8.044 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

Statistical Physics I


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Recitations: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session


8.03 Physics III: Vibrations and Waves, 18.03 Differential Equations . Concurrent Enrollment in 8.04 Quantum Physics I is recommended.


This course offers an introduction to probability, statistical mechanics, and thermodynamics. Specific topics in probability include random variables, joint and conditional probability densities, and functions of a random variable. Concepts in statistical mechanics include macroscopic variables and thermodynamic equilibrium, fundamental assumptions of statistical mechanics, and microcanonical and canonical ensembles. Also covered are the first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics. Numerous examples illustrating a wide variety of physical phenomena such as magnetism, polyatomic gases, thermal radiation, electrons in solids, and noise in electronic devices are discussed.

Textbooks, Readings, and Slides

There is no required textbook. Instead, there are recommended readings, notes selected topics, and slides. See below for a discussion of recommended textbooks that you may wish to consult.


Problem sets are due as indicated on the calendar. The homework contributes 20% toward the final grade. One of the 11 problem set grades, the lowest, will be dropped at the end of the term.


There will be two exams during the term given during the lecture times. Each contributes 20% toward the final grade. There will be a three hour final exam during the spring exam period. It will constitute 40% of the grade.


Homework 20
Midterms @ 20% each 40
Final exam 40

Recommended Textbooks

There is no shortage of textbooks on statistical mechanics and thermodynamics aimed primarily at physicists. I have about 4 feet of them on the bookshelf above my desk. This is not because the subject has been evolving. With the exception of the realization of physical systems that are very close to non-interacting Bose gasses and exhibit Bose-Einstein condensation, the topics covered have remained essentially the same for the past 60 years. Rather, few people are completely satisfied by the way the material is presented and enterprising physicists will want to have a go at it themselves.

For MIT students, who from the beginning want to understand the material on a conceptual basis, the best choices tend to be the more advanced texts.

The following texts are the ones I believe will be the most useful references for 8.044 (and beyond).

Huang, Kerson. Statistical Mechanics. Wiley, 1987. ISBN: 9780471815181.

A graduate text formerly used in MIT subjects. Although some of the material {mainly in the latter half of the book {is above the level of 8.044, the clear and concise explanations of thermodynamics and the three statistical ensembles are hard to beat. The presentation of the material in 8.044 follows this approach quite closely. Note that a subsequent text by Huang, Kerson. Introduction to Statistical Physics. CRC Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780748409419 is not as useful for our purposes.

Kardar, Mehran. Statistical Physics of Particles. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780521873420. [Preview with Google Books]

Mehran has given the graduate version of statistical physics at MIT for a number of years and this is the text that has evolved from it. The course, and the textbook, are exemplary. This is more advanced than the Huang text (students are better prepared now than they were then) so it is not as useful for us. None the less, some of the sections on the development of theory are worth reading.

It is a good bet that any practicing physicist educated at MIT will have one or both of the above texts as their standard reference for statistical mechanics.

The following texts are aimed primarily at undergraduates. They cover a number of topics, maybe from a different point of view and perhaps with more detailed examples: neat pictures and short biographies. The problem is that one might get so caught up in the “trees” that one loses sight of the grandeur of the “forest.”

Zemansky, M. W., and R. H. Dittman. Heat and Thermodynamics. McGraw-Hill Science, 1996. ISBN: 9780070170599.

A classic undergraduate textbook on thermodynamics at about the same level as 8.044. Some students may appreciate the lengthier discussion of thermodynamics and the numerous examples treated throughout the text.

Baierlein, Ralph. Thermal Physics. Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780521590822.

This was used as a required text in 8.044 for the past several years.

Blundell, Stephen, and Katherine M. Blundell. Concepts in Thermal Physics. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780199562091.

Similar in content and level to the Baierlein book above, but I think a bit better. Score one for Oxford.

Kittel, Charles, and Herbert Kroemer. Thermal Physics. W. H. Freeman, 1980. ISBN: 9780716710882.

A popular undergraduate textbook at the level of 8.044. It does not follow the development we use (I think it jumps around a lot), but the alternative discussions of individual topics may be helpful to some students.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Exams with Solutions
Lecture Notes