Science classroom: history of thermodynamics

From Steam Engines to Life? What is the state of thermodynamics on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kelvin? by Mark Haw notes that December 2007 sees the centenary of Kelvin’s death. Lord Kelvin of Largs, born as William Thomson was one of the founders of many thermodynamics concepts.

The Kelvin temperature scale is what you would use when you want to compare temperatures that influence things such as water heating or battery effectiveness.

Thermodynamics is what we use when we want to figure out what we can do with the energy stored in a battery or propane bottle. How long before we need to refill the tank is a thermodynamics question.

The article describes a bit of the history of the study of thermodynamics and uses that to look at where the science now stands and its direction. Its message is that the door to the future of learning ever more about how things work is wide open with many new opportunities to explore.

In Kelvin’s time, thermodynamics enabled the industrial revolution—a historical period that produced its own ethical and social questions. Similarly, microscopic thermodynamics will enable a new revolution and prompt more discussion about the appropriate uses of technology.

Kelvin’s profound ideas about energy led to a fundamental revolution in modern science but were firmly anchored to a solid reality in the industrial engineering of Victorian Britain.

Which brings us back to microscopic engines: the most interesting objects in which the two themes of modern thermodynamics—microscopic scales and open systems—join. Although studies of individual proteins are important foundation stones, the cell depends on millions of molecules in a complex network of machines, their functions interlocked across a range of scales. Such interplay is possible precisely because these living engines are open to fluctuations and not isolated from their environment. It may be that the complex functions of matter that we call life are nothing more than this multiscale interplay of engines, a network through which energy is transformed again and again, as microscopic machines swap and shift matter—manipulate entropy—in a thermodynamical cycle the likes of which Kelvin could hardly have imagined.

Now, a century after his death, the science of thermodynamics that Kelvin pioneered is indeed more puzzling, more profound, more tantalizing, more practically relevant, and just plain more fascinating, than ever.

It is hard to believe that Kelvin (wikipedia) died when many of our grandparents were alive. It was such a short time ago that we developed the analytic techniques that we now depend upon for getting to where we want to go and living there in comfort. Those techniques started with the imposition of an assumption of a closed system to simplify the problems encountered. Since then, statistical methods to average the effects of the molecular components of matter in the system were developed to better link chemistry and thermodynamics together. These all helped to analyze problems on our scale, problems we encounter in making engines for automobiles or generating electricity, problems in moving heat from the furnace to our living space, problems in storing energy we need to live comfortably.

Now, it appears that the science is learning how to understand what happens when the restrictions of a closed system are removed. It is starting to look at the microscopic realm where molecular sized particles interact. That is an effort to bring thermodynamics into the understanding of how life works at its most fundamental level.

Don’t we live in interesting, vital, and invigorating times?

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