Many scientists, and in particular mathematicians, report difficulty in understanding thermodynamics. So why is thermodynamics so difficult? To attempt an answer, we begin by looking at the components in an exposition of a scientific theory. These include a mathematical core, a motivation for the choice of variables and equations, some historical remarks, some examples and a discussion of how variables, parameters, and functions (such as equations of state) can be inferred from experiments. There are other components too, such as an account of how a theory relates to other theories in the subject.

It will be suggested that theories of thermodynamics are hard to understand because (i) many expositions appear to argue from the particular to the general (ii) there are several different thermodynamic theories that have no obvious logical or mathematical equivalence (iii) each theory really is subtle and requires intense study (iv) in most expositions different theories are mixed up, and the different components of a scientific exposition are also mixed up. So, by presenting one theory at a time, and by making clear which component is being discussed, we might reduce the difficulty in understanding any individual thermodynamic theory. The key is perhaps separation of the mathematical core from the physical motivation. It is also useful to realise that a motivation is not generally the same as a proof, and that no theory is actually true.

By way of illustration we will attempt expositions of two of the simplest thermodynamic theories – reversible and then irreversible thermodynamics of homogeneous materials – where the mathematical core and the motivation are discussed separately. In conclusion we’ll relate these two simple theories to other, foundational and generalised, thermodynamic theories.