An Introduction to Thermal Physics
Thermal physics deals with collections of large numbers of particles—typically 1023 or so. Examples include the air in a balloon, the water in a lake, the electrons in a chunk of metal, and the photons (electromagnetic wave packets) given off by the sun. Anything big enough to see with our eyes (or even with a conventional microscope) has enough particles in it to qualify as a subject of thermal physics.
Consider a chunk of metal, containing perhaps 1023 ions and 1023 conduction electrons. We can’t possibly follow every detail of the motions of all these particles, nor would we want to if we could. So instead, in thermal physics, we assume that the particles just jostle about randomly, and we use the laws of probability to predict how the chunk of metal as a whole ought to behave. Alternatively, we can measure the bulk properties of the metal (stiffness, conductivity, heat capacity, magnetization, and so on), and from these infer something about the particles it is made of.Some of the properties of bulk matter don’t really depend on the microscopic details of atomic physics. Heat always flows spontaneously from a hot ob ject to a cold one, never the other way. Liquids always boil more readily at lower pressure. The maximum possible efficiency of an engine, working over a given temperature range, is the same whether the engine uses steam or air or anything else as its working substance. These kinds of results, and the principles that generalize them, comprise a subject called thermodynamics. But to understand matter in more detail, we must also take into account both the quantum behavior of atoms and the laws of statistics that make the connection between one atom and 1023. Then we can not only predict the properties of metals and other materials, but also explain why the principles of thermodynamics are what they are—why heat flows from hot to cold, for example. This underlying explanation of thermodynamics, and the many applications that come along with it, comprise a subject called statistical mechanics.
Physics instructors and textbook authors are in bitter disagreement over the proper content of a first course in thermal physics. Some prefer to cover only thermodynamics, it being less mathematically demanding and more readily applied to the everyday world. Others put a strong emphasis on statistical mechanics, with its spectacularly detailed predictions and concrete foundation in atomic physics.
To some extent the choice depends on what application areas one has in mind: Thermodynamics is often sufficient in engineering or earth science, while statistical mechanics is essential in solid state physics or astrophysics. In this book I have tried to do justice to both thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, without giving undue emphasis to either. The book is in three parts. Part I introduces the fundamental principles of thermal physics (the so-called first and second laws) in a unified way, going back and forth between the microscopic (statistical) and macroscopic (thermodynamic) viewpoints. This portion of the book also applies these principles to a few simple thermodynamic systems, chosen for their illustrative character. Parts II and III then develop more sophisticated techniques to treat further applications of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, respectively. My hope is that this organizational plan will accomodate a variety of teaching philosophies in the middle of the thermo-to-statmech continuum. Instructors who are entrenched at one or the other extreme should look for a different book.
The thrill of thermal physics comes from using it to understand the world we live in. Indeed, thermal physics has so many applications that no single author can possibly be an expert on all of them. In writing this book I’ve tried to learn and include as many applications as possible, to such diverse areas as chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, environmental science, engineering, low-temperature physics, solid state physics, astrophysics, and cosmology. I’m sure there are many fascinating applications that I’ve missed. But in my mind, a book like this one cannot have too many applications. Undergraduate physics students can and do go on to specialize in all of the sub jects just named, so I consider it my duty to make you aware of some of the possibilities. Even if you choose a career entirely outside of the sciences, an understanding of thermal physics will enrich the experiences of every day of your life. One of my goals in writing this book was to keep it short enough for a one-semester course. I have failed. Too many topics have made their way into the text, and it is now too long even for a very fast-paced semester. The book is still intended primarily for a one-semester course, however. Just be sure to omit several sections so you’ll have time to cover what you do cover in some depth. In my own course I’ve been omitting Sections 1.7, 4.3, 4.4, 5.4 through 5.6, and all of Chapter 8. Many other portions of Parts II and III make equally good candidates for omission, depending on the emphasis of the course. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one semester, then you can cover all of the main text and/or work some extra problems.
Listening to recordings won’t teach you to play piano (though it can help), and reading a textbook won’t teach you physics (though it too can help). To encourage you to learn actively while using this book, the publisher has provided ample margins for your notes, questions, and objections. I urge you to read with a pencil (not a highlighter). Even more important are the problems. All physics textbook authors tell their readers to work the problems, and I hereby do the same. In this book you’ll encounter problems every few pages, at the end of almost every section. I’ve put them there (rather than at the ends of the chapters) to get your attention, to show you at every opportunity what you’re now capable of doing. The problems come in all types: thought questions, short numerical calculations, order-of-magnitude estimates, derivations, extensions of the theory, new applications, and extended pro jects. The time required per problem varies by more than three orders of magnitude. Please work as many problems as you can, early and often. You won’t have time to work all of them, but please read them all anyway, so you’ll know what you’re missing. Years later, when the mood strikes you, go back and work some of the problems you skipped the first time around.
Before reading this book you should have taken a year-long introductory physics course and a year of calculus. If your introductory course did not include any thermal physics you should spend some extra time studying Chapter I. If your introductory course did not include any quantum physics you’ll want to refer to Appendix A as necessary while reading Chapters 2, 6, and 7. Multivariable calculus is introduced in stages as the book goes on; a course in this subject would be a helpful, but not absolutely necessary, corequisite. Some readers will be disappointed that this book does not cover certain topics, and covers others only superficially. As a partial remedy I have provided an annotated list of suggested further readings at the back of the book. A number of references on particular topics are given in the text as well. Except when I have borrowed some data or an illustration, I have not included any references merely to give credit to the originators of an idea. I am utterly unqualified to determine who deserves credit in any case. The occasional historical comments in the text are grossly oversimplified, intended to tell how things could have happened, not necessarily how they did happen. No textbook is ever truly finished as it goes to press, and this one is no exception. Fortunately, the World-Wide Web gives authors a chance to continually provide updates. For the foreseeable future, the web site for this book will be at http ://physics .weber .edu/thermal/. There you will find a variety of further information including a list of errors and corrections, platform-specific hints on solving problems requiring a computer, and additional references and links. You’ll also find my e-mail address, to which you are welcome to send questions, comments, and suggestions.
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