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As we have seen in an earlier chapter, one of the fundamental entities of the universe is matter. A second, not less important, is called energy. Energy is indispensable if the world is to continue to exist, since all phenomena, including life, depend on it. Just as it is humanly impossible to create or to destroy a particle of matter, so is it impossible to create or to destroy energy. This statement will be more readily understood when we have considered what energy is.

Energy, like matter, is indestructible, and just as matter exists in various forms so does energy. And we may add, just as we are ignorant of what the negative and positive particles of electricity which constitute matter really are, so we are ignorant of the true nature of energy. At the same time, energy is not so completely mysterious as it once was. It is another of nature's mysteries which the advance of modern science has in some measure unveiled. It was only during the nineteenth century that energy came to be known as something as distinct and permanent as matter itself.

Forms of Energy

The existence of various forms of energy had been known, of course, for ages; there was the energy of a falling stone, the energy produced by burning wood or coal or any other substance, but the essential identity of all these forms of energy had not been suspected. The conception of energy as something which, like matter, was constant in amount, which could not be created nor destroyed, was one of the great scientific acquisitions of the past century.



Wave-motions are often complex. The above illustration shows some fairly complicated wave shapes. All such wave-motions can be produced by superposing a number of simple wave forms.



The illustration is that of a "Phœnix" electric magnet lifting scrap from railway trucks. The magnet is 52 inches in diameter and lifts a weight of 26 tons. The same type of magnet, 62 inches in diameter, lifts a weight of 40 tons.


Photo: The Locomotive Publishing Co., Ltd.


A train travelling at the rate of sixty miles per hour would take rather more than seventeen and a quarter days to go round the earth at the equator, i.e. a distance of 25,000 miles. Light, which travels at the rate of 186,000 miles per second, would take between one-seventh and one-eighth of a second to go the same distance.



The Spectroscope sorts out the above seven colours from sunlight (which is compounded of these seven colours). If painted in proper proportions on a wheel, as shown in the coloured illustration, and the wheel turned rapidly on a pivot through its centre, only a dull white will be perceived. If one colour be omitted, the result will be one colour—the result of the union of the remaining six.

It is not possible to enter deeply into this subject here. It is sufficient if we briefly outline its salient aspects. Energy is recognised in two forms, kinetic and potential. The form of energy which is most apparent to us is the energy of motion; for example, a rolling stone, running water, a falling body, and so on. We call the energy of motion kinetic energy. Potential energy is the energy a body has in virtue of its position—it is its capacity, in other words, to acquire kinetic energy, as in the case of a stone resting on the edge of a cliff.

Energy may assume different forms; one kind of energy may be converted directly or indirectly into some other form. The energy of burning coal, for example, is converted into heat, and from heat energy we have mechanical energy, such as that manifested by the steam-engine. In this way we can transfer energy from one body to another. There is the energy of the great waterfalls of Niagara, for instance, which are used to supply the energy of huge electric power stations.

What Heat is

An important fact about energy is, that all energy tends to take the form of heat energy. The impact of a falling stone generates heat; a waterfall is hotter at the bottom than at the top—the falling particles of water, on striking the ground, generate heat; and most chemical changes are attended by heat changes. Energy may remain latent indefinitely in a lump of wood, but in combustion it is liberated, and we have heat as a result. The atom of radium or of any other radio-active substance, as it disintegrates, generates heat. "Every hour radium generates sufficient heat to raise the temperature of its own weight of water, from the freezing point to the boiling point." And what is heat? Heat is molecular motion. The molecules of every substance, as we have seen on a previous page, are in a state of continual motion, and the more vigorous the motion the hotter the body. As wood or coal burns, the invisible molecules of these substances are violently agitated, and give rise to ether waves which our senses interpret as light and heat. In this constant movement of the molecules, then, we have a manifestation of the energy of motion and of heat.

That energy which disappears in one form reappears in another has been found to be universally true. It was Joule who, by churning water, first showed that a measurable quantity of mechanical energy could be transformed into a measurable quantity of heat energy. By causing an apparatus to stir water vigorously, that apparatus being driven by falling weights or a rotating flywheel or by any other mechanical means, the water became heated. A certain amount of mechanical energy had been used up and a certain amount of heat had appeared. The relation between these two things was found to be invariable. Every physical change in nature involves a transformation of energy, but the total quantity of energy in the universe remains unaltered. This is the great doctrine of the Conservation of Energy.

§ 13

Substitutes for Coal

Consider the source of nearly all the energy which is used in modern civilisation—coal. The great forests of the Carboniferous epoch now exists as beds of coal. By the burning of coal—a chemical transformation—the heat energy is produced on which at present our whole civilisation depends. Whence is the energy locked up in the coal derived? From the sun. For millions of years the energy of the sun's rays had gone to form the vast vegetation of the Carboniferous era and had been transformed, by various subtle processes, into the potential energy that slumbers in those immense fossilized forests.

The exhaustion of our coal deposits would mean, so far as our knowledge extends at present, the end of the world's civilisation. There are other known sources of energy, it is true. There is the energy of falling water; the great falls of Niagara are used to supply the energy of huge electric power stations. Perhaps, also, something could be done to utilise the energy of the tides—another instance of the energy of moving water. And attempts have been made to utilise directly the energy of the sun's rays. But all these sources of energy are small compared with the energy of coal. A suggestion was made at a recent British Association meeting that deep borings might be sunk in order to utilise the internal heat of the earth, but this is not, perhaps, a very practical proposal. By far the most effective substitutes for coal would be found in the interior energy of the atom, a source of energy which, as we have seen, is practically illimitable. If the immense electrical energy in the interior of the atom can ever be liberated and controlled, then our steadily decreasing coal supply will no longer be the bugbear it now is to all thoughtful men.

The stored-up energy of the great coal-fields can be used up, but we cannot replace it or create fresh supplies. As we have seen, energy cannot be destroyed, but it can become unavailable. Let us consider what this important fact means.

§ 14

Dissipation of Energy

Energy may become dissipated. Where does it go? since if it is indestructible it must still exist. It is easier to ask the question than to give a final answer, and it is not possible in this Outline, where an advanced knowledge of physics is not assumed on the part of the reader, to go fully into the somewhat difficult theories put forward by physicists and chemists. We may raise the temperature, say, of iron, until it is white-hot. If we stop the process the temperature of the iron will gradually settle down to the temperature of surrounding bodies. As it does so, where does its previous energy go? In some measure it may pass to other bodies in contact with the piece of iron, but ultimately the heat becomes radiated away in space where we cannot follow it. It has been added to the vast reservoir of unavailable heat energy of uniform temperature. It is sufficient here to say that if all bodies had a uniform temperature we should experience no such thing as heat, because heat only travels from one body to another, having the effect of cooling the one and warming the other. In time the two bodies acquire the same temperature. The sum-total of the heat in any body is measured in terms of the kinetic energy of its moving molecules.

There must come a time, so far as we can see at present, when, even if all the heat energy of the universe is not radiated away into empty infinite space, yet a uniform temperature will prevail. If one body is hotter than another it radiates heat to that body until both are at the same temperature. Each body may still possess a considerable quantity of heat energy, which it has absorbed, but that energy, so far as reactions between those two bodies are concerned, is now unavailable. The same principle applies whatever number of bodies we consider. Before heat energy can be utilised we must have bodies with different temperature. If the whole universe were at some uniform temperature, then, although it might possess an enormous amount of heat energy, this energy would be unavailable.

What a Uniform Temperature would mean

And what does this imply? It implies a great deal: for if all the energy in the world became unavailable, the universe, as it now is, would cease to be. It is possible that, by the constant interchange of heat radiations, the whole universe is tending to some uniform temperature, in which case, although all molecular motion would not have ceased, it would have become unavailable. In this sense it may be said that the universe is running down.



The energy of this falling water is prodigious. It is used to generate thousands of horse-power in great electrical installations. The power is used to drive electric trams in cities 150 to 250 miles away.


Photo: Stephen Cribb.


An illustration of Energy. The chemical energy brought into existence by firing the explosive manifesting itself as mechanical energy, sufficient to impart violent motion to tons of water.


Photo: Underwood & Underwood.


When a kettle containing liquid air is placed on ice it "boils" because the ice is intensely hot when compared with the very low temperature of the liquid air.

If all the molecules of a substance were brought to a standstill, that substance would be at the absolute zero of temperature. There could be nothing colder. The temperature at which all molecular motions would cease is known: it is -273° C. No body could possibly attain a lower temperature than this: a lower temperature could not exist. Unless there exists in nature some process, of which we know nothing at present, whereby energy is renewed, our solar system must one day sink to this absolute zero of temperature. The sun, the earth, and every other body in the universe is steadily radiating heat, and this radiation cannot go on for ever, because heat continually tends to diffuse and to equalise temperatures.

But we can see, theoretically, that there is a way of evading this law. If the chaotic molecular motions which constitute heat could be regulated, then the heat energy of a body could be utilised directly. Some authorities think that some of the processes which go on in the living body do not involve any waste energy, that the chemical energy of food is transformed directly into work without any of it being dissipated as useless heat energy. It may be, therefore, that man will finally discover some way of escape from the natural law that, while energy cannot be destroyed, it has a tendency to become unavailable.

The primary reservoir of energy is the atom; it is the energy of the atom, the atom of elements in the sun, the stars, the earth, from which nature draws for all her supply of energy. Shall we ever discover how we can replenish the dwindling resources of energy, or find out how we can call into being the at present unavailable energy which is stored up in uniform temperature?

It looks as if our successors would witness an interesting race, between the progress of science on the one hand and the depletion of natural resources upon the other. The natural rate of flow of energy from its primary atomic reservoirs to the sea of waste heat energy of uniform temperature, allows life to proceed at a complete pace sternly regulated by the inexorable laws of supply and demand, which the biologists have recognised in their field as the struggle for existence.[5]

Matter and Energy, by Professor Soddy.

It is certain that energy is an actual entity just as much as matter, and that it cannot be created or destroyed. Matter and ether are receptacles or vehicles of energy. As we have said, what these entities really are in themselves we do not know. It may be that all forms of energy are in some fundamental way aspects of the same primary entity which constitutes matter: how all matter is constituted of particles of electricity we have already seen. The question to which we await an answer is: What is electricity?