Today, I picked up a cup in the living room to take to the dishwasher. In our kitchen, five steps away, I could not find the dishwasher. Or, rather, the concept of “dishwasher” did not come together in my head, even though I kept repeating “dishwasher, dishwasher” in my mind to remember what to do. In frustration, I hefted the cup in my hand toward various kitchen objects, trying to figure out what to do next. From somewhere the knowledge came that a dishwasher was something you opened up to put something into. I started opening drawers and cupboard doors. When I got to the fridge, the gestalt of “our-dishwasher-in-the-apartment-kitchen” coalesced in my brain and I knew all I had to do was turn around and its black glass face would be there. My understanding of the task at hand was restored.
Not so my confidence.
Rightmost painting from Francis Bacon’s triptych Studies from the Human Body, 1970
My frightening and disconcerting experience served as a reminder that, even though my head works better in this odd world of little social contact during the coronavirus slowdown, my mental erosion is still ongoing. My brain is getting more and more disorganized.
Which brings me to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
In everyday language, the Second Law can be said to state that the things in the world become less and less organized as time goes on. In scientific language, the Second Law says that the entropy, or disorder, of a closed system always increases over time. Take, for example, a roadside sculpture that Swedish artist Karel Momem gave to the State of Utah as a gift in 1986, two years after we arrived in Salt Lake City from South Africa. The Tree of Utah is a columnar structure, visible for seventeen miles before you get to it, seemingly deposited overnight on the salt flats by an alien space ship, right beside the I-80 and very close to Wendover, a town that straddles the Utah/Nevada state line. About a decade later, the Tree regrettably started showing signs of inept art management by the State’s Division of Facilities and Construction, who saw fit to install a razor-wire-topped fence around its base. The barrier shimmers like a crown of thorns—several of which lodge themselves in my flesh as soon as the nature of the addition registers on my lover-of-odd-art brain: the illusion of extra-terrestrial origins is utterly destroyed! At first, potential vandalism presents itself as the proximate cause for the barrier’s materialization, but a quick google search reveals that the vandal is rather the Second Law itself: the fence, it turns out, is intended to protect visitors from the tiles that keep dropping off the tree’s spherical “fruits” to join the fallen “leaves”—large spherical segments intentionally scattered by the sculptor as part of his artistic conception—on the salty ground below.
Karel Momem’s creation, The Tree of Utah, stretches 87 feet to the sky, “a ramrod of pre-cast concrete that displays over 30 different colors on the tree’s six concrete spheres. Each sphere is covered with rocks, quarried in Utah, adhered to the surface. Ceramic tiles imported from Italy—some of which have now been shed—complement the blue and green crystalline rock. For now, the fence is the closest The Tree of Utah will come to having any repair work done. An endowment was to be established for the work’s upkeep, but has never materialized.” (Hikmet Sidney Loe).
The knowledge that an industrial-strength glue gun could prevent the Tree of Utah’s disintegration opens up the flip side of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: It is possible to take up arms against entropy! The law holds only in a closed system, where no energy passes inward from outside. The universe is the ultimate closed system: by definition, it has no outside, therefore no place exists from where energy could come in. However, while the universe as a whole inevitably slides toward disorder, on its inside stashes of heat energy continuously create new pockets of order: aided by gravity and the heat set free through the explosion of previous systems, new stars and planets organize themselves out of the debris left by their forebears. Thus came into being our own solar system, in which—moreover—an ordering mechanism par excellence issued forth: LIFE.
The Fourth World was Black and White by Julie Newdoll, a part of her Emergence Series, an interpretation of the Dine’ (formerly called Navajo) Nation’s Creation Story (2007). With a Bachelor’s in Microbiology (with a minor in art) and a Master’s in Medical Illustration, Newdoll uses microscopic images and molecular structures in her depiction of the Dine’s evolutionary perspective on the origin of life, where everything did not appear fully formed all at once, but started out smaller, less complex, and less well-behaved. In an imaginative translation of the creation story into scientific thought, she associates the four grasshoppers that appeared in this world—white, blue, yellow, and black—as the bases for the genetic material RNA around the central sphere. As these molecules become refined and selected for the best variety, at the top near the arch, a small protein strand appears in the lower right, in the body of “Big Fly,” considered a protector image by the Dine’.
Life takes things that have less order, like dead food, and turns it into things with more order, like cells, tissues, organs. Brains. In us mammals, the neocortex, or layer of neurons right under our skulls, enables perception and coordinated action. In us humans, the neocortex has grown so voluminous that it can only fit inside our skulls by wrinkling into a manifold of grooves, fissures, and prominences that bud on the surface like caulifower florets. In this way life produced the material substratum of our wondrously complex brain that gives us access to the “truth of the Imagination.”
The Fifth World Began As an Island, Julie Newdoll, Emergence Series. Coyote, howling at the top under the arch that delineates the world, is an important figure in the Dine’ legend. Newdoll’s image of an island-world surrounded by water indicates the arrival of cells with a nucleus on the stage of life. Coyote represents proteins, which are involved in most aspects of cellular life. He is located in the arch like a membrane protein, which controls what enters and leaves a cell. The protector figures on the bottom have the sheet (left) and helix (right) motifs of proteins on their bodies. RNA has now given rise to DNA, the genetic material of our current world. DNA is life’s defense against the Second Law: it is, in the words of Erwin Schrödinger who predicted its existence a century before its discovery, the substance behind “an organism’s astonishing gift of concentrating a stream of order on itself and thus escaping the decay into atomic chaos – of drinking orderliness from a suitable environment.”
By the time I could not locate the dishwasher this morning, I had been thinking about LIFE as the antidote for the Second Law for weeks. During the coronavirus confinement that Peter and I have by now practiced for sixty-one days, such thinking was kindled by my having to substitute daily outside walks for our formerly usual activities of errands, going out for coffee, visiting people, or going to the mall to keep to my 10,000 steps per day. While I started out by I walking purposefully in the neighborhood and parks near us with my eye on my step counter, I gradually drifted from goal-directed excursions to just walking under the trees and next to the river in the wilder part of Hidden Hollow and Sugarhouse Park in the same leisurely way as I had done as a child on the farm. Unlike former nature walks of my adult life, which took place at a steady pace on a trail in the mountains, for example, these recent excursions did not require me to “look at nature” or “admire it” or mount an internal or conversational commentary on what I was seeing. Like my childhood self, I walked wherever visual, auditory, or tactile pleasure took me, following the green shimmy of moss on a fallen tree trunk, the crunch of dessicated leaves underfoot, the don’t-touch-me dare of lethal-looking, prickly-spine-armored dried teasel seedheads.
Teasel, Dipsacum sylvestris, originally from Europe, now an invasive species in Utah.
Although, strictly speaking, it is against the law to remove nature items from a park or wilderness area, I cannot keep my hands to myself: following the spirit of the postman character in the eponymous film who used Pablo Neruda’s poems to win the heart of the woman he loved and justified his actions in a expostulation to Neruda that “poetry belongs to those who need it most,” I gathered decaying nature items from under trees in parts of the park where the lawns are mowed and the pods or pine-cone clusters or slivers of bark would in any case get sucked into the mower bag, as well as from the banks of the river behind the high school where dried leaves and peels of bark were just a rainstorm away from being swept away in the current. To the indifferent universe, these objects had had their glorious moment in the cycle of order-giving life; it was meet and right for them to now lose their fine structures to fiat of the Second Law. To, me, though, they were what Sherry Turkle calls “things we use to think with” (Evocative Objects). Clearly, I needed them more than the universe. Glowing with righteous self-justification, I brought these treasures home to adorn the apple branch I had brought from Marissa’s house and Peter had fixed firmly into a pot on our tiny seventh-floor balcony.
Channeling the Second Law, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of outdoor wear maker Patagonia, said, “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life because everything is pulling you to be more and more complex.” And so it was with my making of the Wilmington Flats tree: into the already incompatible mix of pine needle clumps, teasel seeds, autumn-tinged holly leaves, acorn-hats, a foundling blue mosaic tile, and so on, I tossed items I scored over the years from craft shop sales: emerald green velvet ribbon, obnoxiously artificial-looking moss balls made out of real moss, flowers with petals of shaved wood, and clip-on birds feathered with real plumes from species with no resemblance to the final product.
For cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, “The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving [is] to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.” Such were my happy feelings, for once in sync with those of Doña Quixote, as I labored with molten-glue-wounded and teasel-thorn-porcupined fingers to spawn my freakish but oh so satisfying creation.