Waiting for Maxwell’s Demon
My father is a geophysicist. As a child, I spent many hours on road trips to remote quarries where we would hike to an outcrop and spend hours splitting rocks, searching for fossils. While in retrospect I am grateful for these unique experiences, my younger self – and particularly my teenage self – rejected all things scientific. That was my dad’s realm, and I was going to be my own person. Perhaps because of my willful rejection of science-related material in my formative years, in my adult life I have returned to science with intense curiosity. The theories on which my father based a career remain foreign to me – the ideas of chaos and entropy, symmetry and order, the reactive nature of the universe, and the infinite planes of what we can’t ever know – and it is because I have such trouble wrapping my mind around these ideas that I am compelled to explore them.
As science has been for my father, poetry has been for me a way of imposing order on a ruthless and untenable world. It has been a way of creating patterns and connections, making sense – or trying to – of events and people and emotions that are difficult or even impossible to understand. In Chaos Theories, my world collides with my father’s. Perhaps on some level, my attempts to understand his science are also attempts to understand my father, a complicated workaholic who looms both large and distant in my memories of growing up.
Many of the poems in the collection began with me reading excerpts from science books, many of which were written by my father, and playing around with the language. The poem “Maxwell’s Demon” came about after I was reading Christian von Bayer’s book of the same title. In it, he explores the laws of thermodynamics, highlighting the famous thought experiment conducted by James Clerk Maxwell that examines why, for example, the hot tea in a tea cup doesn’t stay hot. He imagined an atomic gate keeper – Maxwell’s Demon – who would not allow any molecules of heat to leave the cup and, thus, would help it stay hot and defy the second law of thermodynamics.
To me, the idea of being able to slow or even stop entropy is a brilliant fantasy with implications that go way beyond a cup of tea or coffee. Who among us wouldn’t wish for a little creature to help us undo the past on an atomic level? Who wouldn’t want to stop the effects of aging or go back and right petty wrongs? Really, “Maxwell’s Demon,” like so many of the poems in the collection, is about loss. My friend, Patrick Flynn Eckenrode, committed suicide on Ash Wednesday 2003 by shooting himself in the head. This event, more than any in my life before or since, has haunted me and shaped my understanding of time. I still wake up, fifteen years later, with a litany of what ifs? running through my mind. My reading of the theory of Maxwell’s Demon allows the possibility of undoing the past, an idea that would allow my friend to be here now.
“By dint of his prodigious intelligence and dexterity, the goblin could cause things to happen that are never seen to occur in nature, things that seemed able to violate the second law of thermodynamics.” — Hans Christian von Baeyer
Maxwell’s demon, diminutive imp, you spit
on the law of entropy through the fork in your thick,
black tongue. You claw open trapdoors of closed systems,
let heat pass through, shut out the cold. Your lies
could keep my coffee hot all day. You want
to hold the hands of the clock steady, hold
gravity in check, unsag my skin, change
the nature of my longing, but even you
cannot exist without consequence: your gaze
alone alters everything you see. Like mine,
your presence interferes, unbalances, warps:
rubbernecking backs traffic up for miles, slows
the ambulance’s progress, causes fender benders,
arguments, missed appointments, backseat births.
My weeping can’t reverse a bullet, but
my limbic system shifts; the scent of day-old
lilies fills me, henceforth, with a sense of dread.
Darling liar, you promise endless heat,
backwards motion, do-overs. This time I know
exactly what to say. I will pick up
the phone this time. This time I’ll tell him, Wait.
Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, The Normal School, and other journals. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale and her master’s from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. Chaos Theories is her first book.