Thermodynamics, a branch of physical chemistry, is generally considered one of the toughest subjects in the field. Its counter-intuitive nature and use of multivariable calculus tend to leave many students in the dust. Yet, it is this course of study that chemistry teacher Dr. Zhen-Chuan Li has intensively researched for over 50 years.
Li recently presented his paper on thermodynamics, titled “Search for Beauty in Science: Thermodynamic Symmetry Diagram and Its Applications,” at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 244th National Meeting and Exposition. This time, the conference was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from Sunday, August 19 to Thursday, August 23, providing thousands of American scientists the opportunity to share their most recent advances in chemistry and chemistry-related fields.
The American Chemical Society was founded in 1876 and has since held national meetings biannually. Each meeting is broken into numerous divisions, such as Food Chemistry, Chemistry and the Law, and Inorganic Chemistry. Each division holds its own meetings and poster sessions. The expositions, along with special events spread over the course of the week, give attendees the chance to meet their colleagues, many of whom are showcasing new technological developments. Many educational workshops are also held to further science education and spur more interest in scientific careers. According to the ACS website, “everyone who attends an ACS National Meeting and Exposition walks away with a greater understanding of the role chemistry plays in the global economy, health, safety, and environment.” Today, the ACS has expanded to involve more than 164,000 members, with each national meetings attracting approximately12,000 professionals and featuring about 7,000 presentations.
Li’s paper was presented in the general poster session of the Division of Chemical Education symposia, which consisted of about 300 other presentations. In his paper, Li discusses a three-dimensional approach to analyzing the relationship between different thermodynamic properties, such as temperature, entropy, pressure, volume, chemical potential, and internal energy. According to Li, who quotes renowned American physicist Herbert Callen, “Thermodynamics is a science of symmetry.” Properties can be thought of as multivariable functions that occupy a three-dimensional space, and by applying geometry—particularly the concentric multi-polyhedron—Li sought specific thermodynamic symmetries and examined the use of symmetrical diagrams for different thermodynamic purposes.
“Even though I am interested in physics and other applied sciences like chemistry, I am primarily inclined towards mathematics, so when I heard Dr. Li mention his model in my Regents Chemistry class, the fancy partial derivatives and geometric diagrams caught my attention,” said senior Andrew Hwang, who also took Li’s Physical Chemistry elective, in an e-mail interview. “I eventually became involved in his project as an editor and general assistant, and at the ACS meeting I was able to stand alongside Dr. Li to present his Geometric Thermodynamics Model and had the opportunity to meet renowned researchers and journalists from around the country.”
On Tuesday, July 24, Li was selected to participate in the ACS Presentations on Demand, a program that captures select content from ACS meetings and publishes oral presentations, posters, and papers online after a meeting. Once available on the ACS online archive on Saturday, September 15, the 113-page “Search for Beauty in Science” will mark Li’s first full-length publication in America and will be accessible worldwide, which has “always been my dream, for everyone to be able to read my work,” Li said.
Li also applied for the ACS’s Committee on Environmental Improvement (ACS-CEI) Award, which is granted to only four to six researchers annually for their exemplary work on the incorporation of sustainability into chemical education. Applicants are required to shorten their papers, with Li ultimately cutting his down to 150 words. Recipients of the ACS-CEI Award are invited to give lectures at the 2013 ACS Spring National Meeting in New Orleans. Results will be announced within the next two months.
In hopes of formal print publication, Li also submitted a 5,000-word version of his paper to the Journal of Chemical Education, from which he awaits a response. In doing so, he has had to fix the original formatting of the paper and include additional diagrams.
While reflecting on his research, Li states that the mathematical concepts were one of the most difficult aspects of his project. He further explains, however, that they were not his only obstacles. “The symmetry of the polyhedron is very much like the Periodic Table or the Eightfold Way in physics. By first using fundamental principles, the model is derived and expanded until it is developed enough to help in making predictions,” Li said. “Symmetry is both powerful and beautiful, but the scientific community did not recognize its potential as a model until recently.”
Another obstacle was Li’s initial unfamiliarity with the new research environment. “In China, I was able to publish numerous papers about my research, but it was far more difficult for me to do so in America, not only due to the language barrier, but also because of my unfamiliarity with Western sources, rather than works from China, Japan, or Russia,” he said. “Much of the spare time that I had when I wasn’t teaching was dedicated to expanding my knowledge on other thermodynamics research.”
Li was first exposed to thermodynamics during his third year at Peking University. Intrigued by the subject, he continued to study the graphic representation of thermodynamic state function relations, publishing his first paper in a national Chinese scientific journal titled “Huaxue Tongbao” in 1982. Chemical Abstracts, an American periodical index that provided summaries of recently published scientific documents, published an English summary of Li’s paper the same year. In 1986, funded as a government scholar, Li came to the United States and ultimately decided to remain here, gaining a teaching position at Stuyvesant ten years later.
Aside from teaching Regents and Honors Chemistry, Li also began teaching the Physical Chemistry elective in 2001. A class geared specifically to Li’s interests and research he has conducted, Physical Chemistry was comprised of ten to twenty intellectual and motivated students each semester. The class was discontinued in 2005 due to budget cuts but was reinstated in 2011, with Li hoping to spark the same interest that drove his research career in his students.
“There were many interesting, specialized topics in Physical Chemistry,” Hwang said. “We were exposed to natural variables, energy distributions, statistical mechanics, thermodynamic potentials, and so on, but I think the most important part of the experience was improving our skills for harder problems with the new techniques we learned, such as knowing how to use calculus for statistical applications.”
In teaching the course, Li is amazed with his students’ ability to make sense of such a complex subject. “Offering such a rigorous course for high school students is extraordinary,” Li said. “Usually, such subjects are taught during the second or even third year of college. It is amazing that Stuyvesant is able to foster such intensive learning, and that students are so driven to deepen their understanding of complex topics.”
Though he has completed his research paper for publication, “learning never ends,” Li said. He asserts that he will continue to learn more about thermodynamics and further his research. Li hopes that his students will continue his work and take it beyond its present scope. “My goal is to inspire others and pique their interests in physical chemistry so that perhaps they will be able to carry on this subject,” Li said. “Thermodynamics is so multifaceted; it will be amazing to see how far research in this topic can go.”