Energy is neither created nor destroyed

“If you really want to learn and get better at anything and to have any chance of becoming an expert, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. That’s because thinking takes effort. It involves fighting through confusion and, for most of us, that’s at least somewhat unpleasant.”

So says the closing quote in a great video by Veritasium, one of my favourite Youtube channels. If you share my goal to finish each day a little smarter than you started it, this channel is indispensable.

In his video “The Science of Thinking” (scroll down), Veritasium’s Derek Muller dives into the System 1/System 2 thinking model explored so eloquently in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” and shows why learning feels hard and takes time. I’ve been struggling with this truth all week, as I set myself a project to understand more about energy.

The Origins of Energy

Today we may think of the concept of energy as fundamental to the human experience, but it’s a relatively recent arrival. Though Aristotle spoke of “energeia” in the fourth century BC, the Greek word was not directly translatable. The German mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, formulated ideas corresponding to our modern understanding of kinetic and potential energy in the 17th century, but it was not until the early part of the 19th century that Thomas Young used the term ‘energy’ in the way we mean it today.

Young’s use of the word did not gain traction and it popped up only sporadically in science until Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905. By the time his Theory of General Relativity was published in 1916, the notion of energy was becoming widespread. But let’s go back to Leibniz.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born in Leipzig in July 1646. His father – a professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig – died when Gottfried was six years old, leaving his son a substantial library. In April 1661, the fourteen year-old enrolled at Leipzig, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy just eighteen months later. He then spent another year earning a masters in the subject.

Opining that philosophy and law were connected in theory and practice, Leibniz then spent a year studying law and was awarded a bachelor’s degree in the subject in September 1665. The following year, Leipzig refused the young man’s application for a doctorate – a process that normally took three years and included a licence to practice law – so he left Leipzig and went to the University of Altdorf. The university awarded the twenty year-old with his licence and doctorate in February 1667. They also offered him an academic position, which he declined.

Leibniz’ life is an incredible story. He worked in alchemy, law and international diplomacy until a meeting with a physicist and mathematician revealed a flawed understanding of both subjects. Studying maths led to the formulation of an entirely new form of calculus and the invention of a calculating machine called the Stepped Reckoner, a model of which he presented to the Royal Society in the 1673. The Society instantly made him a member.

Period engineering struggled to manufacture the intricate machine, but restoration of his final version in the late 19th century showed that it worked. The machine survives in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz library at the University of Hanover.

Leibniz vs Newton and Descartes

Leibniz was active across many areas and his work brought him into conflict with other thinkers of the time, including Newton and Descartes. Sides taken in the fallout from these disputes would lead to virtual anonymity at the time of his death, but his work has since earned significant approval.

Many of Leibniz’ ideas would not be proven until centuries later. Positioning himself against Newton, he argued that space, time and motion were relative rather than absolute. This was not settled until Einstein and the discovery of subatomic particles supported Leibniz’ theory of motion, based on the existence of both kinetic and potential energy.

Other Leibniz ideas included the molten core of the earth, the existence of an unconscious mind and the development of national insurance systems. He pre-empted game theory and information theory and is regarded as one of the first computer scientists: while researching other cultures and comparing notes on metaphysics, Leibniz read the Chinese I Ching text and reinterpreted the Ying/Yang symbol as a zero and one.

I don’t know where to stop with Leibniz: he is simply incredible. Nowadays, a person with one game-changing idea in life is granted hero status, but here is a man to match Da Vinci and yet we have scarcely heard of him. I tripped over him in a BBC video on the concept of energy, which led me to Leibniz and Emmy Noether’s theorem on the physics of symmetry. This is where my tiny brain is struggling hardest at the minute, but I am working on it.

Porsche Parts: Pure Energy

When I was first sent the photos accompanying this post, they immediately intrigued me. Shot by a famous German photographer, the images show various Porsche parts in an explosive state of animation. Echoing the two-dimensional parts diagrams all car enthusiasts will be familiar with, these energetic three-dimensional photos of Porsche parts challenge our notions of the inanimate nature of car parts and question our concept of energy in a pivotal time for consideration and conservation.

As energy cannot be created or destroyed, the energy that went into creating these parts and the energy they will generate throughout their useful life is significant. Even static, every part in these photos embodies energy that has surrounded our world since the very beginning.

We must also consider the question of the human energy invested in these parts: the design. manufacture and assembly and the creation of these incredible photographs. Energy everywhere moving from one form to another – a fascinating train of thought, especially if one has watched enough Star Wars movies. May the force be with you.

Our energy future is a significant challenge: whether we will continue to survive as a species largely depends on how we allocate our energy resources and how we choose to expend our own energy. It is important that as well as looking forward, we look back to lives such as Leibniz and Noether and are inspired by the mental energy they invested into stretching the collective consciousness and understanding of the universe.

I’ll conclude with a nod to Leipzig University’s page on the origins of energy as a concept, which I drew upon while writing this piece. “The concept of “energy” has entered common speech in ways that are often confusing and contradictory. Everyday expressions such as “energy production” or “renewable energy” contradict the energy conservation law which, as we recall, asserts that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The scientific definition of energy by the law of energy conservation also does not do much to help us understand expressions like “an energetic person”.

For an everyday working definition of “energy”, we might look back to Aristotle for inspiration. Stated simply, he said: Energy is a condition that describes the capacity to do work.”

While Aristotle’s point is a subtle one and considering the nature of energy to include creative and contemplative energy may be intolerable from a purely mathematical position, being more appreciative of energy and the increasing importance of our relationship with the concept in all of its accepted forms is paramount to our future.

If these engaging images help us to take a step back from viewing their subjects as simply constituent elements in a privileged form of personal transport and classifying them only in terms of the thrills they deliver, they will have transgressed their intended function and inspired more energy than their designers and manufacturers could have ever imagined. That is exciting on so many levels.

Photo Credits:

Bernd Ebsen – Photographer 
Oliver Naske – Set in Motion (Set building) 
Nils Emde – Splash camshaft 
Imagerefinery – Postproduction 
Tom Schönfeld – Assistant 


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