The City As Engine: Energy, Entropy And The Triumph Of Disorder
by ADAM FRANK
August 21, 2012
Cities may be the defining element of human civilization.
The path from hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era 25,000 years ago to the high-tech, high-wonder jumble we inhabit today runs straight through cities. In traveling that path, our construction of cities has always been a dance with physics. In some cases, that physics was explicitly understood; in others, its manifestation was only recognized in hindsight.
As our cities have become more complex the physics embodying their behavior and organization has also become more nuanced, subtle and profound.
About a month ago I walked down the streets of my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to discuss a street-level view of physics and cities. From the street a city is all about the physics of “simple” machines: bikes, buses, streetcars and the plumbing of fire hydrants. Once you get up high enough, however, your physics-colored glasses lets you see cities in a whole new way.
Instead of just basic machines, the city becomes a vast interconnected system designed for turning energy into work. Seen through that lens, cities are really giant heat engines, and that makes them creatures subject to one of the most profound principles in all of physics: the omnipresent Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Before we hit the second law, it would be good to remember the first law, which tells us energy is always conserved.
Climb a flight of stairs and the chemical energy in your morning’s oatmeal is turned into your muscles’ energy of motion. The oatmeal’s chemical energy originated, of course, in sunlight via photons streaming across space. Taken as a whole, energy is neither gained or lost. It is only transformed from one form to another.
In a city you see this every day, all day. Electricity runs through wires and transforms into the movement of a fan or the illumination flowing from a streetlight. The first law is relatively easy to understand, and it makes a kind of innate sense to us.
The second law is something else entirely. It speaks to the consequences of those energy transformations mandated by the first law. There are rules for how energy is transformed — rules and limits. Most importantl the second law tells us that anytime energy is used to do useful work — like lift an I-beam to the top of a new building — then some of that energy must end up as waste, garbage, pollution or just plain crap.
Useful work creates unusable waste, always and forever. That is the law, the second law. That universal link between energy, work and waste and is what makes the second law such a profound, universal principle.
Use a load of coal to drive a steam-powered locomotive and some of the coal’s energy ends up heating the locomotive itself, leading to wear, tear and eventual decay. Physicists call this waste entropy, but what it really means is disorder.
Entropy is a beautiful word and an even more beautiful idea. Systems, like a box of gas, can be in many states, with some more ordered than others. All the atoms in the box could be neatly packed into a corner. That is a high order and low entropy state. The atoms could also be bouncing around everywhere in the box. That’s a low order and high entropy state.
What does this have to do with the view of cities from the roof? On the roof you can literally hear the city acting like a giant engine. The sounds of traffic, music, construction and sirens all merge together into a cacophony, into a clamor, into noise. But what is noise in this case? It’s an acoustic measure of the second law at work. It’s the city’s entropy made audible!
Every moment of every day, vast quantities of energy stream into the city through all that plumbing we saw on the street. The city then uses that energy to do work, to organize itself into vast architectures of order. But the second law will not let the story end there. Waste, pollution and disorder must follow.
There is a word that applies to the sound of cities which almost never gets applied to nature: “Din.” The din of cities heard on the rooftop as a rising wall of noise is a testament to the true nature of cities as engines of organization and dynamos of disorder.
The first time I became aware of this din of acoustic entropy, I was sitting across from Manhattan on the cliffs of Weehawken, N.J. It was night and the great city was blazing from horizon to horizon. Its low rumble of noise flowed like a breeze blown at me from a mile away across the dark river. There it was, the second law made real in sound and light. The great might of that city — its vast converging streams of energy, creating a singular nexus of activity — was no more stunning than the visceral realization that it was also radiating disorder like a mad star.
The second law is a thing of great beauty, because it is just as true for a box of atoms as it is for a star, or a single cell or a great city. The dynamic balance of energy and entropy is a universal law of systems in whatever form they take.
But it has its darker side, too. The second law is a kind of warning to cities and civilization. No matter how clever we are, there will always be disorder, waste and pollution following in the wake of our work organizing societies into cities. There is another way of putting the second law that states the entropy of the universe always increases. So the work we do to create and maintain cities means we are also raising the level of disorder, waste and pollution for the planet as a whole.
The second law tells us that doing work always leads to unintended consequences. That is what we have seen happen with our relentless city building. What else is global warming but the unintended consequence of burning fossil fuels to power the highly organized culture we have created?
We live at a moment when cities are poised to become the dominant mode of human habitation on the planet. But we don’t yet know if such a mode can be made sustainable for more than a century or two. Coming to grips with that question can only mean coming to understand the physics of cities — the physics of thermodynamics and its ever-present second law.
Poetry’s Urban Landscape
By Brian Turner
October 15, 2011
There is a certain communication taking place between the lamp post and the sidewalk, the lime trees framing the autumn boulevard as distant statues hail the evening traffic forward in the muted bronze light of sunset. At some point, the ongoing constructs of social space internalize within us. It is, in part, the job of the poet to hear out these missives and to recognize the urban landscape we carry within the worlds our poems create.
Between plant life and stonework, bird song and headlamp, car horn and jackhammer, exhaust vent and the slow rise and fall of the dreamer breathing on the thirty-second floor—it would be unwise to think the metropolis offers the poem only its vertical and horizontal surfaces, its mechanically produced sound waves, the skyline the mere silhouette of a giant façade. I begin to wonder—what language does the city offer the poem, the poet, the reader? And, further—how does this language not only affect us but effect us?
The stanza (or “room” in Italian) is given literal rooms, buildings, corridors, walls, and windows through which one can view the world without or the world within. Roadways and boulevards function as transport both for the body and for the mind. But, perhaps they are not literal at all. The imagination gathers in the raw materials, forms the blueprint for a structure made of language, and then invites the reader to participate in building a similar architecture within the reader’s consciousness. One city is carried over into another, wall by wall, window frame by window frame, neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough, arrondissement by arrondissement. To borrow one of my favorite words from Jack Gilbert’s poetry, we are—as readers and as buildings constructed of language—augmented by this process.
As I read through the poems gathered for this issue, I found the pulse of the city insisting that it be heard—even in poems which leaned more toward a pastoral tradition. In the Paris of Pascale Petit’s “My Father’s City”—“The gargoyles’ cheeks flush / from the strain of breathing for you.” In “Smoke,” Michael Symmons Roberts asks, “What new edifice / hardens within, waits for the world to sharpen.” Dunya Mikhail takes us to “Hong Kong,” where the flowers are “everywhere: / on porcelain, / on bracelets, / on ashtrays, / on silken cravats, / on hems of coats, / on carpets, / on walls, / in meals, / in paintings, / in speeches…” Billy Ramsell’s “Distant Fears” recognizes that “The tide’s placid, insistent tongue is only wave / after wave of finance washing up on this green haven.” And, finally, Matthew Sweeney’s poem (“The Sleepwalker”) offers an intricate puzzle of consciousness and intent which begins with this opening gem of Carver-esque minimalism: “The sleepwalker shot himself / on the bridge over the freeway.”
When viewed as more than simple backdrop or stage treatment, poetry’s urban landscape challenges us to see beyond the reflective meditations possible in the pastoral mirror set before Narcissus. What, then, do we learn? I have singled out one possible thread running (arguably) through these five poems. Of course, these poems (and poets) offer more complications and delights than I’ve sketched and hinted at here. Still, even within the narrow focus I’ve suggested—what do we learn? Are we glimpsing the arcadian ideal refashioned in concrete and steel? Are we witnessing the dystopian, the ruination of form in private and public life? What does the urban topology tell us? Well, that’s part of the joy in reading. The poem finishes in the reader—you. I encourage you to wander out into the world of these poems and, in your own way, to be augmented by them.
Ralph Gentles and five other people spent each summer creating a map of every crack, every depression, every protrusion, every pothole in the sidewalks of New York City. We hear why, and we hear all the things their map does not include. Map making means ignoring everything in the world but the one thing being mapped, whether it’s cracks in sidewalks or the homes of Hollywood stars. And, according to cartographer Denis Wood, we live in the Age of Maps: more than 99.9 percent of all the maps that have ever existed have been made in the last 100 years.
Act One. Sight.
Denis Wood talks with host Ira Glass about the maps he’s made of his own neighborhood, Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina. They include a traditional street locator map, a map of all the sewer and power lines under the earth’s surface, a map of how light falls on the ground through the leaves of trees, a map of where all the Halloween pumpkins are each year, and a map of all the graffiti in the neighborhood. In short, he’s creating maps that are more like novels, trying to describe everyday life. In 2010, Denis compiled these maps into the book Everything Sings.
Act Two. Hearing.
Jack Hitt visits Toby Lester, who has mapped all the ambient sounds in his world: the hum of the heater, the fan on the computer. Jack’s most recent book is Bunch of Amateurs.
Act Five. Taste.
Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold goes to the places on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles that he visited back in the early 1980s. He tells the story of how he decided to map an entire street using his sense of taste, and how doing this changed his life.
Urban Sprawl Vs. Nature’s Crawl
by JONATHAN MAKIRI
February 08, 2011
Amid the urban sprawl, where many of us live, it can be easy to forget that nature is still competing for space. We step over tree roots that break through concrete. We curse trains delayed by snow. We jump when we see a mouse.
Photographer Mitch Dowbrowner‘s landscape series, Urban, blends the man-made with the wild, making it difficult to pinpoint where cities and nature end — or meet. His expansive canvases of Los Angeles initially draw the eye toward a mountain range or cloud bank. But as the gaze settles, the opposite force emerges: There is a city down there, too!
Twenty-eight local musicians, composers and artists have mapped out their favorite local sonic spaces, creating an audio tour of the most interesting naturally occurring acoustic landscapes.