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The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction [Paperback]

Peter Atkins
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 19, 2010 0199572194 978-0199572199
The laws of thermodynamics drive everything that happens in the universe. From the sudden expansion of a cloud of gas to the cooling of hot metal--everything is moved or restrained by four simple laws. Written by Peter Atkins, one of the world's leading authorities on thermodynamics, this powerful and compact introduction explains what these four laws are and how they work, using accessible language and virtually no mathematics. Guiding the reader a step at a time, Atkins begins with Zeroth (so named because the first two laws were well established before scientists realized that a third law, relating to temperature, should precede them--hence the jocular name zeroth), and proceeds through the First, Second, and Third Laws, offering a clear account of concepts such as the availability of work and the conservation of energy. Atkins ranges from the fascinating theory of entropy (revealing how its unstoppable rise constitutes the engine of the universe), through the concept of free energy, and to the brink, and then beyond the brink, of absolute zero.

About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.

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Editorial Reviews


Review from previous edition: "It takes not only a great writer but a great scientist with a lifetime's experience to explains such a notoriously tricky area with absolute economy and precision, not to mention humour." --Books of the Year, Observer. 30.11.08

"His engaging account...the lucid figures offer readers a firm understanding of energy and entropy." --Science 4/04/08

"Concise, well-written, engaging and carefully structured... an enjoyable and informative read." --Chemistry World 01/12/2007

"Peter Atkins's account of the core concepts of thermodynamics is beautifully crafted." --Simon Mitton, THES 16/11/2007

"A brief and invigoratingly limpid guide to the laws of thermodynamics." --Saturday Guardian 15/09/2007

"Atkins's systematic foundations should go a long way towards easing confusion about the engaging book, just the right length (and depth) for an absorbing, informative read." --Mark Haw, Nature 20/09/2007

"[Atkins'] ultra-compact guide to thermodynamics [is] a wonderful book that I wish I had read at university." --New Scientist 20/10/2007

About the Author

Peter Atkins is Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Lincoln College. He is the author of nearly 60 books, which include Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and the famed textbook Physical Chemistry (now in its eighth edition).

Product Details

  • Paperback: 120 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (April 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199572194
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199572199
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 4.6 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #48,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Atkins was born in England in 1940 and went to the University of Leicester for his first degree (in chemistry) and his PhD (1964). After a year in UCLA as a Harkness Fellow he went to Oxford University as lecturer in physical chemistry and Fellow of Lincoln College, where he remained until his retirement in 2007. Some retirement! He continues to write books, which now number close to 70 with more on the way. He was the founding chairman of IUPAC's Committee on Chemistry Education, which is charged with bringing good practice in the teaching of chemistry, especially in developing countries, and has been a visiting professor in Japan, China, Israel, France, and New Zealand. He continues to lecture widely, both on aspects of chemical education and on the communication of science to the general public. He lives near Oxford.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book July 27, 2010
This is a terrific book, one that I would recommend to someone without a scientific background who just want to know a bit about thermodynamics, to a student (including high school students) just starting to learn about this subject, to graduate students who know quite a lot about it and even to teachers of the subject. I say this as one who has experienced the subject from all of these vantage points. I am a retired scientist (materials), but I still retain an interest in many scientific subjects, but now from a more general viewpoint. I have studied thermodynamics both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I have used it professionally, and even used it in a graduate course that I taught. I therefore think that I can make this wholehearted recommendation from a reasonable vantage point, or more accurately vantage points.

Professor Atkins begins with the zeroth law (and why this is not the first law) and a discussion of temperature. Then it is on to the first law and the concept of energy, the second law and the concept of entropy, the concept of free energy, and finally the third law and attaining absolute zero. All this material is treated in a clear manner, without the differential equations and derivations of equations that can make thermodynamics a complex subject. Instead, the reader is treated to an excellent discussion of what the laws mean and why they are so important. Even though I felt well versed in the subject I learned a lot and found a lot to think about. For instance, Professor Atkins provides the best explanation of enthalpy that I have ever come across. Most books just introduce it without going into why it was developed and where it fits into the general scheme of things, but Professor Atkins rectifies this.
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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A no-nonsense introduction to thermodynamics April 26, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The field of thermodynamics sprung up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution heated up and there was an increasing need to understand the steam engine as the driving force behind almost all of the technological development of that era. Throughout the nineteenth century most of the field was refined and set up on the intellectual foundations that we would be familiar with even today, and this very short introduction sums up the most important aspects of thermodynamics. This book is intended for the general audience as an accessible and minimally technical introduction to the laws of thermodynamics, as presently understood. The understanding of these laws has evolved over time, and especially with the advent of statistical physics they had been put on a wholly different foundation. However, this book does not delve at all into the statistical mechanics and introduces the laws of thermodynamics in their own right as a self-contained intellectual structure. It is actually quite remarkable that these laws have survived more or less intact all the incredible advances that have shaken the twentieth century physics - relativity, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, etc. It is therefore very likely that whatever the final theory of the laws of nature ends up looking like, the laws of thermodynamics will still have its place in the intellectual underpinnings of science. As such, these laws could be rightfully considered an indispensible part of every modern education, and every person who aims to be considered scientifically literate would be wise to acquaint him/herself with the basic understanding of them. In that regard this short book is an excellent source of information. The only shortcoming that I could think of is the very cursory coverage of some more modern applications, like those that pertain to biology. Even so, it is a good introduction for people who just need a meat-and-potatoes understanding of thermodynamics.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as it gets (for a short book) November 14, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've ordered many books in thermodynamics to see how the subject is taught and to get a deep understanding.
This book is one of the best introductory science books I have ever held in my hands. Peter Atkins is a master at finding
lucid analogies (this shows up when he describes enthalpy and free energy).
I do not agree with the reviewer who criticises the book for not discussing some advanced applications like biology. This is a very short introduction for goodness sake!
However the reviewer who complained thathe didnt always understand the English does get my sympathy. The style is pithy, and it is perhaps because I have already read quite a few other books that I havent been put off by this.

I also recommend his books on chemistry which are also very well written. For example
If you feel you never quite understood some of the abstract concepts of thermodynamics, then this one is for you (if you like a terse book), or you could get the more leisurely introduction by John Fenn Engines, Energy, And Entropy: A Thermodynamics Primer. The latter is more geared to the discussion of engines.

Do not think you will be ready to sit exams on thermodynamics by just reading this book though, it's just meant to get you over some conceptual hurdles or to complement your other readings.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book. June 24, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. The author is well known to all popular science readers as a
distinguished scientists who can explain things well for the layperson, and this book is
fully up to his high standards.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great and novel approach to what traditionally can be dense ...
I have been teaching Physics for over 20 years and found much to enrich my courses in this book. Great and novel approach to what traditionally can be dense material.
Published 2 days ago by Enrique Caliz
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent summary
Good summary document and a handy reference. Price is consistent with the size of the book (100 pages).
Good explanation of entropy and enthalpy.
Published 24 days ago by James A. Ferraro
5.0 out of 5 stars Gives a great understanding.
If you wish to know thermodynamics, this gives you the understanding of it. I hesitated buying this, but I'm glad I did. I just would like it better and could buy more.
Published 2 months ago by JK
5.0 out of 5 stars The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction
Interesting read. This book puts forth a lot of information in a short book. As one who originally ran into a brick wall when I took Thermodynamics in college, this book would have... Read more
Published 3 months ago by A Reader
5.0 out of 5 stars Applicable to all and a fascinating read
This was a very nice overview of the history and meaning of the laws of thermodynamics. I really had an appreciation of what and why these laws are important and I got a good sense... Read more
Published 8 months ago by StarSearcher
5.0 out of 5 stars Confusing Reviews
At least two reviewers have questioned the author's introduction of the concept regarding negative temperatures using the Kelvin scale. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Frank A. Stephenson
5.0 out of 5 stars Informed survey
An excellent example of the VSI format. A complex subject treated seriously by an expert in a very short form. This is an excellent overview. Read more
Published 11 months ago by PVreader
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Little Introductory Book
Thermodynamics does not receive the attention it deserves in introductory science classes. This small book introduces the three laws of thermodynamics in detail and in order. Read more
Published 12 months ago by O. Long
5.0 out of 5 stars Scientific-Literacy Advancing Text
As far as living up to the standard of the "Very Short Introduction" series, Atkins' text does just that. Read more
Published 13 months ago by David Milliern
5.0 out of 5 stars Scientific-Literacy Advancing Text
As far as living up to the standard of the "Very Short Introduction" series, Atkins' text does just that. Read more
Published 13 months ago by David Milliern
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