The application of thermodynamic principles begins by defining a system that is in some sense distinct from its surroundings. For example, the system could be a sample of gas inside a cylinder with a movable piston, an entire steam engine, a marathon runner, the planet Earth, a neutron star, a black hole, or even the entire universe. In general, systems are free to exchange heat, work, and other forms of energy with their surroundings.
A system’s condition at any given time is called its thermodynamic state. For a gas in a cylinder with a movable piston, the state of the system is identified by the temperature, pressure, and volume of the gas. These properties are characteristic parameters that have definite values at each state and are independent of the way in which the system arrived at that state. In other words, any change in value of a property depends only on the initial and final states of the system, not on the path followed by the system from one state to another. Such properties are called state functions. In contrast, the work done as the piston moves and the gas expands and the heat the gas absorbs from its surroundings depend on the detailed way in which the expansion occurs.
The behaviour of a complex thermodynamic system, such as Earth’s atmosphere, can be understood by first applying the principles of states and properties to its component parts—in this case, water, water vapour, and the various gases making up the atmosphere. By isolating samples of material whose states and properties can be controlled and manipulated, properties and their interrelations can be studied as the system changes from state to state.