My understanding is that temperature is an inherently macroscopic quantity, but I've seen a number of people talk about calculating the temperature of ideal-gas simulations like this one. To take one example, in the final simulation here the author, a physicist, mentions calculating the pressure and temperature of the particles in his simulation.

Is it possible to define temperature for such a system, and to calculate it within a simulation? And how would one go about doing this?



2 Answers 2


The instantaneous temperature of a system of $N$ particles of masses $m_i$ and velocities $v_i$ is

$$ T(t) = \sum_{i=1}^N \frac{m_iv_i^2(t)}{k_BN_f} $$

where $N_f$ equals the number of degrees of freedom, typically $N_f=3N-3$ for fixed total momentum.

Note that the instantaneous temperature will fluctuate 5-10% about the true (thermodynamic) temperature and should therefore be time-averaged.

  • $\begingroup$ thanks. Could you link a reference for how one derive this, and shows it is consistent with macroscopic definitions in the limit? Also does it only apply to free particles? $\endgroup$
    – tom
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 8:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @tom A basic derivation can be found here or in most resources on kinetic theory. For something citable I recommend the book Understanding Molecular Simulation by Frenkel & Smit. This result is not limited to free particles; it is used in force-based molecular dynamics simulations too. $\endgroup$
    – lemon
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ why would you need to average over time to make it "physically-meaningful"? $\endgroup$
    – gatsu
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @lemon: yes the temperature will fluctuate and so what? Is there any principle in physics that forbids the temperature to fluctuate? Note that I have nothing against looking at averages. I just disagree with the fact that only the (time) average of what you call the instantaneous temperature is physically-meaningful. $\endgroup$
    – gatsu
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 9:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I have reworded the last paragraph to eliminate the 'physically-meaningful' phrase, although I re-iterate that it is the average that is experimentally measured. $\endgroup$
    – lemon
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 12:30

While lemon's answer is of course correct, it is not the only way to calculate the temperature from a molecular dynamics simulation: it can also be obtained from the configurations, that is, the particle coordinates, of the system. This is called "configurational temperature" (see, e.g., this article; pay-walled). The key identity is (for a canonical ensemble) $$k_\mathrm{B}T = \frac{\langle \mathbf B(\mathbf \Gamma) \cdot \nabla_{\mathbf \Gamma} H(\mathbf \Gamma) \rangle_{\mathbf \Gamma}}{\langle \nabla_{\mathbf \Gamma} \cdot \mathbf B(\mathbf \Gamma) \rangle_{\mathbf \Gamma}}$$ with $B$ an (almost; weak restrictions apply) arbitrary vector field depending on the phase space variables $\Gamma$, $H(\Gamma)$ the Hamiltonian and $\nabla_\Gamma$ the phase space gradient.$\langle \ldots \rangle_\Gamma$ denotes the ensemble average. The fact that $B(\Gamma)$ is basically arbitrary means that you can have $B$ also only depend on the positions and not on the momenta. For example, for $\mathbf B(\mathbf \Gamma) = \nabla E(\mathbf x)$ with $E(\mathbf x)$ being the system's potential energy, the following identity holds: $$k_\mathrm{B} T = \frac{\langle \nabla E(\mathbf x) \cdot \nabla E(\mathbf x) \rangle}{\langle \nabla \cdot \nabla E(\mathbf x)\rangle}$$ Now $\langle \ldots \rangle$ just denotes the ensemble average with respect to the positions $\mathbf x$. These and similar, only position-dependent, expressions are especially useful when you do Monte Carlo simulations where you usually don't have access to the kinetic energy of your system (note that this example is especially convenient for MD because you have to calculate $\nabla E(\mathbf x) = -\mathbf F(\mathbf x)$ anyway). The configurational temperature can also be used to estimate interaction potentials, that is, more than one "temperatures", see this article (pay-walled; disclaimer: one of the authors is my PhD supervisor).

  • $\begingroup$ That configurational temperature is not an instantaneous temperature, and only agrees with the kinetic average temperature under certain limits. $\endgroup$
    – juanrga
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 19:12

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