“Aside from the logical and mathematical sciences, there are three great
branches of natural science which stand apart by reason of the variety of far
reaching deductions drawn from a small number of primary postulates. They are
mechanics, electromagnetics, and thermodynamics.
These sciences are monuments to the power of the human mind; and their inten-
sive study is amply repaid by the aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction derived
from a recognition of order and simplicity which have been discovered among the
most complex of natural phenomena. . . Yet the greatest development of applied
thermodynamics is still to come. It has been predicted that the era into which we
are passing will be known as the chemical age; but the fullest employment of
chemical science in meeting the various needs of society can be made only
through the constant use of the methods of thermodynamics.”
Lewis and Randall (1923)
Lewis and Randall eloquently summarized the broad significance of thermodynamics as long ago
as 1923. They went on to describe a number of the miraculous scientific developments of the time
and the relevant roles of thermodynamics. Historically, thermodynamics has guided the develop-
ment of steam engines, refrigerators, nuclear power plants, and rocket nozzles, to name just a few.
The principles remain important today in the refinement of alternative refrigerants, heat pumps and
improved turbines, and also in technological advances including computer chips, superconductors,
advanced materials, and bioengineered drugs. These latter day “miracles” on first thought might
appear to have little to do with power generation and refrigeration cycles. However, as Lewis and
Randall point out, the implications of the postulates of thermodynamics are far reaching and will
continue to be important in the development of even newer technologies. Much of modern thermo-
dynamics focuses on characterization of the properties of mixtures, as their constituents partition
into stable phases, inhomogeneous domains, and/or react. The capacity of thermodynamics to bring
“quantitative precision in place of the old, vague ideas”
is as germane today as it was then.
. Lewis, G.N., Randall, M.
Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances,
McGraw-Hill, NY, 1923.
Tuesday, April 13, 1999