25 Jun 2011

Into the Cool - great supplemental material in thermodynamics

Textbook

Submitted by Lee Park, Williams College
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Description: 

Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life

Eric D. Schneider, Dorion Sagan

ISBN: 0226739376

In our 4th semester course we cover (among other topics) thermodynamics (about a third of the course).  This is the last course that the pre-medical students have to take, and the course therefore brings with it the typical challenges of students who really don’t particularly want to be there, and want to know why they’re required to think about these topics.  I’ve begun assigning this book as a supplemental required text.  It’s not a regular textbook certainly, but it’s extremely well-written, and provides a very clear and fascinating description of the application of thermodynamic principles to large non-equilibrium systems.  We certainly don’t cover this type of system in this course, but the book is written in such a way that students can really grasp the bigger picture.  While I’ve had a couple of students complain about the additional reading load, most of my students appreciated the larger perspective (and I’ve had students report back to me that they were rereading the book the year after taking the course!) 

 

The book really focuses on the larger implications and meaning of the second law of thermodynamics (rephrased as “Nature abhors a gradient”), and it provides many examples of the second law in action in the real world.  It discusses natural selection,  the complexity of living systems, as well as the trajectories and patterns found in the complexities of ecosystems over time. It touches on cosmology, weather patterns, economics and aging.  I highly recommend this as a supplemental text for those students who may be unconvinced of the fundamental importance, intricacy, and beauty of thermodynamic principles.  It would also make a great central text for a non-majors course, though I haven’t had a chance to offer such a course(yet!)

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