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Nowadays, the term ‘energy’ is being used in a variety of different contexts. For example, it is not utterly uncommon for people to refer to the sheer amount of one’s ‘mental energy’ while describing him or her as an ‘energetic person’. There can be only a few doubts as to the full appropriateness of mentioning the notion of energy within a variety of different literary contexts. Nevertheless, it appears that many of those who tend to apply the concerned term at will do not quite understand what it really stands for, in the theoretical sense of this word. My paper aims to contribute towards filling a knowledge gap, in this respect.
The term ‘energy’ was introduced for the first time by Thomas Young in 1808. Prior to that, the commonly used idiom to denote the notion in question was ‘living force’ (vis viva) – a German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz is credited with having formulated it in the 17th century. The year 1829 marks the time when Gaspard Coriolis came up with the definition of ‘kinetic energy’ – the development that was followed by the introduction of the term ‘potential energy’ by William Rankine in 1835. Nevertheless, it was namely in 1847 when Hermann Helmholtz conceptualized the Law of Conservation of Energy that the concept of energy ended up attaining its contemporary sounding.
As of today, there is much inconsistency between people’s cognitive comfortableness with using the term ‘energy’, on one hand, and the fact that only a few of them happen to possess a scientifically sound understanding of this term’s discursive connotations, on the other. After all, it does not represent much of a secret that most individuals tend to envision energy as some kind of a fluid force of its own – something that presupposes the innate sameness of matter and energy. Such a point of view, however, cannot be deemed thoroughly valid, unless assessed from the perspective of Quantum Physics, which is concerned with the world of elementary particles.
We, however, live in the ‘macro-world’, to which quantum-laws do not quite apply. Therefore, when it comes to defining energy, one must keep in mind the provisions of the classical laws of Thermodynamics, which point out to the fact that even though the notions of ‘energy’ and ‘matter’ are indeed closely related, they are not quite the same.
As Bagley aptly noted: “Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. Energy is the capacity to cause change” (par. 1). What it means is that, contrary to the popular belief, energy cannot be discussed in terms of a ‘thing in itself’ – it is merely a collective term that refers to the various extrapolations of physical matter being in the state of motion, which stand detrimental to the forces of entropy (chaos). In this respect, the notion of energy can be compared to the notion of time – both of them are essentially mental constructs that serve the utilitarian purpose of helping people to deal with the challenges of life.
Thus, energy is most adequately defined as the motion of matter. As Spirkin noted: “Pure energy is an abstraction. Energy is one of the characteristics of the intensity of the interaction of material objects; energy is motion, which is impossible without a material vehicle” (par. 2). At the same time, however, energy represents the most fundamental precondition for the continual existence of the surrounding physical and social reality, as we know it. The reason for this is that energy makes possible for material forms to be spatially stable, as well as it enables the stability of the open thermodynamic systems – hence, presupposing the eventual emergence of organic life and the consequential enactment of the laws of biological evolution.
In this regard, Macklem and Seely came up with the enlightening observation: “Life… is an open thermodynamic system, in which energy is constantly imported from and entropy released into the environment” (332). Just about any plant on this earth can be referred to as such that illustrates the full validity of the quoted suggestion. After all, the metabolic process in plants (which allows them to grow and results in the emittance of oxygen into the atmosphere) is activated by incoming energy from the Sun – a stream of the fast-moving elementary particles photons.
Some people argue that the very formula E = mc2 (by Einstein) deduces that energy is merely another form of matter and vice versa. This is far from being the case. What Einstein’s formula does is making it possible for the mass of a physical object to be measured in energy units (joules) and for its energy to be measured in mass units (kilograms) – all for the sake of simplifying the calculation of measurable correlations between energy and matter (Wolfe and Hatsidimitris 30). However, it certainly does not treat energy as something tangible.
The currently adopted classification of different forms of energy is as follows:
- Kinetic – the energy of a physical object, reflective of its speed and mass.
- Potential – the ‘conserved’ energy of a physical object, measured with respect to this object’s spatial positioning within a given system of coordinates.
- Electromagnetic – the energy of the object’s electrical and magnetic fields.
- Gravitational – the potential energy of a system of physical bodies, defined by the gravitational attraction of these bodies towards each other, which positively relates to what happen to be their mass.
- Nuclear – the energy contained in the nucleuses of atoms and released during the chain reaction.
- Internal – the sum of energies that come about as a result of the molecular interactions within a physical object.
- Explosive – the energy that is being released through the duration of a chemical reaction, which results in the supersonic expansion of gasses.
Energy does not appear out of nowhere, and it also does not disappear without a trace. The earlier mentioned types of energy can be transformed into each other. For example, the potential energy of a motionless ball becomes instantly converted into the kinetic one, as soon as someone throws it into the air. However, the overall amount of energy in the universe remains fixed. In this respect, a parallel can be drawn between energy and water. When boiled, water turns into steam. When frozen, water becomes ice. In both cases, however, the actual amount of the substance in question remains the same. At the same time, however, energy has a tendency to dissipate into the surrounding environment – a cup of hot tea will most necessarily cool down within the matter of a few minutes (Hu, Ma and Wang 30).
Even though, as it was implied earlier, the term ‘energy’ was initially intended to refer to the motion of physical matter, it is now commonly used in conjunction with references being made to the notion of ‘natural resources’, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. This highlights yet another qualitative aspect of energy – it can be harvested, stored, and consequentially put to practical use. As of now, humanity has grown energetically dependent on natural resources to an unprecedented extent.
Their depletion will necessarily bring about the collapse of human civilization, as we know it. In its turn, this explains the actual reason why there has been much political instability on this planet through the recent decade – the world’s most powerful countries apply an ever increased effort into trying to ensure their ‘energetic safety’, which results in the intensification of geopolitical tensions between them (Walker 3). This highlights the phenomenological quality to the notion of energy – it is now being considered highly synonymic with the very notion of life. The most fundamental laws of history have predetermined such an eventual development.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, as to what the term ‘energy’ stands for, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, even though there are now so much more discursive connotations to the notion of energy, as compared to what it used to be the case in the 19th century, energy is still most accurately defined as the motion of physical matter.
However, given the contemporary socio-economic realities in the world, one can indeed refer to energy in terms of a ‘living force’. Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that the very progression of biological evolution presupposes that, as time goes on, the notion of energy will be perceived increasingly multi-dimensional.
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Bagley, Mary. Matter: Definition & the Five States of Matter. 2016. Web.
Hu, Yuan-zhong, Tian-bao Ma, and Hui Wang. “Energy Dissipation in Atomic-Scale Friction.” Friction 1.1 (2013): 24-40. Print.
Macklem, Peter, and Andrew Seely. “Towards a Definition of Life.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 53.3 (2010): 330-340. Print.
Spirkin, Alexander. The Motion of Matter. n.d. Web.
Walker, Martin. “Russia v. Europe: The Energy Wars.” World Policy Journal 24.1 (2007): 1-8. Print.
Wolfe, Jo, and George Hatsidimitris. “Introduction to Relativity: A Multi-Level, Multi-Media Resource.” Teaching Science 52.1 (2006): 28-31. Print.