James Clerk Maxwell

When most of us think of really smart folks, names like Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, or Richard Feynman often pop up. It’s interesting that, when THOSE folks thought about really smart folks, one name repeatedly came to mind:

  • “Maxwell’s equations have had a greater impact on human history than any ten presidents.” – Carl Sagan
  • “From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” – Richard Feynman
  • “Maxwell is the physicist’s physicist.” – Stephen Hawking
  • “The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.” – Albert Einstein
  • “The work of James Clerk Maxwell changed the world forever.” – Albert Einstein (again)

If you follow the EXAIR blog, you may recall that we’ve written more than a couple of entries on James Clerk Maxwell…here, here, and here, just to point out a few. We, of course, all like to point out a thought experiment that he devised regarding a potential loophole in the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – a “friendly little demon” that could separate a theoretical chamber of gas (consisting of molecules with different kinetic energies) into two sub-chambers: one with all the faster moving (e.g., higher temperature) molecules, and another with all the slower moving (e.g., lower temperature) molecules.

Fun fact: When Maxwell first proposed this thought experiment in a letter to Lord Kelvin, he called it a “finite entity”. Lord Kelvin (much to Maxwell’s chagrin) started calling it a “demon” and the name stuck.

In what MAY be one of the grandest of coincidences in science, the work of this “finite entity” or “demon” is uncannily similar to that of one of the more interesting compressed air operated devices: the Vortex Tube:

When compressed air flow enters, a spinning motion is imparted by the Generator. When the spinning flow reaches the end of the Vortex Tube, a portion is forced to change directions and continue spinning, in the opposite direction, inside the outer spinning flow. When it does so, it gives off energy in the form of heat. The net result is, the air entering at a given temperature is separated into two distinct air streams: one hot, and one cold.

Now, us compressed air aficionados aren’t the only ones who’ve happened upon latter-day incorporations of Maxwell’s thought experiment. Information theory enthusiasts have implied a correlation with the principle of erasure, and scientists at the University of Oxford designed an experiment with a light-powered gate that seems to validate the idea (“How Maxwell’s Demon Continues to Startle Scientists”, Quanta Magazine, 4/22/2021).

I’ve been with EXAIR Corporation for just shy of eleven years now, and every time I hook up a Vortex Tube in the Efficiency Lab, I still recall the wonder of seeing one in action the first time. Considering that this is a 20th Century innovation (and the information theory & light-powered gate experiments are 21st Century), it’s equally impressive to keep in mind what else was going on in the world when Maxwell devised this thought experiment in 1867:

  • At the beginning of March, Nebraska is admitted as the 37th U.S. State. And at the end of the month, the U.S. finalizes the purchase of Alaska from Russia.
  • Alfred Nobel gets a patent for dynamite in the United Kingdom, in May.
  • The first school for dentistry, the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, opens.

And…in case you were wondering, EXAIR Application Engineers also have a list of folks they consider to be really smart folks. If you’re curious, click here.

Russ Bowman, CCASS

Application Engineer
EXAIR Corporation
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James Clerk Maxwell statue photo courtesy of trailerfullofpix & dun_deagh. Creative Commons license.

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