One more time around

Is it just me, or is it always a bit strange at the start of another year? As if you can feel the earth and the sky and the ambience of things shifting wearily into another gear with a here-we-go-again crunching of cosmic cogs.

There’s a novel by Thomas Hardy called Two on a Tower in which a young man named Swithin decides to visit the small rural church in which he will be married the next day. At dusk he enters the silent church, rejoicing in visions of the morrow. But Hardy, in that sleeve-twitching way of his, directs the reader’s gaze to the floor. And there we see flagstones worn concave by the thousands who had preceded Swithin, buoyed with the same hopes and plans and anticipated joys and, by implication, disappointed. Happy laughing Tom Hardy was merely, as he put it, trying to demonstrate how ‘infinitesimal (are our) lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe’—a truth which, no doubt, we could do without most of the time.

It does require considerable personal, imaginative deception to convince yourself that anything genuinely new is going down as the year gets under way again. That’s why New Year’s resolutions almost invariably fail. Too soon the euphoria that fuelled the lie about ‘new’ wears off and you realise that nothing’s changed really and resolve of whatever kind will have to survive the same old quotidian assaults that were so persistent and insurmountable last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. And so you inexorably approach the what-the-hell stage of the new year and before you know it you’re back at work, the holidays are over, winter’s on the way and—is that sniffle the first sign of flu? The explanation of this annual return to unwanted realities, it may surprise you to know, is the second law of thermodynamics.

Which states, in brief, that entropy proceeds in a closed system; or, to put it in a way you and I can follow: things fall apart. Everything is slowly decaying, degenerating. So, if you neglect your lawn, it runs to seed. If you don’t look after your car, it rusts. Paint peels, joints open, tiles shift, pipes clog. Why, you might ask—and I ask this myself, frequently—don’t things improve if you leave them alone. Given the option of improving or getting worse, why do they always go bad?

For example, if you’ve just served dinner—a casserole, say—and the phone rings and it’s your old Aunt Tilly and you can’t hang up on her or even cut things short because she’s rolling in it and childless, why shouldn’t the dinner, sitting there on the table, get hotter—instead of gradually congealing into a brown, cracked, lumpy, silicone-looking geographical projection which, after an hour and a half’s full and frank discussion of Aunt Tilly’s cat and the leak in her lounge room roof, you discard in favour of a toasted cheese sandwich and a bottle of red?

Scientists tell us that things get worse and not better because of the nature of energy flow but the real reason is we live in a vale of tears. This is where science meets religion but such a recognition is not, as might seem, a desperate grasping at ‘intelligent design’. The second law of thermodynamics and the fall of Adam and Eve may between them have got us on the ropes, but that doesn’t mean we have to capitulate. Evolution, in which the laws of thermodynamics play a shaping role, is the radical explanation of our world and our place in it. It is intelligent design (aka creationism) that runs for cover and seeks the conservative way out of our enigmas and dilemmas.

Meanwhile, though, the third law of thermodynamics—and you’ll find a surprisingly large number of people are unaware of this—states in essence that when things are brought to a temperature of absolute zero they attain a state of complete order! Don’t get too carried away. Absolute zero is bloody cold. Nevertheless, you can see the light at the end of the, well, test tube or whatever they use for these experiments.

Let’s imagine we all create, by an act of mutual imagination, a small place in our minds which we imagine to be absolute zero; then, into this compartment—at a certain signal, say at midnight on Australia Day or something—we all put into this place of absolute zero, by an act of imagination, John Laws and his poetry; Peter Costello and his ironed-on smirk; all of the shock jocks; Janet (let’s-move-on-and-shrug-it-off) Albrechtsen; Barnaby (watch-the-bouncing-ball) Joyce; Philip (‘in-relation-to-that-let-me-say-this’) Ruddock; Alexander (‘look, look, look, look’) Downer; Amanda (airline security sucks) Vanstone; the Barmy Army; every single future, unctuous reference by John Howard to ‘the Australian people’; Sam Newman; and numerous others we could name—I air only some of my own bugbears. And let’s say that, as a result of our imaginative act, they’re all brought to a state of perfect, though presumably freezing, order. Because we’re on the frontiers of physics here, I’m not sure exactly where this would get us but it would have to be an improvement. It might even turn out to be what once was known in land rights circles as an ‘extinguishment’. That would be something like a new start.

Anyway, Happy New Year. 

Brian Matthews lives in the Clare Valley and is Professor of English at Flinders University. His most recent book is The Temple Down the Road: The Life and Times of the MCG (Viking).


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