Why time moves forward

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The natural tendency of the world is towards decay and disorder.

Over time, coffee cools, buildings degrade, businesses fail, people age — and the universe dies.

The reason we experience time moving forward is the same reason an egg never comes together by itself again once it's broken: Entropy.

The concept of entropy is widely used in physics, information theory, biology, sociology, economics and business — and it's very impactful in our everyday lives.

While the most accurate physics definition of entropy is related to heat and energy, a more useful one for everyday understanding is that entropy describes the disorderliness of a system:

If entropy increases, things become less ordered and more chaotic.

Underlying this fact of life is a simple, yet extremely powerful truth:

There are many more possible configurations of chaos than there are configurations of order.

If you have 10 red and 10 blue balls in a bag, there are a few different ways to arrange them such that you seperate them in by color — effectively creating order.

However, there are many more ways in which to arrange them such that there's no perceivable order whatsoever. When you take all balls out of the bag and let them fall to the ground, you will much more likely look at a chaotic arrangement of balls than at a nicely separated cluster of blue and red balls (although it's not entirely impossible by chance).

Everything we regard as order at very different scales is the result of particular configurations of elements in a system — like colored balls in a bag.

Businesses function only if employees work together in a particular, intentional way. If people just acted randomly, any organization would collapse quickly.

Relationships flourish only if actions and interactions are of a particularly caring kind. If two partners just did and said random things, the relationship would start deteriorating soon.

Buildings are functional only if electric wires, bricks, pipes and lights are arranged in a useful way. If only a few components were located at random places, the whole building would become useless.

Left to itself, any existing structure tends to decrease over time as random events (movement of molecules or actions by employees) will induce disorder. Generally put, the entropy of a system always increases if we do not actively work against it, whether it's the whole universe, an organization or our personal life.

Disorder is the permanent default. Order is artificial and temporary and requires effort. Without focused energy, things will fall apart on both a small and a large scale.

To Remember

“The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

— Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time

“You should always bear in mind that entropy is not on your side.”

— Elon Musk

“Just as the constant increase of entropy is the basic law of the universe, so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy.”

— Vaclav Havel

“It is possible to fail in many ways, while to succeed is possible only in one way.”

— Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics (Book 2)


➞ This 5-min. TED-ed video helps you understand entropy in a deep way quickly.

➞ For an easy-to-read overview of entropy and how it applies to our lives, check out this Farnam Street article.

➞ This 10-min. animated video explains powerfully why entropy is disorder.

➞ This PBS Space Time video is a detailed analysis of what entropy is and isn't, mostly aimed at viewers with an in interest in physics.

➞ The most thorough introduction to the different meanings and applications of the concept of entropy can be found on Wikipedia.


For a structured list of fascinating booksblogspodcasts, and Youtube channels related to science, structure and complexity, visit mindvault.co/vault/entropy.

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