My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Fri, 21 Oct, 2005

Laundry Information

I'm finally recovering from the two-week cold, and I have more energy now. But even during the depths of my affliction, I managed to do some things. I read a book about information theory and physics called INFORMATION: The new language of science by Hans Christian von Baeyer, a physics professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. And I did laundry.

In his short and very well-written book, Baeyer introduces science-minded readers like me to the field of "information theory." This was first proposed by Claude Shannon (1916-2001), a mathematical engineer who laid the mathematical groundwork for modern computing and telecommunications, including the Internet itself. Baeyer follows the inspiration of another great physicist, John Wheeler, who dared to ask why the quantum world, the very basis of reality, was divided up into "granules" rather than flowing in a continuous stream.

I can't say that I understood everything in this book, but I met up with the idea of "information content" and "information strings" as Baeyer explained Shannon's ideas. This is where the laundry comes in. My laundry could be considered as a vehicle of some very simple information, which can be lost through "information entropy," and regained through the addition of energy, namely, mine.

I am no fashion plate. I wear the same thing all the time, in a limited number of colors. I wear faded black jeans and a T-shirt, in the winter, a turtleneck shirt. My wardrobe is saved from complete dullness by the colors I wear. I wear black, orange, and light blue shirts. I have a stack of T-shirts in these colors. I wear them one by one, day by day, and then throw them in the laundry pile. The sequence of T-shirts as I wear them through a period of, let's say, nine days, provides a simple, and truly meaningless, information content: black, blue, blue, orange, black, orange, black, blue, black. These nine shirts could be considered a nine-part information string, built from only three character options.

But when I take the shirts off, and throw them in the laundry pile, their pattern sequence is destroyed. Laundry information has entropized in the pile. There is no remaining record, since I'm not that insane, of what shirts I wore in what order. When the pile is then placed in the laundry machines and washed and spun, the information is completely scrambled and ceases to exist. And then I dump the clean laundry in a pile, where it continues to have no information content, or at least nothing resembling what it had before.

Here is where energy must enter the system. Nothing gains order without external energy being applied to it. This energy is me, folding the laundry, a task I heartily dislike. And what do I do? I sort the T-shirts by color. All the black ones in a stack, all the blue ones, all the orange ones together. Then I stash them on the storage shelf. They are now in order, and ready to provide another meaningless string of information, depending on which ones I pick for which days. This may not be high-level information physics, but I can now see how a system can be scrubbed clean of its previous information before being re-used, and how much energy it takes to do it. What it means to me is that I really wish someone else would do my laundry.

Posted at 3:19 am | link

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