I can’t think of a better introduction to this post than Ludwig Boltzmann gave in his *Vorlesungen über Gastheorie* (Lectures on Gas Theory, 1896):

*“General thermodynamics proceeds from the fact that, as far as we can tell from our experiences up to now, all natural processes are irreversible. Hence according to the principles of phenomenology, the general thermodynamics of the second law is formulated in such a way that the unconditional irreversibility of all natural processes is asserted as a so-called axiom … [However] general thermodynamics (without prejudice to its unshakable importance) also requires the cultivation of mechanical models representing it, in order to deepen our knowledge of nature—not in spite of, but rather precisely because these models do not always cover the same ground as general thermodynamics, but instead offer a glimpse of a new viewpoint.”*

Today, the work of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) is considered among the finest in physics. But in his own lifetime he faced considerable hostility from those of his contemporaries who did not believe in the atomic hypothesis. As late as 1900, the kinetic-molecular theory of heat developed by Maxwell and Boltzmann was being vigorously attacked by a school of scientists including Wilhelm Ostwald, who argued that since mechanical processes are reversible and heat conduction is not, thermal phenomena cannot be explained in terms of hidden, internal mechanical variables.

Boltzmann refuted this argument. Mechanical processes, he pointed out, are irreversible if the number of particles is sufficiently large. The spontaneous mixing of two gases is a case in point; it is known from experience that the process cannot spontaneously reverse – mixed gases don’t unmix. Today we regard this as self-evident, but in Boltzmann’s time his opponents did not believe in atoms or molecules; they considered matter to be continuous. So the attacks on Boltzmann’s theories continued.

Fortunately, this did not deter Boltzmann from pursuing his ideas, at least not to begin with. He saw that spontaneous processes could be explained in terms of probability, and that a system of many particles undergoing spontaneous change would assume – other things being equal – the most probable state, namely the one with the maximum number of arrangements. And this gave him a new way of viewing the equilibrium state.

One can see Boltzmann’s mind at work, thinking about particle systems in terms of permutations, in this quote from his Lectures on Gas Theory:

*“From an urn, in which many black and an equal number of white but otherwise identical spheres are placed, let 20 purely random drawings be made. The case that only black spheres are drawn is not a hair less probable than the case that on the first draw one gets a black sphere, on the second a white, on the third a black, etc. The fact that one is more likely to get 10 black spheres and 10 white spheres in 20 drawings than one is to get 20 black spheres is due to the fact that the former event can come about in many more ways than the latter. The relative probability of the former event as compared to the latter is the number 20!/10!10!, which indicates how many permutations one can make of the terms in the series of 10 white and 10 black spheres, treating the different white spheres as identical, and the different black spheres as identical. Each one of these permutations represents an event that has the same probability as the event of all black spheres.”*

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By analyzing the ways in which systems of particles distribute themselves, and the various constraints to which particle assemblies are subject, important links came to be established between the statistical properties of assemblies and their bulk thermodynamic properties.

Boltzmann’s contribution in this regard is famously commemorated in the formula inscribed on his tombstone: S = k log W. There is powerful new thinking in this equation. While the classical thermodynamic definition of entropy by Rankine and Clausius was expressed in terms of temperature and heat exchange, Boltzmann gave entropy – and its tendency to increase in natural processes – a new explanation in terms of probability. If a particle system is not in its most probable state then it will change until it is, and an equilibrium state is reached.

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P Mander April 2016

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