One temporary state

July 1, 2009
On a picturesque hill in the heart of modern Rome, there stands a flowering garden called Palatine that contains all of the royal palaces and official

On a picturesque hill in the heart of modern Rome, there stands a flowering garden called Palatine that contains all of the royal palaces and official buildings of the ancient Empire's Caesars. Entering the complex from the southeast, one first climbs upward to see the old royal stadium, now no more than a high-walled courtyard of rocks and grass. A few hundred steps up and northward from there are the remains of Domus Augustana, the enormous private dwelling built of cement-and-travertine layercake for the so-called august Caesars. Other nearby remnants — the temple of goddess Cybele, the still faintly frescoed House of Livia, and Nero's Cryptoporticus, among other pools and small structures — hint at what arched and columned grandeur the place once held. The crown jewel down the northeastern slope of the hill, raised on what were originally also royal grounds, is the world-famous Coliseum, standing nobly and eternally, or at least appearing so. Thousands of years old, this Palatine complex that once served as the Headquarters of the World is now a pleasant gravel-pathed garden of ruins.

Associated with the decline of Rome and similar decay is the notion that entropy, or Nature's tendency for increasing disorder, is at work. (Check out page 30 for the second and final part of our Brushing Up series on entropy, and its scientific definition in terms of heat and statistics; Part One is online at Certain aspects of entropy are almost intuitive phenomena; like gravity, its action is so evident in everyday life that we carry a vague sense of its unwavering presence with us. On the other hand, other aspects, such as the drive of molecules into predictable states for free energy, lie beyond our macroscopic view of the world and seem to contradict all but the most scientific investigations.

That is why there is a small group of physicists who oppose equating entropy to disorder. Some rally for abolition of any such similes; others, such as Dr. Daniel F. Styer of Oberlin College, Ohio, suggest a counterbalancing association — to liken entropy, because of related “liberation” of energy and systems, to freedom.

In any case, if past performance roughly predicts future results, it is likely that as the Roman Empire, the United States that we know will someday also slide into oblivion. Fortunately, this will not happen in our lifetimes: Though our nation is undergoing huge transformations, it required hundreds of years of change, sacking, invasion, and then abandonment and a Dark Age to put the old heart of Rome to sleep forever.

To return to metaphors of entropy, whether viewed as a disordering or freeing force, the cyclical decay and then rebirth of human systems is natural — and it behooves us to remember that this too shall pass. Whether it is the Roman Empire or General Motors, there is no organization too big to fail. However, failure need not be tragic: Rome today is a vibrant metropolis and capital of Italian culture, innovation, and design. Perhaps in a hundred years, Detroit will experience its own Renaissance. (Whether Obama and Co. can speed that process along is a topic for another day.) Acceptance of these changes goes a long way in intelligently constructing the future, so let us see our systems for what they are — the temporary tools designed to make today easier.

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