Don Lemons
The MIT Press
2019 | 192pp | £20
ISBN 9780262039390

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Thermodynamic weirdness – book cover

Let me begin this review with a significant caveat: more than 10 years have passed since I actively studied thermodynamics. The halcyon days of my youth during which I could derive the Clausius–Clapeyron equation from memory have been over for some time. I had high hopes for revisiting this fundamental topic in Don Lemons’ new book Thermodynamic Weirdness.

Lemons is a retired professor of physics, and by introducing the key concepts of thermodynamics in chronological order of discovery he aims to contextualise this highly abstract topic for students taught in a typical problems-first approach. As someone who used to just like ‘making the maths work’ in their weekly physical chemistry problem set, I was eager to deepen my intellectual understanding.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get what I wanted from reading this book. This is probably in part because my thermodynamics knowledge is just too hazy. However, I found that the historical context was presented so formulaically that it was, sadly, uninteresting. Many pages simply reproduce long extracts – sometimes whole papers – from the original literature published in the 18th and 19th centuries.

These great tracts are often difficult to get through, and Lemons’ author notes didn’t introduce or analyse them in sufficient depth for me. There is a general laboured feeling to the writing and presentation throughout the book, with unnecessary notes from translators and too much perfunctory detail provided in multiple footnotes.

Consequently, I’m not sure who I could recommend this book to. Lemons suggests teachers and students of thermodynamics as his intended audience; perhaps the former may fare better than I did. However, I fear those like me who are long past their student days will be disappointed by the lack of historical analysis, and anyone with a physical chemistry finals exam on the horizon would likely be better served by sticking with a problems-first approach.