, it will revert to a pile of sand.

You may well by now be asking what I am getting at! You may be shouting at your screen: “get to the point”! This assumes, of course, that you haven’t already given up on me! Well, there is most certainly a point, which I will tell you in Part 2.



JOHN ANSTIE (My Poetry Library and 42) ~ is a British writer and poet, a contributing editor here at Bardo, and multi-talented gentleman self-described as a “Family man, Grandfather, Occasional Musician, Singer, Amateur photographer and Film-maker, Apple-MAC user, Implementation Manager, and Engineer”. He has participated in d’Verse Poet’s Pub and is a player in New World Creative Union as well as a being a ‘spoken-voice’ participant in Roger Allen Baut’s excellent ‘Blue Sky Highway‘ radio broadcasts. He’s been blogging since the beginning of 2011. He is also a member of The Poetry Society (UK).



51w-rH34dTL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_John has also been involved in the recent publication of two anthologies that are the result of online collaborations among two international groups of amateur and professional poets. One of these is The Grass Roots Poetry Group, for which he produced and edited their anthology, “Petrichor* Rising. The other group is d’Verse Poet Pub, in which John’s poetry also appears The d’Verse Anthology: Voices of Contemporary World Poetry, produced and edited by Frank Watson.

Petrichor – from the Greek pɛtrɨkər, the scent of rain on the dry earth.


5 thoughts on “Enthusiasm and Optimism vs Entropy … Part 1

  1. You’re right, Priscilla, we’ve got to attend to a few issues here on Earth before we start dreaming of eternal life in space! And you have mentioned some of the most important, all of which are being provoked by a kind of corporate tyranny, who are profiting from the sweat of those, who only want to feed their families with, perhaps in between, a bunch of middle men ‘motivators’ who want a cut. Anyway, too much politics for this thread! I also think you are right that exploitative humans are hastening the process of the tendency toward disorder. Karma comes to mind …

    Glad to have a kindred spirit and lover of physics on board, Corina. Love the joke, perhaps not one to tell in the pub with the lads; bit too intellectual methinks ;). They could perhaps have tried to persuade the police officer that they had actually arrived at that place a little before the officer saw them arrive; in other words that they were time travellers – I’m not sure the police forces of the world have yet to acquire a vehicle that’ll travel faster than the speed of light … 😉


  2. Lol! A true cliff-hanger! Can’t wait for part 2. I very much like Physics and Fractals and the like, but the maths are something I can’t seem to fathom. I love looking at how it’s all connected and things like Chaos Theory, The Butterfly Effect, Occam’s Razor and of course that old cat of which you have spoken. Speaking of which, here’s a joke you may (or may not) have heard:

    Heisenberg and Schrodinger are on a road trip, when a cop pulls them over. The officer walks up and asks if they know how fast they’re going. Heisenberg replies that they do not, but know with high precision where they are. The cop thinks that’s weird, and begins to search the vehicle. He opens the trunk and asks, “did you know you’ve got a dead cat in the trunk?” Schrodinger says, “well, *now* we do.” 😀


  3. My optimism is tempered by the estimated time left before tigers become extinct…or salmon. We can certainly accelerate entropy, and we’ve been doing it rather dramatically. Rain forests in Indonesian national parks are being burned to clear land for palm oil crops, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, despite the protests of government leaders. We seem to have a “tendency toward disorder” above and beyond any natural laws.


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