Entropy at Work?
A Bacteria Ballad from Commentator Bill Harley
Listen to the commentary.
Listen to the song "Entropy."
Feb. 9, 2002 -- Artists have taken their muse from any number of sources. For Massachusetts-based songwriter and NPR commentator Bill Harley -- it's thermodynamics that's got him going. Specifically, entropy and its biggest customers, the bacteria that decompose leaves.
For Weekend Edition Saturday, Harley was inspired to take a closer look at what's going on inside rotting piles of leaves.
Streptomyces spend their time outdoors decomposing leaves, and in the process, win the award for the biggest destroyers of energy on Earth.
Image: John Innes Centre, Norwich
By Bill Harley
I have always loved entropy. Very little sticks in my mind from 11th grade physics class except the second law of thermodynamics, which, roughly explained, states that the universe tends towards disorder. The more disorder, the greater the entropy. Anything that can make a negative into a positive is OK with me.
This law of nature is demonstrated in the movement of rivers to the sea, mountains wearing down, the burning out of stars, and I believe, the gradual spreading out of papers, books and coffee mugs across my desk. The universe is moving, gradually, inexorably, towards everything being used up. And I have always suspected that humans, wonderful and horrible creatures that we are, bear the largest responsibility for the creation of entropy, or disorder, on this little blue planet. After all, we've used up the energy stored in millions of years of plant life in one century, burning fossil fuels and redefining the climate of the planet. What species other than humans could do that?
Well, I was wrong. Scientists, inveterate meddlers that they are, will tell you that the winner for the biggest destroyer of energy on the planet is the bacteria that decomposes leaves.
Most of the energy the sun has given the planet over the eons has been captured by plant life. And much of that in leaves. All that energy stored there. Who uses up the energy? Not us -- we don't burn leaves anymore. No, it's bacteria, with names like Streptomyces hirsutus and Bacillus cereus.
Be serious, you say. What do you know? You're just a storyteller, or singer, or something.
Well, I also happen to be a biomusicologist, because this fall, while raking leaves in my back yard, I recorded wet leaf mold and the sounds that it makes. It was a slow day. What I found, or heard, was the sound of these little bacteria gleefully doing their work. Impossible, you say? Maybe, but I'm a storyteller, and to prove it, I will now play for you the song that little bacteria make as they increase entropy on the planet. Forgive the fidelity -- this is, after all, a field recording:
Listen to the song "Entropy".
The scientific journals have accepted my view of the world, but not my recording. They say bacteria aren't conscious of their behavior, and they can't play drums either. I'm presently tracing the origin of the bacteria through ethnomusicological sources. I currently have it placed somewhere in the leeward islands of the Carribbean. The bacteria don't really care -- it's just one big party to them.
Humans using energy to take them near and far
They're burning up the fossil fuels in airplanes, trucks and cars
They think that they're the masters at creating entropy
But they are only amateurs, next to my friends and me
Let me introduce myself I'm Streptomyces flocculus
Underneath the microscope I seem quite innocuous
But with my other pals like Pseudomonas borealis
We take the world apart
But we do so without malice
Things are going down hill
Always have and always will
We think our job is great
We won't stop till we reach a steady state
Master of disorder, B. cereus. Photo: Shirley Owens and Catherine McGowan
Every leaf and every branch that's lying on the ground
Is just potential energy waiting to be found
We digest the matter, turn it into energy
When the stuff is all used up
We've got more entropy!
There's nothing we can do
It's the end of me and you
Don't get into a panic
It's just the second law of thermodynamics
Singer/songwriter Bill Harley lives in Seekonk, Massachusetts. Hear other NPR commentaries by Harley.
Browse through the NPR archives for bacteria-related stories.
Hear more of Harley's work.
Read more about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics at Occidental College professor Frank Lambert's two Web sites, www.secondlaw.com and www.2ndlaw.com.
Learn more about microbes in dirt, water, animals -- and possibly space -- at Michigan State University's Microbe Zoo.
Read about news-making microbes.
Get up close and personal with the Microbe of the Month.
Find more microbe resources on the Web at the International Society for Microbial Ecology.