Kinetic Theory

23 May, 2019 530 Physics

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how scientists sought to understand the properties of gases and the relationship between pressure and volume, and what that search unlocked. Newton theorised that there were static particles in gases that pushed against each other all the harder when volume decreased, hence the increase in pressure. Those who argued that molecules moved, and hit each other, were discredited until James Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann used statistics to support this kinetic theory. Ideas about atoms developed in tandem with this, and it came as a surprise to scientists in C20th that the molecules underpinning the theory actually existed and were not simply thought experiments.

Play on BBC Sounds website


  • Steven Bramwell 2 episodes
    Professor of Physics at University College London
  • Isobel Falconer No other episodes
    Reader in History of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews
  • Ted Forgan No other episodes
    Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham

Reading list

  • The Kinetic Theory of Gases: An Anthology of Classic Papers with Historical Commentary
    Stephen G. Brush (Imperial College Press, 2003) Google Books →
  • Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon
    Brian Clegg (Icon Books, 2019) Google Books →
  • Ludwig Boltzmann: The Man Who Trusted Atoms
    Carlo Cercignani (Oxford University Press, 2006) Google Books →
  • Atoms, Mechanics, and Probability: Ludwig Boltzmann's Statistico-Mechanical Writings - An Exegesis
    Olivier Darrigol (Oxford University Press, 2018) Google Books →
  • The Feynman lectures on Physics: Vol I
    Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands (Basic Books, 2011) Google Books →
  • James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on His Life and Work
    Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker (eds.) (Oxford University Press, 2014) Google Books →
  • Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond
    Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush (Rutgers University Press, 2001) Google Books →
  • Entropy: God's Dice Game
    Oded Kafri and Hava Kafri (CreateSpace, 2013) Google Books →
  • The World of Physical Chemistry
    Keith J. Ladler (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Boltzmann's Atom: The Great Debate That Launched A Revolution in Physics
    David Lindley (Free Press, 2016) Google Books →
  • The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell
    Basil Mahon (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) Google Books →
  • Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein
    Abraham Pais (Oxford University Press, 2005) Google Books →
  • The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900
    Theodore M. Porter (Princeton University Press, 1986) Google Books →

Related episodes

Programme ID: m00057s5

Episode page:

Auto-category: 530 (Physics)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. In 1662, Robert Boyle observed that when the volume of a gas goes up, the pressure goes down, and when the volume goes down, the pressure goes up.