Isolated system  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In physical science, an isolated system is either of the following:

  1. a physical system so far removed from other systems that it does not interact with them.
  2. a thermodynamic system enclosed by rigid immovable walls through which neither matter nor energy can pass.

Though subject internally to its own gravity, an isolated system is usually taken to be outside the reach of external gravitational and other long-range forces.

This can be contrasted with what (in the more common terminology used in thermodynamics) is called a closed system, being enclosed by selective walls through which energy can pass as heat or work, but not matter; and with an open system, which both matter and energy can enter or exit, though it may have variously impermeable walls in parts of its boundaries.

An isolated system obeys the conservation law that its total energy–mass stays constant. Most often, in thermodynamics, matter and energy are treated as separately conserved.

Because of the requirement of enclosure, and the near ubiquity of gravity, strictly and ideally isolated systems do not actually occur in experiments or in nature. Though very useful, they are strictly hypothetical.

Classical thermodynamics is usually presented as postulating the existence of isolated systems. It is also usually presented as the fruit of experience. Obviously, no experience has been reported of an ideally isolated system.

It is, however, the fruit of experience that some physical systems, including isolated ones, do seem to reach their own states of internal thermodynamic equilibrium. Classical thermodynamics postulates the existence of systems in their own states of internal thermodynamic equilibrium. This postulate is a very useful idealization.

In the attempt to explain the idea of a gradual approach to thermodynamic equilibrium after a thermodynamic operation, with entropy increasing according to the second law of thermodynamics, Boltzmann’s H-theorem used equations, which assumed a system (for example, a gas) was isolated. That is, all the mechanical degrees of freedom could be specified, treating the enclosing walls simply as mirror boundary conditions. This led to Loschmidt's paradox. If, however, the stochastic behavior of the molecules and thermal radiation in real enclosing walls is considered, then the system is in effect in a heat bath. Then Boltzmann’s assumption of molecular chaos can be justified.

The concept of an isolated system can serve as a useful model approximating many real-world situations. It is an acceptable idealization used in constructing mathematical models of certain natural phenomena; e.g., the planets in the Solar System, and the proton and electron in a hydrogen atom are often treated as isolated systems. But, from time to time, a hydrogen atom will interact with electromagnetic radiation and go to an excited state.

Sometimes people speculate about "isolation" for the universe as a whole, but the meaning of such speculation is doubtful.

See also

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