President Sean Decatur addressed the members of the Class of 2017 and their parents at Opening Convocation on Sunday, August 25, 2013.
At this moment, there are presidents at colleges across the country struggling to find something inspirational, moving, or profound to say to the incoming students. I will be no different – as we close, I want to offer some words of advice and wisdom to our new students. For me, a physical chemist at heart, no topic is more profound, more inspirational, and more unavoidably true than the laws of thermodynamics. So, I offer three thoughts of wisdom, courtesy of the three laws of thermodynamics:
1. Keep in mind, always, the first law of thermodynamics. Often called the law of conservation of energy, the first law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely converted from one form to another. The amount of energy of the universe is constant – there are few things in life that I think are absolutes, but this is one of them.
My first word of advice to incoming students is to keep this law in mind in all things, and remember that “work” and “effort” are just other forms of energy. You will find very quickly that Kenyon presents you with an almost infinite array of opportunities, curricular and co-curricular, for you to commit your energy and effort. The catalog is thick with a wide range of courses; during orientation you will be introduced to a vast array of student organizations and activities; there are many club sports and varsity sports each season; service opportunities abound.
You should explore broadly, but keep the first law of thermodynamics in mind at all times – you have a finite amount of energy and effort, so you’ll need to make choices. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't experiment, get tastes of different things that may interest you – this most definitely should be your goal for your first year – but also be aware of the hazards of stretching yourself too thinly.
2. Which brings me to the second law. The second law of thermodynamics is commonly described as “all systems tend towards maximum entropy,” where entropy is a thermodynamics term that measures the randomness or disorder of a system. Another way to think about it is that, while the quantity of energy is a system is constant, the quality (when left alone) will gradually deteriorate. Colloquially, the first law tells you that the best you can ever hope for in the universe is to break even in terms of energy; the second law emphasizes that even breaking even works out to be not so great in the end.
So, systems in isolation tend towards disorder. This is true of my office desk; it is also true of most dorm rooms. Sadly, it is true of our bodies – left in true isolation, the ultimate direction of all of our physical selves is inevitable decline and decay.
This is pretty depressing; not typically the stuff of an uplifting convocation talk. But, we as individuals are not typically systems in isolation. We have the ability to hold off decay, even to create order from disorder, by applying “work” on a system – “work” (a form of energy) can be used to balance or hold off “entropy.” Your room doesn’t have to be dirty – you can do work and clean it. I can clean my desk. All things are possible!
What is the lesson to be taken home from the second law? Well, most importantly, that all parts of our lives need attention, and take the application of work or effort, to hold off inevitable decline. This is true physically – we must give adequate attention to physical needs (diet, exercise, etc.) to keep things working. It also applies to things more abstract – from relationships to learning – all of these need sustained work and effort to be accomplished.
Now, it is important to keep the first law in mind while applying the second. You will need energy to do the work required by the second law to keep systems around you from falling apart. But, remember the total energy that you have will always be finite, and so you will have to make choices. Remember to sleep, eat and exercise, and to keep track of the time and energy these require in your overall planning. And, remember that time and energy is also required for maintaining relationships with family and friends.
3. And finally, the third law. The third law of thermodynamics is often ignored (and you will realize why in a second – it is not nearly as pithy as the other two). It goes something like this – at the limit of a system as the temperature approaches absolute zero, entropy goes to zero. In other words, if you cool down a system to zero degrees Kelvin (really cold), and you should have a perfectly ordered (and perfectly crystalline) system. Of course, this law is accompanied by the statement that it is physically impossible to reach this state of absolute zero; no one has ever (nor can you really ever) see this perfectly crystalline state. Rather, the law states a mathematical limit, a statement that can be made with a great deal of certainty, but describing a physical state that can never be observed directly.
There is an important, more general lesson to be taken from this (and I know, you are dying from curiosity to hear if there is one). The 3rd law of thermodynamics illustrates some of the subtle and powerful modes of thinking that you will face here at Kenyon and indeed for the rest of your lives. You will learn many abstract things in your classes; many, like the third law of thermodynamics that are undeniably true, yet simultaneously impossible to witness. One of the hallmarks of higher-order thinking, valued at Kenyon and elsewhere, is to balance the development of abstract models and theory with the observation and analysis of facts, of feelings, of experiences, all involving the real world. Excellent thinkers can do both – dwell in the realm of the abstract, while also rigorously observing and analyzing the real. In all of your studies – whether in your literature courses, your art courses, your physics courses – you will learn to question assumptions, challenge ideas, work to bridge the abstract and the concrete. The practice that you get at Kenyon in this thinking – the exercise to your mind that you will perform while pondering over seemingly obscure topics such as the third law – will serve you well in your ongoing development as a careful, critical, analytical thinker and citizen.
So, the bottom line (as indicated by the three laws): You’ll have to make wise choices about your time, energy, and effort; you’ll need to work diligently and strategically to overcome the effects of entropy everywhere – on your body, your environment, and our world; and you’ll need to think, observe, and analyze on a range of different levels. The Kenyon experience is aimed at helping you accomplish all of these.
Again, welcome, thank you for being here, and let’s get started on our first-year adventures together.