Course code:



M - Intermediate

Class size limit:


Meets the following requirements:

  • QR - Quantitative Reasoning
  • ES - Environmental Science

Typically offered:

Upon occasion

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.



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

Always visit the Registrar's Office for the official course catalog and schedules.