At the very start of creation, the universe, such as it was, was packed into a very very very small space. The entire cosmos began as a flash smaller than the smallest bit of the smallest particle in the smallest atom. It was equally hot and bright and dense within that dot. All parts of this too-tiny spot shared a uniform temperature. There was, in fact, no room for any differences.
But from the very start of its creation, this tiny spot expanded by a process we don’t understand. Every new point flew away from every other new point. As the universe ballooned to about the size of your head, coolness became possible. Before it expanded to that size, in its first three seconds, the universe was perfectly solid, with no emptiness for relief. It was so full, even light could not move. Indeed it was so uniform that the four fundamental forces we see at work in reality today — gravity, electromagnetic, the strong and weak nuclear forces – were compressed into a single unified force. In that start-up phase there was one general energy, which differentiated into four distinct forces as the universe expanded.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in the initial femo seconds of creation there was only one thing in the universe, one super dense power that ruled all, and this solitary power expanded and cooled into thousands of variations of itself. The history of the cosmos thus proceeds from unity to diversity.
As the universe stretched out, it made nothingness. This expanded “nothingness” is what we call space. As emptiness increased, so did coolness. Space permitted energy to cool into matter and matter to slow down, light to radiate, and gravity, nuclear energy and the other forces to unfold. Space made differences possible.
But the universe expanded faster than matter itself could cool and gel. This created increasing difference. The faster the universe expanded, the greater the differences in temperature and energy within its boundaries. From the genesis of a single cooling dot of ur-stuff — some primordial super something — the distinctions of current reality we call matter and energy are crystallized. All species of atomic elements, all varieties of gravity and energy are thus temporary congealed disguises of the same ur-stuff.
The escalating differential between expanding emptiness and the remnant hotness of the big bang is what drives evolution, life, intelligence and the acceleration of technology.
Energy is the potential – the difference — to cool. Energy, like water under gravity, will seep to the lowest, coolest level and not rest until all differential has been eliminated. In the first thousand years after the big bang the temperature difference within the universe was so small that would have reached equilibrium quickly. Had not the universe kept expanding very little interesting would have happened. But the expansion of the universe put a tilt into things. By expanding omni-directionally – every point receding from every point – space provided an empty bottom, a basement of sorts, down which energy could flow. The faster the cosmos enlarged, the bigger the basement it constructed.
At the very bottom of the basement lies the final end state known as heat death. It is absolutely still. There is no movement because here there is no difference. No potential. Picture it as lightless, silent, and identical in all directions. All distinctions – including the elemental distinction between this and that — have been spent. This hell of uniformity is called maximum entropy. As far as we know, this is the sole law of physics with no known exceptions in the universe: all creation is headed to the basement. Everything in the universe is steadily sliding down the slope towards the supreme equality of heat death and maximum entropy.
We see the slope all around us in many ways. Because of entropy, fast moving things slow down, order fizzles into chaos, and it costs something for any type of difference or individuality to remain unique. Each difference – whether of speed, structure, or behavior – becomes less different very quickly because every action leaks energy down the tilt. Difference is not free. It has to be maintained against the grain.
The effort to maintain difference on the slope of entropy creates the spectacle of nature. A predator, such as an eagle sits atop a pyramid of entropic waste: In one year one eagle eats one hundred trout which eat 10,000 grasshoppers, which eat 1 million blades of grass. This pile of 1 million blades of grass input far outweighs the eagle output. This excess bloat is due to entropy. Each movement in an animal’s life wastes a small bit of heat (entropy), which means every predator catches less energy that the total energy the prey consumed, and this shortfall is multiplied by each action for all time. The circle of life is kept going only by the constant replenishment of sunlight showering the grass with new energy.
As harsh as this inevitable waste is, it is astounding that material organization can persist anywhere without rapidly dissolving to cold equilibrium. Throughout most of the universe any random five kilos of atoms will clump into a cold lump of rock or drift away as a cool gas. That’s simple physics. But here and there we find five kilos of atoms ordered, heated, and assembled into structured difference as a warm blooded, perpetually active golden eagle. A flatworm, a galaxy, and a digital camera all have this same property – they maintain a state of difference far removed from thermal undifferentiation, which is the state that most of the atoms in the universe share. While the rest of the material cosmos slips down to the frozen basement, a few remarkable forms seem to rise up and dance. This rising flow of sustainable difference is syntropy, the inversion of entropy.
Syntropy is another word for negative entropy, or negentropy (also extropy). I prefer syntropy because it is a positive term for an otherwise double negative phrase meaning the absence of an absence (or minus the minus of order). Syntropy might best be thought of as the “capacity for entropy,” and increased certainty and structure. A technological or living system acts as an efficient drain for entropy — the more organized, structured, and complex the organization, the faster the system can generate entropy. In other words the more syntropic it is, the more efficient it is in creating entropy. At the same time, the creation of entropy is what you get with the expideture of energy, so this “urge” to drain entropy becomes a pump for order!
Diagram of Syntropy: Energy into a system is built up into increased order and information by generation of entropy.
This can be restated in a more technical way: A syntropic system will take the most efficient route to maximize entropy. If you leave the door open in a heated cabin the heat will drain out faster though the door than random seepage through the walls. If you install an electric generator in the wall of the cabin, heat will flow to the outside even faster. That increased flow of entropy is in fact what is powering the generator. Instead of a generator you could insert a elephant and it too would increase the flow of entropy while creating cellular order. The device that maximizes entropy is that device that also maximizes syntropy. And vice versa, the most syntropic device will generate the most entropy. This is what we see. Pound for pound the most complex apparatus we know of – the mammal brain and a laptop PC – are the most efficient producers of entropy we’ve seen. In the future, as we advance our technology, we will also increase the syntropy of our artificial systems and therefore the amount of entropy and waste heat emitted by these systems. Already the heat per kilo generated by a laptop is nearing the power density of gasoline. As computers become more dense, more complex, smart, and all-around syntropic, they are in danger of exploding.
The compact streams of information and entropy flowing through syntropic structures enable them to remain balanced far from equilibrium. Syntropic systems come in many sizes (bacterium to the milky way), many shapes (tornado to star fish), many densities (the internet to the sun), and in every material. Artificial systems and technological devices all share with living organisms a persistent state of difference, a permanent disequilibrium that neither explodes nor solidifies, but instead maintains a steady potential to fall into the hole.
What we call technology is created by syntropic forms (humans) and shares many syntropic qualities. Technological qualities such as flexibility, adaptation, and self-regulated power occur no where in the world of inert matter. If we let a piece of engineered material revert to rust and corrosion we can see the “natural’ state of its matter: hard, inert, plain.
Some syntropic structures can persist for billions of years (stars), some can evolve from one form to another, some can even wonder about themselves and ask why? It seems almost miraculous (if not heroic!) how these forms – spiral galaxies, atmospheric planets, underwater creatures, and inquiring minds – can sustain themselves in the face of constant entropic drain. Where do they gain their power to run up against the run-down of the universe? In the past thinkers and even many scientists believed a vital spirit enlivened living organisms, a spirit that was distinct from the ordinary natural forces at work on matter. It is now clear from thousands of careful experiments that the animation of living beings and life-like technological systems is not supernatural, and that their uplifting syntropic force does not contradict the unbreakable laws of entropy. The eagle is able to lift his wings high not because his evolution subverts the inescapable waste of entropy, but because the uplift and the difference in the warmth of his wings is powered by entropy.
To be clearer, it is powered by the expansion of the universe. To be clearer yet, it is powered by the expansion of our particular universe. For our universe could have been outfitted differently, with a different set of fundamental parameters, and under a different regime these persistent far-from-equilibrial structures would not have been possible. Cosmologists have calculated the tight window in which life-like structures are possible and some have declare the target so narrow as to be improbable we are here at all. As Freemen Dyson remarked, all the evidence suggests that “the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”
While the appearance of any particular form of technology or life is against all odds, the appearance of technology and life as a whole were ordained as soon as the universe began to expand, unpacking room for difference. Technology is the latest in a long line of structures that manifest the expanding potential of difference in the universe with actual differences. The expansion of space/time opened up the universe to the dissipation of entropy, and thus to the appearance of entropy-accelerating forms like life, mind, and mind-life (technology). The mammoth supercollider in CERN and the tiny Intel 8080 computer chip – the big and little of the technium — owe their ultimate origins not to the minds of human engineers, but to the fundamental laws of this existence. The genesis of technology began at the Big Bang. as Weakly syntropic but persistent structures like galaxies and stars exploited entropy to sustain order. In their orbits the first bacteria and later humans extended the ruse. Now the technium delivers differences that life – in all its amazing power – cannot manage.
The technium is a difference engine. It is a machine, so to speak, that is manufacturing more and more extreme versions of structures: artifacts that burn hotter than any life, or run faster than any life, or stretch further than any life. The technium is exploiting the sink of entropy to build persistent disequilibrial clumps of matter and energy that have never before been seen in the universe. New potentials and differences. Different differences. And as long as the universe keeps expanding, technology is ordained to keep differentiating. What the technium creates is difference.