About this book
The development of thermodynamics in the second half of the 19th century has had a strong impact on both technology and natural philosophy.
It is true that the steam engine for the conversion of heat into work existed before thermodynamics was developed as a branch of physics. However, the systematic theory improved the conversion process, and it succeeded in developing other processes essential to modern life, notably refrigeration and rectification. So, altogether thermodynamics has provided humanity with cheap energy, and cheap fuel, -- consequently with cheap, and abundant, and unspoiled food. Thus thermodynamics has made populations grow, and life expectancy increase beyond anything people could possibly have imagined 200 years ago.
At the same time thermodynamics has uncovered the precarious balance between determinism and stochasticity which is essential to processes on earth, including life. The competition of those intentions is described by the doctrine of energy and entropy in thermodynamics; energy tends to force a system into one single state, and entropy tends to spread the system evenly over all possible states. These competing tendencies are weighted by temperature such that minimal energy determines cold systems.
The knowledge gained by thermodynamic research led to quantum mechanics, whose rules become predominant at low temperatures, and to stellar physics, where temperature is high enough to make relativity theory essential.
The expansion of thermodynamic technology and natural philosophy is reviewed in the book along with the struggles and fates of some of the engineers and physicists who pioneered the development.