Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics

Notes on Landauer's principle, reversible computation, and Maxwell's Demon

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Landauer's principle, often regarded as the basic principle of the thermodynamics of information processing, holds that any logically irreversible manipulation of information, such as the erasure of a bit or the merging of two computation paths, must be accompanied by a corresponding entropy increase in non-information-bearing degrees of freedom of the information-processing apparatus or its environment. Conversely, it is generally accepted that any logically reversible transformation of information can in principle be accomplished by an appropriate physical mechanism operating in a thermodynamically reversible fashion. These notions have sometimes been criticized either as being false, or as being trivial and obvious, and therefore unhelpful for purposes such as explaining why Maxwell's Demon cannot violate the second law of thermodynamics. Here I attempt to refute some of the arguments against Landauer's principle, while arguing that although in a sense it is indeed a straightforward consequence or restatement of the Second Law, it still has considerable pedagogic and explanatory power, especially in the context of other influential ideas in nineteenth and twentieth century physics. Similar arguments have been given by Jeffrey Bub (2002). © 2003 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.