Entropy, Horizontal Surfaces and Clutter

First, a little thermodynamics, the branch of physical science concerned with heat and its relation to other forms of energy and work. The first law of thermodynamics, or the law of energy conservation, says that all real-world processes involve transformations of energy, and that the total amount of energy is always conserved, i.e. that total is neither decreased nor increased. For example, the amount of energy contained in a skier and his environment at the top of a slope is the same when he reaches the bottom: the decrease in his potential energy (elevation) has been transferred into melting ice under his skis, raising the temperature of the air surrounding him as he descends (due to friction), etc. And the total energy in a perfectly insulated glass of water and ice remains constant as the ice melts.

The second law of thermodynamics may be stated in several ways. One says that “the entropy of a closed system shall never decrease, but shall increase whenever possible.” (Note the “closed system” restraint in this definition.) Another way of stating the second law is that “entropy increases during irreversible processes such as spontaneous mixing of hot and cold gases, uncontrolled expansion of a gas into a vacuum, and combustion of fuel.” To this I add irreversible processes such as dropping an egg onto the floor (dropping a broken egg on the floor does not make it whole), shuffling a deck of cards (shuffling them again does not put them back in canonical order), and spraying air freshener into a room (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put the atomized perfume back into the can).

Entropy, in popular, nontechnical use is regarded as a measure of the chaos or randomness of a system. An explosion is a great example of an increase in entropy. (Yes, I realize that in the pure, technical, physics sense of entropy, disorder of macro elements, e.g. an egg, is thermo- dynamically different from disorder of micro elements, e.g. water molecules. Philosophically, however, the analogy does apply, so I will use it.)

Disorder is more probable than order because there are so many more ways of achieving it. Thus coins and cards tend to assume random configurations when tossed or shuffled, and socks and books and glasses and pencils and … tend to become more scattered about a room during the course of daily living. Which leads to my next topic: horizontal surfaces.

Any horizontal surface is soon piled up. Or put differently, a horizontal surface is a magnet for anything that does not belong there. Just look around you: table, shelf, chair, floor, piano, mantle, counter, window sill, bar, … Does every item on those horizontal surfaces belong there? If company were coming, would you move any of them? (“CHAOS: An acronymn for ‘Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.’) If photographs of your place were to be published, would you put things where they belong? If a cleaning spirit came over you, would you first put things away so you could clean?

So, why do horizontal surfaces collect things in addition to dust? Dropping an object on a horizontal surface requires no energy, or thought. The immediate gratification of convenience. Procrastination of placing objects in their proper place. Temporary placement turns into semi-permanent status. Forgetfulness that the object was left out of its place. A laissez-faire attitude. … All of which occurs.

Clutter is the result. Clutter: to crowd together in disorder; to fill or cover with things in disorder; to throw into disorder; to disarrange; as, to clutter a room. Clutter is a perpetual enemy, as a result of our nature, as a result of entropy at work. Disorder, or clutter, is more probable than order. “The physics of clutter is that it will come into your office [or home, or … ] without your assistance, but will not go away without your assistance.” Julie Mahan. Clutter is a subconscious drain on a clear mind, on a relaxed spirit, on the freedom to create, on …

But, ah! The beauty of simplicity! Lack of clutter, what a relief! “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo DaVinci. “Less is more.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (architect) “Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” Plato. “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann.

Ever noticed the beauty of a single rose on a table? Of a string of pearls on a black sweater? Of salt and pepper shakers alone on a kitchen table? Of an ink pen alone on a desk? Of a single statue on a mantle? Ever noticed the beauty of well organized tools on a pegboard? Of books on a bookshelf? Of … you name it? Simplicity. Beauty.

“I have learned by some experience, by many examples, and by the writings of countless others before me, also occupied in the search, that certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others. There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow. Simplification of life is one of them.” Ann Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea)

So, how to use the principle of entropy to replace its natural product of clutter with the beauty of simplicity? Left to its own, the entropy (disorder) of a system will naturally increase. To bring order, simplicity and beauty (in the fullest sense of the word), to decrease its entropy, energy be put into the system. Order and spiritual beauty will not come automatically, no matter how much we will it. Action is required. Disciplined action. Committed action.

To keep entropy under control, to maximize order in our systems, three basic principles will go far toward the goal. One, “a place for everything, everything in its place.” Benjamin Franklin. Conscientiously, habitually, continuously, perpetually.

Two, “a place for everything, everything in its place.” Benjamin Franklin. Conscientiously, habitually, continuously, perpetually.

And three, “a place for everything, everything in its place.” Benjamin Franklin. Conscientiously, habitually, continuously, perpetually.

When that happens, bliss ensues. Yes, again, energy is required. But then, “Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” Andrew Carnegie. Which will it be: order or disorder, beauty or clutter, simplicity or disarray? A choice.

“It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” Laura Ingalls Wilder

A corollary: Do we really need the things we have, or think we need? “Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.” Elise Boulding.

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2 Responses to Entropy, Horizontal Surfaces and Clutter

  1. David says:

    Jerry, why don’t you just pick up your socks like you should?

  2. Rebekah and Caesar Okeyo says:

    Loved this!

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