I have always felt connected to the thermodynamic principle of entropy. I believed that my body at rest demonstrated the concept perfectly—and I now know that to be true, but not at all in the way that I originally thought.
Before I get into what I got wrong about entropy and my own nature, I should explain how I came to think of entropy this way in the first place. The standard definition of entropy is usually something along the lines of “a measurement of the disorder of a system.” Further, there is a natural tendency for systems to maximize their entropy. I understood entropy like I understood myself: perpetually tending toward chaos of the highest degree.
Until maybe a few months ago, I thought it impossible to wake up before noon, or without being in a state of complete and utter panic. I thought it radical to put clothes back on the hanger instead of throwing them on the floor. Establishing anything resembling a routine, being able to see the floor of my bedroom, getting more than four hours of sleep on a weekday—I never knew these as anything beyond fantasy.
“Ellie, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s bad enough your room looks the way it does, but it’s unacceptable to turn the entire house into your pig sty.”
This was a comment my dad made at least once a day.
I would then reply, “We all have our weaknesses, and this is mine. It is actually scientifically proven that the universe tends toward disorder. As do I.”
Misreading the meaning of entropy was not entirely my fault—oversimplified explanations of chemical concepts were at least partially to blame. While defining entropy as a measure of disorder may not be wrong, this wording can be very misleading. A chemical system naturally works to achieve a more stable state, one in which it is in equilibrium. The idea of “disorder” here attempts to explain that a system is more stable as a gas, with particles able to move more freely and with a higher degree of randomness than those in, say, a crystalline-structured solid.
You may be wondering why you need to understand what entropy actually is, especially if you fall into the category of folks currently recovering from mild PTSD from high school gen chem. I have always loved chemistry—if you hadn’t guessed—and I automatically look for ways in which textbook principles and theorems apply to my everyday life. But in projecting myself onto the concept of entropy, I may have stretched this science too far. By trying to extend the concept of entropy to my crippling inability to make my bed or wake up in the mornings, was I inadvertently using the second law of thermodynamics to justify my poor habits? Does entropy really make sense of my chaos, or was I just using my chaos to make sense of entropy?
Regardless of what thermodynamics has to say, staying organized and maintaining a routine are my Achilles’ heel. They are demons I battle on a daily basis in order to stay afloat amid the frenzy of college life. Nevertheless, I persisted. After a month-long winter break allowed me to do a full 180º with my habits and get my life in order, I now have not only some semblance of order, but healthy and stable habits.
I have internalized the idea of entropy as fundamental to my personality ever since I learned the concept in tenth grade, so taking the reins of my life has felt contradictory to my programming. I was worried that my hypothesis about my innate desire to maximize entropy, developed over half a decade, was suddenly made null. I contemplated scrapping the idea of writing about how I relate to entropy, since I now go to bed at a reasonable hour, get eight hours of sleep every night, and I even do yoga in the mornings. Oh! And my room is completely clean, everything I own in its proper place. But before I fully abandoned this thought-project, I decided to refresh my knowledge on entropy, to see if I could find some loophole to make sense of how I started to find order in my disorderliness.
Upon my most recent internet dive into entropy, I discovered something interesting: Entropy is not actually a measure of disorder, as it is frequently explained. This is the point where I noticed a nuanced discrepancy between what entropy is and what I understood it to be. Instead of viewing entropy as chaos or disorder, it should be viewed as the randomness of the position of particles or atoms in a system. This subtle yet important rewording removes the connotations typically ascribed to “disorder” and “chaos.” Such language has connotations of disarray, a lack of balance, and instability, when the contrary is actually true: the more entropy a system has, the more stable the system is, and the closer it is to being in equilibrium.
Maybe I am just projecting when it comes to the images evoked by the words “disorder” and “chaos.” Still, the misconception that a greater degree of entropy is simply a greater amount of disorder, as in more of a jumbled-up mess, overlooks how such disorder on the atomic level contributes to an increase in stability of the overall system.
This misconception is the same one I had of myself. I am not actually tending toward disorder, like I always believed I am. The “disorder” I claimed to have was not actually stable, nor was it bringing me even remotely close to my equilibrium point. As my dad liked to point out, I was always very noticeably out-of-balance in all realms of my life. Understanding how the disorder in my life genuinely created chaos, and didn't serve to increase stability, made it easier for me to realize one of two things. Either A, the laws of my nature are contrary to the laws of thermodynamics, or B, misconceiving how entropy works justified my poor habits and kept me from utilizing my full potential and from achieving stability and balance. Personally, I would like to believe the latter is true, especially considering just how much better and easier my life has been since I got my shit together.
According to the second law of thermodynamics, I, too, maximize my entropy. Spontaneity and being a bit all-over-the-place may be what comes most naturally to me, but this does not mean I am destined to exist as a hot mess at all times. The ultimate goal in any system is to reach equilibrium, and I am no exception nor special case. In misconceiving the idea of entropy, I misconceived who I am and what I am capable of. And while the conclusions of a single lab report likely wouldn’t be enough to have me questioning all that I know about myself, this science is still invaluable to me. So, I’ll read my textbook a bit more closely than I have before, hoping that I’ll discover something totally new about myself; it could have me revising—or even completely rewriting—my own theory of everything.