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Reductive Aspects of Thermal Physics



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Robertson, Katherine 


This thesis examines various reductive case studies in thermal physics. In particular, I argue that according to my account of reduction-as-construction, there are two suc- cessful examples of reduction. Thermodynamics reduces to statistical mechanics, and statistical mechanics reduces to the underlying microdynamics — be they quantum or classical. The reduction of a given theory alters that theory’s scope, that is: its domain of applicability. The scope of thermodynamics will be central to this thesis — and I will argue for a narrower scope than some authors. This thesis consists of four Chapters, together with an introduction and a conclusion. In Chapter 1, I discuss how different levels of description relate to one another. I argue that a higher-level of description is reduced to the lower level, if the higher-level quantities and their behaviour can be constructed or captured by the lower-level theory. I claim that ‘functionalism’ can be helpful in securing reductions. In this Chapter I also argue that the aim of reduction is to vindicate, not eliminate, the higher-level theory. In Chapter 2, I tackle the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics. I articulate the functional, or nomological, role of various thermodynamic quantities that are implicitly defined by the zeroth, first and second laws of thermodynamics: temperature, energy and entropy respectively. I then argue that there are quantities in statistical mechanics that realise these roles: though finding them sometimes requires us to focus on quantum, rather than classical, statistical mechanics. In Chapter 3, I consider the reductive relationship between statistical mechanics and the underlying microdynamics. I demonstrate how the irreversible equations of statistical mechanics can be constructed from the underlying microdynamics using what I label the ‘Zwanzig-Zeh-Wallace’ framework. Yet this framework uses a procedure called ’coarse-graining’ which has been heavily criticised in the literature; so in this Chapter I offer a justification of coarse-graining. One upshot is that the time-asymmetry in statistical mechanics is weakly emergent. In Chapter 4, I consider a question about the domain of applicability of thermal physics. Namely: does it apply to self-gravitating systems, such as elliptical galaxies? Much controversy surrounds this question: some argue yes, others argue no. I deflate the dispute by claiming that thermodynamics does not apply, but statistical mechanics does. Thus, my delineation of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics earlier in this thesis not only makes headway with the question of reduction, but also sheds light on this dispute. I argue that this situation — statistical mechanics, but without thermodynamics — can be understood in terms of a central notion in thermal physics: the thermodynamic limit. But as I also discuss: justifying this idealisation has been philosophically controversial.





Butterfield, Jeremy


philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, reduction, emergence, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC/Hogwood Scholarship