Photosynthesis Intro Page
Energy Flows Through Life
Other FT Exploring Pages
is an Engineer, Really
is the Definition of Energy?
I know, all the school
books say energy is the ability to do work. But what does that mean? Well it sort
of means the ability to make something happen (the nearly-well-known Dave
Watson definition). Everytime a force is exerted on something through a distance
(which is the definition of work) something had to move, which means something
happened. But is that the definition of Energy? My thermo books say work is a
process of energy transfer. Not a single one of my numerous thermodynamics text
books says energy is "the ability to do work" (see fun definitions below).
|We use energy to run, to
make things happen.
And what about heat flow? Energy can be transferred through heat
flow, like when you put a pot of water on the stove and the water gets hotter.
Something happened for sure. Something changed. The water got hot and eventually,
if left on the hot stove long enough, will start to boil. What forces are involved
in this case? There doesn't appear to be anything being pushed through a distance.
Some of the more thoughtful text books are careful to explain that the ability
to do work applies to mechanical energy, not heat (or thermal energy - see the
page on types of energy). But we're
not done yet. If you get to the really thoughtful text books (or web sites) they
will explain that what we call heat or heat flow is really the 35,000 foot view
(macro level) of the result of trillions and trillions and trillions of interactions
between atoms and molecules. At the atomic, or micro level, you can make the case
that it looks a lot like work, as individual atomic particles are exchanging energy
by doing work on each other (again see the page on types
to the Defining Characteristics
For the purpose of explaining energy to beginners, I think the best description
is the following nearly-well-known Dave
Energy is a property or characteristic (or trait or aspect?)
of matter that makes things happen, or, in the case of stored or potential energy,
has the "potential" to make things happen.
By "happen", we mean to make things move or change condition. Examples
of changes in condition are changes in shape, volume, and chemical composition
(results of a chemical reaction). There are also changes in pressure, temperature,
and density which we call a "change of state" in thermodynamics. Phase
changes, such as changing from solid to liquid, or liquid to vapor, or back the
other way, are also good examples of condition changes. Something happened!
Without energy, nothing would ever change, nothing would ever happen. You might
say energy is the ultimate agent of change, the mother of all change agents.
Whenever anything happens or changes there is an energy change. Either energy
changes form, as when a generator changes mechanical energy into electrical energy;
or energy changes location, as when heat flowing too fast out of your body makes
you cold, or heat flowing into a pot of water makes the water turn into steam.
You get the idea.
Okay, I suppose "making things happen" is just as much a defining characteristic
as the "ability to do work". But it's something beginners can comprehend.
You don't have to understand the concept of work to understand this. Also, this
more general way of describing energy includes heat flow. When an ice cube melts
(a phase change), or a cup of hot coffee cools down, something happened, energy
flowed, but no work was done (at least on the macro level). The "ability
to do work" only applies to mechanical energy.
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Credit Reading - What the Books Don't Say
I looked for the definition of energy in 9 college thermodynamic text books, 3
college text books on heat transfer, and 3 college text books on physics. Only
a few of the thermo books even discussed a definition for energy. Most just jumped
right into thermo without so much as a nod in the direction of an energy definition.
Work was discussed but not as a definition for energy, just as the well-known
process of energy conversion.
If you aren't already having too much fun, I've gathered some of the more interesting
comments, descriptions, and "definitions" I found on energy, and listed
them below. Who says nerds aren't fun?
I suggest bringing these to a party. Be sure and remind everyone that even while
they are hearing these being read, their brains are converting food energy into
thought. No one knows quite how the hec that happens, either. Be prepared for
enthusiastic applause when you finish. (Okay, I did get booed off the stage at
the last party, but they were a bunch of business majors.)
Richard Feynman (very famous & smart physicist), "Lectures on Physics"
Quote: "It is important to realize that
in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have
a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount."
Quoted in a book called Energies, by Vaclav Smil, attributed to David Rose:
Quote: Energy, "is an abstract concept
invented by physical scientists in the nineteenth century to describe quantitatively
a wide variety of natural phenomena."
by Virgil Moring Faires, and Clifford Max Simmang, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc.
(a college text book)
Quote: "Energy is inherent in all matter.
Energy is something that appears in many different forms which are related to
each other by the fact that conversion can be made from one form of energy to
another (comment from DW - see my pages on Energy
Changes and the First Law of Thermodynamics).
Although no simple definition can be given to the general term energy, E, except
that it is the capacity to produce an effect (comment from
DW - "Hey that's like my definition!"), the various forms in
which it appears can be defined with precision."
(A good ol' Schaum's Outline for gosh sakes!) Theory and Problems of Thermodynamics,
by M.M. Abbott, H.C. Van Ness, Schaum's Outline Series in Engineering, McGraw-Hill
Quote: "Energy is a mathematical abstraction
that has no existence apart from its functional relationship to other variables
or coordinates that do have a physical interpretation and which can be measured.
For example, the kinetic energy of a given mass of material is a function of its
velocity, and it has no other reality."
(comment from DW - Phew! I guess that's kind of a mystic
thing going there. And that's the first paragraph! How many people would keep
reading after that? Well, me for one. I couldn't resist, here's the next paragraph:)
More Quote (2nd paragraph in book):
"The first law of thermodynamics is merely a formal statement asserting that
energy is conserved. Thus it represents a primitive statement about a primitive
concept. Moreover, energy and the first law are coupled: The first law depends
on the concept of energy, but it is equally true that energy is an essential thermodynamic
function precisely because it allows formulation of the first law."
(comment from DW - Get out of town! My appologies to the
folks at Schaum's for poking fun, but come on, that's just plain ridiculous, not
to mention unbearably pompous.)
Fundamentals of Classical Thermodynamics, 3rd Edition, by Gordon J. Van
Wylen, Richard E. Sonntag, John Wiley & Sons,
(comment from DW - Years ago I taught a semester of Engineering
Thermodynamics at Penn State Behrend while also working full time as an Engineer
at GE - what an ordeal! This was the book we used.)
Quote: "One very excellent definition
of thermodynamics is that it is the science of energy and entropy. However, since
we have not yet defined those terms, an alternate definition in terms with which
we are already familiar is: thermodynamics is the science that deals with heat
and work and those properties of substances that bear a relation to heat and work."
(comment from DW - Okay, the authors say they haven't yet
defined energy, implying they are going to define it. Well I looked all through
the book finding no such definition of energy. It's not even mentioned in the
index. Sneaky, huh?)
Theory and Practice of Heat Engines, by Virgil Moring Faires, The MacMillan
(comment by DW - this is an old one, copyright 1948. Apparently
the laws of energy haven't changed since then.)
Quote: "While it is difficult to define
energy in a general sense, it is simple to explain particular manifestations
of energy. The forms of energy to be considered here are: mechanical potential
energy, mechanical kinetic energy, internal energy, flow work, shaft work, transferred
heat, and, occasionally, chemical and electrical energy. Other manifestations
of energy, such as atomic energy, subatomic energy, will not be discussed."
(comment by DW - It was not my experience that the average
first year thermo student felt it was "simple to explain particular manifestations
of energy". Also, note that neither work nor heat are described as a form
of energy, but he does have that process thing in there "transferred heat".
Okay, that's enough fun for one page. Those few fellow nerds that are still with
me, must be real die-hards. So, to repeat myself again, most of the books I looked
at did not even mention a definition for energy, they just started talking about
it. From now on, that's what I'll do.
Intro Page The First Law
of Thermo Types of Energy
Second Law of Thermo
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