Why I tattooed science on my arm

“But what does it mean?”

Of course you know that’s what my folks said. But they listened. They’re always good like that.

Some of you will recognize the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which I’ve had an unhealthy fascination with since high school. In fact, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on me for at least 15 years.

The good and bad thing about modern science is that it’s reductive — it defines the world by breaking it into smaller and smaller chunks, sort of like the pieces of a puzzle. Because of that, anytime you say that a certain discovery or law is “the reason why” something is the case, someone always wants to argue with you and say the REAL reason is because of some deeper phenomenon which undergirds the first. (Some people compulsively take every opportunity to demonstrate how smart they are.)image

For those who like precision, S is entropy and the Greek letter delta before it means the change between one time and another. Q is a measure of heat and T is temperature. And again, delta means change. In a closed system — one with absolutely no interaction with anything else (a hermetic universe) — the total change in heat is always zero, and a zero in the numerator makes the whole value zero, and so the change in entropy in a closed system can never go down.

Order does not come about on its own. “Disorder” rules. (And yes, I know entropy and disorder are not identical. That’s why I used quotes!)

So what, you say?

First, I like that it’s not an equation. Equations simply say that two things are equal. They are always reducible — in a philosophical sense — to 1=1. I prefer things like algorithms and functions, which define the total space over which a phenomenon may vary. I am particularly fascinated by something called the Central Limit Theorem, but that’s another story.

The Second Law is not a proper function. Rather, it is a boundary condition. It sets up a barrier. And that barrier happens to be what keeps us from an easy life.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the scientific expression of man’s expulsion from paradise. No, I’m not a Christian. But all religion, not just Christianity, as well as most philosophy ultimately wrestles with the Fundamental Problem of the Universe:

Why is life so fucking hard?

It’s actually a lot less hard these days than it’s been for most of human history (mostly thanks to science), but it’s no less important a problem. Religion’s rejoinder has been “it looks worse than it is,” and then it tries to orient mankind’s woes inside something much grander in an attempt to give the seemingly futile, capricious terrors we experience some kind of ultimate meaning.

If you want a quick overview, I wrote about the fundamental shape of all religion here, but the short version is that they all seek a means to escape the fundamental cataclysm at the beginning of time that left mankind separated from the source of life, the divine. (However, while there are many similarities, every path to a return is different.)

Whether or not you go in for that, science says the barrier at least is real. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is the reason you have to work. It’s the reason you need to eat and buy clothes. It’s the reason you have to vacuum and dust your house and do laundry and generally put effort into anything and everything. It says that order never comes about on its own. It requires effort.

The Second Law — or whatever undergirds it — is also the reason you can’t reverse time, like running back a tape, and do things over — the so-called “arrow of time.” You just have to live with your mistakes, with the chaos that flows from you like a wake.

I think it is very Shakespearean. If Hamlet were scientist, he would go around quoting the Second Law. I’m sure of it.

The symbol on my arm that surrounds it is the ourobouros, the serpent devouring its own tail. Like most nonscientific symbols, it has a variety of meanings and interpretations, which is why I chose it. It’s a nice counterpoint to the precision of the Second Law.

The serpent, in most non-Christian cultures, was a symbol of wisdom. As a closed circle, it represents eternity, specifically the eternal return, the cycle of creation and destruction. It’s also been used in alchemy and mysticism towards a variety of ends too numerous to list.

The ourobouros defies the Second Law. If a serpent really were eating itself and then using the digested tissue to regrow what it lost, it would continually lose energy to heat, meaning it could never recover everything and the “system” would wind down. And yet it doesn’t. It keeps going, round and round. It is eternally fulfilled by the mysterious source from whence all comes (from where the energy of The Big Bang came from, for example).

So here we have the universal opposites, a Western yin-yang if you will: infinity and the finite, fact and superstition, magic and science, terror and meaning, the end and the beginning, the barrier to paradise and the hope of its return, knowledge and wisdom.

And between those dancing ends, the poles of possibility, lie all things. That’s where I am, where we all are, on the other side of the barrier struggling to do the best we can.