Entropy – The Complexity Generator

by Dan


Left to their own devices, things get dirty, broken, cluttered and disorderly. It is a fact of life. In addition, it’s not just a fact of life, it’s a fundamental law of our universe, and it’s master goes by the name of “Entropy”. The evil Lord Entropy resides within a law of physics called the “Second Law of Thermodynamics”.

Apologies to the physicists out there, I am going to attempt to keep this simple so if the science suffers a little as a result please forgive me. A person who is vastly more qualified than me to explain entropy in an understandable way is Professor Brian Cox, who did so very well in his BBC TV series “The Wonders of the Universe”. A YouTube clip of this piece can be viewed here:


(As this isn’t an official BBC source, I feel I ought to point out that if you enjoyed this teaser trailer, the entire series can be bought on DVD and BluRay from your favourite online stockists!)

The analogy of the sandcastle that Professor Cox uses in the clip can be translated to things in your own life such as your home. The reason a room becomes untidy (less ordered) is because out of all of the millions of possible states you could find your room in when you walk in, there are only very few possible states that will match with your expectation of how it should be. It is VASTLY more likely that you will find it in a less ordered state than you would like it, and hugely UNLIKELY that you will find it in a more ordered state than you left it. This is why your bedroom gets messy, your car gets dirty, and your garage can’t tidy itself up.

Bummer huh? Fortunately for us, the Second Law of Thermodynamics offers the solution as well as the problem. All of the above is true “unless acted on by an external resultant force”. Which, translated into English, means that if you apply energy to the situation then you can hold back the tide of entropy and keep things orderly or indeed make it more ordered. When you clean, tidy or repair you are actually reversing the effects of entropy by exchanging your own personal energy for more order in your surroundings. When people “potter about” they spend a lot of that time straightening things out, tidying, putting things back where they should be, throwing stuff away. This is entropy reversal in action.

The moral of this story? You have to “do stuff” in order to keep things orderly. You have to act, exchanging your own energy for order. Just a little bit here and there is all it takes – when moving from one room to another, pick up something that belongs in your destination and take it with you, or as you walk past a wonky picture, straighten it up. You don’t even need to potter – just a little bit of multitasking is all it takes. Small disciplines compound over time to create breakthrough results, as described in my post about The Slight Edge. Hopefully the science in this post helps to explain why it has to be this way, even though I am sure that the practical advice is common sense to all. It is often said that common sense isn’t common practice though, and sometimes a little science can help make a penny drop (it did for me!)