The laws of thermodynamics smell of their human origin


“The laws of thermodynamics smell of their human origin.”  This is the quote by P.W. Bridgman from the book “Warmth Disperses and Time Passes” to begin the book.  There must be a reason that this quote is the first thing we read when beginning chapter one.  Seeing as how thermodynamics is essentially about heat and energy, it is obviously something we encounter on a daily basis.  When I think about this quote, what sticks out to me is the use of the word “smell”.  Smell in and of itself is a human characteristic that we can relate to.  By the use of the word smell, I believe this is attempting to portray the vast characteristics that resemble human life and laws of thermodynamics.  The laws of thermodynamic exists in the real living world.  They have always been here.  However, it is us humans who have discovered and begun to attempt interpretations of these discoveries.  These interpretations of what we recognize in the living world result in our laws of thermodynamics.  For example, in chapter one the story of Count Rumford and the creation of the cannon.  The design and idea behind a cannon sparked (pun intended) scientific discovery of thermodynamics and the flow of heat.  These laws were stumbled upon by way of other experiments or experiences in which they were unintended.  As the chapter in the book points out, upon first discovery of such a phenomenon as the flow of heat and thermodynamics, further preliminary experiments followed fueled by curiosity.  The book even mentions Rumford’s vast infatuation with heat.  Not just heat, but heat transfer and warmth.  The Rumford stove, as mentioned in the book, is a result of the initial discovery of the laws of thermodynamics.  Another interesting part about this quote and in regards to the book is the comparison between the laws of thermodynamics and electricity.  As the book points out, both electricity and thermodynamics use similar terms when referring to electricity and energy such as “flow” and “capacity”.  This resemblance is plausible to think about because if one did not understand these laws before seeing each of these processes unfold, they can see how similar they are in the “flow” of each.  How this invisible entity could be transferred from one thing to another was hard to fathom.   Especially in a world and society that, as discussed in class, was obsessed with this idea of a physical world.  People had difficulty articulating things in which they could not see.  “Seeing to believing” was often a practiced theory.  I think it is very possible that in a time where people did not take new information well, and especially information in which they could not see, interpretations of laws such as the laws of thermodynamics are more easily understood when using human and familiar references.  Also in these discoveries, Rumford began referencing heat with motion.  He explains how heat is motion and it stops.  The combination of thermodynamics and Newton’s laws of physics further helped lead to the completion of the laws of thermodynamics.  The laws of thermodynamics draws from other laws of the world as mentioned like the laws of physics and electricity.  The resemblance to these helps further the idea of “human origin” in thermodynamics.

Picture from Library of Congress

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