Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Pressure and Temperature

When we heat an object, we speed up the mind-bogglingly complex random motion of its molecules. One method for taming complexity is the conservation laws, since they tell us that certain things must remain constant regardless of what process is going on. Indeed, the law of conservation of energy is also known as the first law of thermodynamics.

But as alluded to in the introduction to this chapter, conservation of energy by itself is not powerful enough to explain certain empirical facts about heat. A second way to sidestep the complexity of heat is to ignore heat's atomic nature and concentrate on quantities like temperature and pressure that tell us about a system's properties as a whole. This approach is called macroscopic in contrast to the microscopic method of attack. Pressure and temperature were fairly well understood in the age of Newton and Galileo, hundreds of years before there was any firm evidence that atoms and molecules even existed.

Unlike the conserved quantities such as mass, energy, momentum, and angular momentum, neither pressure nor temperature is additive. Two cups of coffee have twice the heat energy of a single cup, but they do not have twice the temperature. Likewise, the painful pressure on your eardrums at the bottom of a pool is not affected if you insert or remove a partition between the two halves of the pool.

Last Update: 2009-06-21