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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Ed. Note: In its May issue, the magazine Physics Today broke new ground by deliberately printing a work of fiction, a short story entitled "The Second Law of Thermodynamics" by the well-known writer and physicist Alan Lightman. Not to be outdone, or at least not to be caught bringing up the rear by more than a couple of months, APS News is proud to present its own work of total fiction, a short dramatic piece which, curiously enough, is also entitled "The Second Law of Thermodynamics." It is based on the following, real, quotations:

"The second law has the same degree of truth as the statement that, if you throw a tumblerful of water into the sea, you cannot get the same tumblerful of water out again."
–James Clerk Maxwell, letter to J. W. Strutt
"James, you’re beginning to enjoy yourself. It is time we go home."
–Katherine Maxwell (attributed)

The scene is a seaside resort in the west of Scotland. Walking by the shore are the physicist James Clerk Maxwell and his wife Katherine. The time is the early 1870’s, and it is a glorious Scottish summer day.

Katherine: Och, James, ‘tis a bonnie day, is it not? I think that bright spot in the clouds is where the sun must be, and this morning’s fierce rain has given way to a nice torrential downpour.

James: Yes, it’s too bad the wind is so strong, or I’d put up the umbrella. Well, a wee dram makes the weather fine, I always say. (Reaches into his pocket for a flask).

Katherine: James, James, put that away. It ill becomes a Christian gentleman to drink so early in the day.

James: But it’s good to the last drop, as we Maxwells have it. Besides, I’ve just been reading another paper by that Austrian fellow, Ludwig Boltzmann. I tell you, Katherine, it’s enough to drive anyone to drink. He writes these fearful long papers and at the end of it you can’t be sure what he’s saying. Is the law of entropy derivable from mechanics or is it not? Is it a statistical statement, or is it not? He claims to prove a theorem, but I call it the H-theorem, for "hot air".

Katherine: Well, I’ll tell you what I think. Give me that whisky. I’m going to pour it into the ocean, and then see if you can drink any of it. (Pours the whisky into the sea).

James: (lunges forward) Katherine! My angel! What are you doing?

Katherine: (sarcastically) Here’s a tumbler, James. See if you can dip it in the ocean and get that evil drink back again. So much for your demon whisky!

James: I believe the term is "demon rum," Katherine. But wait a minute, my brilliant impetuous bride! If I understand right, your wee experiment here is a perfect illustration of the second law of thermodynamics.

Katherine: I’ll bet you say that to all the lassies.

James: No, no. I did say something once about the first law of thermodynamics in the heat of the moment, but it didn’t work out. The second law is neither more nor less true than the statement that if I pour a tumblerful of liquid into the sea I can’t get the same tumblerful out again. Unless, of course, I have a demon with a quick hand and a sharp eye, who can let the water go by and only catch the molecules of whisky.

Katherine: Well I hope you have such a demon, James, because that’s the only way you’re going to get yourself any more whisky.

James: Yes, my sweet. (Gives a sudden start.) Ooh! The wind is getting stronger now, and it’s blowing up inside my kilt.

Katherine: James, you’re beginning to enjoy yourself. It is time we go home.

They exit, arm in arm, stage left.


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff