Nefastis Machine and Maxwell's Demon

Nefastis Machine and Maxwell's Demon

From The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

By Luciana Rosa, Dec. 2020

“ "You know the Nefastis Machine?" Oedipa only widened her eyes. "Well this was invented by John Nefastis, who’s up at Berklely now. John’s somebody who still invents things. Here. I have copy of the patent."
From a drawer he produced a Xeroxed wad of papers, showing a box with a sketch of a bearded Victorian on its outside, and coming out of the top two pistons attached to a crank shaft and flywheel.
"Who’s that with the beard?
" asked Oedipa. James Clerk Maxwell, explained Koteks, a famous Scotch scientist who had once postulated a tiny intelligence, known as Maxwell's Demon. The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones. ”

"The Crying of Lot 49" is the second book of Thomas Pynchon and the one that first-time Pynchon readers (aka me) often choose to start.

It is the story of Oedipa Maas, a suburban housewife who finds out she is the executor of the will of her ex-boyfriend, a real state millionaire named Pierce Inverarity who owned a big part of the fictional city of San Narciso, CA. This is short book but it is not an easy ready because Pynchon is the master of trickery. He uses a lot of science references - alongside punning names, conspiracy theories and song lyrics - and in this book the Maxwell's Demon explains a lot about Oedipa's own quest to sort information and define its own reality.

To understand Maxwell's demon, we need to first understand two things about physics (we all saw this back in school but here is a recap):

Entropy: it is a measure of chaos and randomness, since this is the tendency of nature to organize things (for example, if a pile of bricks fall from a truck the most probable outcome is that the bricks fall in a disordered way, and not in a neat pile).

Thermodynamics:- First law: energy can't be created or destroyed in an isolated system, it can only be transferred one to another;- Second law: the entropy of any isolated system always increases. For example, if there are hot and cold molecules in a box, they tend become more random over time unless external work is applied, not being able to produce useful work. In other words, there is no free lunch: you can't get work (or energy) for nothing.

The third law isn't important right now. Let's get to the Maxwell's Demon.

To begin with, Maxwell's Demon isn't real. It is a theory, a thought experiment. In it, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell develops this concept in 1871 to violate the second law of thermodynamics. He imagined a kind of a demon who is able to sort the molecules in a box - what would otherwise only be possible to do with and external work put into the system, like a pump. Sorting in this case isn't actual work, it is just processing of information.

The demon would then place the cold molecules (slow moving) in one side of the box and the hot molecules (fast moving) in the other side.

Once there is only cold molecules in one side, and hole molecules in the other, there would be a low entropy in the system and it would become able to do useful work again.

If such a demon would exist, it would be possible to get something from nothing. It would be possible to create a Perpetual Motion Machine, and get free energy.

Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature. You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine. Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn't have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion."Sorting isn't work?" Oedipa said. "Tell them down at the post office, you'll find yourself in a mailbag headed forFairbanks, Alaska, without even a FRAGILE sticker going for you." "It's mental work," Koteks said, "But not work in the thermodynamic sense."”

― The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

However, Maxwell's Demon was more or less debunked in the 1960's when there were more developments in the study of information theory. In it, it is known that processing and transmission of information uses energy, and this wasn't accounted by Maxwell.

Note that I tried my best to explain it, but I am no scientist myself so mistakes are a possibility.

The Nefastis Machine in the book was designed to be run by human thought, having a sensitive concentrating on a picture of James Maxwell and mystically controlling the demon with the power of the mind.

Understanding this bit explains so much about other parts of the book. But it doesn't necessarily makes sense, since this isn't the idea of the book to begin with.

Pynchon explores the negative effects of the increased entropy of modern times, criticizing how we need to perpetually sort information in order to survive, how humans need a mission to feel useful, how we find meaning in places where there is no meaning. He believes all this complexity and chaos (entropy only increases over time) will only lead to humanity's demise.


Lumen Learning, "The Three Laws of Thermodynamics"

Wikipedia, "Maxwell's Demon"

Up and Atom video, "Maxwell's Demon"

Khan Academy video, "Maxwell's Demon"

Britannica, "Information Theory"

Pynchon in Public Podcast, "Season Three: The Crying of Lot 49, episode 22"