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Tallis in Wonderland

From Dust to Dust

Raymond Tallis on a lifetime of cleaning.

There can be few poems better known than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life, and few lines of poetry more often quoted (and misquoted) than “Dust thou art, to dust returnest”. The Psalm deserves its place in the collective memory not only because it is beautifully written, but also because it tries to pull off the extraordinary feat of finding reasons for good cheer while directly confronting our transience. Longfellow argues that “We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time”, and by doing so inspire those who follow us.

It is not clear how much consolation is to be had from this thought. Leaving aside the knowledge that our most certain ‘footprint’ will be a carbon one – making the lives of our successors more difficult, or even denying them their share of time – looking to our impact on others’ lives to make sense of our own merely moves the question of life’s meaning on, unanswered. The poet W.H. Auden’s wry comment that “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know” seems apt.

Auden’s implied question is (perhaps) for another time, another column. Just now I want to focus on the earnest interval between dust and dust, and our journey between the dust from which we came and the dust to which we return; more specifically, on all the dusting that goes on in between.

I use ‘dusting’ here to encompass the vast range of cleaning activities that occupy us between the twin passivities of the dust before our birth and the dust after our death. Their common aim is that of imposing order on, or restoring order to, the various places in which we find ourselves, beginning with our bodies. They include not only dusting, but also washing (faces, clothes, dishes, cars, streets), drying (ditto), wiping (an endless succession of surfaces), polishing (shoes, silverware, prose), tidying (rooms, book shelves, historical records), scrubbing, brushing up and brushing off, weeding, litter-picking, bin-bagging… the list is endless and so are the techniques and the technologies we have developed to assist us in our between-dust dusting. One of my favourites (as an idea, perhaps less so as an activity) is ‘vacuuming’. The very idea of recruiting nothing – a vacuum – to assist our pursuit of order is both practically useful and deliciously bonkers. But the mournful howling of the vacuum cleaner may seem to the philosophically attuned ear to articulate the hopelessness of the goal of tidying up our world and reversing, or preventing, uninvited change – including those changes that propel us from the first dust to the second. Nothing could justify that hopelessness more than the thought that the very actions we take to prevent or arrest decay send out ripples of unintended consequences that may upset the order we are trying to achieve. This applies most poignantly to the million items that assist us in our lifelong project of keeping disorder at bay, even when we curate them with great care and follow the instructions to a tee. The houses that shelter us from the natural world are messed up by our occupancy. Clothes that keep us warm and dry are worn out by being worn. Brushes brush themselves out of use. Mileage drives vehicles nearer to the breaker’s yard. No wonder vacuum cleaners mourn their own demise so loudly.

Untidiness Increases

In fact, the trouble begins nearer to home, closer to us even than the gadgets, small and large, simple and complex, that we employ to maintain the distance between ourselves and the dust we are to become. The forces of chaos are active even in the primary agents of our agency: our heads and arms and legs, and the invisible army of organs, cells, and organelles that support them. For although for a while we may keep it at bay and fend off events that are at odds with our intentions, disorder is a fundamental tendency of the universe of which we are a part. The physical world is not impressed by the ideas of order that we dusters and scrubbers and, yes, farmers and builders and legislators and statesmen, labour to maintain. You will by now have guessed the identity of that tendency. It goes under the name of ‘The Second Law of Thermodynamics’.

The First Law is reassuring: it says that while the form of energy may be changed, the total quantity of energy during physical processes, including the energy locked up in matter, remains constant (those processes by which the universe came into being excepted).

The Second Law is the opposite of reassuring. There are many ways of stating this Law, justly described by the philosopher A.N. Whitehead as ‘the most metaphysical of all physical laws’. One way is to say that the tendency of closed systems is to become increasingly disordered. Applied on a large scale, the Law implies that the universe as a whole evolves towards ‘thermal equilibrium’, a.k.a. ‘heat death’, in which there are eventually no structured states of affairs, or even discrete entities, only a sort of subatomic static throughout the cosmos. Universal dust.

The Second Law can be seen at work in the everyday facts of life: while spillages create spreading stains, stains do not naturally gather themselves up into drops that return to the bottle. Things become spontaneously scattered, unraveled, broken, dirty, and disordered; but there are few, if any, circumstances in which things are spontaneously tidied up, knitted, made whole, or cleaned. While the other laws of physics work on the idea that physical changes are reversible – an atom moving to the left may move to the right – transition from a state of comparative order to one of comparative disorder is a one way street simply because there are many, many more ways of being disordered than of being ordered. Unguided change will consequently result in increasing formlessness.

The prospects for you and me, who have grown out of dust, are therefore not good. Yes, we can temporarily and locally postpone descent into chaos. And our capacity to do so has been greatly enhanced by vast networks of cooperation between individuals within and across generations. Our exposure to the winds of random change is mitigated by knowledge applied in countless techniques and evident in a boundless landscape of artefacts. This is reflected most impressively in modest increases in life expectancy, widening the hyphen between the first and second dust.

Dust Storm At Black Rocks
A world of dust awaits…
Dust Storm At Black Rocks © Brocken Inaglory 2009

Against the Tide

The universal applicability of the Second Law highlights the mystery of life’s ability to swim, albeit temporarily, against the tide. The mystery is deepened when we consider that at a certain level, we are part of that tide. Organic life – the evolutionary story that has humanity as one of its most recent outcomes – and our individual existences too, have all been delivered against the overall direction of the universe, despite otherwise being manifestations of the laws of nature. And notwithstanding your columnist’s appearance, he is highly ordered: his fleshly being is an extraordinary hierarchy of intricately connected structures working at the level of the molecule, the cell, the organ, the physiological system, and the whole body. In all this he is a thermodynamic freak. He is even more of a freak than, say, the most exquisite work of art, because his very existence is inseparable from change.

The great biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins described the living cell as ‘dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system’. To say that the cell, and hence the life that is founded on it, is a polyphasic system – a system that has many steps and phases – is something of an understatement. Even setting out the basic steps and phases of my cells’ biochemical changes would consume my word limit many times over. But their multiplicity makes the fact that the cell is in dynamic equilibrium nothing less than astounding. It means that within every cell there is a multitude of changes in which there is no net change, since changes in one direction are cancelled out by other changes. The freakishness of life – particularly that of complex organisms such as your columnist and his readers – depends on a clean-as-you-go ethos evident at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. Indeed, this exquisite state of dynamic equilibrium is expressed in a variety of ways at different levels in my body, including the stability of my intracellular potassium; the constancy of my body temperature; and my ability to stand upright. Nothing could be more at odds with the universe’s overall trajectory towards a formless equilibrium.

Even more extraordinary is the process by which our bodies, within those of our mothers, are able to assemble themselves. This is beautifully celebrated by the poet A.E. Housman:

“From far, from eve and morning,
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.”
(From Far, From Eve and Morning, 1896)

The convergence of scattered stuff into the human-to-be is overseen by the maternal body in which it is growing, and so in this sense is not necessarily more astonishing than the post-natal growth of the resultant infant. Nevertheless, we still have to account for the apparent defiance of the Second Law, which would seem to prefer to scatter us in the ‘wind’s twelve quarters’.

We can make some progress towards understanding it if we remind ourselves that we are not closed systems. In his 1944 book What Is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger (he of the eponymous cat) argued that living organisms avoid decay “by eating, breathing, drinking, and (in the case of plants) assimilating.” Yet our physical interaction with the world is scarcely a revelation, and it is still not clear how the organism “drinks orderliness from a suitable environment” – how the assimilation of energy from without prevents a system in dynamic equilibrium from collapsing into disorder. To understand that, we need to appreciate the role of macromolecules in regulating what happens in cells; of cells in regulating what happens in organs; and of organs in regulating what happens in organisms such as you and me.

The most obvious instance of such a macromolecule is of course DNA, which regulates the production of other regulators, such as proteins and enzymes. The chances of molecules spontaneously assembling themselves into DNA are (to put it mildly) slim – about 1 in 4300,000,000 – but about 4 billion years and an entire bubbling cauldron of a planet might seem world enough and time for this to happen by chance; and the capacity of DNA to divide and replicate means that this overcoming of improbability does not have to be repeated for each new life.

Eventually, however, disorder triumphs, and by lawful means. Potassium moves beyond the limits compatible with life; cell division fails or breaks free of regulation; bones break and joints seize up; your columnist falls over for the last time. The processes that shaped the organism in utero, and kept its left hand, its smile, and its toenails together as parts of a single going concern, now start to pull it apart. The tide we have swum against engulfs us from within as well as from without, and we prove to be soluble fish. We rebel and attempt to keep ourselves clean and our house tidy in vain. Eventually, we are ourselves tidied, or untidied, away. We do our last dusting, and then we are dust.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2021

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality was published recently.

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