Maxwell's Demon:: Why Warmth Disperses and Time Passes

Hans Christian Von Baeyer, Author
Hans Christian Von Baeyer, Author Random House (NY) $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-679-43342-2
Reviewed on: 06/01/1998
Release date: 06/01/1998
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Von Baeyer, a physicist at the College of William and Mary, invites the reader to travel with the illuminati of thermodynamics along their zig-zag path to an understanding of heat, energy and entropy. This improbable journey leads readers through a cannon factory, a brewery and a ship anchored off Jakarta. Although he does a fine job of describing the science, he also introduces readers to the inner worlds and belief systems of those who created the conceptual latticework of thermodynamics. By pointing up the follies and misconceptions of even the most revered masters of science (such as Lord Kelvin's stubborn rejection of evolution), Von Baeyer allows the nonscientific reader to realize the extent to which scientific ideas come about as successive approximations to truth. Von Baeyer's title invokes his sometime traveling companion, a puckish sprite created by James Clerk Maxwell. The function of Maxwell's demon is to reverse the natural order of things--to make heat flow from cold to hot, to increase the degree of order in a system--all without expending energy. But he could also be a metaphor for the emotional cost of imagination, the ""dark side"" of science, the imaginative obsession that led to the madness of Robert Mayer and the suicide of Ludwig Boltzmann. Von Baeyer's writing style is so compelling that it would induce even the most scientifically naive reader to care about the laws of thermodynamics. (July)