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A physicist’s fix for a messy home. Words by Stephanie d'Arc Taylor. Photograph by Mirka Laura Severa.

Etymology: Coined by the French physicist Léon Brillouin in the early 20th century, and popularized by Erwin Schrödinger (of Schrödinger’s cat fame), negentropy is a portmanteau of “negative” and “entropy” and describes the difference between the energy in a system and the maximum possible energy in a system.

Definition: Not much about teens makes sense, but one classic teenage argument must be viewed with grudging respect, by physicists at least: the futility of making one’s bed in the morning. The scientifically minded teen might rebut encouragements toward tidiness by pointing out that making one’s bed is a mere finger in the dike of one of the fundamental laws of our physical world: entropy. Entropy describes the principle that everything in the universe tends toward disorder. Every ordered structure, even your favorite duvet cover, is a low-probability convergence of atoms whose energy will ultimately be released, contributing to the overall entropy of the universe.

Entropy is a poetic, poignant concept, easily borrowed from physics to describe trends in diverse fields including politics and personal relationships. Dr. Alison Carr-Chellman, dean of the education school at the University of Dayton, is attempting to do the same for the lesser-known sister concept of negentropy. If entropy is a measure of energy lost in a system, negentropy is the measure of actions taken to mitigate that energy loss. Transposing this physical concept onto personal and work lifestyles, she believes, can improve efficiency.

Carr-Chellman has spent decades observing social systems. She’s noticed something that might sound familiar to all of us: Social systems, such as schools or offices, sometimes inefficiently manage their resources, like holding meetings to accomplish things that could have been done over email. Deploying energy resources in this way is as inefficient, she says, as improperly weatherproofing a house. Energy leaks out, and with it money, time and employee motivation. Employing negentropic actions involves finding the energy leaks, prioritizing the losses, and then taking mitigating action. Tidying your home regularly may well prove negentropic, because picking things up as you go is more energy-efficient than getting into such a state that you have to spend a weekend sorting through the mess.

Ultimately, whether negentropic actions work in your personal life depends on your personality. “In my opinion,” says Dr. Carr-Chellman, “working to keep order frees your mind to attend to other things.” Making her bed in the morning, in other words, enables her to clearly address the inefficiencies she sees in the social systems she works with.

But she herself admits it: “Negentropy is what we’d call a temporary condition. I wouldn’t tell anyone they have to make their bed. But I would also say, don’t come to me when you can’t find your socks—you lost them because you didn’t take the negentropic action of putting them somewhere you can easily find them.”

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