Statistical ensemble (mathematical physics)

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In mathematical physics, especially as introduced into statistical mechanics and thermodynamics by J. Willard Gibbs in 1878, an ensemble (also statistical ensemble or thermodynamic ensemble)[1][2] is an idealization consisting of a large number of mental copies (sometimes infinitely many) of a system, considered all at once, each of which represents a possible state that the real system might be in. This article treats the notion of ensembles in a mathematically rigorous fashion, although relevant physical aspects will be mentioned.


Physical considerations

The ensemble formalises the notion that a physicist repeating an experiment again and again under the same macroscopic conditions, but unable to control the microscopic details, may expect to observe a range of different outcomes.

The notional size of the mental ensembles in thermodynamics, statistical mechanics and quantum statistical mechanics can be very large indeed, to include every possible microscopic state the system could be in, consistent with its observed macroscopic properties. But for important physical cases it can be possible to calculate averages directly over the whole of the thermodynamic ensemble, to obtain explicit formulas for many of the thermodynamic quantities of interest, often in terms of the appropriate partition function (see below). Some of these results are presented in the article Statistical mechanics.

Note on terminology

  • The word "ensemble" is also used for a smaller set of possibilities sampled from the full set of possible states. For example, a collection of walkers in a Markov chain Monte Carlo iteration is called an ensemble in some literature.

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