Einstein 1938: The Kinetic Theory of Matter

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter I, section 10 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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The Kinetic Theory of Matter

Is it possible to explain the phenomena of heat in terms of the motions of particles interacting through simple forces? A closed vessel contains a certain mass of gas air, for example at a certain temperature. By heating we raise the temperature, and thus increase the energy. But how is this heat connected with motion? The possibility of such a connection is suggested both by our tentatively accepted philosophical point of view and by the way in which heat is generated by motion. Heat must be mechanical energy if every problem is a mechanical one. The object of the kinetic theory is to present the concept of matter just in this way. According to this theory a gas is a congregation of an enormous number of particles, or molecules, moving in all directions, colliding with each other and changing in direction of motion with each collision. There must exist an average speed of molecules, just as in a large human community there exists an average age, or an average wealth. There will therefore be an average kinetic energy per particle. More heat in the vessel means a greater average kinetic energy. Thus heat, according to this picture, is not a special form of energy different from the mechanical one but is just the kinetic energy of molecular motion. To any definite temperature there corresponds a definite average kinetic energy per molecule. This is, in fact, not an arbitrary assumption. We are forced to regard the kinetic energy of a molecule as a measure of the temperature of the gas if we wish to form a consistent mechanical picture of matter.

Heat, according to this picture, is not a special form of energy different from the mechanical one but is just the kinetic energy of molecular motion. To any definite temperature there corresponds a definite average kinetic energy per molecule.

This theory is more than a play of the imagination. It can be shown that the kinetic theory of gases is not only in agreement with experiment, but actually leads to a more profound understanding of the facts. This may be illustrated by a few examples.

We have a vessel closed by a piston which can move freely. The vessel contains a certain amount of gas to be kept at a constant temperature. If the piston is initially at rest in some position, it can be moved upward by removing and downward by adding weight. To push the piston down force must be used acting against the inner pressure of the gas. What is the mechanism of this inner pressure according to the kinetic theory? A tremendous number of particles constituting the gas are moving in all directions. They bombard the walls and the piston, bouncing back like balls thrown against a wall. This continual bombardment by a great number of particles keeps the piston at a certain height by opposing the force of gravity acting downward on the piston and the weights. In one direction there is a constant gravitational force, in the other very many irregular blows from the molecules. The net effect on the piston of all these small irregular forces must be equal to that of the force of gravity if there is to be equilibrium.

The continual bombardment by a great number of particles keeps the piston at a certain height by opposing the force of gravity acting downward on the piston and the weights.

Suppose the piston were pushed down so as to compress the gas to a fraction of its former volume, say one-half, its temperature being kept unchanged. What, according to the kinetic theory, can we expect to happen? Will the force due to the bombardment be more or less effective than before? The particles are now packed more closely. Although the average kinetic energy is still the same, the collisions of the particles with the piston will now occur more frequently and thus the total force will be greater. It is clear from this picture presented by the kinetic theory that to keep the piston in this lower position more weight is required. This simple experimental fact is well known, but its prediction follows logically from the kinetic view of matter.

To keep the piston in a lower position more weight is required. This prediction follows logically from the kinetic view of matter.

Consider another experimental arrangement. Take two vessels containing equal volumes of different gases, say hydrogen and nitrogen, both at the same temperature. Assume the two vessels are closed with identical pistons, on which are equal weights. This means, briefly, that both gases have the same volume, temperature, and pressure. Since the temperature is the same, so, according to the theory, is the average kinetic energy per particle. Since the pressures are equal, the two pistons are bombarded with the same total force. On the average every particle carries the same energy and both vessels have the same volume. Therefore, the number of molecules in each must be the same, although the gases are chemically different. This result is very important for the understanding of many chemical phenomena. It means that the number of molecules in a given volume, at a certain temperature and pressure, is something which is characteristic, not of a particular gas, but of all gases. It is most astonishing that the kinetic theory not only predicts the existence of such a universal number, but enables us to determine it. To this point we shall return very soon.

The kinetic theory predicts the number of molecules in a given volume, at a certain temperature and pressure as a characteristic, not of a particular gas, but of all gases.

The kinetic theory of matter explains quantitatively as well as qualitatively the laws of gases as determined by experiment. Furthermore, the theory is not restricted to gases, although its greatest successes have been in this domain.

A gas can be liquefied by means of a decrease of temperature. A fall in the temperature of matter means a decrease in the average kinetic energy of its particles. It is therefore clear that the average kinetic energy of a liquid particle is smaller than that of a corresponding gas particle.

A striking manifestation of the motion of particles in liquids was given for the first time by the so-called Brownian movement, a remarkable phenomenon which would remain quite mysterious and incomprehensible without the kinetic theory of matter. It was first observed by the botanist Brown, and was explained eighty years later, at the beginning of this century. The only apparatus necessary for observing Brownian motion is a microscope, which need not even be a particularly good one.

Brown was working with grains of pollen of certain plants, that is:

particles or granules of unusually large size varying from one four-thousandth to about five-thousandth of an inch in length.

He reports further:

While examining the form of these particles immersed in water, I observed many of them evidently in motion…. These motions were such as to satisfy me, after frequently repeated observation, that they arose neither from current in the fluid nor from its gradual evaporation, but belonged to the particle itself.

What Brown observed was the unceasing agitation of the granules when suspended in water and visible through the microscope. It is an impressive sight!

A similar phenomenon of unceasing agitation is the Brownian movement.

Is the choice of particular plants essential for the phenomenon? Brown answered this question by repeating the experiment with many different plants, and found that all the granules, if sufficiently small, showed such motion when suspended in water. Furthermore, he found the same kind of restless, irregular motion in very small particles of inorganic as well as organic substances. Even with a pulverized fragment of a sphinx he observed the same phenomenon!

How is this motion to be explained? It seems contradictory to all previous experience. Examination of the position of one suspended particle, say every thirty seconds, reveals the fantastic form of its path. The amazing thing is the apparently eternal character of the motion. A swinging pendulum placed in water soon comes to rest if not impelled by some external force. The existence of a never-diminishing motion seems contrary to all experience. This difficulty was splendidly clarified by the kinetic theory of matter.

This movement is splendidly clarified by the kinetic theory of matter.

Looking at water through even our most powerful microscopes we cannot see molecules and their motion as pictured by the kinetic theory of matter. It must be concluded that if the theory of water as a congregation of particles is correct, the size of the particles must be beyond the limit of visibility of the best microscopes. Let us nevertheless stick to the theory and assume that it represents a consistent picture of reality. The Brownian particles visible through a microscope are bombarded by the smaller ones composing the water itself. The Brownian movement exists if the bombarded particles are sufficiently small. It exists because this bombardment is not uniform from all sides and cannot be averaged out, owing to its irregular and haphazard character. The observed motion is thus the result of the unobservable one. The behaviour of the big particles reflects in some way that of the molecules, constituting, so to speak, a magnification so high that it becomes visible through the microscope. The irregular and haphazard character of the path of the Brownian particles reflects a similar irregularity in the path of the smaller particles which constitute matter. We can understand, therefore, that a quantitative study of Brownian movement can give us deeper insight into the kinetic theory of matter. It is apparent that the visible Brownian motion depends on the size of the invisible bombarding molecules. There would be no Brownian motion at all if the bombarding molecules did not possess a certain amount of energy or, in other words, if they did not have mass and velocity. That the study of Brownian motion can lead to a determination of the mass of a molecule is therefore not astonishing.

The irregular and haphazard character of the path of the Brownian particles reflects a similar irregularity in the path of the smaller particles which constitute matter.

Through laborious research, both theoretical and experimental, the quantitative features of the kinetic theory were formed. The clue originating in the phenomenon of Brownian movement was one of those which led to the quantitative data. The same data can be obtained in different ways, starting from quite different clues. The fact that all these methods support the same view is most important, for it demonstrates the internal consistency of the kinetic theory of matter.

Experiments show an internal consistency of the kinetic theory of matter.

Only one of the many quantitative results reached by experiment and theory will be mentioned here. Suppose we have a gram of the lightest of all elements, hydrogen, and ask: how many particles are there in this one gram? The answer will characterize not only hydrogen but also all other gases, for we already know under what conditions two gases have the same number of particles.

The theory enables us to answer this question from certain measurements of the Brownian motion of a suspended particle. The answer is an astonishingly great number: a three followed by twenty-three other digits! The number of molecules in one gram of hydrogen is 303,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Imagine the molecules of a gram of hydrogen so increased in size that they are visible through a microscope: say that the diameter becomes one five-thousandth of an inch, such as that of a Brownian particle. Then, to pack them closely, we should have to use a box each side of which is about one-quarter of a mile long!

We can easily calculate the mass of one such hydrogen molecule by dividing 1 by the number quoted above. The answer is a fantastically small number: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 0033 gram, representing the mass of one molecule of hydrogen.

The experiments on Brownian motion are only some of the many independent experiments leading to the determination of this number which plays such an important part in physics.

In the kinetic theory of matter and in all its important achievements we see the realization of the general philosophical programme: to reduce the explanation of all phenomena to the interaction between particles of matter.

Kinetic theory of matter tells us that matter is made up of very small particles called atoms and molecules that are continually moving or vibrating.

WE SUMMARIZE:

In mechanics the future path of a moving body can be predicted and its past disclosed if its present condition and the forces acting upon it are known. Thus, for example, the future paths of all planets can be foreseen. The active forces are Newton’s gravitational forces depending on the distance alone. The great results of classical mechanics suggest that the mechanical view can be consistently applied to all branches of physics, that all phenomena can be explained by the action of forces representing either attraction or repulsion, depending only upon distance and acting between unchangeable particles.

In the kinetic theory of matter we see how this view, arising from mechanical problems, embraces the phenomena of heat and how it leads to a successful picture of the structure of matter.

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FINAL COMMENTS

Kinetic theory of matter is the ultimate success of “particle and void” view of substance. But there is more to substance as discovered later.

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