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"Entropy" [1960]
Seminar Handout

Section Index

  1. The Story
  3. Physics
  4. Style
  5. Further Points for Discussion
  6. Bibliography

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1. The Story

The story is set in early February of 1957 in Washington D.C. and lets the reader take a glimpse into the minds and thoughts of various people in an apartment house. Among the characters are Meatball Mulligan and Callisto, who tries to keep an injured bird from dying by holding him in his hands to provide him with enough warmth. But in the end, the bird dies. The story makes a lot of references to chaos, entropy and the heat death of the universe --- these terms belonging to physics being applied to society here. The outside temperature is a constant 57°F (=2.8°C).


(Order in Chaos)

"Hermetically sealed, it was a tiny enclave of regularity in the city's chaos, alien to the vagaries of the weather, of national politics, of any civil disorder." [83f]


"The cosmologists had predicted an eventual heat-death for the universe (something like Limbo: form and motion abolished, heat-energy identical at every point in it); the meteorologists, day-to-day, staved it off by contradicting with a reassuring array of varied temperatures." [85]


"Callisto had learned a mnemonic device for remembering the Laws of Thermodynamics: you can't win, things are going to get worse before they get better, who says they're going to get better. [..] That spindly maze of equations became, for him, a vision of ultimate, cosmic heat-death. He had known all along that nothing but a theoretical system ever runs at 100% efficiency; and about the theorem of Clausius, which states that the entropy of an isolated system always continually increases." [87]


"His had always been a vigorous, Italian sort of pessimism: like Machiavelli, he allowed the forces of virtù and fortuna to be about 50/50; but the equations now introduced a random factor which pushed the odds to some unutterable and indeterminable ration which he found himself afraid to calculate." [87f]


"The architectonic purity of her world was constantly threathened by such hints of anarchy: gaps and excrescences and skew lines, and a shifting or tilting of planes to which she had continually to readjust lest the whole structure shiver into a disarray of discrete and meaningless signals." [88]


"he found in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to certain phenomena in his own world. [..] and in American `consumerism' [he] saw a similar tendency from the least to the most probable, from differentiation to sameness, from ordered individuality to a kind of chaos. He found himself, in short, restating Gibb's prediction in social terms, and envisioned a heat death for his culture in which ideas, like heat energy, would no longer be transferred, since each point in it would ultimately have the same quantity of energy; and intellectual motion would, accordingly, cease." [88f]


"Miriam has been reading science fiction again. That and Scientific American. It seems she is, as we say, bugged at this idea of computers acting like people. I made the mistake of saying you can just as well turn that around, and talk about human behavior like a program to be fed into an IBM machine." [90]

(Language Barrier)

"There are Europeans wandering around North Africa these days with their tongues torn out of their heads because those tongues have spoken the wrong words. Only the Europeans thought they were the right words. [..] Ambiguity. Redundance. Inelevance, even. Leakage. All this is noise. Noise screws up your signal, makes for disorganization in the circuit." [90f]

(The Bird)

"I held him [..] to give him the warmth of my body. Almost as if I were communicating life to him, or a sense of life. What has happened? Has the transfer of heat ceased to work? Is there no more...' He did not finish." [88]

(Final Equilibrium)

"[She] realized somehow that the constant 37 was now decisive. [..] and turned to face the man on the bed and wait with him until the moment of equilibrium was reached, when 37 degrees Fahrenheit should prevail both outside and inside, and forever, and the hovering, curious dominant of their seperate lives should resolve into a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion." [98]

3. Physics

  • ENTROPY: The entropy of a physical system measures the degree of disorder in a system. In the long term, Entropy never decreases but continually increases. The theoretical counterpart of entropy would be anentropy.

  • EXPANSION OF THE UNIVERSE: It is assumed that at the beginning of the universe a Big Bang has taken place, setting free a certain amount of matter--energy which would start expanding inflationally because of the initial explosion (alas the "Bang''). This continuing expansion would be fueled by entropy.

  • HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE: As entropy increases, the disorder of matter and energy increases. The universe would continue to expand infinitely, its average temperature would drop until all movement eventually would cease. As temperature (heat) is a measurement of particle movement, a halt of movement means zero temperature (so it is rather the universe dying of coldness than of heat). This model is based upon the assumption that there would be not enough mass to incite a re--contraction of the universe.

  • RE-CONTRACTION & BIG CRUNCH: Another model assumes that there would be enough mass in the universe (hidden in the so--called Dark Matter. Dark Matter consists firstly of neutrinos, which are either assumed of having zero mass (heat death model) or a very small mass. Even such a small mass would suffice to produce enough gravity within the entire expanding universe that outward movement could be stopped and turned back inside, leading to an implosion. Such a model meant also that entropy would turn into anentropy, that the universe would lead to a higher state of order instead of disorder. It would end in a Big Crunch, the counterpart of a Big Bang, and could even produce another Bang and another incarnation of a universe.

  • CHAOS THEORY: So-called chaotic systems are systems depending on more than two variables, thus making it impossible to calculate the outcome, the systems are unpredictable in the long run (as in complex systems like the atmosphere, the solar system etc.). Even the slightest variations could lead to drastic implications. But from chaos also order can form, leading to seemingly stable states (like hurricanes or cyclones in the atmosphere); as can seemingly stable systems transform into chaos out of a sudden.

4. Style

  • use of many foreign words, especially Italian and French

  • seemingly unmotivated, chaotic switching between the scenes -- stream of consciousness?

  • the story makes use of various symbols: the morra game (a traditional Spanish game), music, physics, communication theory to approach issues of society; certain themes are approached by merely touching them, by using them in a symbolic way ("that private time warp" [97])

  • understatement is used to amplify the effect: "Something to do with the Manhattan Project" [92]

  • use of puns: "And as every good Romantic knows, the soul (spiritus, ruach, pneuma) is nothing, substantially, but air; it is only natural that warpings in the atmosphere should be recapitulated in those who breathe it." [83]

5. Further Points For Discussion

  • chaos and order in society

  • symbols, puns, strange events --- needs art to be explained (cf. also David Lynch movies) / analysis vs interpretation

6. Bibliography

July 15th / August 17th, 1999 [HTML Version]

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