Individual Study: Statistical Mechanics
Winter 2016 and Spring 2016 quarters
This is an opportunity for intermediate- to advanced-level students to be introduced to one of the crowning achievements of physics and physical chemistry: the ability to make fundamental and extremely general predictions about the behavior of large numbers of particles. The statistical nature of the conclusions helped lay the groundwork for the similar (but even more profound) statistical interpretation underlying quantum mechanics, and the predictions of the theory regarding the spectrum of light from hot objects (black-body radiation) is in fact what led Planck to first introduce the quantum hypothesis.
Students will start with an introduction to the required math: probability theory, primarily the binomial distribution and its special cases, the Poisson and Gaussian distributions. These—combined with surprisingly few physical hypotheses—lead directly to remarkable quantitative results. For example, statistical mechanics leads in physics to the nature of diffusion, the spectrum of black-body radiation (e.g., the cosmic microwave background), the behavior of semiconductors (solar cells and computer chips), and white dwarf stars; in chemistry to the law of mass action for chemical equilibria, the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution for molecular velocities, and the Arrhenius equation for the rates of chemical and biochemical reactions; and in biology to the chemotaxis of bacteria, transduction of nerve impulses (Nernst equation), and functioning of biochemical techniques such as ultracentrifugation and gel electrophoresis. Underlying it all is the remarkable Boltzmann distribution, also known as the Gibbs distribution and Arrhenius factor.
The material will be challenging, but the results in terms of understanding of the physical world extraordinarily exciting. The material is fundamental to the fields of physics, chemistry, and parts of biochemistry and molecular biology; a major goal is to help prepare students for advanced study in those disciplines. Due to the fundamental importance of this material to physical chemistry, there is a significant likelihood that this offering will be combined with Atoms, Molecules, and Reactions, also offered in 2015-16.
Fields of Study
Preparatory for studies or careers in
Location and Schedule
Offered during: Day and Evening