My high-school calculus teacher had a mustache like a walrus’s and shoulders like a rower’s. At 8:05 AM, he would demand my class’s questions about our homework. Students would yawn, and someone’s hand would drift into the air.

“I have a general question,” the hand’s owner would begin.

“Only private questions from you,” my teacher would snap. “You’ll be a general someday, but you’re not a colonel, or even a captain, yet.”

Then his eyes would twinkle; his voice would soften; and, after the student asked the question, his answer would epitomize why I’ve chosen a life in which I use calculus more often than laundry detergent.

Many times though I witnessed the “general” trap, I fell into it once. Little wonder: I relish generalization as other people relish hiking or painting or Michelin-worthy relish. When inferring general principles from examples, I abstract away details as though they’re tomato stains. My veneration of generalization led me to quantum information (QI) theory. One abstract theory can model many physical systems: electrons, superconductors, ion traps, etc.

Little wonder that generalizing a QI model swallowed my summer.

QI has shed light on statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, which describe energy, information, and efficiency. Models called resource theories describe small systems’ energies, information, and efficiencies. Resource theories help us calculate a quantum system’s value—what you can and can’t create from a quantum system—if you can manipulate systems in only certain ways.

Suppose you can perform only operations that preserve energy. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, systems evolve toward equilibrium. Equilibrium amounts roughly to stasis: Averages of properties like energy remain constant.

Out-of-equilibrium systems have value because you can suck energy from them to power laundry machines. How much energy can you draw, on average, from a system in a constant-temperature environment? Technically: How much “work” can you draw? We denote this average work by < W >. According to thermodynamics, < W > equals the change ∆F in the system’s Helmholtz free energy. The Helmholtz free energy is a thermodynamic property similar to the energy stored in a coiled spring.

One reason to study thermodynamics?

Suppose you want to calculate more than the average extractable work. How much work will you probably extract during some particular trial? Though statistical physics offers no answer, resource theories do. One answer derived from resource theories resembles ∆F mathematically but involves one-shot information theory, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

If you average this one-shot extractable work, you recover < W > = ∆F. “Helmholtz” resource theories recapitulate statistical-physics results while offering new insights about single trials.

Helmholtz resource theories sit atop a silver-tasseled pillow in my heart. Why not, I thought, spread the joy to the rest of statistical physics? Why not generalize thermodynamic resource theories?

The average work <W > extractable equals ∆F if heat can leak into your system. If heat and particles can leak, <W > equals the change in your system’s grand potential. The grand potential, like the Helmholtz free energy, is a free energy that resembles the energy in a coiled spring. The grand potential characterizes Bose-Einstein condensates, low-energy quantum systems that may have applications to metrology and quantum computation. If your system responds to a magnetic field, or has mass and occupies a gravitational field, or has other properties, <W > equals the change in another free energy.

A collaborator and I designed resource theories that describe heat-and-particle exchanges. In our paper “Beyond heat baths: Generalized resource theories for small-scale thermodynamics,” we propose that different thermodynamic resource theories correspond to different interactions, environments, and free energies. I detailed the proposal in “Beyond heat baths II: Framework for generalized thermodynamic resource theories.”

“II” generalizes enough to satisfy my craving for patterns and universals. “II” generalizes enough to merit a hand-slap of a pun from my calculus teacher. We can test abstract theories only by applying them to specific systems. If thermodynamic resource theories describe situations as diverse as heat-and-particle exchanges, magnetic fields, and polymers, some specific system should shed light on resource theories’ accuracy.

If you find such a system, let me know. Much as generalization pleases aesthetically, the detergent is in the details.