Physics and Literature: Kissing Cousins

Couldn't find a more perfect image if I tried. (National Geographic)
Couldn’t find a more perfect image if I tried.
(National Geographic)

The basic laws that govern the universe—Newtonian, those of the thermodynamic variety, gravity, etc.—are not so fundamentally different from the laws that govern literature.*

But Roxanne, you ask, surely literature has no rules? Surely literature is an organic, artistic outlet that allows authors to explore with guaranteed freedom the nuances of the world that surrounds them?

Just as light exists both as particles and as waves, both concepts are correct. Literature is certainly a creature that often flourishes when left to its own devices, but it’s foolish, I think, to believe that the organic process of writing and creating is not without its own rules, whether we as writers and readers are aware of them or not. Even more foolish, perhaps, is to see the rules that govern writing and creativity as chains we must escape in order to make good art, rather than seeing those rules as art in and of themselves. What I mean to say is that creation and the physical laws that govern it, those just as inexplicable as they are explicable, are inherently tied to the act of creating itself. Within literature, the process of creating might not have rules, but yet it also does.

In light of this literary paradoxical duality, I decided to assemble a small list of some of the physical laws that are particularly reflected in literature, perhaps despite ourselves.

The First Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Conservation of Energy

Energy within a system can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.

Medgar Evers said in what has become something of a cliché that you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea. Within the larger context of literature, of society, of communication between humans, there is perhaps nothing more true than the concept that an idea, because it lacks physicality, is immortal, but if we limit our scope and apply the idea to a single work of fiction or poetry, this notion becomes even more apparent, even more absolute.

Writing is a tool that communicates ideas. It is the purpose of literature, however, to process ideas, to start with one idea and transform it by the work’s end. That which begins the novel ends the novel, though it might not be recognizable in its original form. The existence of an idea is immutable, but its form is mutable. Literature cannot exist without the volta, the turn that makes the point of its pages or its lines. Perhaps literature takes the First Law of Thermodynamics further: not only can idea change, it must change to be considered literature.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

An object in motion stays in motion, and an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

This law informs the aforementioned law. In order for the transformation of an idea to occur, things have to happen. If it’s fiction, one must apply conflict. If it’s poetry, the forces applied are a little more varied. In either case, the transformation must be instigated by both the hand of the author and, lest we imagine literature a one-way authorial street, the mind of the reader. But while there are four fundamental forces in the universe, there are infinite forces that act in literature. Think of it like the Rule 34 of literature: if you can think of it, it can be a force that instigates the critical transformation.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Entropy in the universe will always increase.

Theoretically, works of literature are highly organized and finely tuned. In practice this is usually also the case. Consider also the increased organization of form as it progressed over centuries of writing and storytelling all the way from oral tradition to the edited, printed, and bound novels that saturate the modern market. Within individual works, too, we read largely consciously constructed writing (with the exception of intentionally deconstructed prose and verse, but is that not, too, a form of organization?)–of course this probably sounds obvious. Because literature comes from the human mind, is it not fundamentally the child of organization?


And no.

Despite the fact that the process of writing literature might skew closer to the Third Law of Thermodynamics, the way we understand and read literature appeals more to the idea of deconstruction and deterioration–entropy. Don’t mistake this for a cynical lamentation on the state of modern literature, because by deterioration I mean the natural process by which reading deconstructs the organized object of a finished text and breaks it down into pieces in order to understand and experience it. Rarely, I think, can we fully appreciate a whole text without breaking it down to its parts, to its most basic units.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion

For each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As with the other laws, this law applies on both the entire beast of literature and each individual literary work. Consider movements in literary history, for example. Like in music, the next generation of writers and creators, intentionally or no, respond to the previous body of work. The Modernists responded (oh, boy, did they) to the Victorians, the Victorians responded to the Romantics, and the Romantics responded to those Enlightenment pedants, etc. For each action of literature, there is an equal and opposite reaction in the next generation.

Within individual works, we can see this law at play in the way an author constructs the plot. For each action a character does, the plot must react to it whether in the form of another character, an outside force, or the proverbial other shoe dropping, and vice versa. This, in short, is the law that governs and creates conflict within a story, and in creating conflict, we create a web of interaction that creates lasting, powerful stories.


I’m convinced that the remaining Newtonian and Thermodynamic laws are also evident within literature, though much more in the abstract, and not without a fair amount of heavy philosophizing and semantic strong-arming. Literature, like the universe, is a fickle but strong-principled mistress, governed by laws but seemingly random, and very much capable of spooky action at a distance.


*My Master of Science degree obviously qualifies me to expound on all topics scientific, existential, and text-based, so…



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