Entropy and Minty Fresh Breath

Have you ever fallen into the clutches of the minty fresh breath quest obsession?

If yes, then you know what I’m writing about. If not then there’s little point in you reading this article. This one is for all fellow mild obsessives and borderline autistics or just plain old folks who want to give out only fresh scented kisses on demand.


Image courtesy of: http://www.shoeboxblog.com/

The fresh minty breath quest obsession has little to do with wanting to have fresh breath when talking to others, although that’s how the obsession might begin. Once fully developed however, it becomes a personal matter. Having fresh breath and a clean taste in your moth becomes important to you alone, regardless of anyone else. It becomes a personal quest, and you may even begin to feel acutely annoyed hours before the sour taste of stale food, and the microorganisms built-up during sleep in your mouth, reach their highest tolerable concentrations.

You want it, but you cannot have it.

The reason is you are fighting against a law of nature. Your body is one large complex machine for producing rot and decay. But it does a reasonable job of expelling a lot of the decay products. But why?

The thing is, to live and work and be fantastic your brain needs energy, and in a human this energy has to come from food. But food is corpulent horrid stuff, and what your body has to do to food to extract useful nutrient and energy from it is burn it (slowly at low temperature, chemically). But no biological organism has yet evolved with a perfectly efficient food burning metabolism, and none is likely ever to evolve. The reason is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a mathematical result which comes from applying precise statistics to the fundamental laws of physics. The curious thing is that the fundamental laws of physics allow for the possibility of a perfect food burning organism. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us rigorously that a perfect food burning metabolism would require either extremely hot body parts or extremely cold body parts, and these extremes are biologically incompatible with life on Earth. Although, admittedly, some bacteria come close to being clean waste emitters, and without vast temperature extremes. They do not scale up to human size though. The larger the organism the harder it’ll become to produce clean waste from food.

The reason is because the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical result about the maximum possible efficiency of any energy transformation process. Eating food is such a process which our brain requires. So it has a maximum theoretical efficiency, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics works out that this efficiency is dictated by the coldest and hottest temperatures at which our body consumes and excretes it’s energy. Food is the incoming, and our breath, and heat radiated from our skin, and our poop and pee are the out-flow. Their temperature differences are not great. Hence the efficiency of human biochemical energy use cannot ever be close to perfect. One price for this imperfection is the nastiness of the chemical waste products. And the bacteria which have co-evolved in symbiosis with us which break down a lot of the left-over remnants of food in our bodies which we do not usefully use-up.

The funny (and frustrating) thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way!

Why is Natural Breath so Nasty?

Waste chemicals do not have to be nasty. Look at plants. What is their main waste product (while they are alive)? It’s oxygen. Oxygen is actually a nasty substance, it combusts easily emitting lot of nasty heat, and it is toxic to life, and yet animals need oxygen to breathe. Oxygen is useful for animals because it is toxic. It is ununstable molecule and yet just stable enough to be a viable breatheable gas. But it is useable because it locks a lot of energy away in it’s chemical bonds. If a process breaks those bonds then a lot of energy is released, and free energy is what drives machines and life.

Free energy allows a system (in principle) to produce order, or in more specific terms, it allow living things to, well, live! Living is a process of turning useless stuff into useful stuff, and this violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. How?

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical law of nature. It is true on average. Which means any particular system can violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics provided somewhere else the Second Law of Thermodynamics is anti-violated. What does anti-violation mean, you might ask?

To answer we need a numerical statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This involves the concept of entropy. Entropy is a measure of the amount of information in a system. The more information the higher the entropy. Perhaps paradoxically (or psychologically bemusing more like) increasing entropy creates more randomness and chaos. Why? Well, think of the reserve.

Imagine a box of identical balls, except for colour. Each ball can be either black or white only. Then you can “encode” a message using the balls, say by spelling out words in Morse code, or writing literal alphabet letters using geometric arrangements of the balls like ink jet printer dots. When would such an information carrying box have low entropy — Answer: when it cannot carry much information. Zero entropy would be a system that cannot carry any information. This would be like a box of all white balls, jam packed so they could not be spread out to spell out any message. Lowering information thus corresponds to maximising order in a system. Too much order means no information can be conveyed, in fact perfect order (maximal order) is completely useless for transmitting information. So the converse is that maximum disorder corresponds to the most information content. In fact a random arrangement of the black and while balls would be a high amount of information. It might be totally incomprehensible, but it is the most useful. Think of it like this: although writing Shakespeare’s play Hamlet in black and white ball lettering would look random to some alien observers who have never seen English, to us it would carry a lot of information. But that would not be maximal information.

Imagine now rearranging the manuscript for Hamlet into a compressed code, like the LZA algorithm used to compress computer files. All the information in Hamlet is still there, but we’ve used a more efficient code, and probably will have lots of un-used black and white balls, with which we could encode Hamlet and The Tempest, say. But then even to our eyes, the black and white ball array would now look totally messed up and random. We just know it’s not, because we can use reverse LZA to decompress it whenever we want to read it by sight.

There is a mathematical definition of information measurement, known as Boltzmann’s entropy. Actually, there are many useful ways to measure information, and any one of them could be chosen as a definition of entropy. The point is that entropy=disorder can be rigorously defined and hence mathematically–physically measured.

So that’s entropy and information in a nutshell. What’s it got to do with Minty Fresh Breath Quests?

It’s about the Second Law of Thermodynamics which seems to imply nastiness for our breathe, because our breath is a waste product of living. You see, a quantitative way of expressing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and inf act the best way, because it comes directly from the statistical analysis of the fundamental laws of physics, is that The Second Law says that the entropy of an isolated system can only ever increase or stay the same in a time-averaged measure.

Notice the loop-hole for life? Time-averaged. Which means for small intervals of time, even an isolated system could lower it’s entropy. The Second Law tells us that with high probability (and one can calculate the probability if given the amount of lowering of entropy) no system can remain in a lowered entropy state for very long.

But there’s an even bigger loop-hole for life. Can you see what it is?

It’s the “isolate system” condition. Living things tend to interact with the world around them, they take in stuff and excrete stuff out. Which means, considered as a closed system they are not isolated. So the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to the interacting organisms. It can lower it’s entropy in order to maintain it’s cellular structure and brain memory or photosynthetic machinery or whatever it needs, by expelling positive entropy to the surrounding environment. In a general sense this is what all life must do, otherwise it will die and decay into high entropy random mess. Decaying is what decomposing bodies do, they massively increase in entropy. There’s a lot of information in a dead body, but it’s not much use, not as much as the ordered lower information in a living brain’s memory.

So life is entropy lowering. Death is entropy increasing. And the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that in order t live a system must emit net positive entropy to it’s environment, to keep the whole universe in a state of increasing entropy. Life is relative order, low information, and peace. Death is disorder, maximum information and chaos.

Is there a limit to this? Yes. but there is so much information in the atoms and photons of our universe that it will take a very, very, very long time for entropy to max-out. Stars will have extinguished by then. So this horrible sounding relentless increase in energy and chaos is actually going to be a rather slow cold silent and extraordinarily peaceful death to the universe.

The thing about life is it’s balance. Life also ceases when there is too much order and not enough information and too low entropy. Life arises in genesis from lower entropy conditions. But to get life of any kind you need a little bit of information. So lowering entropy too much also kills life, but in a different way to increasing entropy too much. Increasing entropy is like heating stuff up, so it causes chaos and life cannot gain any stable structure. Lowering entropy is like freezing everything to a stand-still and then life cannot get going and has no Life needs stability (low entropy) but it also needs information (high entropy). Life is one of those cool things. It sits in a special region between low and high entropy. Like a diplomat or counsellor mediating between two antagonists. life is awesome. I think it was the computer scientist Chris Langton who said, “Life exists at the edge of chaos.” Or, more reasonably, one might say, “life exists somewhere between the border of too much order and too much chaos.” Whoever first said that, they were right! Profoundly right.

Living is an entropy lowering process because for life you need a bit of biochemical order. Sure, cells and muscles and brains and lungs etc., all seem to be remarkably complex things. But if they were graphically compressed by LZA then our body would need a very sophisticated processor to function, and frankly that’d be next to impossible. Imagine how slow it would make us, and life on Earth is precarious at the best of times, so speed in life is good, or at least highly useful. So evolutionary it makes sense that bacteria, plant and animal organisms have to have a high amount of order and coherent structure.

It seems a bit weird doesn’t it? Life is low in information content! Low in entropy. Thus violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics is what life seems to do. Only it doesn’t. Life trades in entropy. It takes in low entropy food and expels higher entropy waste, and it gains in the process a little bit of negative entropy, which it uses to maintain it’s stability. Biologists call this homeostasis. Overall the entropy of the universe increases a little bit because of the existence of life. But while we are alive we greedily lower entropy inside ourselves, and expel high entropy waste.

And that’s the Law of Minty Fresh Breath.

You can gain minty fresh breath only if you expend a lot of energy to emit positive entropy elsewhere. It does take effort to brush your teeth.

But why is “bad breath” so nasty in the first place?

Earlier I wrote it doesn’t have to be this way but I have not fully explained why.

The Future of Minty Fresh Evolution

The Second Law of Thermodynamics means we must excrete high entropy waste. But high entropy does not make things nasty. It is not Second Law of Thermodynamics that makes poop smell bad or morning breath smell so rank.

It’s the bacteria in our poop and other bacteria in our mouths. They are what’s responsible for the rank odours. But why? The thing is, there is no such thing as a “bad odour”. Odours are just odours, they are not moral concepts. Good and bad are psychological terms. What makes a particular odour “bad” is the effect it’s molecule has on our olfactory sensors and the way our brain is wired to respond. To strong smells we are evolutionarily conditioned to respond with revulsion (for stinks) or delight (for sweet perfumes).

It is easy (although ethically dubious) to switch around these brain-wired responses. One technique is called behavioural reconditioning. If you expose a human to a really “bad” smell and reward them each time with some nutritious tasty food or a nice buzz from a drug, then over a short interval of time, perhaps a week or less, they will no longer be revolted by the odour. You will have completely turned a “bad” smell into a “good” smell. But only for that person. You haven’t changed any chemistry. You’ve just re-wired their brain.

That is the reason why poop and vomit smell so bad to us. To a dog they might smell quite savoury, who knows?

Why again? Because natural evolution design an animal to avoid it’s own waste products. We need low entropy to survive. So doping ourselves with our high entropy waste is, … well, … wasteful! I mean, things tend to die if they accumulate high entropy. So it is an adaptive survival advantage to stay away from one’s own waste. However, your waste could be some other organisms low entropy source of nourishment. There’s a scale of high to low entropy within which various life forms can survive and prosper. But no life form will prosper if surrounded by entropy higher than what it naturally excretes.

The lucky bacteria who get to feed on human waste produce their own waste chemicals. These can have odours of course, and our noses, or rather our brains, are evolved to be extra sensitive to such chemicals, specifically we have evolved rapid repulsion responses to such smells. You might have had no idea of the science reasons for this, you thought that bad smells were just plain bad and unfortunate. But they’re not, I hope you now realise! They are only bad to you and me, because they signal our own type of waste, which we must avoid in order to live healthy and long.

The only accidental bad smells (for us) are those that are not human wastes but which happen, by pure chance, to have molecular structure and vibrational resonances that are close to our body waste products. Such accidental molecules will smell “bad” to us. But only by accident, because they happen to mimic our bodily waste smells.

And there are some people who have had brain damage or genetic mutations who cannot smell odours. They can live reasonable lives, but their ability to avoid hazardous substances is greatly reduced. So they are said to be not as well adapted for survival as someone with a fully functioning sense of smell. Niece smells play other important roles in life as well.

Perfume is a signal that someone is interested in making friends. Perfumes come in turn from odours that occur naturally which signal good low entropy, like nutritious plants (their flowers) or nicely cooked meals, the smell of a clean warm cuddly baby, or clean ocean water, and so on. Minty fresh breath is a good signature of someone who takes care and who is clean, for instance, and therefore a safe person to be around, since they are less likely to carry diseases.

And that’s the guts of it. That’s the original evolutionary reason why you might get captured by the Minty Fresh Breath Quest obsession. It’s built into the genes that wire-up your brain. It’s part of your nurturing as well. Smelly people tend to be bad dates and tend to pass on diseases. Not always, but statistically it is so.

But, you see, although chemicals cannot change without messing up their function for life, smells can change. Smells are brain responses, and brains’ are flexible and adaptive systems. So people can be behaviourally altered to enjoy and even love the smell of bad morning breath and stale tooth-pasteless breath. Trouble is, their dental health will probably suffer severely!

So what can be done about this?

Well, now that science has evolved we (humans that is) no longer need to be alerted by our nose to the dangers of bad smells. So there should be a scientific fix for the Minty Fresh Breath Quest.  And there is, in principle, a really good fix. Perhaps more than one.

Here is one plausible fix.

Genetically engineer the bacteria in our mouths to produce minty smelling chemical waste. But also genetically engineer a gene switch in the bacteria that shifts back to disgusting smelling bacterial waste excretions when the population of bacteria (concentration of them) exceeds the dental hygiene recommendation, but pre-morning breath concentrations. This way we will still have to protective evolutionary mechanism built-in to our brains which repels us from folks who do not take care of their teeth and who have disgusting eating habits. But normal folks will enjoy a nice kiss in the morning with minty freshness.

I wouldn’t be fussed about doing the same for poop, i.e., intestinal bacteria. Poop is so bad, it has nasty heavy metals and other shit in it, haha! So being repulsed by poop is good, why mess with that end? Unless you enjoy kissing your partner down there?

Such genetic engineering will be regarded as “cosmetic” and thus out of reach from most people for a long time. Plus, it is truly difficult to make good gene switches for waste product engineering. But the harder science is to engineer waste to have a minty odour. That could be very hard. But not impossible. It would require finding a new mint flavoured molecule that has higher entropy than the usual bacteria waste chemicals made from sulphur or nitrogen or phosphorous.

BTW, sulphur is a very common element of bad smells for humans — why do you you think? Rotten eggs is the answer. We are adapted to be revolted by rotten eggs wince a rotten egg caries some nasty, nasty bacteria which can kill a human. The smell doesn’t kill us, it is merely a signal, and we’ve adapted to be highly sensitive to that signal smell, for such life-preserving reasons.

Bacteria have no use for mint chemicals, so in principle, provided the mint molecules have higher entropy than the normal bacterial waste, then this sort of genetic engineering of waste odours is plausible. The vectors for such GE could even be embedded in toothpaste. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer to have your mouth bacteria excrete mint, rather than having to paint it on your teeth and tongue with toothpaste whenever you feel stale? I know it’d free up my time and allow my entropy to be spent in wiser ways! All good science fiction should be close to future science fact. At least I think so. The Minty fresh Breath Quest does have some science fact future I believe. But no one is actively working on such research. So before this genetic engineering revolution arrives in full, what can you do about the quest?

Hey, I just thought “The ultimate” was somehow mandatory for a didactic article like this! But I’m not going to defend it in court, right!

You find that brushing your teeth is not sufficient, and you run through dental floss at a higher than average rate, and you may even discover the optimum teeth cleaning cycle, which is this:

  • Brush with a vibrating tooth-brush. Using small circular motions and keep pressure light to avoid hurting gums.
  • Then brush your tongue fairly firmly.
  • Rinse thoroughly with water.
  • Floss thoroughly.
  • Rinse thoroughly with water.
  • Brush again with a rotating tooth-brush.
  • Spit out most of the toothpaste foam but do not rinse.
  • Gargle a minty mouthwash, or if you have none then leave the toothpaste as is, do not rinse, just wipe your lips clear.
  • Optionally apply a small amount of lip gloss so the toothpaste does not dry out your lips.
  • Optionally, use chewing gum. Sugar-free can do weird things but is ok in moderation. Sugar-sweetened gum is not bad, there is less sugar than in a biscuit. Or you can go organic and chew mint leaves or similar herbs.

You might be amazed at how fresh your breath is in the morning. It will still offend you if you have the minty fresh breath quest obsession, but you will still be delighted at the effectiveness of that cleaning cycle. Particularly if you repeat it during the night if you wake up to use the bathroom.

And yet repeating this cycle up to four times a day might still not seem sufficient in your quest. There has to be more, right?

And there is. Diet becomes important, since a lot of what you eat effects your breath. You may discover that sugars are the enemy. Carbohydrates less so. Proteins somewhat. Water is a friend. Mint tea is a friend. But here are some other smaller secrets. Avoid dairy and soy milk. Use rice milk instead, it is remarkably fresh and clean.

Funnily, hard cheeses are good, but not soft cheese. And the less fermented the cheese the better, so use cheddar, smoked is ok, but not blue-vein or heavily aged cheese.

If you crave ice-cream, buy the expensive coconut-milk ice-cream. Firstly, it is expensive so you will not indulge too much, and secondly it has no bad aftertaste, it is a very, very clean dessert, and delicious. (It’s not horrid, not like the terrible chocolate substitute called carob.)

Chocolate is ok, but only if 60% cocoa or higher, and reasonably low percentage of sugar. Purchase the lowest sugar content chocolate brand. In New Zealand this is usually Whittakers, unless you find some boutique chocolate maker, which is unlikely to be distributed in all supermarkets.

Bad news is garlic and onions are out, even if well-roasted. I love roasted garlic and onions, but the after taste is not worth cooking them up. Have them when you are in a good mood, or when you cannot avoid them, such as when dining at a restaurant. Similarly, other rich and sweet foods have to be part of off-days when your quest for fresh minty breath is on an hiatus. I guess if you wish to remain sane, or resemble a state of relative sanity, then you should schedule a few off-quest days. Make good use of them, by not over-eating, but by eating a moderate and satisfying amount of the most delicious items on the menu. That night you will of course institute the tooth-brushing cycle, which will ensure you feel fine in the morning.

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