Science AMA Series: I'm Assa Auerbach, Professor of Physics at Technion. I wrote a graphic novel for the broad public, explaining the important concepts of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics through the adventures of Maxwell's Demon. I’m here today to talk about it. AMA!

Abstract

Political leaders and their constituencies debate climate change, global warming, and the effects of pollution. Yet most of the public are totally unfamiliar with the basic, classical physics concepts behind these phenomena.

Thermodynamics is a heavy subject to learn and to teach - lots of multivariate functions, unclear definitions, and strange laws. So even science and engineering students are scared of heat, Entropy, and the second law.

Enter "Max the Demon vs Entropy of Doom", a super-hero graphic novel, based on the mythical Maxwell's Demon. I teamed up with my brother-in-law, the Brooklyn-based cartoonist Richard Codor, to create the book, which teaches Thermodynamics, Entropy, and the connection between Entropy and Information. The book teaches factual science in a fun way, in order to engage the broad public. I’m here to answer any questions about the science concepts themselves. Richard will join me, to tell about the brainstorming and interactions during the creative process.

You can visit our Kickstarter page to learn more about the project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1814432026/max-the-demon-vs-entropy-of-doom

Check out some early animated rough versions of the first chapters, on our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mtdvseod/ where Max starts his mission and learns about Energy and Entropy.

Thank you for doing this AMA!

As a science communicator and a fan of graphic novels, I am excited about and fascinated by projects like this. Could you give a brief overview of the practical steps you needed to take to go from your first idea of this project to implementation? What aspect of the project have you found the most challenging so far?

neurobeegirl

Thanks for the question! Richard and I worked together before on a Physics graduate textbook on Quantum magnetism and had a great time. Richard suggested we write a full blown comic book on Physics, and I have given talks on Entropy to kids, and we always dreamed opf creating a superhero adventure story together. The most challenging aspect was to replace complicated formulas by action dominated visuals. We think its the best way to explain difficult concepts.

richard here: my first challenge was to create a visually believable sympathetic character. once max took shape along with the rest of the characters we could begin to create his world and incorporate ideas behind the story. It was a big problem to get Max's hair just right. By chance I saw a young student on the ny subway who was the spitting image of what I thought Max looked like. i sketched like crazy till he got off. I t worked.


Thanks for the AMA!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into physics?

BPGXMG

Hi BP, [Sorry for pasting a wrong answer. Here I go again:]

Go for it! Physics is the best subject any curious, critical person can study if you are fascinated by the world around you. Don't be scared of the math - its just a language you need to learn. I haven't met yet anyone who really likes physics who couldn't study it. Cheers! - Assa


Hi Assa! Seems like a great idea--the public needs to be more scientifically literate. From the reviews, it seems the book is already finished. What, then, is the purpose of the kickstarter campaign? Do you intend to write a second one?

PMMeYourBankPin

Hi PMM,

The book is nearly finished but we need the finances to finish it, and to print it and ship it. We want to reach a large audience, and if successful, to write othe similar graphic novels, and perhaps think of other media as well.


Perhaps off topic - I would be interested in hearing your opinion of the theory that thermodynamics may play a role in biogenesis. See https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-thermodynamics-theory-of-the-origin-of-life-20140122/

Magick93

I think everyone agrees that the laws of thermodynamics are part of biology where temperature and heat exchange are crucially important for all biochemical reactions. However, I have very little knowledge about the origin of life which is in the realm of flow in complex systems far from equilibrium. Therefore the origin of life is not simply captured by the laws of thermodynamics.


Hello Dr. Auerbach,

Why did you ultimately decide to self-publish the text, rather than work with a popular or academic press that can manage distribution, printing costs, etc.? Did you want greater control over the creative process? Were presses not interested?

I don't mean to suggest by these questions that I disagree with your choice. I'm just curious as a fellow academic! Thanks in advance for your reply.

kidsweekend

Dear Kidsweekend, I can't say we didn't try. None of the academic publishers, nor the popular graphic novel publishers and agents, even wanted to look at the manuscript. They said "graphic novels are too childish for serious grownups, and science education is not attractive to younger readers". We disagreed. We decided that traditional publishers and bookstores can't really reach the low density (but we believe large numbers) of intellectually curious young adults. Our experience with the support we are getting at kickstarter proves us right - and hopefully the science-redditers will back us too!


What a great looking project! Will you be creating any more after this one succeeds? What ideas did you have in mind for your future projects?

Rock_O_Chimp

Hi Rock, We want to see how this one goes first. If students and general readers like it - perhaps a sequel on quantum computing?


As a Physics Professor, is it ever considered how Entropic reactions might explain Society and modern human systems collapsing into states of chaos?

With established institutions (education, justice, government, western traditions, etc...) losing the ability to hold back decline. Or is physics not allowed to be applied in Social structures and it is the principal of causation?

Please let me qualify this question as I'm just an autodidact trained and experienced as a Hazmat Specialist/Firefighter. So forgive my ignorance. Thank you.

Neubeowulf

Hi Neubeowulf! Sorry I can't make any intelligent statements about human behavior - just not my field of expertise. -Assa. Perhaps Richard (a great political cartoonist - check out richardcodor.com) has an idea?

Richard: this a science blog and we want to keep on message about Max but you can look at my other work at richardcodor.com and see the influence of what I've learned about thermodynamics.


I absolutely love your plotting of memetic content and I'm motivated to read you and your brother-in-laws new book. Entropy is as you describe. It is not an implicit set of rule/laws they are shaded and shadowed in linguistic strategies of lexicon. Any attempt to illuminate Entropy to the layman is of great value.

The Periodic Table might be envisioned as the membrane between particle physics and the Universe. I spent over 25 years playing magician on physics and particle physics shoulders as a medicinal pharmaceutical synthetic chemist. Q: On both sides of the membrane, Periodic Table what are the constants? Mathematics is the sinew, matrix and axis piercing the table through and through. I have found precession, spin and sphere as shape on both sides rather ubiquitously. Under these loose metaphorical assumptions can you list other ubiquitously populated constants on both sides of our elements tabled?

I would be most interested to hear what you have to say. Even though I have moved away from Entropy I have questions of cybernetic synergy and higher organization, which is contained in our Table and math as sinew.

Thank you for your post...create a great day...

Althekemist

Hi Althekemist, Thanks for your input!


Hi there sir! I'm actually a student looking to head into the physics field, and I understand it is vast. Do you have any pointers on where one should start for general branches of physics? (Theoretical, Applied)

itsgreymonster

Hi itsgrey! Don't make any choices for the first few years, just study all the different directions your curriculum takes you. It takes time to develop a taste for certain fields - condensed matter, astrophysics, high energy, optics, cold atoms etc. A lot depends on which teachers grabbed your attention the most, and what experiences you had in the labs. Whatever you choose, you won't regret studying physics, which is the basis of all sciences.


I admit I haven't yet looked at your book but I have observed that the concept of a "control volume" which defines what is "in" the area to be studied is critical to laymen conversations. Hopefully you are covering that concept?

dunegoon

Dear dunegoon, I'm sorry but I am not familiar with the control volume concept.


I just want to give you praise for what you are doing here! I am currently getting my PhD in Physics, and one of my long-term goals has been to write comic books explaining physics concepts like you are doing here. What is the biggest hurdle to getting a project like this started?

princess_myshkin

Hi Princess_myshkin, Thanks for the praise. The biggest hurdle is to figure out exactly what you want to explain, and how to get the message across with minimal "pain", without sacrificing correctness! That's a challenge, because as scientists we are trained to accept careful and rigorous definitions. As explainers, we have to give up the most general formal definitions, and define more by examples and demonstrations. For example, in our book we define temperature as the average kinetic energy of particles, which is strictly correct only for dilute gases. We don't want to use the general definition "temperature is the derivative of energy with respect to entropy". It won't work ;)


Just took the Thermodynamics & Statistical Physics final and I'm glad to see that you guys are publishing this comics, the course was one of the more interesting ones I had in the faculty, anyway I was wondering if there are any plans for more comics, specifically about quantum mechanics as unfortunately it's the one subject I can't seem to find a good way to explain to a lay person and you can probably do better.

Sygald

Hi Sygald! Thanks for the kind words. Quantum Mechanics is indeed a fascinating topic to try to illustrate ands animate. We might go for it if this book succeeds, although it requires new thinking. Much of the quantum truth is not as intuitive as classical physics...


Where can I purchase to read the graphic novel?

dominfrancon

Dear dominfrancon, Thanks for the question. Its easy, go to our kickstarter page, (google "kickstarter max the demon") and pledge the $25 reward (plus shipping outside the US). You'll get the book shorty after the kickstarter drive ends.


Thank you Dr. Auerbach for the AMA. I am a Chemical Engineering sophomore and my question is about the possibility of creating a physical Maxwell's demon. With the advances in nanotechnology, do you feel if it is possible for us to one day have devices working with efficiency very close to the Landauer's limit?

Planshu

Dear Planshu, The key point is that there is a Landauer limit, and the second law cannot be broken. A robotic Maxwell's Demon that you suggest is essentially a maximally efficient (Carnot) refrigerator or heat engine. With nano devices, and biological molecules, such limits may be approached. Its a good direction for research.


What's your take on solar's ability to replace fossil fuels, given that it has an EROEI just barely above 1, supply chain considerations aren't taken into account with the EROEI calculation, and fossil fuels still operate between 5-20 and are facing a near immediate decline in production?

Kill_All_The_Humans

Dear KATH, You are right that in the short term, efficiency and cost issues delay the massive use of solar panels. In the longer term, when fossil fuels run out, the calculations may change. But more work needs to be done to make the panels more efficient.


Entropy is a easy to grasp, but hard to turn into energy terms, how is it quantized in real cases like chemicals and small particles?

DoctorThulium

Entropy is thermodynamics has to do with heat and temperature - very difficultt to grasp and explain precisely. Thats why we concentrate on the Boltzmann statistics definition, which comes from just counting possibilities in a large random system of particles.

The tricky part about defining entropy is how do you distinguish between different configurations? If the particles are identical, do you count exchanging between them as separate configurations or not (The Gibbs paradox). Of course this means that Entropy is somewhat "subjective", in the sense that if you can't tell the difference, there is no difference. A disturbing, but fascinating, thought. This is why Entropy and Information are closely tied - as the storyline of our book aims to explain. We think it does that in an interesting way.


We just finished learning about entropy and enthalpy in my Chem 2 class! As a physics major, i didn't know why i needed to go so far in Chem, but now I know why. I'm taking my first college-level physics class this fall, so I'm interested in reading anything that makes it easier to understand!

Will you be writing more textbooks and/or comic books about physics in the future? What would you like to write about, or think would be the most beneficial to the public?

supa_fresh

Hi Supa, its takes a while to appreciate thermodynamics after you've learned it - but some of the deepest concepts, like the second law, are not that hard to grasp and contemplate - we all intuitively understand that "disorder" (a loose name for entropy) tends to grow in time.

The purpose of our "Max The Demon" is not to replace a text book, or the homework problems, but to explain some fundamental aspects which are sometimes glossed over in class. These are the aspects that make studying physics truly worthwhile.

This project is our first experiment in explaining correct physics via a fictional superhero story. If it works, the sky is the limit - one could think of many other fascinating topics - Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, etc.


Any advice for students who have trouble understanding physics

PyroSlam

Richard: A good question, Pyro. the simple answer is , read our book. i managed to avoid knowing anything about physics all my adult life but once I began treating it as a cartoon I became really interested and fascinated by the subject and scientists who uncovered the laws of thermodynamics. Making Count Rumford into a trapeze artist, Sadi Carnot into a french chef, Ludvig Boltzman a gambler and Richard Fenyman a desert guru, brought them to life. I now regret sleeping through freshman physics. hopefully Max will save you from this fate.


Hey, thanks for doing this AMA. Someone tried to explain the Second law of thermodynamics to me and said that it's related to the efficiency of machines. Is this correct? Is it related to entropy?

comradecapitalflows

Hi Comrade! Thanks for this question - yes, Entropy was actually discovered by Sadi Carnot (a hero in our book) who found the upper limit to the effeciency of any heat engine (think of a steam engine) which is achieved when the total Entropy over a cycle does not increase. He published it in his famous book "Reflexions on the emotive power of fire" - Great title! The fact that this entropy is equal to Boltzmann's Entropy S=k log(W) (the most important physics formula after E=mc2) - is nothing short of an intellectual miracle. The next miracle is that Entropy is the negative of information. Richard: how do you draw a superhero who is effecient? this nearly drove me crazy. After all superheroes are all about smashing everything in sight. after countless hours, days and weeks of discussion and sketches, we finally figured it out. A superhero who's super power is to do almost nothing and showing him doing it.


Thanks for doing the AMA! I'm doing my physics bachelor - finished 2nd year this summer, and am supposed to take the theoretical class on statistical physics and thermodynamics soon, but I'm dreading it. From everything I've seen up to now, it seems utterly boring and confusing, pretty much just like a bunch of unrelated concepts. Any tips/advice on how to warm myself up to it?

mechnight

Hi Mechnight, Don't be too scared. There are some very good textbooks (Kittel+ Kroemer, Kardar, Reif, etc.) and lots of information online. To get excited about Entropy (besides our "Max The Demon") - check out a great book by Hans Christian Von Baeyer and Hans C Von Baeyer. Warmth disperses and time passes: The history of heat. Modern library New York, 1999. Also a book by Lef and Rex concerning Entropy and Information is awesome.


Hi, quick question. Entropy is what occurs when a supercooled bottle of water in a freezer only freezes when you take it out and "agitate" it by setting it down correct? Or am I thinking something different , I only briefly read on google about that phenomenon after a co worker asked about it!

Lifeaswedontknowit

Hi Life! This is not a simple thermodynamics question, but let me try to answer it minimum lingo. A supercooled bottle has higher entropy and higher energy compared to frozen ice at the same temperature. This is not a system in equilibrium, it just can't find its way to freezing. When you agitate it, you make the water molecules release their extra energy, into the surrounding air, and order (which reduces their entropy, but increases the surrounding air's entropy even more.)


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