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.

Another Point of View

I came upon a quote from Richard Feynman a few days ago that was inspiring and lead to a great deal of thought.  As I thought more about Mr. Feynman, I felt a deep appreciation for his enthusiasm and continued approach to physics and mathematics.  One of the things that was recurrent among the interviews of Feynman, is that he was always interested in examining problems from a different point of view.

One of the most notable discussions on the subject was highlighted in an interviewed titled “Take the World from Another Point of View”.

At some point in this interview, Feynman recalls an exercise he used to do at the dinner table with his father where they would look at ordinary human activities as though they were Martians landing on Earth.  For example, we see it as a necessary part of life to sleep, but if we were of a mindset that didn’t need or know what sleep is, this would seem quite strange.  This way of thinking – using an unobstructed and inquisitive point of view for what is usually considered as universal – led to many of the solutions Feynman is credited with developing.

I like to use this way of thinking when working with applications that use EXAIR products.  Recently I worked with a gentleman in Kansas who is a Six Sigma Black Belt and had a desire to integrate EXAIR products into his machines.  He was quite knowledgeable about many areas of manufacturing and in particular, efficiency.  As we discussed the use of our product lines and dove more in depth into operation and compatibility in different environments, he made it a point to stress to me how eye opening our products can be to him and his clients.  The biggest paradigm shift using our products in this company has been with our Cold Guns and providing cooling without oil.

In the manufacturing facilities using his machines, this gentleman saw the repeated use and disposal of coolant.  After finding our product and realizing the cost savings of cooling the bits of CNC milling and drilling heads with the Cold Gun as compared to traditional oil based coolant, he was surprised to have never thought of the idea before.  It was a similar scenario to what Feynman described in his interview – given a different point of view, will the solution be the same?  In this scenario, as in many others, the views have changed.

Lee Evans
Application Engineer