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....

Evidence for the kinetic theory

Why does matter have the thermal properties it does? The basic answer must come from the fact that matter is made of atoms. How, then, do the atoms give rise to the bulk properties we observe? Gases, whose thermal properties are so simple, offer the best chance for us to construct a simple connection between the microscopic and macroscopic worlds.

A crucial observation is that although solids and liquids are nearly incompressible, gases can be compressed, as when we increase the amount of air in a car's tire while hardly increasing its volume at all. This makes us suspect that the atoms in a solid are packed shoulder to shoulder, while a gas is mostly vacuum, with large spaces between molecules. Most liquids and solids have densities about 1000 times greater than most gases, so evidently each molecule in a gas is separated from its nearest neighbors by a space something like 10 times the size of the molecules themselves.

If gas molecules have nothing but empty space between them, why don't the molecules in the room around you just fall to the floor? The only possible answer is that they are in rapid motion, continually rebounding from the walls, floor and ceiling. In chapter 2, we have already seen some of the evidence for the kinetic theory of heat, which states that heat is the kinetic energy of randomly moving molecules. This theory was proposed by Daniel Bernoulli in 1738, and met with considerable opposition, because there was no precedent for this kind of perpetual motion. No rubber ball, however elastic, rebounds from a wall with exactly as much energy as it originally had, nor do we ever observe a collision between balls in which none of the kinetic energy at all is converted to heat and sound. The analogy is a false one, however. A rubber ball consists of atoms, and when it is heated in a collision, the heat is a form of motion of those atoms. An individual molecule, however, cannot possess heat. Likewise sound is a form of bulk motion of molecules, so colliding molecules in a gas cannot convert their kinetic energy to sound. Molecules can indeed induce vibrations such as sound waves when they strike the walls of a container, but the vibrations of the walls are just as likely to impart energy to a gas molecule as to take energy from it. Indeed, this kind of exchange of energy is the mechanism by which the temperatures of the gas and its container become equilibrated.

Last Update: 2011-01-31