Official Description

Level: Intermediate. Requirements: ES, QR. Lab Fee: None. Course Limit: 20.

Thermodynamics is the area of physics concerned with the behavior of very large collections of particles. Examples include the water molecules in glass of water, the electrons in a wire, or the photons given off by a light bulb. Thermodynamics studies properties of collections of particles that are largely independent of the particles' detail, for example, the tendency for heat to flow from a hot object to a cold one.

This course will begin with a treatment of the first law of thermodynamics and basic thermal physics. Topics to be covered include the conservation of energy, heat and work, the ideal gas, the equipartition of energy, heat capacities, and latent heat. We will then move to the second law of thermodynamics, beginning with a statistical definition of entropy. This will require learning some combinatorics (a mathematical technique for counting) and approximation methods for working with very large numbers. This statistical approach will enable us to understand the origin of the second law of thermodynamics, and will lead naturally to statistical definitions of temperature, pressure, and chemical potential. We will then turn our attention to two broad areas of application. The first of these is heat engines and refrigerators, including heat pumps. The second set of applications involve free energy and chemical equilibrium. Depending on student interest, we will cover batteries and fuel cells, phase transitions, adiabatic lapse rates in meteorology, and nitrogen fixation. Thermodynamics is a broadly applicable field of physics, and so this course should be of relevance to students whose interests are in almost any area of science or engineering, as well as those who wish to gain a general introduction to a field that is one of the pillars of modern physical science.

Evaluation will be based on weekly problem sets and a final research paper, presentation, or lab project.

Pre-requisites: Calculus II and either a college-level physics or chemistry class.

Informal Description

    I've not taught this class before at COA. Nevertheless, I have a pretty good sense of how it will go. Here are some thoughts on the class and how to do well.

    1. The weekly homework assignments for this class will be different than those in most of my other classes. Rather than assigning 15-20 short problems, in this course a typical problem set may have four or five problems, most of which might involve multiple steps and/or require you to do some puzzling and cogitation.
    2. As such, it is more important than ever that you start the assignments early and seek help if you need it.
    3. Students who take this class should be familiar with integral calculus and generally be comfortable working with algebra. You should also have seen the conservation of energy and specific heat in either a chemistry or physics class. If you think you might not have the background for this course, we should talk.
    4. This class is a lot of work and will move at a fairly brisk pace. However, the workload is steady; you'll be doing approximately the same amount of work each week.
    5. Falling behind in this course is not a good idea. If you're confused about something, it's very important that you seek help sooner rather than later.
    6. There are no TAs for this class. We will need to work together to make sure that people everyone can get sufficient help on the homework assignments.
    7. I do not expect all of the homework assignments to be easy; I don't expect you to be able to sit down and do them easily the first time. Don't let yourself get frustrated. I strongly suggest working with others, starting the assignments well before they are due, and seeking help if you need it.
    8. I very strongly recommend getting your own copy of the textbook. I think you'll learn more if you have your own copy to take notes in and always have with you when you're doing problems. An important part of introductory science and math classes is forming a strong, long-term relationship with some textbooks. And I think the textbook we're using for this course is extraordinary.
    9. I expect the course to have three parts.
      1. Chapter 1. This will be conservation of energy in various guises. Most of this matieral will be new to you, but it will have a familiar feel.
      2. Chapter 2-3. Here we will encounter entropy and the second law of thermodynamics in various guises. This material will be new, some of the math will be new, and it will be a bit abstract and big-picture.
      3. Chapter 4-5. Here we will apply all the new stuff from chapters 2-3 to a wide array of phenomena. This will be the most interesting, challenging, and perhaps the most rewarding part of the class.