The Thermodynamics Of The Creative Process

Why making art is a cosmological miracle.

When I was researching my sci-fi show Parallax back in 2017, I spent a lot of time learning about xenology.

Xenologists think about biology, chemistry, physics and so on as they might relate to alien species, and my own thinking was that if I could learn to speak like a xenologist, I could talk about life on earth as if it were alien to me.

All the odd language used by ‘Carla Sagan’, the extra-terrestrial narrator — such as referring to humans as “bipedal heterotrophs” — came from studying the language of xenology websites, like this delightful artefact from the early web.

Now, to a xenologist, the laws of thermodynamics are particularly important because, from our observations, the behaviour of energy appears to be pretty consistent across the universe.

The big law of thermodynamics is the second one: the one that says the amount of chaos and disorder in a system will always increase. This disorder is measured in terms of Entropy.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system, Entropy must always increase. As one xenologist puts it: “It is the business of the universe to destroy complexity and to become progressively more randomised.”

An ice cube on a table will always melt, fruit juice will always dissipate evenly in a glass of water, the stars will all slowly cool,

until the inevitable


of the universe.

There is, of course, one exception…

Living organisms effectively violate the laws of thermodynamics.

A tree, for example, takes chaos — the solar energy beating down on earth — and converts it into complexity: the tightly packed cells of its leaves, branches and trunk.

We humans take the random energy stored in our food and convert it into complex proteins that build up our cells, which organise themselves into systems and organs, performing specific functions.

The disorder is converted into order — it’s the equivalent of a pool of water forming into a perfect ice cube by itself.

It was Schrödinger, when he wasn’t trying to stuff his cat into a box, who explained how life can exist in the face of Entropy. He described life as negative-entropy, or Negentropy.

You and I, we are wonderful walking pieces of Negentropy, but we shouldn’t really be here. It takes a huge amount of effort and energy and luck to keep Entropy at bay — just for a while.

And Entropy always wins out,


So what has all this got to do with creativity?

A musician takes the random chaos of white noise, the infinite spectrum of sound waves, and organises them into a limited selection of notes in a precise order to create melodies which move our hearts: music is organised sound!

A painter has the whole visible colour spectrum at their disposal. They could mix all the colours on the palette together to create a random mush of brown; but instead they select specific colours, mix them just-so and put them alongside other colours to create an image we recognise: painting is organised colour!

And if you want to know what a random string of letters and numbers look like, just ask your password generator. But a writer selects, orders and arranges that chaos into meaningful stories and ideas that speak to people across the generations: books are organised words!

Maybe that’s why we humans are so attracted to art, as we ourselves are creations in opposition to the fundamental laws of the universe.

All of which to say: that thing you’re making, it will not exist by itself.

It will come together no more easily than a pool of water forming itself into a perfect ice cube. It will require a huge amount of energy and effort and luck to reverse the engines of Entropy, to convert chaos into complexity — to violate the second law of thermodynamics for heaven’s sake!

But it is waiting to be drawn out from the noise and it is waiting for you — oh angel of negentropic alchemy! — to make it.

Adam Westbrook is an Emmy-nominated journalist and filmmaker. He writes The Third Something, a newsletter about creativity and visual storytelling.

Video artist working at The New York Times. I write a weekly newsletter about visual storytelling and creativity.

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