Everyday entropy: science and engineering

An ingeniously efficient waste of space

The biggest difference between scientists and engineers is that engineers are paid to hide entropy, while scientists are paid to discover it.  Entropy here being those things that consistently happen spontaneously. In this light, you can see how science is both really helpful and really inconvenient for engineers. On the one hand, engineers need the science in order to know what needs hiding, but then they also need to obscure the science so as not to reveal the sleight of hand. It’s not a magic show if it doesn’t look like a trick. The great achievements of modern engineering are mobility, electrical power, and telecommunications, and in fairness to engineers these feats have been achieved outside of lab conditions, in the real world full of uncertain entropies, resonance and interference.  And these amazing inventions have the potential to solve all kinds of personal, social and economic problems.  They make money, however, by hiding the great distances people put between themselves and others so that they don’t have to share space, work together or communicate directly.

This is the cautionary tale of BP’s “beyond petroleum,” and NRG’s green power initiatives, and Pepsi’s “good for you” range of drinks.  The science of renewable energy and efficient technology work well under lab conditions with well-defined entropies, but they suffer out of isolation, and they don’t obviously fulfil the true demand for power, which is control over the company we keep.

The difference between the problems technology could solve and the problems it actually does solve is another example of entropy.  No matter how optimistic a technical innovation may be, it is important to ask “why would someone pay for this?”  Because that is what it will end up doing.


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