November 16, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Maxwell’s ID Demon Converts Info to Energy

Information can be converted into energy – provided it is guided by intelligent design.  That’s what researchers demonstrated with an experimental setup of “Maxwell’s Demon,” a famous thought experiment about how to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
    James Clerk Maxwell knew that the laws of thermodynamics did not allow the spontaneous separation of hot and cold gas molecules in a container.  He imagined, though, that an agent (he didn’t call it a demon) could sort the molecules by choosing which ones could pass through a barrier.  Later, it was proved that the Second Law would not be violated, because of the energy expended by the demon choosing the molecules (06/27/2002, 07/17/2002).
    According to PhysOrg, Masaki Sano and a team at the University of Tokyo set up an experiment that shows energy can be extracted from information – the information of scientists acting as Maxwell’s Demon.  They controlled a particle subject to random Brownian motion to walk up a spiral staircase by using electric fields to prevent it jumping back down.  So by controlling its direction, but not pushing it, they allowed it to gain more potential energy.
    The article explained, “The experiment did not violate the second law of thermodynamics because energy was consumed in the experiment by the apparatus used, and by the experimenters themselves, who did work in monitoring the particle and adjusting the voltage, but Sano said the experiment does demonstrate that information can be used as a medium for transferring energy.”
    See also how life uses Maxwell’s demons at the molecular scale in cellular motors (02/10/2010) and in muscle (04/19/2010).

Information into energy: what a concept.  You could teach a child this principle with a simple home experiment.  Get some jumping beans (or any toy that will spontaneously jump) and put them on a small staircase with side walls.  Some will jump and land higher up.  As they climb, block their fall back down.  The bean can eventually make it to the top, where it has increased its potential energy without the child applying any force to it.  Two children can race their jumping beans to the top to make it more fun.
    To apply the lesson, ask them if the bean would ever make it to the top on its own (assuming it can only hop as high as one stair at a time, and there are many stairs).  With unguided reversible processes, the child will see that it is highly unlikely.  But by applying intelligent design (the goal of reaching the top), a mind can harness chance motions to perform work.  The Second Law ensures that entropy will increase in the whole system (bean + setup of experimental apparatus + body and brain of the guiding intelligence), but the object lesson will be a good illustration of the power of intelligent design over randomness.

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