Brain Pickings

The Laws of Thermopoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science


What Charles Dickens has to do with equilibrium and entropy.

In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, a young girl at the turn of the nineteenth century turns to her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and subtly describes the second law of thermodynamics while examining her breakfast:

When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

Perhaps it is odd for a twelve-year-old girl to consider the state of entropy decades before its invention, but in Stoppard’s play, all of its characters seem to obey some property of physics, bouncing around like molecules in two closed systems, heating up, dissipating, and eventually reaching equilibrium.

That’s not thermophysics, that’s thermopoetics.

Energy is eternal delight.” ~ William Blake

Professor Bari J. Gold takes this very idea, that characters and plots can obey the laws of physics, and extends it into nineteenth-century literature in ThermoPoetics: Energy in Victorian Literature and Science. The result is an extraordinary reconsideration of Victorian novels, plays, and poems pierced by time’s arrow, in which the works of Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde are bound up with energy conservation, the paradox of heat, engines, the grand unified theory, and of course, entropy.

Entropy is the measure of randomness in a system, also commonly used to describe an inevitable decline into social disorder. A closed system, like the worlds of Dickens novels, will develop towards a state of total entropy — disorder will never decrease, unless acted upon by forces from the outside.

What is life but organized energy?” ~ Arthur C. Clarke

The most familiar example of this in Victorian literature is Dickens’ Bleak House, where the endless Jarndyce case grinds on steadily, mixing its characters like jam into pudding. To survive the Courts of Chancery one must embrace entropy, and those that were caught up in its system had a “loose way of letting bad things alone take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world could go wrong, it was in some offhand manner, never meant to go right.”

Another Dickens work, A Tale of Two Cities, might also be recognized as a thermopoetic novel of equilibrium, in which the best of times are balanced by the worst of times, each character has a spiritual double. Or consider that Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray has created in this painting a heat sink, which absorbs the degrading age of its main character, allowing Dorian to remain a youthful constant.

All of this isn’t to say that Charles Dickens had entropy on the brain when be was writing A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 — the concept wouldn’t be developed thoroughly until five or six years later. Instead, ThermoPoetics creates a new kind of law, one that recognizes that science and art are not two separate systems, but instead that the rules that govern both fiction and physics are borne out of the same world — something beautifully aligned with Jonah Lehrer’s concept of “the fourth culture” of knowledge.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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