Memento Mori

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Thermalization: A Personal Recollection

Floral Arrangement with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Pig Ears

Floral Arrangement with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Pig Ears

He must have known that he was dying.

We sat in the hospital hallway and we didn’t talk about the time he was running out of, or the disease that was killing him, or the colostomy bag tucked under his T-shirt.

We talked about mathematics.

It’s the only subject we ever discussed.

Whatever scraps I knew about his personal life were anecdotes that had come up in connection with mathematics. For example: the story from his college days in Moscow, about when he and his roommate had dismantled their dorm room bit-by-bit, working in total silence, looking for hidden microphones, their fear fading only hours later when they realized there were none.

Floral Arrangment with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Pig Intestines

Floral Arrangment with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Pig Intestines

We sat in the hospital hallway for hours on uncomfortable moulded plastic chairs. He floated ideas; I did calculations in a battered old notebook. The paper we were working on would be his last. It was a baroque mess of ideas, unfocused and interdisciplinary, intersecting with a half dozen different subfields of math and physics. Every time we spoke he wanted to add something else to the text. He kept insisting that we explore some new avenue of inquiry, add some new connection to a different subject, add ever more sections to the bloated TeX file on my laptop. I found this approach infuriating at the time; I didn’t understand that he was thinking of this work as a part of his legacy whereas, for me, it was just another publication.

Looking back on that paper now feels a bit like listening to recordings of the punk band I played with in high school.

I was a different person back then.

Vanitas with Pig Foot, Pig Intestines, and Teapot

Vanitas with Pig Foot, Pig Intestines, and Teapot

The idea of thermalization played a key role in that paper. For a scientist, thermalization refers to the tendency of systems towards a state of maximum entropy. For everyone else, it is the inevitable descent of our world into chaos. It is the slow and steady march towards disorder that will eventually claim all things, even the universe itself.

I wasn’t thinking about mortality that afternoon as we sat in the hospital. Even though he was dying. Even though there were reminders of death all around us, in the white noise of hospital announcements on overhead speakers, in the sterile smell of antiseptics that haunted the air, in the sick and elderly and infirm who aimlessly walked the hallway, in the feeding tubes and intravenous drips and bandages and gauze and pills and drops and injections.

My attention was elsewhere.  

Floral Arrangement with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Duck Gizzards

Floral Arrangement with Chicken Feet, Cow Trachea, and Duck Gizzards