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....

Thermal Equilibrium

We use the term temperature casually, but what is it exactly? Roughly speaking, temperature is a measure of how concentrated the heat energy is in an object. A large, massive object with very little heat energy in it has a low temperature.

We have to wait for the thermometer to equilibrate its temperature with the temperature of Irene's armpit.

But physics deals with operational definitions, i.e., definitions of how to measure the thing in question. How do we measure temperature? One common feature of all temperature-measuring devices is that they must be left for a while in contact with the thing whose temperature is being measured. When you take your temperature with a fever thermometer, you wait for the mercury inside to come up to the same temperature as your body. The thermometer actually tells you the temperature of its own working fluid (in this case the mercury). In general, the idea of temperature depends on the concept of thermal equilibrium. When you mix cold eggs from the refrigerator with flour that has been at room temperature, they rapidly reach a compromise temperature. What determines this compromise temperature is conservation of energy, and the amount of energy required to heat or cool each substance by one degree. But without even having constructed a temperature scale, we can see that the important point is the phenomenon of thermal equilibrium itself: two objects left in contact will approach the same temperature. We also assume that if object A is at the same temperature as object B, and B is at the same temperature as C, then A is at the same temperature as C. This statement is sometimes known as the zeroth law of thermodynamics, so called because after the first, second, and third laws had been developed, it was realized that there was another law that was even more fundamental.

Last Update: 2011-01-31