Saturday, May 9, 2015

On Mothering and Things Falling Apart

My dictionary describes "entropy" as
the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity
It's a definition that's both simple, and sobering. It suggests that as time goes by, the differences between things erode and degrade until everything is composed (or decomposed, as the case may be) of the same useless materials. It is a scientific inevitability. My own ridiculously cluttered household is sadly its own anecdotal proof. I swear I'll clean tomorrow (or the day after), but in the meantime entropy has reduced our once-tidy home to a container filled from end to end with useless stuff. Why? Because my domestic skills are in desperate need of leveling up. Perhaps also because fundamental laws of the universe conspire against me.

The first law of thermodynamics expresses the conservation of energy in nature. At first blush, I'm pleased by the symmetry in the idea that matter is "neither created nor destroyed." The second law, however, adds the observation that natural processes have a preferred, destructive direction of progress, and it's in application of this second law that entropy rears its ruinous head.

Entropy demands that things fall apart -- that complex or delicate structures inevitably crumble, their significance and potential effaced by the ravages of friction and time. We're too short-lived to see the way mountains erode down into hills, or stones into dust. But in every city, if you look in the places where people have given up their Sisyphean effort to repair and beautify, you'll find abandoned buildings, folded in upon themselves like the dried carcasses of spiders. The ruins of any ancient city are proof on a larger historical scale.

And entropy isn't merely physical. Chinua Achebe wrote about a kind of social entropy in his modern novel Things Fall Apart, as did Gibbon centuries earlier in his historical work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There are those who assert that all cultures and civilizations are doomed to dissolution, sooner or later. Forces dragging us down, individually and collectively, are a ubiquitous part of the human condition. It doesn't take long watching the news to see the truth of that.

And yet despite the quiet but inexorable forces of entropy, here we are. Making art, traveling to the moon, raising families. Distinctly creative, productive activities. There are those who argue that the very existence of life in the context of the complexity-squashing laws of thermodynamics is a miraculous paradox. Physicist and Nobel-laureate Erwin Schrödinger, for instance, grappled with the seeming impossibility in his provocative book, What is Life? In efforts to explain our emergence from a chaotic, "primordial soup," we quest for our origins through science, or through religion or through philosophy . . . but no matter the method, there's no denying the inexplicable marvel of each of us flaring bright like a match in the immense dark of an inhospitable Universe. It seems impossible. And yet here we are.

I started this essay thinking about motherhood, though you might never have guessed it. The thing is, nothing has ever felt quite so incredible as the birth of my own child. The moment that squirming little creature came to rest in my wife's arms, it felt like something absurd had happened, something that defied reason. The idea that we created something so amazing, something so complex and fragile, yet so full of possibility is, frankly, still hard for me to grasp. I can't explain how we managed it. And my wife's role in that, carrying and growing this little seed for nine months, is equally difficult to articulate. When she gave birth to our little girl, it was like she had battled the Universe and won.

So here's to all the mothers out there. You don't have to be a mother, or even a parent, to fight the tide of entropy. But there's something about what a mother can do that is powerful beyond explanation, beyond articulation, and it's worth commemorating. Anyone, parent or not, might make the world a better place by taking to heart the example of women who do the impossible.


  1. I am not the author of this joke but feel like I need to share it:

    Dr. Schambaugh, of the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical Engineering, Final Exam question for May of 1997. Dr. Schambaugh is known for asking questions such as, "why do airplanes fly?" on his final exams. His one and only final exam question in May 1997 for his Momentum, Heat and Mass Transfer II class was: "Is hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with proof."

    Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

    "First, We postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass. If they do, then a mole of souls can also have a mass. So, at what rate are souls moving into hell and at what rate are souls leaving? I think we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave.

    Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for souls entering hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, then you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and souls go to hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in hell to increase exponentially.

    Now, we look at the rate of change in volume in hell. Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of souls and volume needs to stay constant. Two options exist:

    If hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase until all hell breaks loose.
    If hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over.
    So which is it? If we accept the quote given to me by Theresa Manyan during Freshman year, "that it will be a cold night in hell before I sleep with you" and take into account the fact that I still have NOT succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then Option 2 cannot be true...Thus, hell is exothermic."

    The student, Tim Graham, got the only A.

  2. This was really wonderful, Neal. Thank you.

  3. This was really wonderful, Neal. Thank you.

  4. Very well said Neal! This was extremely thought provoking and even redemptive. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!