Entropy: the natural order is disorder

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Starr
  • 33rd Flying Training Squadron commander
In the 1860s and 1870s, Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann and German physicist Rudolf Clausius radically challenged prevailing academic thought and gave birth to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Boltzmann and Clausius' experiential research led to the revolutionary concept that everything in nature tends to flow from order to disorder, and requires focused energy to re-achieve order.

Today, this concept is known as the Theory of Entropy: ordered states are infinitely improbable, and every system in the universe will naturally be found either in the state of maximum disorder, or moving towards it.

As defined by author and management consultant Peter Druker, "Entropy is a measure of disorder, and it is based on probabilities and the possible combinations in a given system. It also states that to return a system to its original state, it takes more energy than that which was required for disorder to happen."

For instance, a hot cup of coffee placed in the living room will always dissipate heat to the point where the coffee and ambient room temperature are equal. Even though there is enough kinetic and thermal energy in a normal-sized living room to boil and evaporate a small cup of coffee, one will never observe convection of the total thermal energy in the 72 degree air molecules of a 1000-square foot room into an eight-fluid ounce cup of coffee, thus raising the temperature of the coffee to 212 degrees while slightly decreasing the air temperature in the room. A dynamically ordered state occurs when the coffee is placed in a microwave, but requires an ordered and energetic system to result in less entropy (i.e. hotter coffee).

For a closer to home analogy -- I spend countless hours helping my wife clean our children's toy room (dynamically ordered energy,) but it takes mere seconds for my children (when unobserved) to make the toy room look like the aftermath of a thermo-nuclear explosion (entropy in full effect.)

Another factor to any system's entropy measurement is size - the larger the system or organization, the larger the possibility and probability of disorganization. The phrases "kid in a candy store" and "bull in a china shop" come to mind.

I can only imagine what a large toy store would look like if I were to unleash the young Starr crew for an unsupervised sleepover at the unsuspecting (and otherwise very ordered) place of commerce.

Human workplaces, organizations and units are no different. Flights, squadrons, groups and wings don't accomplish great feats purely by chance. Rather, it takes energy, effort, cooperation and mutual respect to synergistically combine efforts and skills into a highly effective, efficient and competent organization.

Those attributes come from one thing: leadership.

Without effective leadership at all levels, disorder will not only emerge, but grow at an exponential rate until focused energy is directed toward those areas to re-achieve order.

The key is early recognition of when things are beginning to unravel, then stepping up and fixing it.

The amount of energy required to solve a problem, when recognized early, is much less than after things are spinning completely out of control.

Whether you're at an entry-level position in your unit, or you're a senior leader, you have the ability and responsibility to lead those around you to not only prevent disorder, but to further enable great accomplishments.

To reiterate, the Law of Entropy says that when left alone in natural states, eventually everything goes into disorder.

Furthermore, entropy is the measure of disorder of a given system and is derived by combinations and permutations of the various states probabilistic comprisals.

Complex systems, be they military units, weapon systems, cell phones, planet Earth or carbon-based organisms don't come into existence through happenstance.

They exist because of directed and focused energy creating order from their natural state of disorder.

The theory also states that to return a system to its original state of order, more energy is required than that which caused the disorder to happen.

In our Air Force, that driving and focused energy for unit effectiveness, efficiency and competency is only achieved through fearless leadership.

Any Airman, regardless of rank or position, can create a new vision of what is possible and add the required energy to the flight, squadron, group or wing to bring the unit to new heights.

Any one of us, on any given day, can look around and find something that could be improved. Again, the earlier this is identified, the easier it will be to fix. Once we identify the needed improvement, it just takes a little energy to make the change and promulgate a better, safer, more efficient, more competent Air Force organization.

So, I pose this question: how are you decreasing the entropy in your workplace and in the lives of your fellow Airmen?