Shampoo and the Heat Death of the Universe

[This piece probably works as a companion piece to that one.]

We talk about the lever as the simplest machine, but it really isn’t. The simplest machine is entropy, so long as we take a very human-centric view of what work is. If I turn over an almost-empty bottle of shampoo so that the viscous stuff might slowly collect at the cap-end overnight, a human perspective sees that as useful work, though the gods of physics tend to see it as the inverse of work, because the shampoo’s potential energy has been reduced in the process. Entropy, through gravity, has done something terribly useful for us, while doing what for itself is the vague analogue of a slow breathing out after a lungful of air.

I find that I do think of entropy generally, and gravity specifically, as machines, and consequently feel towards them an affection that I’ve expressed elsewhere: one which is even greater because of their utter tirelessness and ubiquity. Not only do they move through the darkest night that which we might like to be moved (shampoo, tomato ketchup, dregs of lotion), they can sort by size with a little shake, and — most important, this one — they can keep things where we put them, in a neat pile here, or, Tetris-like, finding their own way to snuggle together parsimoniously.

I don’t believe it’s just an obsessively tidy mind which leads me to straighten a wonky pile of things without it requiring a conscious thought, nor to push something dangling precariously further onto its support. It’s an act of everyday consideration for the machine which has way too much to deal with at the best of times. It seems the least I can do. After all, I might get to sleep, but it never does — or rather never will until it tidies the entire universe away to the ultimate neatness a few billion years from tonight.

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