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Abstract Title: Identifying Student Difficulties with Conflicting Ideas in Statistical Mechanics
Abstract: 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.
Abstract Type: Contributed Poster Presentation

Author/Organizer Information

Primary Contact: Trevor I. Smith
Dickinson College
P.O. Box 1773
Carlisle, PA 17013
Phone: 7172451866
Co-Author(s)
and Co-Presenter(s)
Donald B. Mountcastle - University of Maine
John R. Thompson - University of Maine