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A Reboot of the Maxwell’s Demon Thought Experiment—in Real Life

Additionally, the second law in thermodynamics refers to the statistical nature and structure of the universe. Its building blocks are not stars, planets, humans, or bacteria—they’re the atoms and molecules that make us up. Imagine the universe’s atoms as a collection of cards. They are constantly being shuffled. After the last shuffle, there will be no order in the deck. The universe does not have 52 cards. Instead, it has a deck of 10.82 atoms.

If you prefer to manage your time better, the 1024 A cup of coffee contains molecules. Dropping a sugar cube in coffee will allow those sugar molecules to re-organize themselves through the coffee. Another example is someone who puts perfume in a room. This perfume will quickly fill the area. This illustrates the concept of entropy, often described as “disorder.” The most likely arrangement of atoms has the highest entropy. An example of this is a deck that’s sorted in accordance with the four suit cards. It has lower entropy. The dissolved sugar molecules can’t re-cube and perfumes cannot be rushed back into the vial without energy.

In the end, thermodynamics’ second law states that energy flows in nature to increase entropy. “If you ask what physics is, you might just say it is the study of energy,” says Leff. “What’s happening as far as I can see is that energy keeps redistributing itself.”

However, as people invent new technology, it’s not always clear how the second law applies. Simple concepts such as temperature can become complicated. Naert’s steel beads are at room temperature in the conventional sense, defined according to the average speed of their constituent molecules. It is this temperature you would associate with the feel of the beads when touched. Naert identified another property to his system. He interprets it as an alternative type of temperature. The speed of its constituent molecules is not important, but rather the velocity of the glass beads moving around. It’s mathematically analogous to conventional temperature, as both involve the speed of discrete particles, but has no relation to whether you will burn or cool your hand when touching it. Naert hopes to collaborate with scientists to understand the meaning of this temperature and to measure the impact of entropy on his device.

In addition, physicists have had to revisit the second law as researchers build smaller and smaller devices, such as quantum engines—made of a few atoms. Yunger Hapern explains that they are interested in finding out if quantum engines can be limited by the second law as well as other macroscopic engine designs.

Naert’s personal motivation to build this machine was intellectual curiosity, but he thinks that studying the second law in macroscopic contexts could potentially lead to more efficient machines for harvesting energy from ocean waves, for example, as it illustrates the conversion of chaotic macroscopic motion into orderly motion that could be used to charge a battery or move a turbine. He also views his machine as an educational tool. “This is incredibly close to the original idea from the 19th century,” he says. But because he uses beads instead of molecules, “you can see everything because it’s in centimeters.” With his new device, Naert has invited Maxwell’s Demon to confuse and enlighten us at a new scale.

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