An Essay on Mortality and the Universe

Light or darkness, order or random disorder, increasing complexity or entropy — people puzzle over a world of inevitable change. For some the change is inevitably toward disorder or “entropy,” a word coined in the nineteenth century by the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. The universe is, in this view, moving toward a state of randomized disorder. Eventually — and inevitably — the entire universe will consist of a random “soup” of hydrogen atoms with no order or organization and a random “soup” of radiation that might appear uniformly dark, if there were anyone left to see it. This is, perhaps, the only theory that almost all physicists agree on, despite a variety of different and often conflicting views of the nature of the universe.

In contrast, others (usually not physicists) attend to the amazing increasing complexity in the universe. This is seen on a grand scale by the formation of stars and incredibly vast assemblages of stars called “galaxies” which continues even now, some thirteen billion years after the “big bang” that marked the birth of our universe. On a much smaller scale there is the equally mysterious organization of matter into living things that have evolved — becoming more complexly organized — from single-cell bacteria to what many point to as the most complex thing in the universe, that is, the human brain.

Everything known about the universe supports the first view, a view that might in more human terms be called “pessimistic.” The second, alternative, viewpoint might then, logically, be termed “optimistic.” In that perspective the very nature of the universe tends toward greater order and increased complexity.

However, physicists point out that any increase in complexity and order is only apparent, an illusion produced by our narrow viewpoint. Entropy or disorder in a “system” — be it a bright star or a living bacterium — is reduced (and order and complexity increased) only because the system under consideration is “closed,” that is, in some manner more or less separate from the larger universe. The argument, then, is that entropy is increased in the “outside” of a closed system to exactly the degree that entropy within such a closed system is decreased.

Thus, it would seem that despite small points of starlight and brief flashes of insight our world — external and internal — is bound to become darker over time. One need not be a physicist to believe this. Vladimir Nabokov observed, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

The grim view of our universe’s inevitable end is consistently confirmed by events we observe in the universe; stars burn out or go supernova and all living things, even the five thousand-year old bristle-cone pine, age and die. It does not, however, appear that stars are aware of that process; perhaps the pine, in some sense, is. People most certainly are. The inevitable entropic increase in the universe is the underlying process that determines our mortality. And how these living things, these humans, deal with increasing darkness varies.

Some seem attracted to the dark:

“…wandering in the woods as evening falls, the shadows growing and deepening between the trees, night filling up the world. There’s a power carried on this darkness — primal, living magic. … We’ve mostly lost the darkness now. … When I bought my house … more than 20 years ago, there was not a streetlight visible in any direction … the darkness was broken only by the headlights of passing cars. … Now I step outside my door and stare at the bank of round-the-clock lights … I crave the night so much, miss it so much. … My mother, as she entered old age, sold her house and moved out into the woods … My mother died a few months ago. … Since then I’ve spent a lot of time alone in her house in the woods … I’ve been there as darkness falls, a darkness deeper than any I normally see anywhere now. It surrounds and draws me in … Deliverance beckons. Slowly, inexorably, I’m following my mother into the dark.” Maria Browning

Some cry out against it:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Dylan Thomas

One, who survived a disease sure to kill says in “The Dream of Refusal”:

“I will walk all night. I will not die . . .

Nothing will make me dance in that dark.”

Yet elsewhere he observes that death:

“. . . will of course take you screaming if it must, if you insist.” Reynolds Price

Whether welcoming, crying out against, or quietly accepting our inevitable end, we may be so concerned with our personal existence because, as Nabokov pointed out, its brevity is obvious. It appears that entropy increases far more rapidly for living things than for inert objects. Physicists assure me that my desk, so solid now, will eventually decompose and disintegrate, first perhaps into solid “chunks” but eventually into a random cloud of atoms and ultimately into probability distributions of quantum particles. This will, of course, take a very, very long time. In contrast, the longest human life recorded was a mere hundred and twenty-three revolutions of the earth around the star we call the sun.

The How of Existence

Quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that physical matter exists because quantum particles interact. Such interactions may be relatively simple and stable with respect to many, perhaps most, of the elements defined in the periodic table. These elements are the physical matter of the universe. They are also the components of living things. However, the quantum-level interactions that maintain living things would logically and practically seem to involve immensely greater complexity than the interactions that maintain the existence of matter that is not alive, such as rocks, air, or water. According to Rovelli, before quantum particles themselves exist they are only probabilities, part of a universe-wide probability “cloud” that only becomes a particle when an interaction with another (potential) quantum particle actually occurs. It could be that the energy required to maintain the physical existence of living matter may be very great due to the complexity of interactions that are required to turn probability distributions into quantum particles and “integrate” them into increasingly complex structures such as atoms, molecules, and, ultimately, the living material of which we are made. Entropy, the “dis”-integration of matter, be it living or non-living, may increase much faster for living matter that requires a lot of energy to maintain a constant — and very complex — existence.

Slowing Entropy

Substantially increasing the length of existence of living matter would seem to require either reversing entropy or, at least, slowing its increase. There are two ways we know of slowing entropy with regard to human “aging” and therefore living (existing) for a longer duration. One is simply to move very fast with respect to the speed of light, which Einstein first demonstrated is fixed and constant at about 186,000 miles per second. This is actually possible but, unfortunately, the result is not what one might expect. That is, if you accelerate, say in a rocket ship, to a speed that is substantial, say one-third that of light, it turns out that you won’t feel that time slows down or that you have a longer life. That would be the case only in comparison with others who are moving at a much slower speed. That is, when you slow down and meet them, they will have aged far more than you. You will have travelled into the future faster than others but you won’t have experienced more “time.” The other way to slow entropy is to stay far away from large physical objects, such as planets. This is no more practical than spending many years travelling at a high speed in a rocket ship, and yields the same results. So far as we know, slowing entropy is no more possible — at least not in terms of extending experienced life time — than reversing entropy, which physicists agree is impossible.

But is it really the case that increases in order and complexity are merely local entropy decreases that are offset by corresponding increases in entropy elsewhere? Is the increase of entropy in the universe inevitable? Will this universe simply end as a random slough of waves and particles, barely interacting, if interacting at all? Or is it possible that the physicists are wrong, that something is going on in the universe that appears to reverse entropy? Is there any evidence for such a possibility?

First, as already noted, physicists dismiss local increases in complexity as merely apparent and not real reversals of entropy because such decreases in entropy (as evidenced by increases in complexity) are offset by equal increases outside the “local” system. But, taking a large-scale viewpoint, what’s going on doesn’t look local, it looks rather general. How is it that some thirteen billion years after the universe began its expansion from a single point of near-infinite density we are still seeing stars form? Focusing on a smaller scale and the evident increases in the complexity of living systems on earth, where is the required increase in entropy that must offset the increase in complexity (and decrease in entropy) seen in evolution of life on earth? And outside of obvious biological evolution there is equally obvious social evolution, with patterns of increasingly complex organization. Where are the supposed increased entropic offsets?

Most physicists (though not all of them) generally agree that the universe is expanding. It appears that at distances farther and farther from our solar system (and galaxy) this expansion is “moving” at speeds greater than that of light — which is impossible. An alternative explanation is that the expansion of the universe is not like that of a balloon being blown up but is instead due to the constant creation of new space, giving the appearance, though not the reality, of faster than light movement. How, then, does this continual creation fit with the statement that entropy (disorder) only increases? The point here is not that continual creation implies increased order (although it might) but simply that it does not seem to fit with the notion of an inevitable increase in disorder.

The issue of decreasing versus increasing order and organization of physical and social systems may be addressed by the evident and ongoing increase in technological development. In a lecture at Bell Labs, on the occasion of being awarded the Shannon Prize, Stephen Fry observed that technological development has, for the past few thousand years, been progressing at a geometrically incremental pace. Only in the past hundred years or so has this become obvious. An example is Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be put onto a “chip” doubles about every two years. One result of this is that the computers that we call “cell phones” or “mobiles” are many times more powerful than the first modern computers constructed in the late 1940s or the computer used to guide the first moon landing in 1969. There now exist working quantum computers, in which a “bit” can be both a “1” and a “0” at the same time. Such computers are far more powerful than any that came before them.

Reversing Entropy

In sum, generally accepted views as to the future of the universe as well as that of its living inhabitants are rather pessimistic and limited, if on rather different scales. There may, however, be a more optimistic view. The geometrically increasing rate of change — technological for sure, social not so certain — may add another possibility. We may arrive at a new understanding of the universe that could show how entropy might be managed and possibly even reversed. Physicists have recently demonstrated that on quantum scale time can be reversed, if only for an incredibly brief moment. But, even so, this would seem to imply that entropy, too, might be reversible.

The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a relevant short story in the mid-twentieth century. As computers become increasingly powerful the question of how to reverse entropy is asked repeatedly by humans over the eons. The repeated response is, “Information inadequate to compute answer.” After trillions of years the universe has, in fact, become nothing but a random collection of hydrogen atoms and the last humans have been incorporated into a self-constructed computer memory that exists outside space and time. Finally, although there is no one left to hear, this artificial creation announces, “Computing” and, after an indefinite time, simply states, “Let there be light.”