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What is heat? What is temperature? What is energy? What is time? When we look beneath the surface of these everyday terms to learn how scientists understand them, we encounter a realm of fundamental processes that rule the universe.

This is the domain of thermodynamics, the branch of science that deals with the movement of heat. Nothing seems simpler, but nothing is more subtle and wide-ranging in its effects. And nothing has had a more profound impact on the development of modern civilization.

Thermodynamic processes are at the heart of everything that involves heat, energy, and work, making an understanding of the subject indispensable for careers in engineering, physical science, biology, meteorology, and even nutrition and culinary arts. Consider these applications of the laws of thermodynamics:

  • The second law of thermodynamics leads to the concept of entropy, which explains the arrow of time and the unidirectionality of all processes—including the evolution of the universe.
  • In daily life, thermodynamics explains why salt melts ice, why cars are so inefficient, and why the cheese on a hot slice of pizza burns the roof of your mouth, but the crust at the same temperature doesn’t.
  • New advances in alternative energy, materials science, and a host of other fields are in the works as thermodynamic processes are being applied at scales as small as the quantum realm.

Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe gives you an in-depth tour of this vital and fascinating science in 24 enthralling lectures that are suitable for everyone from science novices to experts who wish to review elementary concepts and formulas. Your teacher is Professor Jeffrey C. Grossman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scientist at the forefront of research on new materials.

Four Far-Reaching Laws

The four laws of thermodynamics describe how energy moves, why it changes from one form to another, and how matter is affected during these transformations. With these laws as a launching point, you learn foundational concepts that are critical pillars of science and engineering—ideas such as entropy, chemical potential, Gibbs free energy, enthalpy, osmotic pressure, heat capacity, eutectic melting, and the Carnot cycle. These and other ideas shed light on many phenomena in the natural world, and they are the analytical tools that engineers use to create new devices and technologies.

Thermodynamics is illustrated with scores of informative diagrams, animations, and simple equations that add depth and clarity to the presentation. And in nearly every lecture, Professor Grossman puts on his lab coat and goggles and smashes, breaks, ignites, or otherwise converts energy from one form into another—showing thermodynamics in action in demonstrations such as these:

  • Work = heat: See how a piece of cotton can be set afire by striking a piston with a hammer, illustrating the first law of thermodynamics, which relates heat to mechanical motion.
  • When 1+1 doesn’t equal 2: Combine 50 milliliters of water with an equal volume of ethanol and you get 97—not 100—milliliters of solution. The thermodynamic concept of partial molar volume explains why.
  • Potato battery: Insert a copper wire and a zinc wire into a potato. Connect the wires to an LED. Voila: light! Discover the role of the potato in this demonstration of electrochemical energy.

At the end of Thermodynamics, Professor Grossman discusses his own pioneering research on clean energy and water. Having come this far in the course, you will truly appreciate his excitement over innovative solar thermal fuels and desalination membranes, both based on thermodynamic principles. Best of all, you will understand how and why they work!

Visit Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe (The Great Courses) to read more...

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