Friday, February 13, 2009

Today's physics lesson and what it means

"As entropy increases, order decreases."

That's physics. Some rule or something. I heard it in college a gazillion years ago, although what I was doing in a class where someone was talking about physics I can't now recall. There must have been a reason.

But that little kernel of information remains with me, one of a small handful of facts that I have unaccountably retained over the years, stubbornly clinging to the inside of my head like a sodden Wheaties flake that dried on the table and now can't be scraped off. What it means, if I remember rightly and that's almost certainly not the case, is that entropy is a measure of order or organization, the lower the entropy the higher the organization. A heavy element, with it's cloud of electrons and it's massive nucleus has more order than a hydrogen atom. A molecule represents more order than an atom. A galaxy has more order than a diffuse cloud of gas. (I'm almost certain I'm getting this wrong, because I don’t think I understood it completely in college and that was a long time ago.)

And, in this universe we live in, the tendency is for entropy to increase. Order is always breaking down, big things slowly devolving into their constituent parts until someday (hopefully not soon but you never know) the entire universe (including all of us) will be one evenly spaced field of sub-atomic particles a tiny flicker of a degree above absolute zero.

Something like that.

And what in the world am I writing this for? Even if I'm right, and that seems highly unlikely, what could possibly be the point of wasting blog space on it?

Another way of stating that law - As entropy increases, order decreases – would be this simpler statement: Stuff breaks. A new law of physics! Call it Baur's Universal Constant.

That seems particularly apropos today. As I've noted, we had car trouble the last couple of months. We've had water problems. And those problems have redoubled this week. The water went out Wednesday, here it is Friday and we still don't have running water in the house. The plumber (nice guy, moved here four months ago from Texas) is here again and has tracked down three leaks in the supply line that feeds from the cistern to the pump. It doesn't mean water's leaking out, it means air is leaking in, the pump can't hold the prime and I can't take a shower. And I really need a shower by now. Three days without running water. I think I've told you the process I have to go through to flush the toilet, I won't belabor the point.

What's weird is (and here's where the physics lesson comes in,) nothing happened to suddenly cause these leaks. It's not like I ran over the pipe with the car, or a meteor hit or something. Tuesday everything worked fine. Wednesday, not. I can only think it has to do with a sudden, localized burst of entropy.

Bertha (our car) is similar. We bought her from a guy moving back to the states, so it's not like he was dumping a lemon. She's been a good rig for us. Until the ignition problem started in December. Then a brake problem in January. And a tiny leak in the cooling system the mechanic couldn't find, but he told us to keep an eye on the radiator level and carry a jug of coolant with us at all times. That's how it is with cars, they run great, but once a problem starts, there's a cascade effect.

Tori was driving to school yesterday morning with Max and Millie in the car. They had just turned off the highway (the island's only four-lane road) and were heading up East Airport Road when there was a tremendous crashing/grinding sound, as if they'd been hit. Tori pulled over and looked. No damage. She got back in and started driving - and immediately the car started shaking violently. It was barely controllable. She pulled into the gas station just up the road and looked underneath. The rear torsion bar had snapped like a twig. Had it happened 10 minutes earlier, when she was driving 60 on the highway, it's horrifying to think what might have happened.

As luck would have it, the gas station she pulled in at was not more than 200 yards from an auto repair place. She VERY slowly drove to it, then called school and got someone to come out and pick them up.

The guys at Unique Auto Repair were able to fix it at a fraction of what I thought it would cost. There was no replacement part on the island (that's often the case) but a torsion bar isn't a big, complicated thing - it's a bar that essentially holds the rear wheels in place while you drive. No big deal. They welded it back together, reinforced it, and charged us very little. When school was over she was able to get back out there, pick it up and drive home, rattled but otherwise safe and sound.

So that story has a happy ending. Considering how it could have ended, we'll take it.

But it's just another warning to be on the lookout for entropy in your life. I've got a birthday coming up, and ever since I turned 50 I've felt my personal entropy rising exponentially. Here on St. Croix, it's even more so. This is a high-entropy part of the universe. So perhaps for my birthday I'm going to see if anybody sells an entropy meter. Probably Radio Shack. Or Kmart. Or Mr. Dollar - one of our favorite stores on the island. He sells everything, and like the sign out front says, "If we don't have it, you don't need it." Since I need a personal entropy meter, it stands to reason that he must have it. Although I recall vaguely from another college class (Logic) that "universal affirmatives can be only partly converted" - whatever that means - so I should probably call ahead first and ask.

But that'd be a really useful tool to have. It wouldn't stop entropy from increasing, but at least it'd give me a warning. That's all I ask. Although, given local entropic conditions, the meter would be the next thing to break.

1 comment:

AJ said...

Ahoy, Ol'Chumbucket. I found a device that might be helpful for you in yer particular sityation: an entropy meter.

I'll post it on my Facebook page, if you're interested in checking it out: Andrew James Shelden,
Charlottesville, VA