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The Laws of Thermodynamics

A Very Short Introduction

By Peter Atkins
18-minute read
Audio available
The Laws of Thermodynamics by Peter Atkins

The Laws of Thermodynamics (2010) is a short and accessible introduction to thermodynamics, the field of physics concerned with the relationships between different forms of energy. Authored by one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the subject, Peter Atkins, it explains the four laws that govern the universe – the zeroth, first, second, and third laws. Along the way, The Laws of Thermodynamics unravels the workings of familiar-sounding concepts like temperature as well as more exotic ideas like entropy and energy states.

  • Quizzical types who’ve always wondered how the universe works
  • Humanities graduates looking for a gentle introduction to physics
  • Folks who love a good mental workout

Peter Atkins is a renowned physicist and the author of over 60 books, including Physical Chemistry, a standard textbook used by students around the globe. Atkins is a Fellow of Lincoln College, University of Oxford, and a well-known face on the international lecture circuit. He has been a visiting professor in China, France, Israel, and New Zealand.

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The Laws of Thermodynamics

A Very Short Introduction

By Peter Atkins
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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The Laws of Thermodynamics by Peter Atkins
Synopsis

The Laws of Thermodynamics (2010) is a short and accessible introduction to thermodynamics, the field of physics concerned with the relationships between different forms of energy. Authored by one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the subject, Peter Atkins, it explains the four laws that govern the universe – the zeroth, first, second, and third laws. Along the way, The Laws of Thermodynamics unravels the workings of familiar-sounding concepts like temperature as well as more exotic ideas like entropy and energy states.

Key idea 1 of 11

If two systems are in mechanical equilibrium, then a third system in equilibrium with one will also be in equilibrium with the other.

Thermodynamics concerns itself with systems. What we mean by this is: anything that has boundaries. A block of steel is a system. A combustion engine and the human body are also systems.

Beyond those boundaries, we find the system’s surroundings. This could be a bath of cool water in a laboratory or the atmosphere around a system. Together, a system and its surroundings make up the universe.

Systems can take different forms. This depends on the nature of their boundaries. Imagine a flask without a lid. That’s an “open system.” Pop a lid on the same flask and you’ve got a “closed system.” Then there are “isolated systems.” These aren’t affected by their surroundings at all. A vacuum flask is a good approximation of such a system.

Right, now that we’ve defined our terms, let’s unpack the first concept we’ll need to get to grips with to understand thermodynamics – mechanical equilibrium.

Picture two metal cylinders next to one another. Both are fully sealed except for a horizontal tube joining them together like a walkway between two buildings. This tube contains two pistons held together by a rigid rod.

The pistons move this rod back and forth according to the pressure in their respective cylinders. If the pressure is higher on the right than on the left, the right piston pushes the rod toward the left cylinder and vice versa. This is like a tug-of-war, but with pushing rather than pulling.

If the pistons don’t move, we can infer that the pressure in both of these cylindrical systems is equal. In this case, we say that they are in mechanical equilibrium.

At this stage we can give our two existing cylinder systems names – we’ll call them “A” and “B” – before adding a third, “C,” and seeing what happens.

Cylinder C is connected to A with another tube containing movable pistons. Let’s say these pistons don’t move and there’s no tug-of-war between A and C. We can now conclude that the pressure in both systems is the same and that A and C are in mechanical equilibrium.

But what happens if we detach C from A and connect it to B instead? In a word, nothing. There won’t be a tug-of-war here, either. If C and A and A and B are in mechanical equilibrium, then C and B will also be in mechanical equilibrium.

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