Energy

Dr. Who Update

Man, last week’s episode —Blink— was so fracking scary that I had a hard time believing I was watching commercial children’s television. The lesson for horror writers is this: it’s far more scary to imply than to show. Aieeee. Shiver.

Grammar

Meanwhile, my earlier post titled “The Grammar Nazi Strikes” continues to grow as a monster comment repository. I’m just sitting back and watching the train wreck. I have no intention of participating!

Energy

Speaking of grammar and style, now is the time for me to reveal one of my biggest linguistic pet peeves: overuse and misuse of the word “energy”. Having just spent a week in Vancouver, Canada’s California, where feng shui and yoga fashions are acceptable office discussion topics, that bloody word is especially grating on me.

“If I move the couch this way, the energy of the room flows better.”
“I didn’t like his energy this morning.”
“There’s a great energy in the room tonight.”

And yadda yadda. “Energy” is the lazy catch-all replacement word for those whose brains are too marijuana- and Oprah-addled to consider “attitude”, “disposition”, “enthusiasm” or a hundred other more precise, correct and meaningful options.

This wouldn’t bother me so much but for two reasons. First, those who misuse “energy” are often those who work in the language or communication industries —they should know better! And second, “energy” already has a very specific and hugely important scientific meaning.

I know, it’s not uncommon for the lay person and the scientist to use the same word in different fashions. The problem with this setup where “energy” is concerned, however, is that misuse of the word by the spandex and tofu set has, I believe, greatly contributed to the epidemic of scientific illiteracy in our society.

My belligerent ex-brother-in-law (who sometimes reads this blog, so I will be kind) once insisted that energy, in a physics context, is a “ball of glowing stuff”. I slapped my head, then I almost slapped him.

Energy is, to be pedantic, “the ability to do work”. It comes in many forms: kinetic, potential, electrostatic, etc. Among the most common form for humans, and the least understood by the lay person, is potential energy, which is ironically the best example for typifying the definition, “the ability to do work.”

A boulder sitting on top of a cliff, with gravity pulling on it, but with the cliff preventing its fall, is chock full of “potential energy”. This energy cannot be perceived by us in any fashion, nor can it be scanned for; but we can compute it by measuring the boulder’s mass and its distance from the ground.

The only form of energy that is directly perceivable by human beings is light. (And heat, as well, but many consider them to be the same thing.) Photons (the particles which make up light) are in fact packets of pure energy. Light (and indeed all matter, as well) is more complicated than just that, since its properties are also described as that of a wave. So the quality of energy can be measured as the light’s wavelength or frequency.

When I talk to students new to these concepts, I like to use the additional example of a water wave as being a way to indirectly perceive energy. If a meteor crashes into the ocean and a wave is produced, which smashes into a nearby beach… what exactly constituted the wave? At each point of the wave, from its initiation at the meteor impact site to its impact on the beach, different particles of water were involved. The water that hits the beach is not the same water that the meteor struck. Somehow the energy of the meteor was transferred to the beach via the medium of water…. and we can see that transfer as the undulating wave of energy that radiated from the crash site to the beach. A wave, in its purest mathematical sense, is energy.

Which brings up the next important point, the Laws of Thermodynamics, one of which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. The kinetic energy of the meteor became the water wave, which became the tsunami crashing on the beach, which became flying debris or was dissipated as heat energy upon impact, etc.

Similarly, the kinetic energy of moving the boulder to the top of the cliff was converted to potential energy. Imagine now that we could somehow teleport that boulder to the ground without dropping it… It would reappear on the ground, but would it still have its potential energy? No, since it can no longer fall. But the Laws of Thermodynamics state that that energy had to go somewhere, so there’s a good chance that such a teleported boulder would be glowing hot as the potential energy is converted to heat energy. This is an example of some of the things a competent science fiction writer has to think about when weaving believable, but fictional, technologies into a narrative.

Moreover, Einstein taught us that mass and energy are the same thing, and that we can convert between the two. A nuclear explosion is the conversion of a minute piece of matter into light and heat energy.

Conceptualizations of both matter and energy constitute the fundament of our understanding of the physical universe. Visualizing “glowing balls of stuff” or a stoner’s attitude or a room post-feng shui does nothing to help us grasp with these enormous concepts.