Entropy and Coronavirus

Manhattan by Joseph Albers, hung in the lobby of the Met Life Building until a redesign in 2000, reinstalled in Grand Central Station in 2019.

Why does everything in the known universe want to become more diffuse, chaotic, and disorderly when all humanity wants to do is organize?

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, painting, 1949

In his book, Entropy and Art, Rudolf Arnheim (1904 – 2007) attempted to reconcile the contradiction between the organizing tendencies in our nature and the principle of entropy implicit in the second law of thermodynamics; that is to say, between the tendency toward more significant organization and the general trend of the material universe toward chaos and disorder. Entropy and art may sound like an esoteric concern but was of paramount importance to me as a first-year architecture student.

The year was 1969. I fell in love with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, his new organizing principles for structures found in the geometry of biology. At the same time, however, there was this pesky problem of the chaos theory. If nature wants to devolve everything into chaos, why is everything we touch energized, organized, and coming together? In a campfire, the wood burns and becomes ash, smoke, and gases, all of which spread energy outwards more quickly than solid wood. But we use fire to melt iron, cook food, and make steam. My conclusion: Life was the only antientropic force in the universe. Life brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. I lived with this mistaken fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of things for the next fifty years. 

I discovered that if life appeared to act as an energizer, organizing and powering local phenomenon, it was because life only serves as a shepherd getting its local neighborhood to move in the same direction if need be, if only for a short while. Other than that, life does not add energy so much as it reorganizes it.

Why does this matter now? Humankind faces one of the most significant challenges it has ever had to negotiate, the coronavirus pandemic. No one had any immunity to the new pathogen, when it first appeared in 2019, in Wuhan, China. In a few short months, it infected 4.5 million people around the world and killed nearly 312,000. The new case count goes up almost in a straight line. The pandemic gives no hint of letting up any time soon. 

The virus tends to do what all life does. That is, life wants to spread out and dissipate within the domain it inhabits, that is, human beings. It ‘wants’ to infect every one of us, which is fundamental to the laws of the universe, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy. We may socially distance ourselves, wear gloves, masks, body armor, or what have you. In the end, the virus infects all except those that acquire immunity. Short of a widely produced and distributed vaccine, nothing will stop the spread of this virus. We slow down its ability to spread, at best.

Our bodies, indeed the entire biosphere, is covered with tens of trillions of microbes. We don’t think of them as a pandemic or infectious; most are benign, so we ignore them. Billions of tiny creatures, some more infectious than coronavirus, inhabit our bodies, biosphere, and biome, but cause no harm. In fact, many live symbiotically within. 

There is a difference between the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919 and the covid-19 pandemic of 2019. We were obliged to wait for nature to takes its course in 1919. Now we participate in the evolution of the pathogen. Who knows how deadly the Spanish flu would have been having the sick been able to climb aboard a jet and spread out over the entire planet in a matter of hours. As nature does what nature does, and, the coronavirus diffuses through its domain, we become the limiting factor. 

We are now an instrument in our evolution. This pandemic, unchecked, may have dire consequences for humanity as a whole. Even if the death toll is limited to a fraction of the total population, millions will die. Perhaps an even more significant threat: our economy and means of production to providing food and shelter for 7.5 billion people on the planet is in jeopardy. We must halt the pandemic and limit the destruction it causes. Fortunately, we now have the means to do that. We understand enough about DNA, RNA, microbes, gene splicing, and protein folding that we participate in the design, production, and deployment of a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus. We’ve done it before; we’ve created over 150 other vaccines. The only question is how fast can we get it done. 

I’ve invented a new word to describe our participation: homopartic, to mean humans’ involvement. As a species, we must control our evolution if we are to go any further. The world’s humanity understands what’s at stake. Evolution is homopartic.

Published by Allen Lubow

Inventor, critical thinking.

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