Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe

Course No. 1291
Professor Jeffrey C. Grossman, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Course No. 1291
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Course Overview

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!

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Thermodynamics—What’s under the Hood
    Starting with the example of cooked food, see how thermodynamics governs all processes that use energy to transform materials—whether the product is a pan of brownies or a cell phone. Preview the course by imagining what it would take to build modern technological civilization from scratch. x
  • 2
    Variables and the Flow of Energy
    Chart the key historical milestones in the development of thermodynamics. Then compare macroscopic and microscopic views of the world, and consider how the relationship between a material’s properties, structure, performance, and processing can be represented by the four corners of a tetrahedron. x
  • 3
    Temperature—Thermodynamics’ First Force
    Analyze the most central idea of thermodynamics: temperature. Investigate the origin of different temperature scales and the various methods for measuring temperature. See how the concept of temperature is a consequence of the zeroth law of thermodynamics, which deals with the nature of thermal equilibrium. x
  • 4
    Salt, Soup, Energy, and Entropy
    Explore other basic concepts that are critical to thermodynamics. These include the idea of a system, boundary conditions, processes that occur within systems, the meaning of the state of a system, the definition of equilibrium, and a much-misunderstood quantity called entropy. x
  • 5
    The Ideal Gas Law and a Piston
    Understand how pressure, volume, and temperature are state functions related by a formula known as the ideal gas law. Contrast these variables with work and heat, learning why they are not state functions. See how the ideal gas law can be used to calculate the work done by a piston. x
  • 6
    Energy Transferred and Conserved
    Discover that the values for work and heat in a given system depend on the path taken to get to a particular state. But note that the sum of work and heat does not depend on the path; it is a constant. This remarkable fact is the foundation of the first law of thermodynamics. x
  • 7
    Work-Heat Equivalence
    Witness examples of energy transforming from one type to another—from mechanical to heat. First, see how the ideal gas law can be used to ignite a piece of cotton. Then, witness how soup can be made piping hot by rapid mixing. Also, probe the concepts of reversibility and irreversibility x
  • 8
    Entropy—The Arrow of Time
    Probe the connection between entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all real processes tend to increase the entropy of the universe. Explore some important consequences of the law, including the fact that time flows in only one direction. x
  • 9
    The Chemical Potential
    Study molar and partial molar quantities, which are indispensable for describing what happens when materials are combined. Focus on the case of water mixed with ethanol, which adds up to a surprising volume. These ideas lead to one of the most important variables in thermodynamics: chemical potential. x
  • 10
    Enthalpy, Free Energy, and Equilibrium
    Define the Gibbs free energy, which is closely related to entropy and allows the determination of equilibrium for systems under realistic experimental conditions. Then encounter a related variable, enthalpy, which is useful when discussing constant pressure processes. x
  • 11
    Mixing and Osmotic Pressure
    Marvel at the power of osmosis by investigating the thermodynamic force that drives a liquid to flow from one side of a barrier to another. This force is called the chemical potential gradient, and it has wide application in performing work, from desalinating water to generating electricity. x
  • 12
    How Materials Hold Heat
    Learn how different materials vary in their ability to absorb heat. This factor is called heat capacity, and it provides a crucial way to correlate energy flow with temperature. Study the heat capacity of various materials, and see how quantum effects reduce heat capacity at very low temperatures x
  • 13
    How Materials Respond to Heat
    Turn to the problem of thermal energy flow and volume. This phenomenon causes materials to expand when heated and contract when cooled. Analyze these events at the atomic scale, and study the unusual behavior of water when it freezes—an attribute that is essential to life as we know it. x
  • 14
    Phases of Matter—Gas, Liquid, Solid
    Investigate the properties of different materials as they change phase from solid to liquid to gas. Witness the surprising behavior of supercooled water, and discover that phase diagrams are an important tool for predicting how temperature and pressure determine when phase transitions occur. x
  • 15
    Phase Diagrams—Ultimate Materials Maps
    Why does ice melt above 0°C? Why does water boil above 100°C? What quantity governs the equilibrium between liquid and gaseous phases? Use phase diagrams to probe these and other questions. Also watch a stunning demonstration of the triple point, where freezing and boiling occur simultaneously! x
  • 16
    Properties of Phases
    Dig deeper into the properties of phases and phase diagrams. First, see how a flask of water can be made to boil by cooling it. Then, explore why a curve in a phase diagram has a certain slope. Close with a multicomponent phase diagram that explains why salt causes ice to melt. x
  • 17
    To Mix, or Not to Mix?
    Explore the phenomenon of mixing—a crucial process for any situation where the product is composed of more than one material. Focus on the case of oil and water, which are notoriously unmixable, and discover what keeps them separate at the molecular level. x
  • 18
    Melting and Freezing of Mixtures
    Apply phase diagrams to the analysis of phase transitions of mixtures. Find that a mixture of two different components often has surprising properties. Learn why solder and other eutectic materials melt at a dramatically lower temperature than do their constituent substances. x
  • 19
    The Carnot Engine and Limits of Efficiency
    Study heat engines and their design limits for converting heat into work. The maximum possible efficiency in a heat engine is defined by the Carnot engine, an unattainable ideal whose properties illustrate the second law of thermodynamics. x
  • 20
    More Engines—Materials at Work
    Evaluate four other approaches to generating work from thermodynamic forces: magnetism, phase change, entropy, and surface tension. These unusual engines demonstrate the many different ways to produce mechanical energy from the unique properties of materials. x
  • 21
    The Electrochemical Potential
    Use a classic science fair project—the potato battery—to trace the source of the electron flow that makes batteries so indispensable to modern life. In the process, learn about the electrochemical potential, which describes the underlying thermodynamics of any system in which chemical reactions are occurring together with charged particles. x
  • 22
    Chemical Reactions—Getting to Equilibrium
    Chemical reactions are fundamentally part of everything we do. Learn how the concepts of thermodynamics reveal when a reaction will occur, and when it will not. Focus on the famous Haber process, which transformed agriculture by allowing nitrogen to be easily extracted from the atmosphere. x
  • 23
    The Chemical Reaction Quotient
    Continue your study of chemical reactions by contrasting two different types of reactions, shedding light on a crucial factor called the reaction quotient. In the first reaction, study pure compounds reacting together. Then look at dissolved compounds reacting. Learn how to compute the reaction quotient at any concentration. x
  • 24
    The Greatest Processes in the World
    Review the major concepts covered in the course. Then look ahead at innovative technologies that may help solve the world’s urgent energy and fresh water needs. These promising processes rely on the design of new materials, which can only be achieved through a deep understanding of thermodynamics. x

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Your professor

Jeffrey C. Grossman

About Your Professor

Jeffrey C. Grossman, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Jeffrey C. Grossman is Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He earned his B.A. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University and his M.S. in Physics and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before joining MIT, Professor Grossman founded and headed the Computational Nanoscience research group at the...
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Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 86.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very well presented Professor Grossman presented a well delivered and educational course. The graphics and demonstrations were particularly good. However, the first and last lectures were too much about uses and research of thermodynamics; time would have been better used by an elementary lecture on kinetics. A major shortfall was the lack of a glossary in the booklet. When interested in recalling what a term, concept, or variable ment one had to flip through lectures. My complements to him for an enjoyable course.
Date published: 2017-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pace was good. Material complete Professor made a clear and complete presentation of the subject matter. I think more math background on my part might have helped.
Date published: 2017-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insight into the Basic Laws of Nature. I greatly enjoyed this course and it's presenter. I learned a great deal of the working of our created universe. This even though I've had three college courses in thermodynamics and heat transfer. The presentation was clear, understandable and very interesting. I highly recommended this course.
Date published: 2017-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from He's a chemist who loves thermo (or vice-versa) It has been 50 years since I had a year of required thermo and felt this would be a great 'refresher'. Well he did go over some heat/work/energy concepts I remembered, but there was a lot of material quite new to me. The talented professor utilized basic thermo concepts to describe chemical processes, phase diagrams, materials science, osmosis, etc. He also included numerous helpful and fun experiments to make his points. He is a very good instructor of underlying basics and has good presentation skills. The course is not quite college level, but rather close. He utilizes some differential calculus to present equations; if you have not had any calculus or high school level physics, this course may be rather difficult. I appreciated the new info (to me anyway). I never knew Gibbs free energy could be cool!
Date published: 2017-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject. Teacher very competent. Wasn't just formulas and math. assumes very little math. I really liked the demos. Didn't talk over my head or talk down. Well paced . The approach of linking Thermodynamics to materials science was really interesting. Showed how it all applies to real applications of physics,chemistry engineering.
Date published: 2017-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe A very powerful tool to understand the physical world
Date published: 2017-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Course With A Minor Warning This course has the best explanation of entropy that I have come across which is saying a lot. I have taken Physics in high school and as a freshman in collage and this is one subject that I just couldn't wrap my head around. After the first eight lectures I felt that I finally got it. Yippee! I also found that the demos/experiments Dr. Grossman did were nice in illustrating what was being discussed. Before I bought this course I read the reviews and some of them stated that you should have some math background regarding intervals and differentials. I found that this is not really the case because Dr. Grossman takes the time to give a brief overview of the math concepts needed so that one can get the gist of things just fine. Sadly I cannot say the same for the chemistry part. (This is the minor warning part) I never took chemistry in high school or college so when the chemical formulas began to appear in the latter lectures I had a very difficult time following what was being discussed. I suggest if you are considering purchasing this course be sure you have some background in chemistry. If not you may find that some of this material may be buzzing over you head like it did for me.
Date published: 2017-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good course! I took this as a refresher for the course I took in college. I enjoyed this course much more!
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! Excellent content balance of lecture, demos, graphics, and math/equations.
Date published: 2017-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting... to say the least. I'm not a scientist, and do not have the math skills to understand the complexities of thermodynamics, but this course is presented in an easy to understand format, each lesson building on the proceeding, with added humor that really makes me look forward to the next lesson. It answers a lot of questions I've always had.
Date published: 2017-07-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I was very excited to get this course and finally have thermodynamics explained to me. The instructor starts out ok and next thing you know he is just reading the formula like that is the explanation. Yes, the formula is an explanation but if I was at the level that the formula was all I needed to understand it I wouldn't have bought this course, I would have just looked up the formula on the internet. I was really expecting to be talked through these formulas and maybe given a bit of insight from a knowledgeable source.
Date published: 2017-06-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Couldn't finish. I was not able to finish this course. I don't think the material is that impossibly difficult--after all, I passed Thermo in college. But the inability to ask questions (*) means that anything I didn't understand (even after repeated viewing) leaves a gap that inhibits understanding of material in later lectures that depends on it. (*) I have e-mailed questions to The Great Courses on several occasions, for forwarding to the instructor, and never got a response back.
Date published: 2017-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kid gloves approach I'm nearly through the course and have to admit I learned more about Thermo than I did in my college physical chemistry class. Great teacher who jokes about how "exciting" the material is.
Date published: 2017-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Was Moved to Watch this in a Warmer Room Although I was neither a physicist nor a mathematician, my academic background (over 50 years ago) was in both. But I never took a specific course in thermodynamics, considering it a subject for engineering students. I ordered this course in the hope that it would fill a hole in my knowledge, and in the belief (according to quite a few reviews) that it would not be too basic. Both my hopes and beliefs were fulfilled, as Professor Grossman does not shy away from difficult concepts nor some of the easier math underlying those concepts. For me this is about a 300-level college course for engineers and science majors, minus the problem assignments and tests. This means that Dr. Grossman assumes (for the most part) a working knowledge of both differential and integral calculus, a couple of semesters of chemistry and a few more of physics. Viewers of the course without this background would still (IMO) get quite a bit of some basic concepts, but would have difficulty with concepts like Gibbs free energy. On the other hand Professor Grossman presents a clear explanation of entropy that I think could be understood by most without a science and math background. To be fair, the material, some a bit difficult is presented in fairly rapid sequence and probably needs a bit more time for reflection than is possible in 30 minutes. At least I had to hit pause and rewind in several places in order to get the points being made clear. Further I needed re-watch a couple of lectures in order to properly understand the issues. In the real world, one would go back and work out several problems outside of the classroom in order to really understand the math behind the equations, and in fact Professor Grossman in several cases mentions things that we could work out on our own. The graphics are quite good, especially those that focus on the molecular level and the multicolor phase diagrams especially by the time we got to the last couple were equally helpful. I loved the set, although it really did not contribute to the learning experience. And as for the presentation, I found the delivery almost flawless, leaving aside the few times that I could not keep up with the delivery (me, not him). It was clear that Professor Grossman loved his subject and equally loved getting students to feel the same way. A be of boyish humor (as others have noted) helped leaven what could be a dry subject and most of all I Dr. Grossman frequently referred to concepts that he liked as “cool”. His last lecture, where he discussed alternative energy sources, working in his own research just capped of the course. Professor Grossman, you are pretty cool and so is your subject. Great job.
Date published: 2017-03-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Gibbs "Free" Energy More examples would have helped. Do the instructors ever listen to themselves for clarity? Also, researched discussed did not cover the energy IN required to MAKE new materials could be more than energy OUT. Gibbs energy may not be "free" if there is a metaphorical power cord plugged in.
Date published: 2017-02-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from title is apt I just started the course but find the professor interesting and the material easy to understand. I took thermodynamics in college and had a hard time with entropy etc. This seems much easier to understand or maybe I'm just deluding myself.
Date published: 2017-02-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from too much complex math without good explanation just boring math with a little experiments and a little explenations
Date published: 2017-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Review Course This was a very good course. I took Thermodynamics over 25 years ago but am back in school now and wanted a review. This course met that requirement and also reinforced some of the thermodynamics that was brushed over in some of my current courses. I found the experiments to be extremely helpful in understanding the concepts. The professor repeats a lot from lecture to lecture which I also found useful since I wasn't necessarily studying the material between lectures.
Date published: 2017-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wide-ranging showcase of Thermodynamics The course was very interesting throughout, thanks to insightful demonstrations and clear explanations. The Professor's enthusiasm shone through infectiously.
Date published: 2017-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 54 years after my first thermodynamics course I expected the emphasis to be very different from mine (I took a year of thermodynamics at the Naval Academy. There was a great deal of emphasis on steam plants.), but not the vastly increased role of entropy, which used to be more of an intellectual curiosity. This course also erases the old boundaries, and discusses thermo's role in chemical reactions, magnetic effects, even an entropy switch.
Date published: 2016-11-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed Professor Grossman's lectures showed his lack of understanding of the underlying physics behind the mathematics he presented. Michael Faraday's discovered and taught physics long before Maxwell measured those phenomenon with math, Math is only a measurement tool, math is not the actual physics. A recent article in the "New Journal of Physics" published a study showing the deficit that occurs when you only lecture or write about physics relying on the math to explain the topic. The study states "...the researchers think the solution lies in clearer communication of highly technical work, such as taking the time to describe what the equations mean." In other words any physics lecturer must provide demonstrations or analogies of the physics principles that provide the meaning behind any mathematical formulas. Math alone can not & should not be relied on to convey physics.
Date published: 2016-11-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding - I am a medical professional, and my exposure to physics after high school is minimal. But Thermodynamics had fascinated me even then. With some trepidation, I ordered this course, wondering if it would go over my head. I was pleasantly surprised at the whole package. Professor Grossman is very engaging and enthusiastic about the subject, and builds up the course from the very basics. It would help if you knew some basic calculus, but even if you didnt, the conceptual understanding itself is beautiful. I particularly liked the way he mixed the theory and experiments / demonstrations in the lectures, it made it so interesting. I wish i had this when I was at high school - I might have taken physics as a career!!
Date published: 2016-09-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Course not for the Weak of Heart. . . or Math Professor Grossman seems to be an excellent teacher and tries to simplify a difficult subject, but unless you have a strong background in math, physics, and chemistry it will probably not be enough for the average person to comprehend more than a small fraction of the material. There are far too many formulas presented and explained in detail, and these advanced principles bog down at least half of the course. Don't get me wrong, I think Professor Grossman did about as well as anyone could if he were teaching an advanced course on this subject to undergraduates with a year or two of advanced math, physics, and chemistry under their belts. I haven't taken algebra or chemistry in 20 years and felt lost when he would frequently digress into advanced concepts and formulas. Nevertheless, I was able to learn quite a few fundamental concepts and I really enjoyed his fun experiments. These at least drove home some of the easier concepts. In the end, it would be hard to truly recommend this course to novices. Much of it would be above their heads and would probably make them feel totally lost. Therefore I would rate this course at about three stars to the average person. If however you have a strong background in math and chemistry, I would say that you might really love the course--the professor is a great teacher--and I would revise the stars up to about a 4 or a 5.
Date published: 2016-09-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe Prof. Grossman takes a pretty tough subject and brings it to life! With informative and entertaining demonstrations in each lecture, he grounds the theory with practice. A basic familiarity with calculus is helpful, but he doesn't dwell on the math. I wish my professor in engineering school had been this good!
Date published: 2016-09-02
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Could be better I suggest the presentation could be made simpler & shorter!
Date published: 2016-08-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Thermodynamics for poets I remembered learning this subject in college, and ended up in a career in which I did not use thermodynamics on a regular basis. Yet, I felt patronized by having it explained to me that "e is about 2.7." If you were trained as a scientist, forget this course. If you are a poet, for example, who wishes to become besmattered with thermodynamics, or thermal statics, this could be the course for you. He's a good teacher. They just really put the handcuffs on tightly.
Date published: 2016-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thermodynamics for the masses An excellent review of the thermodynamics we learned in physical chemistry or engineering courses. The presentation is very good and nearly faultless. Thermo is a subject that is old and fundamental, and for that reason modern researchers do not give it prominent recoginition in present-day science. The final discussions on global energy and clean water supplies are quite good. My only comment is that less empasis could be placed on phase diagrams and more on the kinetic basis of thermodynamics.
Date published: 2016-06-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good review Being a PhD in the sciences, I found it difficult to follow his words because they were not the same as those taught to me 50 some years ago. Definitions were different although they actually described the same events and conditions. I was disappointed because of this. Current students in the sciences might have an easier time of following his descriptions of thermodynamics. I actually would not recommend this to someone not in the sciences already.
Date published: 2016-06-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Great if you already know the material. Thermodynamics gives a lot of engineering students trouble. I'm beginning to think that this is just because we don't do a good job teaching it. This course, like many other thermo courses, consists of mostly the professor reciting formulas at the speed of light. There always seems to be an expectation that we are having these light bulb moments as information is piled on and cross referenced with information from five lectures ago. We aren't. Technically, all of the information necessary to learn thermodynamics is present in these lectures. All of the necessary words are spoken. If I were evaluating Professor Grossman on his knowledge of the subject, I would give him an A. Unfortunately, I'm trying to actually learn this material, so he'll need to do a little bit better proving he is able to recite all of the laws of thermodynamics.
Date published: 2016-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A truly magnificent course This course is truly magnificent. There is something for everybody. For those who are (temporarily) lost, there are the amazing demonstrations: they contribute, greatly in my view, to sustaining interest and creating a "scholastic" atmosphere--actually, they are more impressive than Prof. Wolfson's demonstrations and could make-up a great course on their own. For the mathematically inclined, the course (rightly in my view) does not shy away from differential and integral calculus. For the physicist, there is a hell of a lot (basic knowledge of physics is presupposed), and there is a good deal for the chemist too. With his excellent organization and structured thought, beautiful graphics, numerous slides (pro memoria, no harm done), clever illustrations and insight even into numerous everyday life phenomena, Professor Grossmann makes this course in thermodynamics--a subject which can seem arid and thankless--a thrill and does set a great example for all other great courses on the experimental sciences.
Date published: 2016-04-08
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