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How can we keep track of energy as it is transferred from one system to another? How can we calculate the amount of internal energy -- a quantity that seems to be hidden within the very "guts" of matter? Further, what is the difference between temperature and heat, and between heat and work?
This module focuses on the first of two central thermodynamic principles: the conservation of energy, or, as it is sometimes called, the first law of thermodynamics. The second basic principle, which deals with the inevitable increase of a quantity called entropy, is the subject of another module Second Law and Entropy. These two abstract principles, plus a few other concepts and laws and the vocabulary needed for literacy in the field, are the entire content of thermodynamics. The energy and entropy principles form the framework that governs all energy conversions involving heat; they are the touchstones we must rely on as we attempt to create new energy devices, such as solar converters or fusion reactors, to limit the wasteful exploitation of the Earth's resources.
The approach of this module is macroscopic -- that is, we shall deal with systems that are approximately of human scale in size and mass (thermometers, blocks of ice, heat engines), and we shall choose observable quantities such as pressure, volume, and temperature to describe the behavior of these systems. The macroscopic approach should be seen as supplementary to the microscopic approach, which regards the behavior of the atoms and molecules as fundamental. This latter framework chooses the molecular velocities, energies, and momenta as the starting point, and values for macroscopic observables are derived from the microscopic picture. The microscopic approach is treated in another module Kinetic Theory of Gases, where the behavior of gases is interpreted in terms of molecular energies and collisions.