Entropy of Measurement and Erasure: Szilard's Membrane Model Revisited

Andrew Rex, University of Puget Sound
Harvey S. Leff, Physics Department, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, 3801 West Temple Avenue, Pomona, California 91768


It is widely believed that measurement is accompanied by irreversible entropy increase. This conventional wisdom is based in part on Szilard’s 1929 study of entropy decrease in a thermodynamic system by intelligent intervention (i.e., a Maxwell’s demon) and Brillouin’s association of entropy with information. Bennett subsequently argued that information acquisition is not necessarily irreversible, but information erasure must be dissipative (Landauer’s principle). Inspired by the ensuing debate, we revisit the membrane model introduced by Szilard and find that it can illustrate and clarify (1) reversible measurement, (2) information storage, (3) decoupling of the memory from the system being measured, and (4) entropy increase associated with memory erasure and resetting.