A Conceptual Guide to Thermodynamics by Bill Poirier
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A Conceptual Guide to Thermodynamics by Bill Poirier


Thank you for your interest in A Conceptual Guide to Thermodynamics. This book is itself a new concept of sorts, which merits some explanation. First, a description of what this book is not. It is not a textbook; the discussion is insufficiently complete to serve as the primary text for an undergraduate thermodynamics course, and there are no problems or exercises. Neither is it a popular science or lay person’s introduction; the primary intended audience is science and engineering students.

Nor is it a history of thermodynamics; though that is itself a fascinating subject, you will find little such discussion here. It is definitely not a book written to impress academic colleagues; they will not be impressed. What this book is is a conceptual and practical guide—a companion to your primary thermodynamics textbook, meant to supplement and clarify the latter.

The goal is to simultaneously improve both your fundamental understanding of the material (the “conceptual” part) and your homework and exam performance (the “practical” part), to better “get you through” your thermodynamics course. Culling from over a decade of experience teaching undergraduate physical chemistry thermodynamics at Texas Tech University, this book was written from top to bottom with the practical needs of you, the student, foremost in mind. But why should you buy this (fairly inexpensive) supplement in addition to the (no doubt much more expensive) required textbook you have likely already purchased? There are several reasons.

First, some textbooks (and some lecturers) may give short shrift to the explication of core thermodynamics concepts such as equilibrium and entropy. The likely reason is clear: there is much material to cover, and they do not want to get bogged down in lengthy explanations and potentially confusing subtleties. Some of the problems arising in this field are indeed profound and intractable; several of its brilliant but frustrated early founders ended their own lives (see Appendix A) …That said, I have learned over my years of teaching thermodynamics that dedicating a modest amount of time during the early stages to a careful (but not too rigorous) discussion of the key concepts—if done succinctly and clearly—can lead to major practical benefits for students later on.

Second, a principal advantage of this approach is that the core concepts are pretty much the same across all of the many disciplines that (with good reason!) require thermodynamics training as part of their degree plans. Thus, students of chemistry, physics, biology, geosciences, and the engineering fields, may all benefit from this book, even though the application of this fundamental science varies greatly from field to field. To this end, discipline-specific material is mostly avoided here, in favor of instruction designed to convey the general logic of how to solve thermodynamics problems.

In this context, memorization per se does not really help so much, though many students are naturally inclined to fall back on this tried-and-true companion. In contrast, a conceptual understanding offers something that most students ultimately find to be far more valuable—a sense of how to approach any given problem, as opposed to that uncomfortable state of having “no clue where to begin.”

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