An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for November, 2010

Time Again

Posted by xbanguyen on November 23, 2010

I did not eat the grapes that night because they were conjured up by a defense mechanism to distract me from the pain after the fall.  Keats’s ode, purple-stained, and Andre Breton’s recurrent first time were adequate analgesic. Poetry came in handy then, as does the precarious stack of fiction hovering over the monitor at work when I need a diversion from the ordered world of digital design. I take an inordinate pleasure in piling more books onto that stack, haphazardly almost, so that it will topple one day, increasing entropy as stated in the second law of thermodynamics, and the chaos in my cubicle. Of course I can reverse this by righting the books to gain an illusion of orderliness, but it would never be the same stack of books it once was. As observed by Brian Greene the physicist, there is an incomprehensible number of possible ways for the pages to land when you throw an unbound volume, 697 pages, of War and Peace into the air.(1)   It has been theorized that the universe started out having very low entropy, and the increase in entropy is relentless ever since. The unidirectional property of entropy is bleak, because the past is  proven to be irretrievable.

Truly, though our element is time,           
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin

The knowing resignation in the poem casts a gentle gloom on the reader, but the engineer in me dispassionately points out that the whole thing is theoretical and that there is an inconsistency in this unidirectional, irreversible nature of entropy in comparison with the symmetry described in classical physics, for example Newton’s third law, and both were formed to describe the same universe.  In fact, chemical physicists at the University of Australia have proved that in microscopic systems – latex beads of a few micrometers in diameter suspended in water, entropy decreases for a few tenths of a second (1).

So the deduction that bears out the arrow of time deflects on its own.  Nevertheless, the water in the experiment brings to mind Nick Caraway’s last reflection as he ended Jay Gatsby’s story, “So we beat on, boat against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” Even though I always enjoy rereading that sentence with my mind’s eye, tonight with the coming of the first snowstorm of the season, such melancholy needs to be counterbalanced by some optimism so I will skip the rest of autumn, an entire winter and go directly to spring

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud …

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thank you for the conversation, dear muse.




(2) The entropy graph is from
(3) The clock figure is from
(4) The green leaves photo is from


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