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Thermodynamics is…

October 2, 2017

Inspired by this, I put a question on my Physics 2 exam asking students to associate thermodynamics with a fictional character and to describe the characteristics that led to that association. I showed students some examples from the link above on the first day of class and told them that I would be asking this question on the exam. I gave students the question a week before the exam so they would have time to mull it over and told them the purpose of the question was to see what they thought were the most important/interesting/surprising characteristics of thermodynamics.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

Thermodynamics is Luke Skywalker. The hero trying to bring equilibrium from two systems at war (Rebels and Empire). Internal energy changes when engaged in combat with Darth Vader as heat (anger) flows inside. Once realizing he will not go the same path as his father, his entropy approaches constant value, and temperature approaches (anger) absolute zero. Now attempts to bring equilibrium with a third system in The Last Jedi.

Thermodynamics is AntMan. Constantly changing states/forms, manipulating compression & expansion to efficiently do work, governed by conservation of energy, and able to work/be applied on the micro or macroscopic scale.

I think Mystique from X-Men is a good analogy. We see KE, heat, and work transformed into one another. Mystique changes into different people, but she’s still Mystique.

I assign thermodynamic to Sasuke in Naruto movie. It is dependable but volatile. Powerful yet misunderstood.

Thermodynamics is Sherlock Holmes. He uses many perspectives, rules of human behavior and facts and figures to find the solution to a mystery. Thermodynamics uses pressure, volume, temperature, internal energy, heat, and work to solve for efficiency. Sherlock Holmes is good at seeing the big picture of human behavior (macro) but not so good at individual relationships. Thermodynamics will work at macroscopic level, but won’t always work so well at the quantum level.

Thermodynamics is Ned Stark. Ned is honorable, he follows all the rules/laws, however he is still inefficient and dies.

Some of the less successful/less reflective ones focused solely on thermodynamics dealing with hot and cold, did not explain the connection to their character very clearly, or said generic things true of any branch of physics (has laws, solves problems).

Grading this question was a little iffy. I’ll see if I get any push back from students who did not received full credit (3 points out of a 65 point exam). Overall, some students said they liked the question and I certainly had fun reading the responses. I think it has potential as a good reflection question and I certainly welcome suggestions for how to improve it.


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