Nefastis Machine

Nefastis Machine
Rendition of the Nefastis Machine, as described in Thomas Pynchon's 1965 The Crying of Lot 49.
In literature thermodynamics, the Nefastis Machine is a fictional device described as a patented box inside of which is contained a Maxwell’s demon, outside of which is a sketch of James Maxwell, and as seen on the top, contains two pistons, which are said to be attached to a crankshaft and flywheel, whereby if one concentrates on one cylinder, right or left, the Demon will raise the temperature in that cylinder and the air will expand, pushing the piston upwards, thus operating as a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. [1]

The Nefastis Machine was invented by Berkeley scientist John Nefastis, a character in the 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49 by American writer Thomas Pynchon. [2] The character is most-likely based on Hungarian chemical engineer John Neumann who in the 1940s suggested to American electrical engineer Claude Shannon to call is summation of logarithms equation (1948) for “information, choice and uncertainty” of telephone signal communications:

H = - k ∑ p log p (information, choice and uncertainty) (via Shannon)

by the thermodynamic term “entropy”, since supposedly the equations looks the same as the statistical entropy formulas of Ludwig Boltzmann (1882) and Willard Gibbs (1901):

S = - k ∑ p ln p (entropy) (via Gibbs)

Maxwell (1920)
Photo of Maxwell found on the front matter (second page) of the 1920 book Matter and Motion published by Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. [3]
The passage from the novel goes:

“For John Nefastis two kinds of entropy, thermodynamic [Boltzmann entropy] and informational [Shannon entropy], happened, say by coincidence, to look alike, when you wrote them down as equations. Yet he had made his mere coincidence respectable, with the help of Maxwell’s demon.”

The surname Nefastis is likely a play on the conjunction “Neumann + Fastest”, in that the demon only lets the fastest particles into his soon to be hottest cylinder.

The character Koteks, in the novel, explains that: “the familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile, seemed to work best.” This indicates that the photo referred to in the novel is the one of Maxwell found on the front matter (shown adjacent) of the 1920 book Matter and Motion published by that society. [1]

1. Clarke, Bruce. (2001). Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (Nefastis machine, pgs. 85-89). University of Michigan Press.
2. Pynchon, Thomas. (1966). The Crying of Lot 49 (Nefastis Machine, pgs. 68-69, 84-87). Bantam.
3. Maxwell, James. (1882). Matter and Motion. London: Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (photo shown from 1920 edition).

Further reading
● Clarke, Bruce. (1996). “Allegories of Victorian Thermodynamics (abstract)”, Configurations, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, pgs. 67-90.

External links
The Crying of Lot 49 (Chapter 5, Part I) –
The Nefastis Box (Pynchon’s solution) –

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