6 Things That Blew my F*****g Mind – 4\ Maxwell’s Demon

I don’t know how to explain this one quickly. Basically, a tiny demon can violate the laws of physics and this tears apart everything we know about reality. I think.


What is it?


Okay, brief overview. Entropy: Shit falls apart. Shit will always fall apart. The universe tends towards disorder. Stop resisting and become an agent of chaos. Increase entropy.

Alright, alright, it really is the integral of reversible heat transferred into a system over the temperature of system. Yeah, real sexy, right? This entire bit is definitely going to seem nerdy, but…fuck you, nerds make your toaster run, I’m doing this shit bitchesssssss.

It’s pretty simple, if something is left alone, it will fall apart. This seems like it’s making a bigger statement that it really is, but it is really just an observation. What happens to your room if you don’t clean it? It gets dusty. It tends to thermodynamic equilibrium. “Disorder” increases.

One way to violate the second law would be to have a system spontaneously warm or heat up. The motion of a particle is defined, scientifically, as its temperature. Faster movement is higher temperature, slower movement is lower temperature. Think about it, when was the last time the temperature of something every spontaneous went up? Never. You have to heat it up somehow. Molecules don’t just go faster.

Maxwell’s Demon challenges the notion of ever-increasing entropy with a clever thought experiment. Imagine a room full of a gas separated by a barrier. In this barrier is a trapdoor that swings open and shut. This is important because it means the trapdoor can be operated without an input of work. Work is scientifically dependent on the net movement of an object. If there is no net movement, no net work has been done on the system.

A tiny demon operates this door. This demon only opens the door when a slow-moving particle comes near it. This means the remaining gas body is less one slow particle, which means it is less cold. Which means its spontaneously getting warmer. A violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Which should not happen. At all. A physical law isn’t like a civics law, like murder. Or jaywalking. Those can be broke. Physics laws cannot by virtue of definition. Otherwise physics is just metaphysical, technical drivel written by priest class of scientists who are looking for job security.

One solid rebuttal to Maxwell’s Demon is the role of information in determining when to open and shut the trapdoor. This comes from Landauer, who states that in order to know when to open and shut the door, the demon must accurately assess whether the incoming particle is fast or slow. It must also store that information somewhere. But the demon cannot store information indefinitely so it must either discard the information, which is an immediate entropy increase, or delete it, which is also an entropy increase. So entropy always increases, the second law still stands.


The lesser version: String theory/Standard Model of Physics


This is one of the “lesser versions” that I don’t actually believe is a lesser version. It just follows from a less nuanced philosophic vein of thought, but it is more accurate and undoubtedly has deeper scientific rigor.

The Standard Model of Physics is the mainstream, prevalent way to view the physical universe. The Standard Model (hitherto referred to as SM) consolidates the major forces in the universe as gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force. These four forces all have associated carrier particles (for example electromagnetism has the photon and the strong force has gluons), except gravity. We’ll get to that in a second.

Basically, as most of us know, everything is made of atoms. Atoms are made of mostly empty space, then protons and neutrons, then electrons. The protons and neutrons are held together with the strong force. These neutrons and protons are composed of quarks which can come in colors (it’s not really “colors” as we experience them, but they have similar properties as colors and more confusingly are given names like “red” and “green”). Quarks are a specific type of a larger group of particles called “hadrons”. You might remember that term from “Large Hadron Collider”, a massive particle accelerator as part of an international effort to find the elusive God particle, the Higgs boson. The Higgs was necessary for…reasons. Mass, I think?

I’m illustrating all of this for a reason.

The reality is the SM is incomplete and most physicists know this. Several identified phenomena do not fit in with the established SM, like dark matter, a mysterious undetectable substance that seems to behave as though it has mass. This was one of the primary motivations for the LHC experiments – not necessarily to find the Higgs, but to find something about the Higgs that might explain the gaps in the SM.

The goal to find a theory of everything is important for a complete picture of our universe. At the moment, we don’t understand why there appears to be more matter than antimatter when there should be equal amounts in the universe or how to account for the disparities between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

This is actually what I meant earlier about how gravity doesn’t have a carrier particle. We can unify electromagnetism, weak, and strong force because they operate on quantum scales, but gravity only appears on macro scales and the fact that we can’t reconcile the role of size in our picture of the universe is a testament to how frighteningly limited our understanding of the cosmos is.

The incompleteness of our understanding of the universe forced us to craft wildly beautiful, complex theories like that of supersymmetry or string theory. These theories are not easily understood by the masses or even the so-called experts. But they are, to date, the best we have.

We are truly at the whim of the cosmos.


Why this thought experiment is more interesting


The reason I brought up all of the detail for how the SM is incomplete (actually, there is a shit-ton more to talk about, but I think you get it) is to show you that it, while important, feels pretty meaningless.

I mean, quarks and bosons be damned, how am I going to make room in my budget for saving for a down payment on a house, right?

I think the reason is that the SM follows from a reductionist view of the world, meaning we keep trying to break down the universe into its parts and think that by understanding the parts we might understand the whole.

I’m not opposed to physics by the way, I would much rather spend billions on thousands of new particle accelerators than a single new nuclear bomb. And if studying the minutiae of flavors and colors of quarks makes you happy, have at it. But what I do feel is that a reductionist approach only yields so many insights, and after a point the law of diminishing returns sets in.

Maxwell’s Demon, by contrast, focuses on the relationships between classes of objects to yield insights about those classes of objects. Instead of breaking things further and further down in some Gestalt ideology, Maxwell’s Demon follows from my idea of the diasthetical method to create a microcosm and test the limits of that microcosm.

I might’ve written this before, but in college I had a professor who held up a Nature journal which said that we’ve had the theory of everything all along and it is called thermodynamics. That’s why I included the SM as the “lesser” version of Maxwell’s Demon, because both in some sense describe observable universe.

It’s not so much that one is lesser than the other, but I’ve found the insights from Maxwell’s Demon to be more interesting than those from the SM. Particularly as we enter the information era, the insights garnered about the relationship between thermodynamic entropy and information entropy will only prove more and more valuable.

One blatant misapplication of Landauer’s Information insight would be with Tainter’s energy economics critique of civilization.

As a reminder, Tainter (hehe) believes that as societies expand the complexity of that society, defined as the problem-solving institutions that society implements like bureaucracy and class divisions, increases at the cost of energy subsidies. These energy subsidies, resources necessary for society to function, like food or military strength, become more and more difficult to obtain.

Societies generally respond by increasing complexity, which works for a while but eventually experiences diminishing returns. At some point society experiences ‘collapse’ – an unwanted reduction in complexity.

One form of energy subsidy is relying on future generations to account for known mistakes in the present. Usually the code words for this argument are “Human innovation is infinite” or “We need more education”.

Landauer’s insight comes when we realize that education is a form of information storage.

We are storing the information we believe will be necessary to solve the problems we know will arise due to our negligence in children, our energy subsidy, who will either delete or release this information. Both cases are sub-optimal as deleting information points to a dark age. FYI, a “Dark Age” historically and academically means that there is little documentation or information from the era available, it does not necessarily mean everyone was a barbarian.  We may actually be going through one now…

Discarding information, as mentioned, is an immediate entropy increase. It’s often been noted that revolutionaries tend to be young, often in their teens of early twenties. There are a variety of speculated reasons for this correlation but one might be that this is what happens when an over-educated group has no effective access to means of enacting their stored information. Revolution, the release of any cultivated idea in any form out of lack of access to proper means to manifest or enact those ideas.

This is what I mean when I say Maxwell’s demon offers a much better framework to analysis macroscopic phenomenon than the SM. I see the connections in everything.

But I’m also probably seeing things that aren’t there.

5 thoughts on “6 Things That Blew my F*****g Mind – 4\ Maxwell’s Demon

  1. In a statistical mechanics sense of the term, it is deviation of the system from the system at 0 Kelvin. See my entropy post for further elaboration. Semantically, it is the opposite of order, I suppose. But in this little excursion, it is simply a term used to introduce the more nuanced idea of entropy. Btw, I enjoyed your “Can there be an object without any subject” post. Might I suggest looking into Platoism? It’s a good start for some of your ideas…


  2. I am happy to know that you enjoyed my “Can there be an object without any subject” post.

    The reason for my question, “What is disorder?” was to point out that order or disorder are subjective concepts and not objective concepts and are relative to the subject.

    Though Plato had an inkling or confused understanding about these ideas , it was only Kant who made the whole thing explicit and logical.

    Though you are right that Plato was a sort of starter about these ideas in Western philosophy( See “Plato’ Cave”).


    1. Well, as I said elsewhere, disorder is how we best understand the empirical phenomenon of entropy. It’s actually even from a thermodynamic point of view not totally correct, but it’s good for an elementary introduction and discussion 🙂

      As for Plato, I was really referring to the belief that abstractions have an objective reality and what we experience are imperfect manifestations of the objective abstraction. I mostly know it from my own experience with mathematics: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/platonism-mathematics/

      The Cave is a cool analogy though, but the Matrix has kind of made me think less of it…


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