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One of the most fundamental rules of physics, the second law of thermodynamics, has for the first time been shown not to hold for microscopic systems.
The demonstration, by chemical physicists in Australia, could place a fundamental limit on miniaturisation, because it suggests that the micro-scale devices envisaged by nanotechnologists will not behave like simple scaled-down versions of their larger counterparts - they could sometimes run backwards.
The second law states that a closed system will remain the same or become more disordered over time, i.e. its entropy will always increase. It is the reason a cup of tea loses heat to its surroundings, rather than being heated by the air around it.
"In a typical room, for example, the air molecules are most likely to be distributed evenly, which is the overall result of their individual random motion", says theoretical physicist Andrew Davies of Glasgow University. "But because of this randomness there is always a probability that suddenly all the air will bunch up in one corner." Thankfully this probability is so small it never happens on human timescales.