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ENTROPY, INFORMATION, AND UFE: BIOPHYSICS IN THE NOVELS OF THOMAS PYNCHON DANIEL SIMBERLOFF* In 1959 C. P. Snow wrote, "A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who . . . are thought highly educated and who have . . . been expressing their increduüty at the iUiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare 's?" [1, pp. 15-16]. Even if Snow's efforts left the gulf separating scientist from humanist intact, Thomas Pynchon's novels—V., The Crying ofLot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow [2-4]—have informed a later generation of some elementary thermodynamics. This paper shows diat Pynchon's work develops a complex biophysical metaphor which originates in the relationship between thermodynamics and information and proceeds to incorporate die thermodynamics of Ufe. The crux of each novel is the distinction between living and dead matter, die biophysical basis for Ufe, "the most precious possession you have" [2, p. 4]; hence the frequent juxtaposition of animate and inanimate . This distinction has antecedents in scientific authors like Schrödinger and Wiener. The protagonists of the nóvete—Herbert Stencil, Oedipa Maas, and Tyrone Slothrop, respectively—represent matter alive in spite of omnipresent tendencies to destroy Ufe; their participation in a transcendent metaphor is indicated by their names. "Stencil" is a pattern for life, while "Sloth" is an acronym for thesecond /awof¿Aermodynamics which expresses the transformation ofUfe's order into disorder. Pynchon also asks whether this "running down" of life is deterministic and planned or only stochastically predictable. Again a name is significant: "Oedipa" refers to Oedipus's desire to know his ordained fate. The first law ofthermodynamics is one ofconservation, expressed in a Pynchon short story as "You can't win" [5]. It says that it is impossible to»Department ofBiological Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306.© 1978 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/78/2104-0025$01.00 Perspectives inBiology and Medicine · Summer 1978 \ 617 get something for nothing: forexample, to construct a perpetual-motion machine. The perpetual-motion machine in V. is impossible because its pear tree cannot convert guano to fruit without photosynthesis. Energy must always be conserved. The second law has been more intriguing because it seems to transcend thermodynamics by expressing man's perception that phenomena degenerate and die. Pynchon says that "things are going to get worse before they get better" [5, p. 282], but Clausius's statement of 1850 is that heat cannot be transferred spontaneously from a cold to a warm object. An equivalent statement is that processes accompanied by heat production are irreversible. Clausius denned a function, entropy, as the change in heat content of a closed system undergoing an infinitesimal chemical reaction, divided by the temperature. He then demonstrated diat aU statements ofthe second law are subsumed by: "Any spontaneous process in a closed system is accompanied by an increase in entropy." A coroUary is that any system tends toward an equüibrium of maximum entropy. It is important to note that the second law is experimental; there is no logical requirement that it must always prevail. Further, the sense in which entropy represents disorder was only rigorously denned in this century. Nevertheless, the second law, with entropy serving as a figurative embodiment for a multitude of perceived sorts of increasing disorder and decay, struck a responsive chord among nonscientists like Henry Adams, whose views are explicitly echoed by two of Pynchon's characters [2, 5]. The work abounds in second lore, from specific references (the "entropies" of both a deadly cartel and vital mother nature [4]) through hermetically closed rooms [4, 5], to closed, entropie parties which degenerate and become sterile: a lease-breaking party in "Entropy ," a siege party in V., a deathly bacchanal in The Crying ofLot 49, and the consummately closed party on the ship ofdeath, theAnubis, inGravity 's Rainbow. The third law of thermodynamics—Pynchon's "Who says [things are] going to get better?" [5]—is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 617-625
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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