WordsDay: Entropy in literature

The universe is destined to die. Some physicists believe that this death will occur as the rate of expansion tears every atom apart. Others believe that the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that, trillions of years into the future, all that will be left is the universal background radiation, after all the suns have burned out and all the black holes have even evaporated. But even before the Big Rip or the heat death of the universe, entropy – the degree of disorder in our own systems – is destined to rule our future. We can struggle against it, and we can even beat it back for a time, but ultimately entropy wins and we die. Our works fall apart. And memory fades.

Today, we explore entropy in the written word.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

(source: The Literature Network)

I’ve chosen Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, to opens our exploration of entropy for a reason. Sure, it’s one of my favorite poems, but there’s a reason for that. Here we have a great king, creator of massive monuments to his own greatness, and yet his works lie destroyed, eroded and buried by entropy. But the poem is about the arrogance of Man himself, and it’s a cautionary tale for the creators of such monuments as the Empire State Building. Our creations too will be reclaimed by nature.

In much the same was as Ozymandias, the concept of entropy is treated in verse set to music, aka song lyrics. One of my personal favorites is the song Monument, by Butterfly Messiah:

(Latin) Mole ruit sua
Mirabile visu
Post obitum…
sic itur ad astra

All that is built
will be destroyed
and all that is gathered
will be scattered

It’s a testament to man

The depths of the ocean
the height of the skies
brilliant light stars
and deep like eyes

All that is built
will be destroyed
and all that we’ve gathered
will be scattered

It’s a testament to man
it is his monument

It collapses from it’s own bigness
A wonder to behold
After death…
thus one goes to the stars,
such is the way to immortality

But even immortality among the stars is fleeting if the universe itself is destined to slowly die….

There are people who see, if not a future for the universe, at least hope for life in some form even after protons, electrons, and neutrons have ceased to exist. Physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford is one such writer, and in his Galactic Center novels (In the Ocean of Night, Across the Sea of Suns, Great Sky River, Tides of Light, Furious Gulf, and Sailing Bright Eternity), we’re introduced to a future of machine intelligences hunting human beings as insects, humanity driven out from an Earth about to be destroyed, and a war between biological, electronic, and theoretical magnetic lifeforms that threatens to destroy all three forms of life even in the face of a entropic future for the galaxy in the far future. While there are six novels to the complete series, they go in pairs, and the first four novels are much better than the last two. Benford’s universe is ruled by the real laws of physics, although they’re occasionally stretched a bit into the the theoretical, but the backdrop is worlds and civilizations slowly winding down.

Our interest in entropy goes much farther back than Shelley and is hardly limited to the domains of poetry and science fiction. In fact, the Bible itself enshrines many of the concepts of entropy within it’s pages. For example, Ecclesiastes 3 says:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; (verses 1-3, King James Bible – emphasis added)

And Ecclesiastes 3:20 says, in part, “all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” And the concept of returning to the dust from which God made us is a repeating theme throughout the Old and New Testaments.

When Yeats wrote The Second Coming, he had in mind the ravages and chaos of war rather than the decay of entropy. I expect that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” speaks more to the military adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy than it does to any fundamental physical law, yet at least one other poet has used Yeats’ original as her jumping-off point for a poet that strikes deep into the atomic mindset. Ann K. Schwader wrote Slouching toward Entropy and published it online via Strange Horizons and via her book of science fiction genre poetry, Architectures of Night. I’ve posted only the first two stanzas below out of concerns for copyright, but I can’t recommend highly enough that everyone take the time to read the poem in it’s entirety. It hit me in gut, metaphorically speaking.

Not clean light, after all: not sweet atomic
absolution of our myriad sins
in one swift Lenten smear of ash, faint thumbprint
shadow on a shattered concrete sky.

The silence we were promised after sirens
above a blasted blameless graveyard world
is broken daily into shards of shrapnel
both trivial & lethal, ever-cresting
tide eroding eyes & ears & minds. (source: Strange Horizons)

Another poet I was pointed toward by S&R’s own Dr. Slammy is Charles Baudelaire. In reading many of his poems to find one I felt matched what the theme of this exploration, I came across many that were certainly disturbing, but it wasn’t until I came across L’Horloge (The Clock) that I found what I was looking for.

Impassive clock! Terrifying, sinister god,
Whose finger threatens us and says: “Remember!
The quivering Sorrows will soon be shot
Into your fearful heart, as into a target;

Nebulous pleasure will flee toward the horizon
Like an actress who disappears into the wings;
Every instant devours a piece of the pleasure
Granted to every man for his entire season.

Three thousand six hundred times an hour, Second
Whispers: Remember! — Immediately
With his insect voice, Now says: I am the Past
And I have sucked out your life with my filthy trunk!

Remember! Souviens-toi, spendthrift! Esto memor!
(My metal throat can speak all languages.)
Minutes, blithesome mortal, are bits of ore
That you must not release without extracting the gold!

Remember, Time is a greedy player
Who wins without cheating, every round! It’s the law.
The daylight wanes; the night deepens; remember!
The abyss thirsts always; the water-clock runs low.

Soon will sound the hour when divine Chance,
When august Virtue, your still virgin wife,
When even Repentance (the very last of inns!),
When all will say: Die, old coward! it is too late!” (source:

Baudelaire appears to be criticizing the tyranny of the clock, as it relates to our how our perceptions of time controls our lives. But I also find a warning to his readers that life is short, and that all clocks, external and internal to ourselves, eventually run down and stop. Again, entropy.

Even interminable S&R posts such as this one must come to a conclusion eventually. So I leave you with an excerpt from the Isaac Asimov short story The Last Question. It too, addresses entropy, telling a story trillions of years long in just a few pages, and it is one of my personal favorite short stories by Asimov – or anyone else, for that matter. If you take the time to read the entire story behind the link, I believe you’ll understand why.

Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

13 replies »

  1. Aha. Finally a topic on which I can make an intelligent (or at sounding so) comment.

    Brian, I can’t comment on your musings on the eventualities of all things as represent in literature, being a literary neophyte myself. However, I do want to address the “heat death” part, since I feel I have some competence in that area.

    This question has long been debated. Where do we come from and where do we go? Since the advent of thermodynamics in the 19th century and in particular the 2nd Law, the “hopeless option” (my terminology) of eventual universal heat death has seemed unavaoidable. However all is not lost. Consider the Bible verse quoted above:

    “… a time to break down, and a time to build up”

    I would argue that the latter part of the verse is as important as the first part which you emphasized. Recent developments in physics and in cosmology in particular seem to indicate that the universe (or at least the highly simplified cosmological models) likely has an oscillatory behaviour, reminiscent of the cyclic cosmology in Hindu philosophy. Naturally the entropy question is one of the biggest obstacles in truly understanding how the universe can die and be reborn over and over. Now physicists are realizing that our present understanding of entropy and the 2nd Law is incomplete. The 2nd law remains valid for any closed system. For an open system however the ballgame changes. Our planet is a great example of this. Now over time the earth emits as much radiation as it absorbs from the sun. The amount trapped due to the greenhouse effect etc. is likely negligible compared to the even the earth’s daily dose of solar heat. If this wasn’t the case we would be toast long ago. This is an example of a system in (approximate) dynamic equilibrium. It is this equilibrium which allows earthly systems to exhibit such complexity. This conflicts with our naive understanding of equilibrium which is based on considerations of closed systems and leads to the heat death ending for any closed system.

    Before I get long-winded, I’ll summarize. We cannot determine if our “universe” (a term lacking a precise definition even in physics) is a closed system or not. I suspect it is not. This belief and present research in cosmology and computational science as applied to physical phenomena, strongly suggests a “hopeful” alternative. A cyclic universe which is one in a family of many universes and which cannot therefore be treated as a closed system doomed to an eternal sleep. I hope this will let folks go to bed feeling reassured 😉

  2. tictacgo – I wasn’t trying to go into the detailed physics of entropy here. It was an attempt at a discussion of entropy and decay in some literature, mostly via lots of examples, rather than a scientific discussion on how brane collisions could lead to a cyclical universe, whether branes are expected to collide often enough to prevent momentary “heat deaths,” MOND vs. dark energy and how they apply to inflationary universe models and the hypothesized Big Rip, or diving particularly deeply into any other related physics idea.

    Physics of the cosmology and quantum mechanics varieties is a hobby of mine. 🙂

  3. Brian,

    If entropy fascinates you this much, you have to read Thomas Pynchon. I suggest you start with his short story “Entropy,” then look at his novel GRAVITY’S RAINBOW.

    You won;t be disappointed…

  4. If one believes in reincarnation, like I do, never fear: Our universe may disappear, but the powers that be will slot our souls into another universe. Sure, we may wind up as globules of gas, but beggars can’t be choosers

  5. You couldn’t mention all of it, and you left a couple great ones out. First there’s Philip K Dick, whose brilliant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? gave us the concept of “kipple”:

    Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you to go bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up there is twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.

    No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot.

    Of course, the first law tells us that “kipple drives out non-kipple,” right?

    Then there’s Gibson’s stunning short story, “The Winter Market,” which I recall assigning to you in a class one time, right? I write about this in my dissertation, and went back to remind myself what I said at the time. Turns out there’s some interplay between entropy, technology and the pursuit of the divine – through religion, through creativity; in other words, the struggle to overcome entropy.

    Here’s what I wrote:
    – – – – –
    Gibson is not unaware of the religious implications in the story, his refusal to negotiate the question on institutional (or even recognizably Judeo-Christian) terms notwithstanding. In Rubin we have not just the oldest and wisest character in the story, but also one of the most thoroughly actualized characters in the entire corpus of Gibson’s writing. As an artist who has attained international acclaim, he occupies a privileged position as the cast’s elder, and as a collector of gomi – or junk, he is an expert on both the intended and unintended uses of things.

    Rubin, in some way that no one quite understands, is a master, a teacher, what the Japanese call a sensei. What he’s the master of, really, is garbage, kipple, refuse, the sea of cast-off goods our century floats on. Gomi no sensei. Master of junk (118).

    He has nothing to say about gomi. It’s his medium, the air he breathes, and something he’s swum in all his life. He cruises Greater Van in a spavined truck-thing he chopped down from an ancient Mercedes airporter, its roof lost under a wallowing rubber bag half-filled with natural gas. He looks for things that fit some strange design scrawled on the inside of his forehead by whatever serves him as Muse. He brings home more gomi. Some of it still operative. Some of it, like Lise, human (120).

    That Rubin can consider questions like those posed by Lise’s situation without resorting to conventional religious dogma is instructive. He doesn’t appear to dismiss the idea of God – his evocation of divinity in “God only knows” seems earnest. But whatever God he believes in is a distant one, and not one to whom he can appeal for answers in circumstances such as this.

    So Rubin goes about weaving cultural myths out of found bits and pieces, and despite himself becomes the closest thing to the voice of God in a story that cries out for divine pronouncement. In the moment which comprises the story’s thematic pivot, Rubin appears to draw a line between animation and life, and if we read it on its most obvious symbolic level we can’t help reaching a dystopian conclusion about Lise’s impending phone call.

    Once he was showing me a book of twentieth-century art he liked, and there was a picture of an automated sculpture called Dead Birds Fly Again, a thing that whirled real dead birds around and around on a string, and he smiled and nodded, and I could see he felt the artist was a spiritual ancestor of some kind (137).

    The phone might ring, and it may or may not be Lise calling from the other side, but the dead birds whirling around, ever in motion, suspended and animated by mechanical device, yet ever stuffed and lifeless, hints at the ultimate soullessness of the machine.
    – – – – –

    So there you have it, for whatever it’s worth….

  6. Thanks for the post, Sam. I’ve actually never read a single Dick story, and I didn’t recall the Gibson one.

    And thanks for the author suggestion, Jim. Entropy is one of those things I find to be very cool on an intellectual level, so I’ll give it a shot.

  7. Brian:

    Here’s a real bad piece of poetry for you if you’re a fan of QM.

    I don’t know where I got this, but it popped up on my hard drive one day.

    I was studying the workings of a star,
    Quantum mechanics, nuclear fusion,
    From which is borne all life from afar,
    This reality of dreams and illusions.
    But there was no magic to the physics,
    The cold, hard equations of description,
    Couldn’t convey the feeling so mystic,
    To be living with her in a fiction,
    A dream it must have been under the stars,
    Her eyes closed, and her wet hair swept on back,
    Oh, lost in reasons we fight all our wars,
    So just give me a piece that’s free from fact.
    I no longer care what makes the wind blow,
    There are things that a child should never know


    PS: I’ve been working on a unified field theory in my spare time for the past 25 years, but have been stuck on a particular problem. If you’d like, I wouldn’t mind sharing notes.

  8. With random thoughts
    I walk through life
    a constant change of state

    With careless force
    each thought’s destroyed
    in effort to create


  9. I second the thoroughly enjoyable and formidable Gravity’s Rainbow as yer basic Novelof Entropy. The book’s form is actually entropic, as well as circular. And it’s a tour de force on every level, from word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, plot (or anti-plot — read it and Pynchon will tell you all about it), and the Standard Elements Emplyed In Creative Writing, such as irony, parody, narrative distancing, and so on.

    I initially got through the Fellini-like imagery and plot-jumping which makes it so unique by enjoying Pynchon’s riffing on each of the above items, and at the thirdattempt, “got it” and read it through. I knew there was more there than I did “get” so I started researching and reading criticism on Pynchon. This was also amply rewarded.

    To me, Pynchon is on a level with Picasso as an artist.

  10. Pookapooka:

    I have Pynchon in my book case and Picasso on my wall…..Pynchon is a Single A Minor League utility player, and Picasso is Joe DiMaggio.



  11. Jeff – thanks for the offer, but I’m not that serious of a hobbiest. I occasionally do QM math for my job (dealing with the optical properties of semiconductors), but mostly I devour the more general, educated-audience directed stuff like what you get out of Scientific American, Nature, and Science. My present love is nanotech and how QM radically changes the properties of matter from macro to nano scales. Cool stuff.

  12. Brian, Nanotech is so cool. I remember going to hear papers on the emerging chemistry behind Nanotech when I was back in grad school, and thinking……..Damn.


  13. Pope Jeff — much thanks for the pontification. I’m always grateful to have an expert on apples and oranges set me right with such elucidation.

    But sadly, I regret to inform you that neither one played professional baseball. A-and, Picasso never was expert at writing novels. As for Pynchon, who knows? He might be Yogi Berra in “real life.” Or Mark Rothko. Have you seen his photo lately?

    Now Jeff, we all have our notions about who is good, who is great, etc. I’d venture to say these are more about how much the opinionator understands about the art under discussion. For me, and that means me and not you or any other Pope, the process of discovery regarding my first youthful encounters with and attempts to understand the art of both Picasso and Pynchon was exactly the same, and the results of that process were also, delightfully, the same. I suggest you take Gravity’s Rainbow off the shelf and try to get through it this time. Bless your soul.

    S&R fans — see how this thread has devolved? Anyone for furthering the mysterious ways of Entropy?