Questioning Content – Maxwell’s Demons and Alice Grove

Longtime fans of Jeph Jacques’ webcomic Questionable Content may have noticed the comic has taken a bit of a turn in recent years. What once used to be a story about a group of predominantly 20-somethings, their relationships and the indie music scene of middle America has become, in Jeph’s own words, “a comic about robots that want to kiss.”

So it’s no surprise that when Jeph started his new webcomic Alice Grove back in 2014, it quickly became a story focused around sci-fi themes as well. So far those themes have included everything from your everyday, run-of-the-mill AI uprisings and man-made nanotech, to spaceships, aliens (both pretend and real), and giant floating space trees. But since the comic’s earliest pages, the reader has been left with the question of how the titular town witch, Alice – and in particular, her abilities – fit into these overall themes. Until now. But although the descriptor of ‘demon’ might seem to fit the town witch we have got to know over the past few years, what exactly is a “Maxwell’s Demon” and how does it play into the overall theme of the comic?

Unsurprisingly, the term “Maxwell’s Demon” has it’s root in the sciences, specifically, the science of physics. “Maxwell’s Demon” is in fact the title of a thought experiment proposed by physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1872, exploring the nature of Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics. Without getting too dry and technical here, basically, Maxwell imagined that two containers were placed next to each other, with an equal amount of gas in each. These containers were completely closed, save for a tiny trapdoor big enough for only a single gas molecule to pass through. The ‘demon’ of Maxwell’s experiment was put in charge of operating that door. Whenever a particularly fast particle from the right box came zooming towards the door, the demon would open it so the particle moved into the left box, closing the door after only that single molecule passed. Similarly, the demon would open the trapdoor for slow particles moving from left to right.

This idea created a problem for the second law of thermodynamics. Gradually separating the fast and slow particles in the boxes seems to result in one box where it’s entropy (here’s where we’re bringing it back around, folks!) has increased, whilst in the other, it has decreased. To use an extremely inaccurate, but helpful, analogy this would be like having two apples in the boxes instead of gas, one rotting as entropy increases on it’s side, and the other shrinking back into a seed as its entropy decreases. Or, decreasing the entropy of one’s face after it gets crushed by Cranky McHamfists. It’s just not something that happens. In the end, the paradox of the thought experiment was resolved by realising that, in moving the trapdoor, the demon is generating it’s own entropy – at an equal amount to the entropy change within the boxes. Therefore, whilst the entropy in the box might be decreasing at a local level, the overall entropy of the universe keeps going the way that it’s supposed to. It’s just manifested in a different place.

Basically, by describing herself, Sedna, and Mr. Church as “Maxwell’s Demons,” Alice is saying that, like the demon from the experiment, they have the ability to alter reality at an atomic level. Unlike the thought experiment, however, the other side of the box Alice is using is light-years away – and she’s controlling a very sophisticated trapdoor. By shunting her entropy over to a black hole, Alice gets a virtually unlimited ability to change things at her local level – after all, the amount of entropy generated from anything Alice could possibly do is utterly insignificant compared to the size of a black hole. It would be like tipping a drop of water into the ocean. It gives us some answers we’ve been searching for since the first time we met Alice, but it also raises some new questions, particularly: does Alice’s condition make her an enhanced human of the ‘biology’ faction referenced here, or does it suggest a blending of the biological and the technological from a faction that we haven’t seen before? After all, not all of Alice’s abilities seem likely to be purely biological…

In either case, the fact that we see Alice and Mr. Church throwing down during the pre-Blink war suggests a more complicated history around their creation and deployment in the Great War than a simple ‘biology faction vs. technology faction’ conflict. I guess we’ll have to keep reading to find out!

What did you think about the reveal of Alice, Mr. Church and Sedna as “Maxwell’s Demons?” Had you seen this reveal coming, or were the mechanics behind Alice’s powers a total surprise to you? Do you have a better working knowledge of physics than I, and had a minor embolism at my apple/entropy example? Be sure to let us know in the comments if you have a better way of describing it, or head on over to Twitter to giggle at the webcomics blogger trying to give a lesson in physics!

And until next time, remember – don’t eat the clickbait!

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