“The Heat Death of the Universe” Project


The term “the heat death of the universe” refers to a maxing out of the distribution of the energy in the universe. Energy will be spread out equally and there will be no more left to run the processes of the universe that require energy to be run. Following this, the entire system will collapse as intense amounts of chaos will wreak havoc in the universe and disorder becomes rampant. Although this theory refers to the universe as a whole, Pamela Zoline explores this same theory only from a personal, individual stance in her short story, “The Heat Death of the Universe.” The story follows a day in the life of Sarah Boyle, a mother of an uncountable number of children with a few self control issues. Sarah Boyle encounters much chaos throughout her day to prepare and host a birthday party for one of her children and ultimately brings an end to her “universe” through her rage and mental breakdown by the end of the story.

            The “universe” is usually referred to the overall system consisting of galaxies, stars, planets and space of which mankind and planet earth is only a small part of. However, it can be interpreted that the term “universe” can be reduced to a personal scale as someone’s little “universe” can be his or her personal living space. In Sarah Boyle’s case, her “universe” is her own home. Therefore the story and the concept of the heat death of the universe can be connected on a more individual point of view. A major contributor to the heat death of the universe is the increase in the entropy of the system. Entropy is a measure of the amount of disorder in a system. An increase in entropy will bring about the end of the universe. There is a significant measurement of entropy within Sarah Boyle’s home which only increases as the story progresses. At first, the measure of entropy is moderate within her home as there are things such as “…the toys, stepping over and around the organizations of playthings which still seem inhabited. There are various vehicles, and articles of medicine, domesticity and war: whole zoos of stuffed animals, bruised and odorous with years of love; hundreds of small figures, plastic animals, cowboys, cars, spacemen, with which the children make sub and supra worlds in their play.” From this, it can be seen that the measure in entropy will depend on the size of the mess in her house. The mess only gets larger for Sarah following a birthday party hosted at her house later in the day. In addition to the current mess and entropy, more chaos is added as after the party there is now “Gum drops and melted ice cream surge off paper plates, making holes in the paper tablecloth through the printed roses. A fly has died a splendid death in a pool of strawberry ice cream. Wet jelly beans stain all they touch, finally becoming themselves colorless, opaque white flocks of tames or sleeping maggots. Plastic favors mount half-eaten pieces of blue cake. Strewn about are thin strips of fortune papers from the Japanese poppers. Upon them are printed strangely assorted phrases selected by apparently unilingual Japanese. Crowds of delicate yellow people spending great chunks of their lives in producing these most ephemeral of objects, and inscribing thousands of fine papers with absurd and incomprehensible messages.” Ultimately, with the addition of this mess after the party, the entropy within Sarah Boyle’s household has reached a maximum and the breakdown of her “universe” will begin. What follows is an almost complete destruction of her home. This can be seen to represent the end of the universe (more so hers) as she literally destroys her house amongst all of the chaos that is present in her house. What is seen is only the end of the universe due to a mass amount of chaos but on scale so much smaller that it refers to the personal life of one family rather than the entire universe as a whole.

             Pamela Zoline’s short story “The Heat Death of the Universe” is a view on what may happen to the universe should the build up of entropy, disorder and chaos reach a maximum. It is presented on a much smaller scale focusing on what can happen to the universe should the heat death of the universe come about within the immediate future. However, the concept of the heat death of the universe is still a theory in debate. What happens in the story should it be enlarged to include galaxies and space may not necessarily be true as theories can often be refuted and proven wrong.




1. Foraminifera are single celled protists that are usually found in watery environments. The most obvious unique structure that foraminifera possess is shells on their exterior. As foraminifera grow older, they tend to continually add chambers to their shell. This can be interpreted as a supporting point for the various mentions of perpetual action that is mentioned in the paragraph. Things such as “The earth rolls and the sun appears to mount…” are symbols of perpetual action. No matter what is happening in the world, these various elements including the growth of new chambers into the shell of the foraminifera keep happening and will follow a continuous cycle.[1]


2. Ochres are natural pigments usually red or yellow usually found in Australia. They were mainly used by the aborigines for purposes such as artwork, body paint and food preservatives. This reference to ochres is just an elaboration of the colors that make up a cereal box.[2]


3. Mandalas are circular icons used in the Buddhist faith mainly used to represent different aspects of life such as knowledge and medicine. They are mainly used in the processes of meditation.[3]


4. A simulacra is basically a miniscule presence of an object or an idea. There can be hints or a trace of the object that is around yet the object is not readily visible and fails to grab the full attention of the one who notices such a presence.[4]          


5. Saint Veronica helped clean Jesus up after collapsing from exhaust on the way to Mount Calvary for crucifixion. Apparently, after wiping his face with a towel, an image of his face appeared on the towel. This may be an allusion to this situation as Sarah Boyle is working voraciously to get the house clean and needs someone like Saint Veronica to help relieve her exhaustion from all this work.[5]    


6. This may be a reference to the Ouroboros which is a symbol of a snake in a circle that is eating its own tail. It is used to represent the endless cycle of life death and creation that occurs in the world. In the text, this refers to the “summer days” as they appear to go on forever in a cycle just like the Ouroboros.[6]


7. Dali was a twentieth century surrealist painter from Spain who was quite renowned for his paintings that displayed everyday objects in unusual and bizarre situations. His most well known painting is Persistence of Memory which displays clocks melting in the desert that the clocks are placed in. This mention of “…melting like a Dali into a great chocolate mass…” can be a reference to this painting of clocks melting or other paintings that displayed similar properties.[7]


8. Nonpareil is defined as a situation where something is unequal and having a sort of unique characteristics. This use of “nonpareil” elaborates how unique and exclusive the blue is that matches both Sarah Boyle’s eye color and the blue of the sponge.[8]


9. Marcel Duchamp is a Dadaist painter who is well known for his painting of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with a moustache and a beard known as the LHOOQ. By stating that dust was part of Duchamp’s sculpture, it can be inferred that dust is also part of Sarah’s artwork which is her mess in the house as dust is stated to be “the most beautiful stuff in the room.”[9]


10. Dadaism is a form of art having its roots in the early twentieth century. Its main purpose was to create a new form of art through the rejection and disgust of the traditional techniques at the time. One of its most prominent artists, Duchamp painted a prized work of art known as the LHOOQ which is the Mona Lisa with a moustache. This may reference Sarah Boyle’s house condition as a work of Dada art as her house is such a mess; it wouldn’t be considered a masterpiece if one followed the techniques of the old world. Under Dadaism, that statement may be refuted.[10]


11. Jean Arp was a Surrealist/ Dada sculptor who first focused on the creation of flat abstract paper cut out collages. Soon, he moved to three dimensional sculptures that displayed unusual characteristics such as unusual curves and shapes. This mentioning of Arp is probably a reinforcement to the explanation of Dadaism and how it relates to Sarah Boyle’s household.[11]    


12. Francis Picabia was also a Surrealist/Dada artist who lived during the twentieth century. Again, the use of Picabia in the story is to reinforce the significance of Dadaism and its similarities to Sarah Boyle’s home.[12]


13. Tantalus was a Greek demigod who had the privilege of enjoying ambrosia, the food of the gods. However, due to abusage of this privilege, he was forever punished in the underworld and forbidden food and drink whenever he tried to reach for it. [13]    

14. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a composer of the classical period of music. Although he had a short life, he wrote many pieces of music throughout his lifetime including the music to operas such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.[14]


15. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” is derived from the Bible in Luke 12:7. This quote is interpreted as to how much God cares for his people as it is said that each hair on a person’s head is significant as each person was created with a specific number of hairs completely unique to that particular person. This is quite ironic in Sarah Boyle’s case as it was this unique mess and chaos that was given to her to clean. It wasn’t anything nice like the hair that is given to man upon creation.[15]


16. Entropy refers to the measure of disorder and chaos in a particular system. This may be on a small scale such as a chemical reaction or refer to the universe as a whole. In the case of the story, entropy is measured by the mess in Sarah Boyle’s home.[16]


17. The heat death of the universe refers to a theory that the universe will fall into a state of disorder once the entropy of the universe has reached a maximum. It is believed that the universe will collapse and be destroyed should this entropy ever reach a maximum. Sarah Boyle’s destruction of her house parallels this theory.[17] 


18. Metastasis is a term mostly associated with cancer. It refers to the spreading of the cancer growth to other parts of the body. However, by itself, it means a displacement. In the story’s case, this refers to a spreading of Western Culture.[18]


19. The “Food of the Gods” is known as cacao. From this plant from South America, chocolate and cocoa are derived. Sugar Frosted Flakes are the “Food of the Gods” in this case as they are her children’s food and she must take care and almost mimic worshipping her children as gods in order to make them happy to prevent whining and discontent.[19]


20. Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer of the baroque period of music. He is perhaps the most well known composer in the world today. Sarah Boyle mentions her liking of Bach throughout the story. By stating that Bach had twenty children which is almost uncountable by itself, Sarah Boyle can draw a parallel to her favorite composer as she also has an uncountable number of children. [20]  

[1] Olney, Matthew. “Foraminifera.” 10/14/2004.

<http://www.ucl.ac.uk/GeolSci/micropal/foram.html#intro> (10/14/04).

[2] Heitlinger, Sonia. “Ochres.”  <http://www.flg.com.au/ContempAboriginal/OCHRES.htm> (10/15/04).

[3] Pannyavaro, Venerable. “Buddhist Art and Architecture: Symbolism of the Mandala.”

                <http://www.buddhanet.net/mandalas.htm> (10/15/04).

[4] Guzzi, Michael. <http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=simulacra> (10/16/04).

[5] Jones, Terry. “Veronica.” <http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintv02.htm> (10/19/04).

[6] Gould, DM. “The Serpent (An Nathair).” <http://irelandsown.net/serpent.html> (10/19/04).

[7] Harden, Mark. “Salvador Dali.” <http://www.artchive.com/artchive/D/dali.html> (10/19/04).

[8] Guzzi, Michael. <http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=nonpareil> (10/19/04).

[9] Razutis, Al. “Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968.”

                <http://www.beatmuseum.org/duchamp/marcelduchamp.html> (10/20/04).

[10] “What is Dadaism.” <http://www.bergen.org/AAST/Projects/Dadaism/dadaism.html> (10/20/04).

[11] Harden, Mark. “Jean Arp.” <http://www.artchive.com/artchive/A/arp.html> (10/20/04).

[12] “Francis Picabia.” 10/18/04. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Picabia> (10/20/04).

[13]Hunter, James. “Tantalus.”  05/21/2004. <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/tantalus.html> (10/20/04).

[14] “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” 08/26/04 <http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/mozart.html> (10/20/04).

[15] Buckner, Sally. “The Buzz on Hair.” <http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/devotions/buckner_hair.asp> (10/21/04).

[16] Guzzi, Michael. <http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=entropy> (10/21/04).


[17]“Heat Death of the Universe.”  < http://www.physlink.com/Education/AskExperts/ae181.cfm>


[18] Guzzi, Michael. <http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=metastasis> (10/21/04).

[19] Gibson, Arthur. “Cacao, Food of the Gods.”

                <http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Theobroma/> (10/21/04).

[20] “Johann Sebastian Bach.” 08/26/04. <http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/bachjs.html> (10/21/04).