**Statistical mechanics** is a branch of physics that attempts to describe systems with a large number of degrees of freedom. By degrees of freedom, we roughly mean things we need to keep track of, such as the position of air molecules in a room or atoms in a copper wire, or the direction of magnetic moments of atoms in a magnet. By "a large number" we mean really really really large: the strength of a 5 mm diameter spherical Neodymium magnet comes from the alignment of magnetic moments of
$$4,500,000,000,000,000,000,000$$
atoms, and every cubic foot of the air around you contains around
$$700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000$$
molecules.^{1} Trying to figure out how that many particles would interact and move around may seem impossible - in fact, even a system of three particles, interacting under their own gravity, does not have a general, closed-form solution. The strategy that statistical mechanics suggests we take is to preted the system is (almost) completely random.

Let's start out with a simpler, familiar random system: flipping a coin. Our coins are completely fair: they come up heads exactly half of the time, tails the other half of the time, and each flip is independent of the others. To start with, which do you think is more random: 10 coin flips, or 100 coin flips?

**The answer is: ****????**

We haven't defined what "more random" means. There are more possible outcomes for 100 coin flips than for 10, which seems like a sensible measure of "randomness" (this leads to the quantity known as *entropy*). The goal of statistical mechanics is to make predictions about large, seemingly random systems. What can we predict about the coin flips? If the 100 coin flips are done in sequence, and we try to predict the sequence, then it is clearly harder to guess them all correctly than if there were only 10: guessing 100 coin flips correctly requires guessing 10 groups of 10 flips correctly. If you made a prediction and then flipped 10 coins every second, you would get a sequence matching your prediction about every 17 minutes; if you did the same with 100 coins every second, you would likely die of old age (if not boredom) before any sequence matched even the first *third* of your guess.^{2} There is simply no hope for us to predict coin flips (or physical systems) if we try to determine every single detail.

What if, instead, we try to predict how many coins come up heads?

The histograms below show the frequencies of different numbers of heads among either 10 or 100 coin flips. Each time you click, several more coin flip trials are performed.

What do you notice about the two histograms? ^{3}

*N*coins, the width of the "peak", in terms of the fraction of heads, is roughly \(\frac{2}{\sqrt{N}}\), so if we quadruple the number of coins the peak becomes half as wide. That means our "fraction of the coins that came up heads" number actually becomes more predictable if we flip more coins. This result may or may not surprise you, but in any case it gives us some hope for, say, describing the physics of the air around you. We would like to to take advantage of the randomness of immense numbers of particles to find some quantity that doesn't seem random at all.

These sorts of properties of physical systems, which do not fluctuate randomly, form the basis for statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Familiar examples are temperature and pressure. Neither makes any sense for individual atoms, but both become meaningful and measurable for human-scale objects. A thermometer is constantly bombarded with particles of the substance it is immersed in, all moving at different speeds and in different directions, and yet we can expect the temperature reading to stay about the same from one moment to the next, for the same reasons that we can expect very close to half of our 100 coins to come up heads.

To convince you that this approach has some merit, look at the (rather uninteresting) graph below.

One powerful prediction from basic statistical mechanics is that a box full of tiny balls bouncing around without bumping into each other and unaffected by gravity obeys the **ideal gas law**:

where *P* is the pressure the "gas" exerts on the sides - the amount of force per unit area you would have to apply to keep the box from expanding; *V* is the volume of the box; *N* is the number of balls; *k* is Boltzmann's constant, a sort of conversion factor between temperature and energy; and *T* is the temperature of the "gas," what a thermometer would read if placed inside (but in Kelvin, an absolute temperature scale). Note that nothing in this formula has anything to do with how much the balls weigh, or how large they are.

Real gases don't quite satisfy our assumptions: their atoms aren't infinitesimally tiny (though they are pretty small), they bump into each other, and they also interact with each other from far away, through van der Waals forces. The graph above shows how much PV/NT differs from *k* for nitrogen gas at various temperatures and pressures. At half of the data points plotted, encompassing all of the pressure/temperature combinations you will ever experience, nitrogen matches the ideal gas law within 5%. Only at very high pressures and low temperatures do we start to see substantial disagreement between theory and measurement. Somehow, after ignoring most of the properties of the gas and focusing on averages of random behavior, statistical mechanics allows us to make powerful, accurate predictions.

To find out what's happening at the colorful boundaries, read about phase transitions.