Entropy means you owe the world a debt

As a kid, I was obsessed with entropy. Partially because of my obsession with science and in particular all of the special properties of ice, most notably freezing as a local reversal of entropy. And partially because of the Young Wizards book series, in which the antagonist is a personification of entropy and the protagonist wizards are those actively working to aid in helping the universe maintain itself in an orderly way.

I recognize now that worrying about the heat death of the universe was a bit unusual for a ten year old; I was sort of a weird kid. But even now, I feel an ache in my chest when I think about the fact that no matter how hard we struggle, chaos will eventually win and all we can really do is work hard to maximize the order of our local systems.

Two recent exposures to entropy in literature have brought it to the top of my mind. The first is the Mars Trilogy, which is so painfully full of science that it makes me want to go back to college. In it, the economic system the Martians develop has an entropic component, in which low-entropy goods are considered more desirable than high-entropy goods. The second is a quote from Dragon Age: Inquisition, uttered by a relatively minor character in non-essential dialogue: “My life is a debt I intend to repay, however I can.”

I was raised with strong values of service. My father was fond of saying that my brother and I were his chance to change the world, which I have always carried with me as the best sort of burden. And small towns always have this pervading sense that resources are limited, that you have been invested in, and that you damn well better make something of yourself to pay it all back to the community.

But musing on entropy, I wonder if we can’t take those values a little farther, as implied by the science itself. That is, the creation of a human life is an exercise in entropic (and yes, I am using the term broadly here) reduction: immense calories are burned and heat is generated, raising the overall entropy of the universe, but the local result is this beautifully organized system, a human life.

If we imagine entropy as a giant economic system, this implies that we literally take on an entropic debt to the universe when we are born. Resources are expended and without them, we wouldn’t exist. And it is only through work – specifically anti-entropic work – that we repay that debt. Just like the wizards in those childhood books, we can work to promote life, minimize our entropic waste, and help create a better, more efficient system for others.

I don’t mean this to imply that everyone should be forced into a life that is oriented towards service. But in a world where many people seem to think that the world owes them something, it feels as though in teaching the science of entropy, we could remind them that the precise opposite is true. After all, the universe died a little bit to make you, so you damn well better contribute.

Side note: An important quote in today’s article came from a video game. And it isn’t a nostalgia piece, like “all your base are belong to us”, but rather a serious expression of literary merit. If there is any doubt that video games will eventually surpass movies/books, let this stand as evidence that eventually, all fiction will be interactive.