Statistical mechanics is a subject with a particularly rich history. I think of the early debates of Boltzmann and Loschmidt, the rather confusing differences between the approaches of Gibbs and Boltzmann, the philosophical efforts of E.T. Jaynes to phrase entropy in terms of information theory, all the way through to more modern work like Evan and Searles' fluctuation theorem.

A beginner is swamped not only by the intrinsically difficult ideas, but also by the feeling that even the experts can't agree on the most basic definitions. I'm sure that's not true, but when you read Gibbs and Boltzmann it certainly feels that way!

So what I'm looking for a book (ideally technical, like a textbook) which develops the ideas historically. Perhaps similar to Lanczos' book on mechanics. It would discuss historical controversies, and to what extent the modern theory has resolved them.

Does such a book exist? Thanks.

  • $\begingroup$ I was unaware of that site, sorry. I'm not sure it should be moved though - I'm looking for an historically motivated textbook (like Lanczos for CM or Bohm for QM) rather than a pure history book. $\endgroup$
    – tom
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 8:03

2 Answers 2


Stefano Bordoni's 2012 Taming Complexity (e-book from ResearchGate; review) is a good place to start.
(Bordoni has a master's degree in physics and three PhDs, in the history of science, anthropology and epistemology of complexity, and philosophy.)

Bordoni refers to

which are both excellent "surveys of statistical mechanics," especially regarding the problem of whether reversible physical theory (e.g., mechanics) can account for irreversible phenomena (cf. Poincaré's famous "Le mécanisme et l’expérience" in the aforementioned anthology).

  • $\begingroup$ I've accepted your answer as it contains some very interesting material which seems to be historically accurate. I'm still holding out for a Lanczos-like statistical mechanics text though :) $\endgroup$
    – tom
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 10:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, Lanczos is very good. It's rare for a physics textbook to use the historical method in its pedagogy. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ Another one to check out is René Dugas's A History of Mechanics. After 638 pages of mechanics (from ancient statics to quantum mechanics), Dugas states: "I have not treated, as being beside the strict purpose of this book, the relationship between mechanics and thermodynamics in the classical field." Thus, your question is very relevant. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 22:08

The following two books are also very good resources about this topic ; the first one has a more historical approach.

Carlo Cercignani, Ludwig Boltzmann. The man who trusted atoms. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998. xviii+329 pp. ISBN: 0-19-850154-4

Giovanni Gallavotti, Statistical mechanics. A short treatise. Texts and Monographs in Physics. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1999. xiv+339 pp. ISBN: 3-540-64883-6

  • $\begingroup$ The short treatise by Gallavotti is a true gem. $\endgroup$
    – Francesco
    Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 14:38
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Francesco : I completely agree, it's a remarkable book. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 17:18

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