Large Grants
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Previous Programs

2018 Agency in the Physical World
Awardees; RFP download

2016 Physics of the Observer
Awardees; RFP download

2015 The Physics of What Happens
Awardees; RFP download

2013 Physics of Information
Awardees; RFP download

2010 The Nature of Time
Awardees; RFP download

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
Awardees; RFP download

James Crutchfield
University of California, Davis


John R. Mahoney, University of California, Davis

Project Title

Information Thermodynamics of the Observer

Project Summary

Imagine an “intelligent” observer who leverages information to convert disorganized thermal energy (heat) into useful work. This observer has a long history, going back to James Clerk Maxwell’s 19th century paradox of a “Demon” who sorts molecules into fast and slow ones, yielding a temperature difference that can perform some useful task. Since then, it was believed that Maxwellian Demons could not be implemented. Recent theoretical and experimental advances in nanoscale thermodynamics, though, have opened the door to rethinking how smart systems, smart materials, and even living systems can harvest useful energy. Our goal is to provide a conceptual framework, and key theoretical tools, describing how observers build models of and then control their environments. It focuses on the resources required by such an observer, including energy, information, and computation. We will show that, with a proper model of the correlations and regularities in its environment, an observer can extract useful work. We posit that an observer be defined in terms of its functions: sensing, storing information from, predicting, controlling, synchronizing to, and simulating its environment. This perspective allows any physical system to be analyzed in terms of a spectrum of “functional agents”. This will put the physics of information on equal footing with our familiar physics of energy, over a focused and concrete conception of the observer, and introduce meaningful questions about the nature of structure, function, and agency in the physical universe.

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