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  • Showing only topics in ~science with the tag "work". Back to normal view / Search all groups
    1. A layperson's introduction to Thermodynamics, part 1: Energy, work, heat

      Intro Hello everyone, @wanda-seldon has been giving us an introduction to quantum physics. For now, she will be given a short break to prepare new stuff. In the meantime I will be covering some...


      Hello everyone,

      @wanda-seldon has been giving us an introduction to quantum physics. For now, she will be given a short break to prepare new stuff. In the meantime I will be covering some classical mechanics, more specifically thermodynamics. In part 1, we need to work our way through some of the more dry concepts, so we can understand and appreciate the horrifying implications of the fun parts. So I promise, this will be the most verbose one.

      Some of you may have briefly seen a version of this posted, that was due to me misunderstanding the schedule with @wanda-seldon. If you saw that one, I will mention I rewrote nearly all of it to be more readable.

      Now, on today's agenda: The basics of heat, work and energy and how it's all related.

      Previous posts can be found here: https://tildes.net/~science/8al/meta_post_for_a_laypersons_introduction_to_series

      Important note

      If @wanda-seldon in her posts mention "energy", it's most likely in the context of energy operators, which is a concept in quantum physics. I'm not going to pretend I understand them, so I will not be explaining the difference. We will cover what energy is in classical mechanics. So keep that in mind if you read something from either of us.



      What is heat? Using a lot of fancy words we can describe it as follows. Heat is an energy that is transferred between systems by thermal interaction. And what is work? Work is an energy that is applied in a way that performs... work. The combined energy in a system is called internal energy. This type of energy can be transformed or applied to other systems.

      These are a lot of new words, so lets break that down a bit.


      A system is just a catch-all term for something that can be defined with a boundary of sorts. Be it mass, volume, shape, container, position, etc. A canister, your tea mug, the steam inside a boiler, your body, a cloud, a room, earth, etc. They are all systems because you can in some way define what is within the boundary, and what is beyond the boundary.

      In theory, you could define every single nucleid in the universe as an unique system. But that would be counter-intuitive. In thermodynamics we tend to lump things into a system, and treat it as one thing. As opposed to Quantum stuff that looks at the smallest quantity. Calculating every single water molecule in my coffee would be pure insanity. So we just treat my mug as the boundary, and the tea inside the mug as the system. And just so it's mentioned, systems can contain systems, for instance a tea mug inside a room.


      Energy is some quantifiable property that comes in either the form of heat, work. It can be transferred to other systems, or change between the different energy types. An example of transfer is my coffee cooling down because it's in a cold room. That means heat has been transferred from one system (my mug) to another system (the room). Alternatively you could say my hot coffee mug is warming up the room, or that the room is cooling down my coffee. Thermodynamics is a LOT about perspective. An example of transforming energy types is when we rub our hands together. That way we convert work (rubbing) into heat. It's really not more complicated than that. An interaction in this case is just a system having an effect on a different system. So a thermal interaction means it's an interaction due to heat (like in the mug example).

      This brings us to an extremely important point. So important, it's considered "law". The first law of thermodynamics even. Energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change forms.

      Your battery charge is never really lost. Neither is the heat of your mug of coffee. It just changed form or went somewhere else. The combined energy of all types that is residing inside a system is called internal energy.

      Heat and work

      Let's say we have a system, like a room. And all windows and doors are closed, so no energy can leave. In this system, you have a running table fan connected to a power line, getting energy from outside the system. The table fan is making you feel cool. Is the fan cooling down the room, heating up the room, or doing nothing? Think about it for a moment.


      The first thought of many would be to think that this fan would cool the room down, it sure makes you feel cooler! But it's actually heating up the room. As we remember, internal energy is the energy inside a system (room, in this case). The fan is getting energy from outside, and uses this energy to perform work. The fan accelerates the air inside the room, and this accelerated air will evaporate some of your sweat, so you feel cool. But as we remember, energy cannot be destroyed. So we are importing energy into the system, increasing the internal energy. Some of the work from the fan is also directly converted to heat, since the motor of the fan will get hot.

      So if we are not getting rid of any of this excess energy, we are increasing the internal energy. And therefore actively increasing the temperature of the room.


      To use a more tangible example: Simplified, this phenomena is why green house gases are bad. Lets define earth as a system. Earth gets a lot of energy from the sun. And a lot of this energy will be reflected and sent back to space. Green house gases will reflect back some of this energy trying to leave earth. So instead of having a roughly equal amount of energy enter the system (from the sun, from us doing stuff, etc) that leaves out in space, we have an increasing amount of energy on earth. This, as a consequence, increases temperature.


      Now, what are the maybe not so obvious implications of this?

      Waste heat, from supplied energy or inefficient work is a constant headache in engineering. If we cannot remove enough heat, we will actively heat up objects until they are destroyed. Thats why good cooling systems are important in cars, computers, etc.

      Whats next?

      Now this was not so bad. In the future we will cover phase changes, equilibriums, entropy, the heat death of the universe and briefly touch upon engines. So thats most likely two more parts after this. After that @wanda-seldon will take over again.

      I plan on doing one main part per week, but if something is asked that warrants a small topic I might do smaller ones inbetween.


      Something unclear? Got questions? Got feedback? Or requests of topics to cover? Leave a comment.

      19 votes