Tag Archives: Jean-Paul Sartre

Boltzmann’s brain

Ludwig Boltzmann developed a statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics by defining entropy as being proportional to the logarithm of the number ways in which we can arrange a system [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th 2017].  The mathematical expression of this definition is engraved on his head-stone.  The second law states that the entropy of the universe is always increasing and Boltzmann argued it implies that the universe must have been created in a very low entropy state.  Four decades earlier, in 1854, William Thomson concluded the dissipation of heat arising from the second law would lead to the ‘death’ of the universe [see ‘Cosmic heat death‘ on February 18th, 2015] while the big bang theory for the creation of the universe evolved about twenty years after Boltzmann’s death.  The probability of a very low entropy state required to bring the universe into existance is very small because it implies random fluctuations in energy and matter leading to a highly ordered state.  One analogy would be the probability of dead leaves floating on the surface of a pond arranging themselves to spell your name.  It is easy to think of fluctuations that are more likely to occur, involving smaller systems, such as one that would bring only our solar system into existence, or progressively more likely, only our planet, only the room in which you are sitting reading this blog, or only your brain.  The last would imply that everything is in your imagination and ultimately that is why Boltzmann’s argument is not widely accepted although we do not have a good explanation for the apparent low entropy state at the start of the universe.  Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his book Nausea ‘I exist because I think…and I cannot stop myself from thinking.  At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing.’  Perhaps most people would find horrifying the logical extension of Boltzmann’s arguments about the start of the universe to everything only existing in our mind.  Boltzmann’s work on statistical mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics is widely accepted and support the case for him being genius; however, his work raised more questions than answers and was widely criticised during his lifetime which led to him taking his own life in 1906.


Paul Sen, Einstein’s fridge: the science of fire, ice and the universe.  London: Harper Collins, 2021.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.  London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.

Only the rascals think they win

‘I learned that you always lose.  Only the rascals think they win.’ This is quote from Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.  ‘Rascals’ has become a cute word for a villain; but, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as ‘a mean, unprincipled person’.  It’s a rather pessimistic view of life – that everyone loses; only some people don’t see it.  Or perhaps Sartre is saying that if you are successful then it’s not as a result of your own efforts but of the efforts of others around you and the opportunities that come your way;  so, if you think you won then you must be mean and unprincipled.

I was puzzled by the always losing until I read an Op-Ed by Lilliana Mason in the New York Times on June 7th, 2018.  She explains that as individuals we hold multiple identities, as a partner, parent, employee, feminist, etc; and that some of these identities are more important to us than others.  She says that, at any one time, the most important identity tends to be the one whose status is most threatened.  This could make you feel as if you are always losing.  In other words we tend to focus on the negative – our brains are wired to blame rather than praise [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018 and ‘Happenstance, not engineering‘ on November 9th, 2016].  Or as my editor commented: ‘we tune into the threats in our lives – it’s a matter of survival’.


Lilliana Mason, The President’s ‘winning’ is our loss, Op-Ed, New York Times, June 7th, 2018.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, translated by Lloyd Alexander, New York: New Directions Pub. Co., 2013.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.

Nauseous blogging?

In his novel ‘Nausea’, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that at around forty, experienced professionals ‘christen their small obstinacies and a few proverbs with the name of experience, they begin to simulate slot machines: put in a coin in the left hand slot and you get tales wrapped in silver paper, put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious bits of advice that stick to your teeth like caramels’.  When I first read this passage a few weeks ago, it seemed like an apt description of a not-so-young professor writing a weekly blog.

I am on vacation combining the positive effects of reading [see ‘Reading offline‘  on March 19th, 2014] and walking [see ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017] with a digital detox [see ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017]; but, through the scheduling facilities provided by WordPress, I am still able to dispense my slot machine homily. I will leave you to decide which posts are from the left and right slots.


Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, translated by Lloyd Alexander, New York: New Directions Pub. Co., 2013.

La Nausée was first published in 1938 by Librairie Gallimard, Paris.