Statistical mechanics is the application of probability theory, which includes mathematical tools for dealing with large populations, to the field of mechanics, which is concerned with the motion of particles or objects when subjected to a force.
It provides a framework for relating the microscopic properties of individual atoms and molecules to the macroscopic or bulk properties of materials that can be observed in everyday life, therefore explaining thermodynamics as a natural result of statistics and mechanics (classical and quantum) at the microscopic level. In particular, it can be used to calculate the thermodynamic properties of bulk materials from the spectroscopic data of individual molecules.
This ability to make macroscopic predictions based on microscopic properties is the main asset of statistical mechanics over thermodynamics. Both theories are governed by the second law of thermodynamics through the medium of entropy. However, entropy in thermodynamics can only be known empirically, whereas in statistical mechanics, it is a function of the distribution of the system on its micro-states.
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- Philosophy of Statistical Mechanics article by Lawrence Sklar for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.