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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Reviews

Thermodynamics: Four Laws That Move the Universe is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 82.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from TOO MANY WEEDS, NOT ENOUGH MEAT I am a Mechanical Engineer with a reasonable knowledge of Thermodynamics. It is an area that has enormous applications and is basic to much advancing science. I had hoped to see some of this but did not. Perhaps I needed more patience to plow through. We certainly need to know basic information but too much time was spent on very foundations and should have moved more quickly to the vast number of uses and applications.
Date published: 2018-12-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 24 Lectures Not Enough There is just too much material for 24 lectures. As a result Dr. Grossman takes shortcuts to cover the material such as reading equations without really explaining what the terms mean. He also skips explaining where the constants and variables in the equations come from. Saying that we get the values out of a reference book dose not help me understand the material. I enjoyed and found the short experiment segments helpful but there were few of them. I'm sure Dr. Grossman is a great professor but he bit off more than he could chew is 12 hours.
Date published: 2018-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best course ever! I studied thermodynamics as part of a chemical engineering degree and really hated it. This course has completely changed my mind about the subject and made me fall in love with the subject and the fact this professor can explain such complicated topics in an accessible level is worthy of the highest teaching award in the universe! I'm truely astounded by his abilities and would love to see more courses of his coming to the Great Courses as well as the Great Courses Plus subscription service.
Date published: 2018-05-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not the First Step I enjoy the Great Courses. I have several I do understand. This subject is not one of them, I will note. To appreciate this course, a student would have to be versed in higher mathematics, or it's like watching paint dry. I will say it puts me to sleep, so it's good for my insomnia! Otherwise, there should be some sort label warning prospective students a deeper understanding is necessary.
Date published: 2018-04-14
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
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