(Feature) Why I Tattooed Science & Magic 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.

imageFor those who like precision, S is entropy. The Greek letter before it, delta, means the change between two points in time, so delta-S is the change in entropy. Q is a measure of heat and T is temperature. Lowercase delta before the Q also means change.

In a closed system — one with absolutely no interaction with anything else (such as a hermetic universe) — the total change in heat is always at least zero. If it wasn’t, if the heat could go somewhere (a negative value), then it’s not a closed system.

Of course, a zero in the numerator makes the whole value zero, so the change in entropy in a closed system can never go down.

In other words, order does not come about on its own. “Disorder” rules. (Yes, entropy and disorder are not perfectly interchangeable, but they are related concepts.)

So what, you say?

I like that the Second Law is not an equation. Equations simply say that two things are equal. They are always reducible, in a philosophical sense, to 1=1. I prefer 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.

I’m not Christian. But all religions, not to mention most philosophies, ultimately wrestle with the Fundamental Problem of the Universe:

Why is everything so effing hard?

They’re actually a lot less hard these days than for most of human history, mostly thanks to science and technology, but it’s no less important a problem. Religion’s rejoinder has been “It looks worse than it is.” It then orients mankind’s woes inside something much grander, giving the seemingly futile and capricious terrors we experience some ultimate unknowable meaning — The Divine Plan.

(There is a quick overview of the topology of religion here.)

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.

It’s also the reason you can’t reverse time, like running back a tape, and do things over — the so-called “arrow of time.” If you could go back, you could see to it that entropy goes down, which violates the law. So we can only go forward, meaning we all have to live with our mistakes, with the chaos that flows from us like a wake.

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

To be, or to be

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 part of the reason I chose it. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the precision of the Second Law.

We all know the serpent in the Genesis story, but in most non-Christian cultures, snakes are symbols wisdom. As a closed circle, the ourobouros 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 to death — even if it ate very, very slowly. And yet it doesn’t die. It keeps going round and round, eternally fulfilled by the mysterious source from whence all comes, including the Second Law.

So here we have the universal opposites, a Western yin-yang if you will: infinity and the finite, fact and superstition, science and magic, 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 you are, on the other side of the barrier struggling to do the best we can.