Study Guide

Physics Basics - Thermodynamics and Fluids

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Thermodynamics and Fluids

Thermodynamics is a complicated-sounding word, but it means something simple: the movement (dynamics) of heat (thermal energy). Thermodynamics gives us a set of rules for understanding how heat works.

Understanding heat is kind of a big deal. We can’t understand a car engine without thermodynamics. If we own a refrigerator, our morning bowl of cereal with cold fresh milk is also made possible by thermodynamics—this alone makes thermodynamics worth studying.

The first law of thermodynamics, for example, tells us that heat only flows from hot places to cold places. And the depressing future of the universe is predicted by the second law of thermodynamics. This law says that the universe will only get more disorderly (think no planets and no stars). “Things fall apart” is literally true.

Fluids—no, not the recommendation a doctor makes—deals with how liquids or gases flow, and the forces that makes them flow. Fluids surround us every moment of our lives (the air we breathe or water if we’re swimming), and for that, we are thankful. The vacuum of space is an example of a place without fluids, and that isn’t exactly hospitable to humans. Being exposed to space means suffocation and swelling, as the water in our body evaporates–not the best way to go.

As anyone could imagine, understanding fluids is important for travel enthusiasts. Let’s say we want to fly to the Caribbean. Our plane rises into the air when the fluid pressure under the wing is higher than the fluid pressure above the wing. Even if we decide to take a cruise, the buoyant force that keeps our ship floating can be described with fluids. When we finally get to the Caribbean and decide to go scuba diving, fluids will still be on our minds: fluid pressure increases as we dive lower under the sea, because there’s more water above us. That’s physics: ruining tropical vacations since 1687.

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