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Identifying student difficulties with conflicting ideas in statistical mechanics Documents

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Identifying student difficulties with conflicting ideas in statistical mechanics 

written by Trevor I. Smith, Donald B. Mountcastle, and John R. Thompson

In statistical mechanics there are two quantities that directly relate to the probability that a system at a temperature fixed by a thermal reservoir has a particular energy. The density of states function is related to the multiplicity of the system and indicates that occupation probability increases with energy. The Boltzmann factor is related to the multiplicity of the reservoir and indicates that occupation probability decreases with energy. This seems contradictory until one remembers that a complete probability distribution is determined by the total multiplicity of the system and its surroundings, requiring the product of these two functions. We present evidence from individual and group interviews that students knew how each of these functions relates to multiplicity but did not recognize the need to combine the two to characterize the physical scenario.

Published January 24, 2013
Last Modified July 1, 2013