Thermal Physics

Temperature and Its Measurement

How is temperature measured?

Temperature is measured by a device called a thermometer. There are many different kinds of thermometers, but they all have a property that depends on temperature.

The most common type of thermometer contains a thin column of liquid in a glass tube. When the temperature goes up, the liquid expands, and the height of the column increases. Earlier thermometers used mercury, a metal that is a liquid at room temperature. Because mercury is poisonous, all thermometers sold today contain red-colored alcohol. The glass tube has markings on it from which the temperature can be read.

Many thermometers today are electronic. Most contain a tiny bead of a semiconducting material whose resistance varies with temperature. The bead is called a thermistor, or thermal resistor. Others contain a tiny semiconducting diode. The voltage across this diode varies with temperature. To measure very high temperatures, a wire made of the metal platinum is used because its resistance also varies with temperature and platinum is not affected by high temperatures. Another electronic thermometer uses two wires made of different materials that are welded together. Typically the wires are made of copper and a nickel-containing alloy. This kind of thermometer is called a thermocouple and is often used in gas furnaces or water heaters to make sure that the pilot flame is burning when the gas to the main burners is turned on. Voltage and resistance will be discussed later in this book.

A less accurate, but convenient thermometer is a strip of plastic whose color changes with temperature. The plastic contains liquid crystals. The geometric arrangement of molecules in the crystals depends on temperature, and so does their color.

If two different metals are bonded together in a strip when the temperature changes the strip will bend. Because there are two metals, often brass and steel, the device is called a bimetallic strip. This kind of thermometer is often used in household thermostats.

This thermometer is similar to one developed by Galileo. The objects inside the tube have varying densities that rise or fall, depending on the temperature.

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