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The algorithm of thermodynamics

Zhigang Suo's picture

I have taught this course four times before, but have never devoted lectures on basic thermodynamics. It is a subject I’m not good at, but I have used it often in research, in a loose way. One can ride a bicycle without knowing Newton’s laws, even though bicycle-riding is governed by Newton’s law. If thermodynamics gives me so much trouble, perhaps it also gives my students a lot of trouble. I have taken lectures from many teachers on the subject. None have really made me feel comfortable with it. Now I’m trying to teach you. I hope that I can help you become comfortable with the subject. Maybe you already are. Maybe you never will. I have no evidence that I can be more effective than these other teachers, but I have the enthusiasm of an amateur.

To understand thermodynamics, one has to understand its algorithm, a large sample of phenomena, as well as techniques of computation and measurement. This lecture focuses on the algorithm.

When my older son was very young, perhaps three or four, I began to tell him about electrons and protons and molecules. I’d like to see my son grow up comfortable about things that he had no direct evidence of. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, and knew how effective propaganda could be. Radical ideas seem to become reasonable after one says them a lot of times. This method of persuasion can be used to a good end. When I was a child, people kept telling me that the earth circles around the sun, and I became comfortable with the idea, despite that daily evidence seemed to suggest the opposite. So a bombardment of ideas can be effective, and even noble if the ideas are true. If I keep telling my son about molecules, he might grow up as familiar with molecules as with his younger brother. That will prepare him for the Age of Molecules.

PDF icon L04 Thermodynamics.pdf142.13 KB


Zhigang Suo's picture

I have expanded these notes to multiple sections.

Zhigang Suo's picture

I have expanded this lecture into a free online book (in google doc), and tested the book in an undergraduate course on thermodynamics at Harvard. The book works well.

zhan-sheng guo's picture

Dear Zhigang,

Could you give a website for students who cann't use google?


Than You Very Much

Zhigang Suo's picture

Here is the PDF of the book.

zhan-sheng guo's picture


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