A Matter of Energy
“Nothing happens until something moves.” ~ Albert Einstein
Physics is the study of matter in motion. A central concern of physics is energy: what it takes to get matter to work.
Work is the product of a force applied to matter. Work refers to a transfer of energy to matter. Work can be said to be energy in transit.
To get down to the nature of matter takes work. Arriving at the nature of work is a matter of energy.
But the nature of energy is, most astonishingly, nothing at all. Once you understand that, you begin to understand Nature. But the rabbit hole of reality runs deeper still.
Though existence is always in motion, that which underlies existence is motionless. Reality’s nature is utter stillness. Understanding that is going to take even more work, because this conclusion collides head-on into how the world appears to be. As we are about to see, a similar paradox occurs when contrasting mundane classical physics with the arcane modern variety. There we begin.
“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” ~ English politician Winston Churchill
Classical physics mathematically characterized the mechanics of the readily observable. It is often called Newtonian physics, after its most admired decipherer, English physicist and alchemist Isaac Newton (1642–1727).
Newton made his mark expositing the interplay of motion and gravity. To Newton, all motion took place in the unconditional reference frame of absolute space and time. This is indeed how space and time appears.
“Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.” ~ Isaac Newton
Newton is esteemed as a practitioner of reason, yet he was far from it. Newton devoutly believed in an almighty God and was convinced that The Bible contained secrets in the form of numerological codes.
Newton was obsessed with alchemy. He spent untold hours trying to replicate alchemical recipes. Instead of the first king of reason, Newton was the last of the magicians.
Though the term energy derives from the ancient Greek, its modern understanding dates only from 1804, when English polymath Thomas Young proposed a wave theory of light. Young’s radical proposal had to overcome the century-old view from the venerable Newton, who posited light as particulate. Young showed how light may behave like ripples in water: colliding and interfering with one another.
People had, of course, long recognized energetic powers about them, such as the crackle of static electricity, or the billowing gusts of wind that could fill a sail and propel a boat. But each such exercise of energy was considered in its own realm: there was no overarching idea of energy taking different forms.
In 1797, English physicist Benjamin Thompson showed that a seemingly infinite amount of heat could be generated from a finite amount of material. Thompson’s work was instrumental in establishing modern thermodynamics. With thermodynamics came the conception of energy as a manifold phenomenon.
“It is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not.” ~ Greek philosopher Empedocles in the 5th century bce
Ironically, whereas Thompson’s experiment showed energy to be infinite, modern thermodynamics agreed with Empedocles, in declaring energy to be finite: neither able to be created nor destroyed. Assuming the cosmos as a self-contained system, the 1st law of thermodynamics is that energy is neither created nor destroyed.
There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law – it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change when something happens. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number, and when we finish watching Nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. ~ American physicist Richard Feynmann in 1961
The energy conservation law is nothing more than mathematical convention which does not characterize actuality.
The other laws of thermodynamics are concerned with entropy: the tendency of energy to diffuse and thereby equilibrate.
“Any other form of these laws would be so astounding as to force us to look for some more complex explanation.” ~ American particle physicist Victor Stenger
In achieving self-sustaining integrity, life defies the laws of energy conservation. But then, biology befuddles physics. Bereft of any theory that may be applied to life, physics is diminished to describing the physical mechanics of the inorganic platform upon which organisms frolic.
In the late 19th century, physics abruptly transitioned from long-held classical mechanics to speculations about deeper truths which are hidden from our senses. Whereas the classical cast its propositions upon the ambient scale, modern physics explores the outer limits: both the tremendously tiny and the cosmologically profound.
James Clerk Maxwell intellectually grazed fields of energy and discovered that distinct phenomena were unified underneath. Max Planck got the hots for how heat radiated and ended up at the limits of existence. Albert Einstein wondered what the speed of light meant and realized that everything is relative. Erwin Schrödinger transposed Planck’s quantum packets into waves, whereupon existence became decidedly uncertain.
Decades after the thought experiments of these men, actual experiments confirmed that the roots of existence are stranger than can be imagined. Which meant that the consternation felt by the ancients about Nature was spot on.
“It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature.” ~ Niels Bohr
Unseen forces have long awed inquisitive hominids. The power of wind and lightning, the subtleties whereby objects reliably fall to Earth, and the miracle of how life abounds, both frighten and fascinate.
Matter is easy enough to take for granted, at least until one wonders what holds it together and affords its transformative abilities. So too the Sun, until pondering what powers it, and provides for its radiation.
The electromagnetic spectrum is a continuum of energy intensity, from low-energy, longer wavelengths to shorter. Conversely, frequency is how tightly wavelengths huddle: the more compact, the higher the energy (at the same amplitude).
The electromagnetic spectrum illustrates our feeble perceptual limits. Human vision – the sum total of what we see – is an infinitesimal range within a spectrum that we can comprehend only as a mathematical abstract of incredible magnitude.
The ecology of humanity for all time – all that humans can ever possibly experience – is trifling to what all of life on Earth experiences in a single day. Further, the duration of humanity will be some 300,000 years on a planet teeming with life for 6–8 billion years. That ratio is roughly equivalent to a single breath in a person’s lifetime.
(Life on Earth may last another ~2 billion years, assuming the planet and the Sun remain viable. Unless drastic steps are taken (which won’t be taken), humanity will wipe itself off the planet before 2100. Our species will be lucky to last another lifetime, and we will take many other species down with us.)
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“To understand motion is to understand Nature.” ~ Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci
As da Vinci intimated, the seminal mystery lies not in what is, but in the endowment which makes movement: the motive for motion. Modern physics was forged from explaining fields and the forces that impel them; an invisible realm to us, with only effects to guide comprehension. This is the first lesson of physics: that what is apparent is either only part of Nature or is wholly deceptive.