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Physics and NecessityRationalist Pursuits from the Cartesian Past to the Quantum Present$
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Olivier Darrigol

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780198712886

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198712886.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 03 December 2021

From Mechanical Reduction To General Principles

From Mechanical Reduction To General Principles

(p.77) 3 From Mechanical Reduction To General Principles
Physics and Necessity

Olivier Darrigol

Oxford University Press

This chapter is devoted to a few general principles that have received mechanical or dynamical justifications: the principle of energy conservation, the principle of least action, and the two laws of thermodynamics. Historically, the evolution of mechanical reductionism and a new emphasis on conversion processes led to the energy principle. There were reductionist arguments for the necessity of this principle, and more satisfactory arguments by Mach and Planck based on the impossibility of perpetual motion. The principle of least action, conceived as a general principle of physics, resulted from the blackboxing of mechanism in the optical and electromagnetic theories of the nineteenth century. There is no good argument for its necessity, despite its extreme power. The two laws of thermodynamics have an impurely rational but still persuasive kind of necessity as they express the impossibility of processes or devices never seen in nature. Statistical mechanics further justifies them if we accept the possibility of a dynamical reduction compatible with the existence and uniqueness of thermodynamic equilibrium.

Keywords:   energy conservation, principle of least action, impossibility of perpetual motion, thermodynamics, second law of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics

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