Dot Physics

What is Energy?

I think it is time for me to talk about energy. My ultimate goal is to give some insight into the many stories about perpetual motion. To do this, I will first talk about the fundamentals of energy.

**What is Energy**

I started thinking about this, and at first I realized that I did not have a good, short explanation of energy. The most commonly used definition in science text books is:

*Energy: the ability to do work (or something dreadfully vague like this).*

But what is work? It may be no surprise to find that many college level physics texts avoid defining energy. After some serious contemplation, I think I have this energy figured out.

**There are only two types of energy**

I don’t need a general definition of energy, since there are only two types I can just describe those two. ALL energy is either:

  • Particle Energy: Energy of particles (obviously). I was originally going to just say kinetic energy (energy of things that move) but I forgot about mass (of course you remember E=mc2). This is sort of complicated, so I can perhaps summarize it by saying a particle can have energy because of its mass and because of its motion (really this is just one thing). So, particle energy can be an electron moving, a water molecule moving, or a car (a car is a collection of atoms that are mostly moving in the same direction). For the rotational kinetic energy of the Earth, this is really the same thing. Imagine all the pieces of the Earth (atoms) they are moving and thus have kinetic energy. The idea of rotational kinetic energy is to simplify the calculation. Instead of summing the kinetic energy of each of the atoms of the Earth, one can use the radius, mass, and the angular velocity of the Earth to do the same thing. But realize this is mostly just a short cut.
  • Field Energy: Energy in the fields associated with the fundamental forces – gravity, electric, magnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear. Suppose I hold a ball above the Earth, it has particle energy (because of its mass) and there is also energy in the gravitational field associated with the ball and Earth. A chemical battery has energy stored in the electric field due to the configuration of atoms. A final example of energy in fields would be the energy from electromagnetic radiation.

But wait! What about ….. What about …. (insert some energy). All these other energies you read about are one of the above two. Other energies (for example thermal energy) are short cuts. They allow us to deal with large collections of particles without having to calculate ALL the particle energies and the field energies.

**Conservation of Energy**

There have been many many experiments in the history of science. In all of these experiments, the total energy of the situation as been conserved. Well, this is to say that there has not been an experiment where clearly the total energy before something happened was different than the total energy after something happened. Most experiments don’t look at this “energy accounting” directly. Energy conservation isn’t the law, its just what we see. How about a couple of examples of everyday things and I explain where all the energy is?

**Example: A cup of hot tea sitting on a table**

First, where is all the energy in this hot cup of tea? The cup and the tea both have particle energy. The particles (carbon and stuff) have mass energy. If I somehow annihilated this cup and tea it would turn all this mass into field energy. In this case that energy would be in the form of electromagnetic radiation. In fact, this would be so much energy in electromagnetic radiation that it would create pairs of particles (matter and antimatter pairs).

The particles also have energy because of their motion. If we assume the cup is stationary, the particles in the cup are still moving. The hotter something is, the more they move. For the particles that make up the cup, these particles are essentially just vibrating and staying in the same general area. For the tea, the particles are moving around and mostly staying in the cup (but some are leaving at the surface through evaporation). This energy is generally called thermal energy.
The cup also has energy in fields. There is energy associated with the gravitational field of the Earth-Cup(and tea) system. This would be called gravitational potential energy. There is also energy associated with the electric field is the interactions between the electrons and protons in the atoms of both the tea and the cup. People usually call this chemical energy, you could see this energy change forms if you burned the cup or had some other chemical reaction.

As the cup is sitting in the room, it gets cooler. That corresponds to lower particle energies. Where does the energy go? In this case, the stuff surrounding the cup gains energy. The table gets a little warmer (particle energy) and so does the air. This energy transfer takes place by the higher energy particles of the cup and tea interacting (through the electric field) with the particles of the air and the table. You might ask, why is it that the table gains energy and the cup loses energy? Couldn’t it happen the other way and energy would still be conserved? Yes, it would. But the probability of this happening (remember that there are on the order of 1025 particles in this cup) is so near to zero that you have a much greater chance of winning the lottery.
What if the cup were in outer space with nothing touching it? It would still cool (unless the sun was shinning on it). The particles in the cup still radiate electromagnetic energy (usually in the Infra Red region). This IR radiation could causes something else to increase in energy, but the cup still loses energy. The tea would all evaporate and lose energy to IR radiation.

I didn’t think it would be possible to take a simple thing and make it so boring, but I did it. I know that was painful (and likely in some places technically wrong) but it was necessary. Don’t make me do it again. Hopefully, you have an idea of conservation of energy and of the fundamental ideas of energy.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    October 8, 2008

    http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/museum/unwork.htm
    Perpetual motion machines

    Time is homogeneous; Noether’s theorem; mass-energy is locally conserved.

    Noether’s theorem demands any continuous symmetry is coupled to a conserved observable, and vice-versa. External symmetries couple to translation and rotation, internal symmetries do not. Diddle a non-Noetherian external symmetry to get in physics’ face.

    There is one non-Neotherian external symmetry: parity – opposite chirality along all directions. (Charge conjugation is an internal symmetry, so no antimatter anomalies.) Quantitative mass distribution parity divergence is ab initio calculated on a scale of CHI = zero (achiral) to one (perfectly parity divergent) in mathematician Michel Petitjean’s QCM software. Geometrically right- or left-handed quartz single crystals in enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 or P3(2)21 respectively are CHI = 1 atomic mass distributions. Chirality emergent scale is a 0.304 nm diameter sphere.

    Do centimeter diameter solid single crystal spheres (no direction bias!) of space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 quartz vacuum free fall identically? There is no compelling reason why they should. A parity Eötvös experiment is the relevant observation. Somebody should look for symmetry breaking.

  2. #2 cambrico
    April 19, 2010

    Thank you. Your explanation gives valuable bases for explaining some fundamental principles, specially for my children, and some annoying new age people that talk about quantum and energy. My plan is not annoying the new age people with notions of energy, but to explain to other people that what they are hearing made no sense at all (like some very gullible family members)

  3. #3 Rhett Allain
    April 20, 2010

    @cambrico,

    I still don’t think I answered the question: “what is energy”. Rather, I just said energy is either one of these two things.

    Maybe it is best to say that energy is a way that we look at things and describe things.

  4. #4 David
    May 4, 2010

    Good blog man, congratulations. About the energy defintion problem there are a couple of things I’d like to say.
    What you did in your post was a classification of energy. So in order to define energy you would need to find what these two types of energy have in common. There must be some quality or property of the concept that we call energy that is present in both of these “families”. Because it they didn’t have anything in common, they would not be called the same.
    Best wishes.

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