Meeting the Entropy Challenge: An International Thermodynamics Symposium in Honor and Memory of Professor Joseph Henry Keenan

An International Thermodynamics Symposium
In Honor and Memory of Professor Joseph Henry Keenan


A Brief History of the Second Law

Thermodynamics is a physical science dealing with the transfer and the transformation of energy. Its development started in 1824 more than a century after Isaac Newton established the foundations of classical mechanics, with the efforts of Sadi Carnot to improve the closed-cycle steam engine discovered by James Watt in 1764. Its structure was completed in 1850 by R. Clausius who laid the foundations of the laws of thermodynamics by introducing the concept of a property he called entropy.

Ever since that time there has been, on and off, concerns expressed relating to conflicts between thermodynamics and mechanics. During the 20th century, the laws of mechanics have been profoundly modified by two major revolutions in our understanding of natural sciences: quantum theory and relativity. The laws of thermodynamics, instead, have survived both revolutions unaltered and the conflicts remained. Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the most prominent and important astrophysicists of his time and one of the first physicists who understood the early ideas of relativity along with Albert Einstein, said in 1914:

The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Sir Arthur Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World, 1915)

While the importance and the empirical successes of the laws of thermodynamics and their applications have never been questioned, their physical significance and domain of validity have been at the centre of several debates and controversies among the different schools of thought.

Joseph Henry Keenan's Contributions

Joseph Henry Keenan has been a major contributor to the field of thermodynamics, both from the applications point of view (he studied the properties of steam and co-authored the most authoritative steam tables used by generations of engineers) and from the theoretical point of view (in his 1941 book on Thermodynamics he introduced the concept of availability, laying the foundations of today's widely applied concepts of second law efficiency and free energy analysis; moreover, in 1965 he co-authored the book on Principles of General Thermodynamics which contains the most innovative formulation of the second law after the work of J.W. Gibbs).

Professor Keenan was able in the 1950s and 1960s to stimulate interest among MIT faculty and students in clarifying thermodynamic concepts and principles. What he did was to hold a meeting every Thursday from 4 to 6 pm where both faculty and students were invited. One person, such as a professor, a graduate student, or a guest speaker, was asked to address an issue, e.g. does thermodynamic analysis apply to a system containing only one particle? The presentation usually lasted 10 to 30 minutes, depending of how many interrupting questions were asked. A general discussion, including presentations of alternative views, followed. The discussions were usually quite heated—an important attribute. As a result these meetings became very popular. Unfortunately, no records have been kept of these very interesting discussions.

In order to obtain a Symposium format as close as possible to Professor Keenan's Thursday discussions, the Organizing Committee has asked a few prominent speakers to open and focus the discussions in five broad areas: biology, cosmology, energy, chemical physics, and quantum physics. Following their presentations, there will be four panel discussions followed by open discussions based on a number of predetermined questions.