To learn why time moves only forward one must first understand a fundamental law of physics: the increase of entropy. The law describes the tendency for systems to go from a state of higher organization to disorder.
Consider a slice of pizza low entropy and plate of spaghetti high entropy. Low entropy: chocolate cake. High entropy: a bowl of peas and carrots. Low entropy: waffles. High entropy: Butterscotch pudding.
“In describing high entropy, we wanted to use a messy food so that people would say, ‘OK, this is chaotic, this must be high entropy,’ ” said Edward Saavedra of the USC School of Cinematic Arts who placed first with Kevin Le of USC Dornsife in USC’s inaugural science-themed filmmaking competition for their short movie Time. “We chose solid foods to show something more structured so people could tell right away it was low entropy.”
In the film, a narrator adds, “It’s that simple. But the most important thing to know about entropy is that it tends to increase. So when you leave something alone for a while, this happens.”
Images of dirty plates, pots, pans and glasses rapidly piling up in a kitchen sink flash on the screen. The overflowing mess symbolizes disorder, or high entropy. It was a clever way to describe a complex idea.
Sophomores Le, who is earning bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics, and Saavedra, a production major, took the $2,500 top prize during the Jan. 25 film screening and awards ceremony.
“We thought it would be very easy for people to relate to food,” Le said.
The two filmed for three days in Saavedra’s Cardinal Gardens’ apartment across from campus with about $30 worth of groceries.
The contest’s second place winner received $1,500 and a third place recipient plus two honorable mentions each earned $500. The best animator was awarded a limited edition print of artwork from the film, Avatar. In all, 90 graduate and undergraduate students from across campus entered the contest breaking into 20 teams. Eight films were completed and shown during the showcase.
Clifford Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy in USC Dornsife, organized the competition with funds from the Anton Burg Foundation that he applied for with Anna Krylov, professor of chemistry in USC Dornsife. The competition’s objective was to help future filmmakers, scientists, writers, journalists — or students pursuing any field — learn how to combine their skills to communicate scientific ideas to the general public.
The competition also connected the arts with the sciences. Each team had to include at least one student from a science department in USC Dornsife, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering or the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and at least one from the USC School of Cinematic Arts or the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
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“The idea was to find a way of getting the next generation involved in each other’s fields,” Johnson told the audience of more than 100 people. “Having a competition that cuts across disciplines forces students to get out of their comfort zones.”
Some of the partnerships may last entire careers, Johnson said. Or at the very least, the collaborations will help participants become conversant in other areas of study.
Saavedra said the experience opened his eyes.
“I have a great interest in physics, but my knowledge is a bit lacking,” Saavedra said. “Through talking with Kevin and doing our research, I learned a lot about the actual physics behind the ideas that I wanted to explore. Before we did the film, I knew little about entropy.”
Johnson told the audience that the United States will not have a true democracy until residents can fully understand the important issues of the day and make informed voting decisions.
“We have a problem in this society where science is sort of backed into a corner where it’s considered a special interest group,” Johnson said. “But there are huge issues in the world: the quality of water we drink, the air we breathe, our health, the energy we use, the effect we have on the environment — all these are science issues.”
Johnson said people should be just as comfortable discussing science as they are talking about popular culture.
“It should be a natural part of our culture,” Johnson said. “So how do we get to that place where we’re all more comfortable discussing science? We need our budding scientists, engineers, doctors, nurses and all the people who are dealing with science as part of their jobs to be more comfortable with the idea of explaining what they do to everyone.
“And we need the people who are involved in media; and filmmakers who have the most powerful way of communicating ideas — we want them to be conversant in science.”
Le said that is why he signed up for the contest. As a scientist, he wants to be able to convey his research to a mainstream audience. He and Saavedra wanted to explain the concept of time because it is one of the most important aspects of our lives yet goes largely unexamined.
In the film, the narrator explains how entropy connects with time.
“In a world where entropy can move in any random direction we would have no idea if something was in the past or in the future,” the narrator says as the viewer watches water being poured into a pitcher in reverse time.
“It turns out the apparent movement of time is a result of the movement of entropy from order to disorder.”
The screen shows an electrical timer atop a heap of spaghetti.
“It is entropy,” the narrator says, “against time’s direction.”
Other winners included:
2nd place: It’s All in You by freshmen Maria Raykova, Jabril Mack, Mara Guevarra, Kayla Carlisle, of USC Cinematic School of Arts, and Andy Su of USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
3rd place: Superluminal Neutrinos in 5 Minutes by Josh Heineman of USC Cinematic School of Arts, and Nate Fulmer and Michael Powell of USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
Honorable mention: Dance with Newton’s Laws by Linda Jules of USC School of Cinematic Arts and Antonia Zaferiou of USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
Honorable mention: Yaddda, Yadda, Yada by Kimberly Laux and Scott MacDonald of USC Dornsife; Simon Wilches Castro and Laura Cechanowicz of USC School of Cinematic Arts; and Anna Drubich of USC Thornton School of Music.
Special award for best animation: USC School of Cinematic Art’s Simon Wilches Castro for his work on Yaddda, Yadda, Yada.
Visit sciencefilmsusc.org for more information about the competition’s eight films.