The entropy of anxiety

Bo Burnham and Sally Rooney are both a few years younger than me, and more talented brilliant and successful than me. But they both seem to suffer many of the same anxieties as me, as our entire generation. Natural and ecological decline, economic hardships, and political uncertainty have been the backdrop to the millennial coming of age story.

Watching Bo Burnham’s Inside and reading Beautiful World, Where Are You, I’m terrified by their brilliance; jealous, really, of their genius compared to my (in my opinion) mediocracy. But I also find intimacy and connection with them in their work, describing an anxiety I recognise in myself and see in the world almost every day; the increasing anxiety of our generation, and of the post-pandemic world.

It brings to mind a completely different work I read in Greece: The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. It’s the physicist’s poetic unpicking of the nature of time, and describes how time as we know it – irreversibly ‘flowing’ forward – only really exists in thermodynamics. Only heat is irreversible in time, in the laws of physics.

(A quick disclaimer here: I do not really understand this myself. I’m trusting Rovelli and paraphrasing his polemic, probably badly, as I understand it. Any errors in my retelling of his brilliant book are entirely my own)

I know what you’re thinking: what about gravity? This field of space-time that means if I drop something, it falls to the ground. But, as Einstein pointed out, time is relative in gravity. If I drop something in space, it will behave differently than if I drop it on a beach. A ball bounces back up, while a glass shatters, or the butterfly clasp of an earring rolls away and comes to a stop outside one’s field of vision. Time bends and passes at different speeds, depending on where in space-time we are. And anything that breaks, or moves and comes to a halt, do so because of impact and friction, which causes heat.

It’s the same with ageing and living, perhaps the ultimate example of our experience of time as an unyielding linear direction. All living things on this planet are events that consume, generate and emit heat. Until we die, when the heat begins to leave the cells of our bodies.

So then, if time as we know it is heat, what is heat?

Heat is a state or event of increasing entropy (disorder, uncertainty or randomness), compared to the particularity of the moment when it’s first measured. And entropy is the increased agitation or disorder of molecules: as an object becomes warmer, its molecules start to move and behave increasingly uncertain and random.

So time is heat, which is entropy, which is agitation.

Which is what brings me back to anxiety. An increasing state of uncertainty, disorder and agitation is how I would describe my feelings and thoughts – even my heartbeat – when I experience anxiety. It’s how I experience much of the political, economical and cultural world at the moment.

As the world heats up, entropy increases, and anxiety spreads. That is the passage of time. That is our irreversible trajectory.

Burnham and Rooney show this with humour, warmth and beauty. They utilise music, sex and friendship to describe something that is dark and terrifying, but so recognisable to me that it becomes comfortable. Their works have left me feeling moved, calm and strangely light, knowing that as the world burns, I am not alone. As we all head towards destruction, there are things to wonder at and love.

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