On the Continuum Fallacy: Is Temperature a Continuous Function?

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Journal Article
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Springer Science and Business Media LLC
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Montelle, Clemency
Jha, Aditya
Campbell, Douglas
Wilson, Phillip

It is often argued that the indispensability of continuum models comes from their empirical adequacy despite their decoupling from the microscopic details of the modelled physical system. There is thus a commonly held misconception that temperature varying across a region of space or time can always be accurately represented as a continuous function. We discuss three inter-related cases of temperature modelling — in phase transitions, thermal boundary resistance and slip flows — and show that the continuum view is fallacious on the ground that the microscopic details of a physical system are not necessarily decoupled from continuum models. We show how temperature discontinuities are present in both data (experiments and simulations) and phenomena (theory and models) and how discontinuum models of temperature variation may have greater empirical adequacy and explanatory power. The conclusions of our paper are: a) continuum idealisations are not indispensable to modelling physical phenomena and both continuous and discontinuous representations of phenomena work depending on the context; b) temperature is not necessarily a continuously defined function in our best scientific representations of the world; and c) that its continuity, where applicable, is a contingent matter. We also raise a question as to whether discontinuous representations should be considered truly de-idealised descriptions of physical phenomena.

Montelle C, Jha A, Campbell D, Wilson PL (2023). On the Continuum Fallacy: Is Temperature a Continuous Function?. Foundations of Physics: an international journal devoted to the conceptual and fundamental theories of modern physics, biophysics, and cosmology. 53(69). 1-29.
Ngā upoko tukutuku/Māori subject headings
ANZSRC fields of research
49 - Mathematical sciences::4902 - Mathematical physics::490201 - Algebraic structures in mathematical physics
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