Thermodynamic visualisation

This plaster model was made by the great James Clerk Maxwell in 1874 (the photograph was by taken by James Pickands II, 1942). This historic artefact is one of three copies, held in museums around the world, including the Cavendish and the Sloane Physics Laboratory at Yale.

The model shows the relationship between volume, energy, and entropy for a fictitious water-like substance, based on theoretical work by Josiah Willard Gibbs. The lines connect points of equal pressure and of equal temperature. Maxwell found the model a useful aid in his research. The model prefigured modern visualisation techniques – today we would use computer software to visualise such surfaces, like this:


4 thoughts on “Thermodynamic visualisation

  1. Thanks Tony, this is a fascinating topic. I always wanted my students to learn to present experimental data graphically and then formulate their opinions based on their analysis. Although the effort was too much for many it always amazed me how each student could find a unique way to understand the same data set.

    • Thanks for the comment, Arnold. I’m also a huge fan of data visualisation as a tool to guide analysis. In this case, however, I suspect that Maxwell derived additional insights from working with his hands on a sculptural form of the data. That’s not quite a dead art: see this list of other “data sculptures.”

  2. Pingback: Data Sculpture | Scientific Gems

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