Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Entropy Tango

This phrase was coined by Michael Moorcock about 30 years ago, as a title in his long-running Jerry Cornelius writings. To me, it is something stately and inexorable, the dance that must by necessity lead to the final heat death of the universe.

If everything flows and nothing remains still (as Heraclitus the Ephesian said), there is no final death. But entropy, the state of gradual loss which comes with this motion, ensures that all things come to an end.

Heraclitus was the ancient who first came up with the concept of ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω, the 'path upwards and downwards'. The phrase, read in English as hodos anö katö, or anodos/kathodos, is what electrochemists get their terms 'anode' and 'cathode' from; one is the upward path of the electrons and one is the downward path (and of course, elektrodos means 'amber path' or 'path of electrons'). But Heraclitus never factored in resistance and loss of power in his circuitous musings.

Which is what brings us back to the entropy tango. All things go round and round, up and down, but eventually, the ability to do anything productive wanes. Things equilibrate. At the end, all the lovely dancers fall down within their ring of roses.

No cell lasts for ever; no volta will bridge the dying electronic ga(s)p of the stricken system. But while the passionate embrace continues, life goes on. It is rather sobering, however, to note that the greater the energies expended, the more passionate the expression, the quicker the end. It is the choice of Achilles — to burn quickly and die a legend, or to burn slowly and die forgotten.

But either way, it is the entropy tango, danced quickly or slowly in the ballroom of time.

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