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The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe and Why Your Website Crashes

This article is going to be a little bit different than usual. Besides working in and enjoying technical SEO, I’m also passionate about astronomy and astrophysics. In this article, I’ll try to show some similarities between the observations that we, SEOs (including web developers) do everyday and the physics of the real world. You won’t find any specific guides or tips here, but rather something that I consider part of my personal philosophy of SEO.

Let’s start with a question…

Does a Website Fall Under the Laws of Physics?

Whoa, that’s a big one!

Let’s unpack it by first asking what a law in science is. I’d like to avoid formal definitions here, so my working definition would be: a law is a statement about reality derived from previous experiments and observations that has the capability to (to some extend) predict the results of future observations.

Now let’s think of a meaningful way to answer the above question by trying to fit in some well established laws.

Newton’s’ laws of motion? Sure, the physical parts of the server obeys them, but I don’t see a clear connection that would allow us to apply them to websites. The postulates of Einstein’s relativity? Meh, that’s also not applicable. Let’s see what else there is: Kepler’s laws of orbital mechanics . . . Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism . . . quantum mechanics . . . NO!

We went too far! Backtrack! BACKTRACK!

It’s time for Plan B. I’ll take the most misused law of physics and exploit it even more. Yes. I’m talking about the infamous Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states:

The total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time.

The Concept of Entropy

This is meant to be a non-technical article, so I will inevitably simplify things, but I promise to stay as accurate as I can, and if I fail, I’m totally ready for your comments.

Entropy in thermodynamics is the amount of energy in a system that’s unavailable to do work. It goes against common sense, but not all the energy that is contained within a system is capable of doing work.

An example? The atmospheric pressure at sea level is around 1kg/cm² and its temperature is around 285K (12 Celsius/54 Fahrenheit), representing the stored energy. The temperature part is obvious, but please, think about the pressure.

Every square centimeter of your skin (0.16 square inch) is constantly being pushed by the surrounding air as if it had a 1kg weight attached to it! Or at least, it would be pushed with that strength if not for the fact that your body has the same pressure as the surrounding air 😉

The air itself is obviously not capable of doing work under normal circumstances, but if you transferred a liter of sea level air into a space vacuum, it would expand and cool, doing around 3000 Joules of work in the process, which is roughly the equivalent of the energy of a fired AK-47 bullet!

By the way, your vacuum cleaner operates using this principle. It lowers the pressure inside, so that the air outside becomes capable of doing work, and expands into the inside of the vacuum cleaner, carrying the dust along with it.

Technically speaking, a vacuum isn’t sucking, rather the high pressure air is pushing (this applies also to the vacuum of space – this and gravity is why our atmosphere isn’t being “sucked” into outer space).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics rephrased states that the amount of usable energy in an isolated system cannot increase.

But there’s another view of entropy in this context, a statistical view. Work, vaguely stated, is the transfer of energy. It’s clear that the amount of possible work is zero, when the system is completely uniform. In such a case, entropy can be viewed as the measure of disorder.

The State of Equilibrium

You might be asking “What does this have to do with a website?” 

Well, let’s think about a classic example of entropy at work: a cup of hot tea in a room. The heat from the tea will be transferred to the room until the room and the tea reaches equal temperatures. This state of equal temperatures is the state of equilibrium for the tea and the room. When a system reaches the state of equilibrium, energy transfer between its parts become impossible (until forced externally).

Now the website analogy comes in.

Finally, I know!

Let’s say we have a nice well optimized website. We put a lot of work into making sure there are no 404 error pages. That’s our initial state, the working pages are just like the hot cup of tea in a room from the previous example. It will inevitably leak energy to the environment, which in this case would mostly be non-working pages.

In order to make sense of this process we have to call out the statistical perspective of entropy. Every change we make to the website has an intrinsic chance to fail. A typo in a link, a missing bracket in the code, or a page that has been deleted but other pages are still linking to it.

This will lead to an increase of disorder, and if continued long enough, will lead to the death of a website ;(

This is how a graph showing error counts in Google Search Console usually looks like, if you’re not actively fixing them.

Another illustration of entropy-like processes on your website would be the increase of steps in redirect chains. We can actually show the state of equilibrium which would be represented by the mean number of steps in the chain.

The GIF below shows the random process of creating, extending and breaking off redirect chains. The nodes with the number 1 to 20 are representations of pages, and the arrows indicate redirects. In every step, there is a 20% chance to alter the node’s arrow: 50% to create one and 50% to break one. If an arrow is created, the target was also randomly selected. Outside of the first two, every step has 5 or 6 chains with an average of 1.45 steps per chain.

Earth is 4.5 billion years old. That’s a pretty long time. Shouldn’t it have already reached equilibrium by this point?

Or: Why aren’t we all dead yet?

The Sun as a Website

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is all about isolated systems. Earth, as well as your website, are not isolated. Earth gets its low entropy from the Sun. It’s not enough to say that we’re getting energy from the Sun, because as shown before, not all energy is capable of doing work. The energy that we get is highly concentrated, and we’ve got cold space all around us, where the used energy is constantly radiated.

We’re getting (relatively) few very energetic photons from the Sun, which have low entropy, and we’re radiating lots of low energy, high entropy photons into space.

It’s similar on your website. Webmasters are constantly adding new pages, repairing links, cutting redirect chains, and recovering lost pages. They are doing very specific work, and not only creating new stuff. They’re also constantly throwing abandoned parts of the code into the abyss (deleting it).

What’s the Role of SEOs Here?

SEOs, at least for the most part, are not developers. They do not contribute into the energy output of a developer team, but rather they act as a magnifying glass. This works in two ways:

Firstly, SEOs help the developer team see the problem by magnifying it.

Secondly (and more relevant in context of this article), SEOs help focus the developers energy into a narrow, dense beam that strikes only the important problems.

We decrease the entropy of the energy that developers put into a website, thus allowing them to do more work (or be more efficient).

What About the Heat Death?

The second law is ruthless.

In every closed system, the entropy has to increase, and every decrease in a part of a system has to be balanced by an increase somewhere else. So when we’re getting low entropy from the Sun, the Sun’s entropy increases even faster. This will eventually lead to the Sun reaching the state of equilibrium, which unfortunately means no more low entropy for Earth.

Extending this concept to the whole universe (defined as all that there is) we have to assume that it’s not getting anything from outside (what’s outside of everything?). This principle restated is: the universe is a closed system.

I guess you can now see where this reasoning leads. The entropy of the universe as a whole constantly increases and will lead to the universe reaching the state of equilibrium, which can also be called the “heat death” state.

But hey, don’t worry too much about that!

Based on our current best estimates, we’ve got about a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) years until the last star stops nuclear fusion.

And that’s not even the end! The stars will continue to give off heat from their superheated cores until around 10 to the 39th power years from now (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). We already have a name for that time: the Degenerate Era (isn’t that cool?).

The last bits of low entropy will come from the radiation from black holes (discovered by one of my personal heroes, Stephen Hawking), which will last for around 10 to the 100th power years (no, I’m not doing the number this time!). This will be called The Black Hole Era.

But don’t worry, it’s more than enough time to do everything you’d like to do.

A similar fate awaits your website. At some point in the future, the project will be abandoned and your website will start to degrade. Some websites die quickly. They get redirected or the server services just ends, but some don’t fall so easily.

Here’s an example of a well preserved website. It was created in the early days of the world wide web in 1993. But even this “living fossil” of a website is not free from entropy. The internal links keep working (because the website is preserved without changes), but as of today, almost all the external links point to broken pages.

If you’re interested in seeing more preserved relics from the Internet’s past, take a look at “Internet Archeology with the Wayback Machine“.

The End

I cannot guarantee that your website will be important to anyone in the far future of the Degenerate Era. I can’t think of a reason to worry about it. However, I see every reason to focus on what you can do today! Your work does matter to the people you actually care about, so don’t be afraid to make your ideas come true.

Put together the best website you can, and make sure to reach as many fellow human beings as you can, because that’s the ultimate goal of websites, search engines, and the internet – to bring people together.

Published
  • 17 April 2018
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Marcin

See all articles by Marcin Gorczyca

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