Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics: A Maxwellian view

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Abstract
One finds, in Maxwell's writings on thermodynamics and statistical physics, a conception of the nature of these subjects that differs in interesting ways from the way that they are usually conceived. In particular, though—in agreement with the currently accepted view—Maxwell maintains that the second law of thermodynamics, as originally conceived, cannot be strictly true, the replacement he proposes is different from the version accepted by most physicists today. The modification of the second law accepted by most physicists is a probabilistic one: although statistical fluctuations will result in occasional spontaneous differences in temperature or pressure, there is no way to predictably and reliably harness these to produce large violations of the original version of the second law. Maxwell advocates a version of the second law that is strictly weaker; the validity of even this probabilistic version is of limited scope, limited to situations in which we are dealing with large numbers of molecules en masse and have no ability to manipulate individual molecules. Connected with this is his concept of the thermodynamic concepts of heat, work, and entropy; on the Maxwellian view, these are concepts that must be relativized to the means we have available for gathering information about and manipulating physical systems. The Maxwellian view is one that deserves serious consideration in discussions of the foundation of statistical mechanics. It has relevance for the project of recovering thermodynamics from statistical mechanics because, in such a project, it matters which version of the second law we are trying to recover.
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Archival date: 2017-05-04
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