A Thermodynamic Model of Friendship

Keeping up with friendships is energy-intensive
MAY 2020
Ashwin
N.
Mathematics

Disclaimer: I have not taken a physics class in years, and the unavoidable inaccuracies in the discussion that follows should in no way reflect poorly on the professors/department that bestowed a physics degree upon me back in the day.

Friendships take energy to maintain. Entropically speaking, the preferred arrangement is total disorder, an every-person-for-themselves world. To build communities in that disorder requires combatting that entropy. It’s simple thermodynamics, really.

When you graduate from undergrad, it’s easy to believe that the people with whom you’ve spent the last four years will be in your life forever. This was especially true in my case: I was coming from a particularly cohesive community, where I was more or less joined at the hip with my closest friends; surely the “Stay in touch!” with which we left each other was unnecessary and redundant. The long-distance relationships would probably take some energy, but the cohort headed to Boston would surely settle quickly into the comfortable dynamic we were used to. I would be living with (1) a member of our “Late Night Crew” of friends who did not start problem sets until midnight; and (2) another good friend, who would be starting a mythical “real job”, i.e. the adult of the house. The guy who carried me kicking-and-screaming through Measure Theory and Probability and was my roommate while studying abroad lived just down Mass Ave.

You may wonder why communities form much more naturally in college. This, too, is just physics: as an undergraduate you are trapped in a pressure cooker, and naturally this makes spontaneous interactions far more thermodynamically favorable. When the valve releases at graduation, bonds break. It’s not your fault. It’s physics’ fault!

Looking back now, it seems obvious that things wouldn’t pan out the way we’d planned. If you let it, grad school can become pretty all-consuming (its own pressure cooker). This leaves little time for external communities, even if they are already built. The first year especially felt like an extension of college: taking classes, studying for exams, staying on campus late into the night to work on the things I had been procrastinating on earlier that day.

Real adults, which is how I describe those of my friends who are not in graduate school, seemed to have settled quickly into a very different routine. A key skill is the ability to “turn off”: to leave work at some reasonable hour (maybe even while the sun is still up) and then not think about it until the next morning. Could a grad student ever acquire that skill? Could I, too, get a beer on a Wednesday evening? Go to a movie and take advantage of that sweet Tuesday discount (why my real-adult friends needed a discount, I have no idea)? Host a dinner party?

It wasn’t that I had no fun that first year. Rather, there was a constant background of stress that took the form of a nagging voice underpinning every activity: “Shouldn’t you be working now?” The most glaring example was when a bunch of friends and I went back to our undergrad university for Homecoming, as is the tradition for alums who stay in the Northeast. While my friends were *ahem* partying responsibly, I was engrossed in my problem set that I certainly could have gotten an extension on. And yet, turning off, even for a weekend, didn’t seem like a possibility.

It’s hard to pin down exactly when I realized the “24-hours on” mentality was unsustainable, but I certainly was noticing that people I cared about were starting to leave Boston, and I hadn’t taken advantage of the time when we were fortunate enough to live in the same place. The next Homecoming featured a much sparser contingent of Boston alums. And surely the mini-exodus would continue: as I’m sure is true for many alums of New England’s small colleges, real adults often seem to use Boston as a jumping-off point, an introduction to the big bad world. 

I love my research, and I love my MIT community, but man, I also love the feeling of leaving campus for the day and looking forward to doing something totally different for the evening. My graduate schedule is still not a nine-to-five, clock-in clock-out situation, and probably will never be (for one thing, I certainly don’t wake up early enough to come in by nine). There are weeks when I am burning the midnight oil trying to meet a conference deadline even after I head home for the evening. And there are times when the excitement of what I’m working on keeps me going long into the night. The difference is that this is no longer the default assumption: I make the conscious choice to work late or to work extra rather than assuming that I need to.

These days, I allow myself the joy of making time for my community, whether this means getting a late weekday beer, going to potlucks, or rock climbing.

While the voice nagging me to do work has not disappeared, I do now have a satisfying answer: “Building a community is work.”