What does a major challenge to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (you know, the one that says the universe is falling apart into chaos) have to do with your health?

Quite a lot. Everything, perhaps, Marilyn Ferguson will tell you.

And not just your health, but the quality of your life, the existence, even, of your species.

Marilyn Ferguson is a synthesist, someone for whom patterns evolve out of seemingly unrelated pieces, someone who makes connections.

She has taken the work of Nobel prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, and his theory of dissipative structures, tied them up with the theory of some palentological young Turks who are genlty suggesting that Darwin's evolutionary theory has some serious gaps in it. To this she has added the astonishing proliferation of self-help groups, organizations, societies and networks and come up with something she calls the "Aquarian Conspiracy" -- Aquarian for its connotations of a new age dawining and conspiracy from its Greek meaning, "to breathe together." It is the title of her recently published book. ($15, J.P. Tarcher, Inc.)

It is at the same time benign and awesome.

Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures, as Ferguson describes it -- and quite candidly offers that she does it better than the Belgian scholar himself -- holds that disorders is the precursor of a higher order. Open systems, processes or, as the scientist say, "nonequilibrium systems" are those which take energy in, transform it and put energy out. "Such as a town," says Ferguson, "or an amino acid, a human being, your psyche, your brain, all open systems.

"We appear to have form," she said, continuing her explanation of the Prigogine theory, "but we are like a whirlpool. We appear to have form, but we are just whirling electons."

"We are constantly nothing but a bunch of energy being processed. Into this whirlpool, the more complex the system, the more energy it requires to hold it together. Therefore, the more complex -- the scientists call it 'coherent' -- the more fluctuations are possible.

"What Prigogine said," said Ferguson, "is that if there are great enough fluctuations, it (the open system) flies apart and comes back together at a greater level of organization. Out of the flying apart, it organizes itself at a more complex level. The more complex, the more likely it is to keep transforming."

"A relatively free and complex society is going to keep transforming itself and when these shakeups occur, whether in your own system undergoing a crisis to which you must adapt, or in the culture, those fluctuations can bring about a whole renewal of that culture."

Prigogine's theory, says Ferguson, "fits right in with what is known as the 'punctuated theory' of evolution."

The thesis of this theory, held by a group of young palenotologists, anthropologists and zoologists, is that Charles Darwin erred in his conclusion that evolution was a gradual process. The great naturalist promised that someday all the missing links would be found to prove his conclusions, but, in fact, those missing links have not turned up. The younger scientists are beginning to believe that, in fact, they were never there. Instead, the theory holds, "evolution happens in jumps, very rapidly," Ferguson told a group of congressmen and congressional aides at a recent luncheon. "When a species is stressed, the theory says, when it is at the edge of its tolerance -- geographically, climactically, whatever -- very rapid changes and mutations take place and a new species aries very suddenly."

"So," says Ferguson, "if you start thinking of stress as not a bad thing, but inevitable, resulting in change that itself leads to transformation that leads to sharp and radical changes . . . it can be a very useful way of thinking."

"Even," she told the congressmen, "if it seems crazy on one level, to think of something falling apart and coming together on a higher level, we all know in our personal lives that has happened. And you've seen it in organizations, that when things get really bad, sometimes the whole thing falls apart and what comes out of it can be really good."

Ferguson, is editor of a California newsletter called the "Brain/Mind Bulletin," which translates (from the language of the scientist) and abstracts reports on scientific advances in neurological, biochemical and behavorial sciences. It has a subscription list of about 8,000 ranging from government agencies to movie stars to "Ernie's Pizza Parlor." Ferguson is so adept at presenting complex concepts in readily undestandable form that scientists will occasionally call her up "to see what I'm thinking these days."

She believes humanity is at the crisis point. "We're at a time when we can't wait," she said to a small group after the congressional luncheon. "Somebody might pull the pin. Because of potential crises in the world, any one of which could precule all other options -- nuclear war, ecological disaster and so on -- we've escalated our crises to the point where we had better wake up, become creative about our options" while we still have options.

She hypothesizes that humanity is ready for a quantum leap in evolution, "but we're at a time when we can't afford to wait for one generation to die off and a new one to grow up. We have to be our own children in that we have to be innovative enough, flexible and open enough to look at new ideas, however disturbing they may be . . . in effect," she says, "we have to be our own children."

"Unfortunately, though," she will add, "people can't tell the difference between the strange and the dangerous."

And here is where the "networks" or the "conspiracy," as she prefers it, comes in. According to statistics she quotes, "Some 15 million people in this country along are engaged in self-help and mutual-help networks (many, perhaps most, health oriented in some way). Some 30 million are engaged in spirtual disciplines and other kinds of inner quests.

"New studies are showing tremendous shifts in values in this society, people increasingly going toward non-material values.

"It is useful," she told the luncheon audience, members of the Congressional Clearing House for the Future, "to think that we've been mididentifying our problems . . . ask the question 'How are we going to handle the medical crisis in this country when we can't afford national health insurance because of the cost of doctors, hospitals and pills?'

"Now already," she says, "there is built into that question the assumption that 'health' is 'doctors, hospitals and pills.'" (We told you we'd get back to health.)

Wellness is the Aquarian Conspiracy's answer to that question and her book deals, in detail, with alternative health approaches from biofeedback to meditation to acupuncture to hypnosis to confronting pain. She likens the "network" movement, essentially out of the daily eye of the media, to Gandhi's historic Salt March, widely regarded as the turning point in Indian independence. It is "a contagion of ideas."

She sees it another way as well, in a story told by biologist Lyall Waston, based, she says, on an actual occurence:

"Zoologists were observing a certain species of monkeys on a chain of islands. The monkeys lived on yams which they dug up on the sandy beach. On one island, one monkey learned to wash her yam off in the water. Apparently it was pleasanter, so her mate and her son began to do so as well. Soon other monkeys began to wash their yams. On the day the 100th monkey walked down to the shore and washed his yam, all the other monkeys on all the other islands began to wash their yams."

"I think," says Marilyn Ferguson, "we're about to find the 100th monkey."