Archive for November, 2011

Seeking Equilibrium: Random Thoughts on Thermodynamics and Packing

November 23, 2011

Inside my little beach house are symptoms of the next relocation. My resident Sphinx, Lulu, recognizes them, forecasts I’ll be leaving, and mopes. She brushes her black fur against the cardboard boxes I had gradually filled with things not to forget.

The open boxes stand as a daily reminder that every period in residence is a period, not a residence. The lid of an opened suitcase leans against the couch, the clothes in it laundered, unworn, like piles of micro-organization nested in macro chaos.

Ten times a year now I shake things up, down from ten times that—a far distant once-upon-a-time when my world was much further from equilibrium.

Two thousand kilometers away, a hurricane spins away over the central Atlantic. Computer models say it might touch Bermuda, but not us, with 95% probability; now we even know how likely we are to not know what we don’t know.

What we do know for sure (we who are so interested in how many calories are in a half-cup of cubed peaches, which we can never really know, nor how many half-cups of peaches equal a Cobb salad made with the leanest chicken cubes never to have been produced by a chicken), is that the ocean between America and Europe and the space between Earth and sky, clear and shiny between vacuum-separating hurricanes, are stirred up.

Thermodynamics is about equilibrium, the nature’s desire to be smooth, uniform, and tranquil. Equilibrium eliminates gradients, differences of temperature, of velocity, of density, of charge, of stress, of chemical potential. In exchange for allowing nature to reach her beloved and elusive equilibrium, we charge her an energy tax. That tax turns our shafts and our wheels and pushes airplanes and rockets and photons through space.

We even provide energy rebates to nature. We provide work in exchange for her allowing us to maintain a gradient we want, so that the inside of a freezer remains cold on a hot day is paid for by the work of a compressor—a tax rebate of sorts.

Driven by a gradient of ideas, of what I want, and by the difference between what is and what could be, by what we could create out of what we are, I pack.