EGMT 1510: In Praise of Entropy

Why do some things happen spontaneously? Why does snow melt and coffee cool? Why do we die? And why do we live? Can order ever emerge from chaos? The answers to all these questions lie in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the empirical law that entropy in our universe is ever-increasing. Although the Second Law has only been articulated in scientifically rigorous terms for the last 200 years, its influence has been recognized and wrestled with in artistic endeavors throughout human history. Entropy’s increase has often been described in semi-tragic terms and even lamented as an evil blight on the face of the earth – but it has also been celebrated. In this course, we will introduce Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics in a rigorous, mathematical way while asking students to creatively document and respond to the influence of the Second Law in our physical world. Together, we will explore implications of the Second Law that both limit and enable life. After laying the scientific foundations, students will be asked to search out and discuss aesthetic responses to the Second Law in art, music, and literature, across various cultures, while working towards their own, personal aesthetic response to its influence on their lives. Entropy and the Second Law lend themselves particularly well to aesthetic engagement, as their implications immediately and personally influence our lives and ultimately determine our collective fate.