Yesterday, before I got here, my dad was trying to fix an invisible machine. By all accounts, he began working on the phantom device quite intently, but as his repairs began to involve the hospice bed and the tubes attached to his body, he was gently sedated, and he had to leave it, unresolved.

This was out-of-character for my father, who I presumed had never encountered a machine he couldn’t fix. He built model aeroplanes in rural New Zealand, won a scholarship to go to university, and ended up as an aeronautical engineer for Air New Zealand, fixing engines twice his size. More scholarships followed and I first remember him completing his PhD in thermodynamics, or ‘what heat does’, as he used to describe it, to his six-year-old son.

When he was first admitted to the hospice, more than a week go, he was quite lucid – chatting, talking, bemoaning the slow pace of dying. “Takes too long,” he said, “who designed this?” But now he is mostly unconscious.

Occasionally though, moments of lucidity dodge between the sleep and the confusion. “When did you arrive?” he asked me in the early hours of this morning, having woken up wanting water. Once the water was resolved he was preoccupied about illusory teaspoons lost among the bedclothes, but then chatted in feint short sentences to me and my step-mum before drifting off once more.

Drifting is a recent tendency, but in the lucidity he has remained a proud engineer. It’s more of a vocation, he always told his students, than a career.

Last week, when the doctors asked if he would speak to medical trainees, he was only too happy to have a final opportunity to teach. Even the consultants find his pragmatic approach to death somewhat out of the ordinary and they funnelled eager learners his way where he engaged with answering their questions and demonstrating any malfunctioning components.

“When I got here”, he explained to them, “I was thermodynamically unstable but now I think I’m in a state of quasi-stability. It looks like I have achieved thermal equilibrium but actually I’m steadily losing energy.”

“I’m not sure”, I said afterwards, “that explaining your health in terms of thermodynamics is exactly what they’re after.”

“They’ll have to learn,” he said, “you can’t beat entropy.”


My dad finally returned to entropy on the afternoon of Friday 31st October, with his family and a half-read book on nanoscience by his side.

Dr Murray Alan Bell, 30th January 1945 – 31st October 2014, Engineer (by vocation as much as by career)

18 thoughts on “Quasi-stability”

  1. Great story, thanks! It’s reminiscent of Schrodinger’s cryptic “life feeds on negative entropy”. He later explained it to mean that, “the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.”

    So your dad was absolutely correct, and death is the very embodiment of ‘positive’ entropy.

  2. Morphine can cause hallucinations. My mom was reaching for unseen things in her final hours.

    Best wishes to your family. Such times are so intimate and emotionally intense. They become legends.

  3. How sad. The same happened with my mother as she slowly declined. I remember her looking for sheets and laundry from her basement at home when she was in a hospital room. She remembered us, but lost track of where she was and what she was doing as time wore on.

  4. The comment about “what heat does”, and the fact that your father is an aeronautical engineer, reminded me of this:

    “. . . a guy who just had a sense of intuition about these kind of aerodynamics problems. He sort of feels what the air wants to do.”

    Colleague commenting on how aerodynamics researcher Richard Whitcomb developed the Area Rule, a design principle for minimizing shock waves in supersonic flight.(Ferguson, 1983, p. 54)
    Ferguson, E. S. (1992). Engineering and the mind’s eye. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

    I guess your father can feel what “heat wants to do”.

    Incidentally, having seen a parent pass, and the other with Parkinson’s, I agree with his comment about the bad design that takes too long. I think everyone over 70 who asks should be issued a cyanide tablet.

    Here is an interesting thought experiment: suppose there is a website where you can go and enter your address and press a button, and you will get 5 cyanide tablets by mail. Would you press that button? If yes, why? If not, why not?
    What if it cost 10 bucks? 100?

  5. The way we die can be the last gift we make to those who stay. That was a warm gift he gave you. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. First time a story about thermodynamics has brought tears to my eyes – Sounds like he was a great person and you’re lucky to have had him as your dad. Sorry for your loss – Many thanks for sharing

  7. Only just seen this rather beautiful post: very sorry for your loss, your father sounds to have been a great man to grow up around.

  8. Have always enjoyed working with engineers the most of any occupation, and I love that there’s seldom any fuss, or ‘drama’, because to them everything in life is simply a problem to be solved.
    Best wishes and my condolences on the loss of an obviously fine dad and great problem solver.

  9. Very beautifully & poignantly written, reminded me in style of ‘In to the Silent Land’. I wish Broks would write another, or maybe you will? All the best.

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