May. 5th, 2013

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“Life… naturally pulls us down toward death.” … Welcome to your graduation. As a product of a U of C education, I feel compelled to cite my sources, and so I’ll tell you that what I just said was a quotation from Anne Bogart, a renowned American theater director, who was paraphrasing writer Italo Calvino from one of six lectures he wrote but never finished. He didn’t finish them… because he died. Now Anne Bogart is not a U of C student and moreover, she’s an artist, so she isn’t required to cite anyone—for example, she fails to cite Rudolf Clausius. Who is Rudolf Clausius? He’s the German physicist who stated the second law of Thermodynamics. But it’s not like his idea was original—he was only revising Sadi Carnot‘s theories, which were addressing advances made by James Watt, who was standing on the shoulders of Thomas Newcomen, who synthesized Thomas Savery and Denis Papin, and so forth, and so forth. Five hundred years of neglected citation, but I will not perpetuate such irresponsible scholarship—all of my information was taken from Wikipedia.

For example, Wikipedia tells me about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that since the Big Bang, entropy has been rising—which means that the energy of the universe has been dissipating and will continue to do so until it arrives at equilibrium, fatal and final. That event is otherwise known as the Great Heat-Death of the Universe. Now this will happen billions of years from now but you’re graduating today, and entering a world, as Anne Bogart conceives it, of dissipating human energy. For the rest of your life, you will get tired. You will shy away from risk. You will cathect to comfort. You will watch lots of television. It’s a gentle process, and it’s completely unstoppable. We will lose energy. The universe will end. We can’t stop the Great Heat-Death of the Universe.

But by God, we are University of Chicago students. And we can fight.

How do you pick a fight with the Second Law of Thermodynamics? Anne Bogart, artist and abstainer from Chicago-style citation, argues that the act of creation is inherently an act of resistance against our own death. To fight entropy, I might add, is to have the audacity to act against the universe’s inclination to settle and our own impulse to simply live a comfortable life. This of course puts me in the mind of Plato’s allegory of the cave. The cave, we forget, is a really cozy place to be. It’s warm, there’s a big long couch—there’s even a sweet television and all your friends are there watching it. But the cave is part of a universe that yearns for stagnation, and so here at the U of C we leave it. It’s uncomfortable and even painful but it takes a damn good shot at entropy. If we’ve learned one lesson from Plato, it’s that discomfort is often a sure sign of something worthwhile. We take up discomfort, we take up the fight because to fight entropy is to transcend our own fate and the single most important thing we can do as human beings is to confront the Great Heat-Death of the Universe and to defy it. For four years, you’ve been doing just that—talking, writing, collaborating, creating—fighting entropy 10 weeks at a time. Today you decide—do you go back to the cave? Or do you stay outside and fight?

Life naturally pulls us down toward death, but today you graduate; and today, entropy meets the University of Chicago. This is your graduation. This is your fight.

- Drew Dir, 2007 University of Chicago graduation speech

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