Friday, June 5, 2015

Second Law

I have a sweatshirt that says “Made in 1952 All Original Parts.” The assertion is true only to the extent one would expect if said of an automobile of the same vintage. Even if nothing on a particular ’52 Chevy has been replaced (other than, say, tires, which we’ll count as non-integral, akin to shoes), the car almost surely is no stranger to body putty, sanding, and paint. Equivalently, while I still have 32 teeth – or at least underlying portions of them – most are capped and all but a few of the rest have at least one filling. Cars rust. So do people. Without some maintenance both fall apart sooner rather than later. But all fall apart eventually. The cars can last longer.

OK, the pumpkin-head isn't original

Old Physics joke:
First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t break even.

Entropy affects everything. My house was built in 1978, which doesn’t strike me as very long ago. (It probably does to those born after 1978.) Yet I must constantly push back against loose tiles, rot on exterior wooden steps, disintegrating roof shingles, seal leakage on the double-glaze windows which creates a cloud between the panes, peeling parge coats, mechanical failures (e.g. furnace, water heater, pressure tank) and so on. So far I’m almost holding my own. Almost.

In his book Rust: The Longest War Jonathan Waldman emphasizes metallic corrosion, but he also has in mind this broader sense of decay and the ultimately doomed fight against it. It is not just radioactive elements that have half-lives, he tells us. All metals do in the sense that they oxidize over time or otherwise alter in response to their environment. He quotes a Roman general in Egypt complaining that catapult hooks weakened by rust (ferrum corrumpitur) “are causing more casualties to our own army than to the enemy.” The problem remains today. The Pentagon spends billions annually combatting corrosion on vehicles, ships, and aircraft. Yet, helicopters crash when rotor bolts rust, rusted electrical contacts bring down aircraft, and several F18s have had alarming landings due to corrosion of landing gear parts. On average, military aircraft are out of action three weeks per year over corrosion issues. All ships need endless chipping and painting. So, too, ground vehicles.

In civilian life bridges, train tracks, and brake lines fail from rust. While rust can be delayed by various treatments, it cannot be stopped. Rust-induced failures always will happen and can be reduced (not eliminated) only by timely replacement of parts. Those of us who are old enough can remember the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s, which was almost too late. The frame and cladding proved to be in poorer and more dangerous shape than anyone had imagined.

Waldman spends chapters on the humble beverage can, which most of us take for granted. Back in the 1950s crushing an empty beer can by hand took considerable strength. This sounds odd today when we are used to cans that crush if you drop your mail on them, but at the time the cans were steel. Moreover, they had to be thick enough to withstand chemical assault from the contents inside and from oxygen on the outside long enough for the product to be used. Aluminum, if anything, is trickier than steel. Today’s thin aluminum cans rely on epoxy interior coatings (tailored to the beverage to be contained) to keep the inside away from the outside. Even so, they do fail, most typically in the trunk of a car parked under direct summer sunshine; the issue in that case, however, isn’t corrosion.

In the end, what can one say but that nothing is permanent, least of all ourselves? There are only different degrees of impermanence. In some respects that is just as well. That which is in decay is literally decadent, and that has a pleasant ring to it. All the same, I wonder if an epoxy coating would work for me?

Steam Powered Giraffe - I'll Rust with You


  1. Entropy is depressing if I think about it. We as humans try and distant ourselves from the inevitable or at least I do. The house and upkeep are another thing. I'm in that mode now, which becomes more apparent to a homeowner in spring/summer. I just got thru trying to get my weed edgers/whacker cleaned and running, but for how long, who knows? They are the most finicky lawn equipment for me. I also need a new roof and garage door for starters. So several things to do while it's still warm. I'm a procrastinator too and that doesn't help matters.

    1. It reminds me of a scene in Annie Hall in which Alvy as a child learns the fate of the universe and asks "What's the point?"

      Hey, if we can procrastinate long enough, we won't have to do it at all.

  2. Having just moved into a home that was built in 1980, I hear where you're coming from. Some of the upkeep around here is going to be substantial from a financial point of view. But it has to be done. It was a trade off. Move into a new home in a noisy busy neighborhood. Or move somewhere quieter and less cramped, but deal with older home issues. We picked the latter. But sometimes I think of all the work we need to do and it is intimidating.

    That said, metal corrosion is something you don't think about too often until it directly affects you. And yes, I remember the Statue of Liberty reboot. That was a big deal for one of my teachers back in the day. For us kids it just seemed kinda strange. I figured ti was a regular thing, and didn't know till much later that it wasn't a regular event.

    1. The Statue of Liberty makeover was prompted by thrill climber Ed Drummond who in 1980 made an unauthorized exterior climb of the statue. It brought attention to the holes, sags, and failing framework. Even so, the redo is not forever. The copper cladding should last for a while with proper maintenance: the 1980s estimate was that the patina (i.e. corrosion) will eat through irreparably in about 1000 years. The Egyptians thought ahead with their stone pyramid tomb/monuments. It's pretty hard to make a stone pyramid fall down.