Monday, March 16, 2020

Fighting the Coronavirus using Thermodynamics

Strategies against a subtle enemy 

Guest post by Pepi Cima

James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics, proposed in 1867 a thought experiment to illustrate the apparent contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics with classical mechanics. The second law of thermodynamics regulates the flow of heat, from hot to cold and not vice versa. Between the two worlds, thermodynamics and mechanics, there seemed to be a contradiction that has since been defined as the "Maxwell Demon" paradox.

With a sense of humor worthy of the Monty Pythons, Maxwell painted it in the guise of an individual of very minute proportions and prompt reflexes who discerns between fast and slow gas molecules and, by means of a frictionless valve, effortlessly separates them to two containers. In an isolated system, a hot zone cannot be created where before there was none. We heat cold dishes daily in the kitchen with our microwave oven, the demon would do it without a plugged oven, without a source of external energy.

In the virus emergency that we are experiencing these days one would like to do the same thing that Maxwell's demon does with the particles of a gas: take infected individuals and promptly separate them from the healthy ones, long enough for the epidemic to subside. Viruses alone cannot survive without parasitizing bodies. After they have finished with the infected individuals, and the latter have recovered or died, they too become extinct if they don't find new victims. It would be preferable to extinguish them quickly without having to wait for the manufacturing of an effective vaccine.

Something similar has already happened with smallpox, officially vanished from earth according to the WHO*. Those of us who have been vaccinated as children still carry the signs of the vaccine. After mass vaccinations in the West, the extinction was completed in the rest of the world by identifying the last carriers of the virus one by one and isolating their closest contacts. An information-based strategy. Unfortinately, something analogous to the second principle of thermodynamics seems to be preventing such an approach in the present coronavirus epidemics.

We already have a strategy with the Corona-virus, we obstruct possible channels of contagion asking people not to shake hands and other precautions. Essentially cooling the behavior of the entire population, not by chance a reference to a thermodynamic machine par excellence: a refrigerator. We are fighting with refrigerators an enemy who attacks us with modern info-weapons which we counter freezing the battlefield. Slowing down the battle doesn't mean winning the war, it only spreads the pain over a longer period.

Is this exclusively a second principle fight? Or has the first principle something to do with it? The energy comes in too, their supply lines are short, they have forgotten a basic war strategy principle. If one doesn't get in touch with anybody for a while, they'll starve of new bodies. Of course, the price is the life of some of our soldiers in the front lines. To win a faster blitzkrieg we have to invent weapons as advanced as theirs.

Could we wage a fast information war too, one genome against the other? Could we implement a Maxwell-demon like strategy against their cell receptors? With the Coronavirus, it is not like with Smallpox, it spreads faster and more subtly. In a very mobile society, we cannot send health care teams to the fields of rural India to isolate and vaccinate positive individuals. If we decide to fight with information we need fast modern tools, are they available now?

The cost of information handling and transmission is the real problem (**) of Maxwell's Demon of statistical mechanics memory. Nobody would finance the demon to beat the second principle in a gas, nobody is rich enough to stalk an Avogadro-number of molecules that are moving at the speed of sound. Especially if the reason for it is to heat a soup in a microwave oven. In the information era, on the other hand, we could afford to be on the heels of a virus day and night, one by one, until we destroy them forever.

We already have the weapon, perhaps even more powerful than needed. It is made of silicon instead of the virus carbon based information infrastructure. We seem to have forgotten about it, we thought chatting would have been its only use. But we each have a mobile phone in our pocket, connected in real-time with a central database with the data of all our movements and contacts. All at a practically zero IT cost.

It may be sufficient to determine that an individual has been infected, play the film backwards and send an SMS to all of our contacts for the previous X days, asking them to move into quarantine for two weeks. Everyone else could move on with their lives as usual and support the rest of us in quarantine. The epidemic extinguishing time would be inversely proportional to how far backward we can dig in this investigative process and how many individuals can simultaneously be kept in quarantine.

I would really like to understand how difficult it would be to make a Corona-virus swab with a mobile phone, the possibility to stop everything quickly depends on fast IT procedures.

* "Smallpox". WHO Factsheet. Archived from the original on 21 September 2007.

** Szilard, Leo (1929). "Über die Entropieverminderung in einem thermodynamischen System bei Eingriffen intelligenter Wesen (On the reduction of entropy in a thermodynamic system by the intervention of intelligent beings)". Zeitschrift für Physik. 53 (11–12): 840–856. English translation available as NASA document TT F-16723published 1976


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)