Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

A Nightmare: My Father, Saddam

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

I don’t remember dreams that often, and nightmares are in the minority of those I do remember, but last night I had a memorable nightmare.

Of course, I don’t remember exactly how I found myself in the predicament of my dream, but here it is: my father was none other than Saddam Hussein, and he was about to kill me by blowing my brains out with a pistol shot to the head.

As we all know, dreams don’t have to make sense while they are happening. They just are, and we have to accept the situations they place us in. I think I tried reasoning within the dream a little. Saddam, my father? That doesn’t make sense. But finally, there was no getting around it. This was real, and the gun was at my temple.

Although I had no reason to believe Saddam would spare me once he had determined I was to die (I’ve seen footage of him watching his comrades being escorted out of the Baath Party Congress to be shot on his orders, as they pleaded that there was a mistake, that they were loyal.), whether or not I was his son—which I didn’t feel myself to be—I said something like “How can you kill me? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? I’m your son.” Actually, I don’t remember what I said to him, only that it was a desperate last-second plea. The important thing (for understanding the dream) was his surprising reply: “That’s not my business.”

What? This powerful dictator with a gun at my head, supposedly my father, was telling me that the why of my death through his imminent action was not really his business! This answer implied that he was only doing what he had to do, that he himself was only carrying out orders in some way.

The trigger was never pulled, or if it was I awoke before the bullet penetrated my skull. Relieved to realize I was safe in my own familiar bed, with no gun at my head, I lay awake to ponder the meaning of the dream. Which I think I have found.

Dreams are metaphorical dramas. Saddam was an implacable killer, against whom I was powerless. But, contrary to what I would have thought, he had no motive, however crazy, for wishing me dead. He was just doing his job in some sense. He was not the all-powerful man I imagined him to be.

There was nothing personal about it. The Saddam in my dream was a heartless killer, but neither sadistic, angry, nor calculating. And he was supposedly my father. What else could this Saddam be but Nature? Nature has given us life, as a father does, and it will eventually, when the time comes, subtract us from this world as cooly as Saddam Hussein might have, but without willing it.

“That’s not my business,” Saddam said in my dream. Whose business is it? That is the mystery we all either try to find the answer to or try to ignore.

Life, Death, and the Second Law

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I don’t mean about what the law says, though the concept of entropy is harder to grasp than that of energy, which at least seems to be less abstract until you get to know it better. No, I mean the idea that it’s really unfortunate that everything tends to even out to sameness over time and a downright shame that we and our devices are forced to work so hard just to keep our bodies and our society running against the inexorable dissolution ordained by the law of entropy increase.

Indeed, some may see the second law as a defect in the universe. Is it an argument agaist the existence of God for Creation to be running down? Or should we view it in Manichean terms—the Good God of energy conservation struggling valiantly in a lost cause against the Evil One of entropy increase?

There is in fact something strange and subtle about the connection between life and the second law, something that goes beyond the idea that living organisms are able to maintain their highly ordered selves against the tide of universal disorder by squeezing out order at the expense of the rest of the universe. The subtlety of the connection has to do with the way in which living systems accomplish that feat.

Chemists, including biochemists, have an infallible way of determining how chemical reactions proceed within a complex mixture of chemicals not yet in equilibrium: the reactions will take place in such a way as to decrease a physical quantity, which can be calculated, called the free energy. This is under the assumption, which is pretty good in a cell, that the reactions are taking place at constant temperature and pressure. This free energy is the energy in the chemical system theoretically available for useful work, say for causing a heart to beat in an organism. In order for a certain reaction to take place that increases the free energy of the participants in the reaction, it must occur along with a second reaction in which the free energy decrease more than offsets the increase of the first one. That the free energy must always decrease, sounds a lot like the second law of thermodynamics, and in fact the decrease of the free energy in a process at constant temperature and pressure is equivalent to a net increase in the entropy of the universe.

Living organisms have the ability to utilize chemicals from their environment to both sustain their own existing chemical structures and components and to extract useful energy to do the work of living. How does the blind science that rules the organism determine whether it needs to combine molecules A and B into a new one AB or needs instead to start splitting AB molecules apart? Whether the organism is breaking large molecules into smaller ones, combining smaller into larger, moving from molecules with free energy the organism can’t utilize to others with a lesser amount of free energy it can use, or using energy stored in chemical bonds for mechanical work, or dong all in one cell at the same time, the tally sheet of free energy for all the reactions taking place has to show a net decrease.

This means that the incredibly complex and dynamic chemistry of living cells—that involved in nerve signal transmission, DNA replication, digestion, photosynthesis, and the whole network of biochemical processes—all that chemistry is regulated by the second law of thermodynamics. The “self-regulation” of living systems comes through their submission to the second law of thermodynamics. The iron law that says all things decay and that we must all one day die also allows us our brief time of life and consciousness! Nature is deep, very deep, and it is wonderful to think that the very processes that enable our thoughts and understanding of it depend upon the same law that leads inevitably to their end.