We Cannot Change Physics

412_DSP_Weather_005, 07/27/2006
As a freelance journalist, I often choose the subjects I write about. Sometimes, though, editors come to me with ideas. Which means I occasionally end up writing bizarre stories on topics I never would have considered otherwise. Last fall, I was contacted by an editor at a “creative agency” in London. One of their clients was a Swedish manufacturer of ski helmets, for whom they had produced three issues–one per year–of a strange but really well-executed little magazine. The most recent issue had been about “the way in which natural and manmade shapes and spaces impact on our lives,” whatever that means.

The next edition, the editor said, would be about “power.” Would I like to write an essay about power in nature? The story should include an exploration of “energy, forces and phenomenons,” should “explore the physics behind power,” and would ideally conclude with a discussion of how we can harness natural energy as a sustainable resource. Part of me was like, “Um, no way.” But part of me was intrigued; I liked the idea of writing something that was entirely free from the “why are we writing about this now?” dictum that governs most of my journalism work. And, you know, it came with a paycheck. So why not, right?

I have no idea what happened to the magazine. As far as I know, it never was published. The editor no longer replies to my email, after I made a fuss about getting said paycheck sometime this century. (I did ultimately get paid. But it wasn’t exactly hassle-free.) But since I bothered to write the damn thing, I thought I would let it see the light of day. Possibly it sucks beyond compare. Possibly there’s a germ of something interesting in it. Who knows. It’s wholly unedited, potentially unreadable, but may at the very least serve as a window onto the weird career I continue to cling to, despite the piles of evidence that you have to be slightly nuts to keep plugging away at it.

Here’s the essay.

Open your window in a city, and you can see, hear, and smell the energy. Not the buzz of ambition and social interactions — though there’s that too, of course. But the literal energy: the stuff that’s running the cars and lights and laptops and subways. Take a mental step backward, and you can start to envision the energy embodied within the city, in our homes, offices, possessions. Energy was used to mine raw materials (steel for high-rises, copper for wires, lithium for batteries, platinum for the chemical reactions that produce clothing, medicine, tires), to ship them, to assemble them into components of urban life. The energy in our built environments is everywhere; it’s tangible.

Now venture out into nature — to a field, a forest, a seashore. There, the energy might not be as immediately apparent. We might sense nature’s power — in the waves, the wind, the trees that tower above. But the exact presence of energy is somewhat hidden. It’s not like a high-def TV, where our basic modern knowledge tells us that electricity — energy from a coal-fired power plant, say — is making the system run.

There’s no more ubiquitous force in nature, though, than energy. Energy grows the forest and brews the thunderstorm and holds the hawks aloft and propels the throng of wildebeests across the savannah. Energy rules the earthworm and the earthquake, the snowflake and the avalanche, the northern white rhinoceros and the northern lights. We tend to think of the natural world as a big mess of biology. But underpinning it all, the governing force is physics.

“Whenever anything is happening,” wrote E.C. Pielou, an ecologist who studied the physics of nature, “energy is being transferred from one piece of matter to another.” We are all, she wrote, “surrounded all the time by energy transfers.”

Take another look around you. The leaves on the trees are doing chemistry, combining the most basic of ingredients — sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water — in a recipe that yields sugar (for themselves) and oxygen (for people and other oxygen-breathing types). Everything that eats plants — microbes, bugs, birds, mammals — uses those sugars as its own source of energy. Seen this way, that fallen leaf you just stepped on isn’t just nature’s cast-off; it’s the true embodiment of power in the world.

Energy is agnostic about its own outcome. It can just as easily destroy — consuming landscapes in fire, transforming the placid sea into city-submerging waves, converting a virile elk to a heap of bones at the feet of a mountain lion.

Energy is so basic to our world that at the very beginning, the Big Bang, our speck of a universe consisted of nothing else. Fifteen billion years later, we think of our world as consisting largely of things — what physicists would call “matter,” everything from rocks to clouds to ships to dogs to trousers. But as Pielou explains, in a book called “The Energy of Nature,” none of that matter does anything at all without energy. “The salient point about events,” she wrote — and here an “event” can mean anything: a bird calling for a mate, a baby crying, a hailstone hitting your car — “is that without energy they couldn’t happen.”

Massive concepts can be surprisingly tough to grasp. In that way, energy is a bit like God: You get it, but also you can’t comprehend it at all. What exactly is energy, anyway? It’s one of those infuriating terms that are defined by other vague terms — whose definitions just refer back to energy. At a basic level, energy is the capacity to perform work. Work, in physics, is a measurement of force — a measurement that involves the transfer of energy. To make it even more confusing, “power,” which is often used interchangeably with “energy,” is actually a measure of rate: the rate at which energy is moved around.

If our whole world is a spinning ball of moving energy, why do we have an energy crisis? Can’t we simply harness it in smarter ways? The trouble is, we’re fussy. We don’t just want energy. We want power on demand—immediate access to it in particular forms, in particular amounts. Nature doesn’t offer it that way. That’s part of the problem with trying to replace energy from fossil fuels with energy from wind. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, whereas humans can burn coal whenever we need to. Same with the sun, which doesn’t shine ’round the clock (or ever, it sometimes feels like, in London). In some ways, our energy problem is really an issue of storage. If we can just find the right way to store energy from renewable sources, so we have it when we need it, we’ll be set.

One promising new technology mimics photosynthesis with an artificial leaf that turns sunlight into energy that can be stored — just like in a plant. The beauty of this idea stems from its attempt to mimic nature rather than try to outdo it. The device uses sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen; the hydrogen powers a fuel cell.

Other emerging forms of renewable energy also try to operate within nature’s codes: like wave power, which generates electricity from the energy in ocean waves. Or river turbines, which tap natural currents for energy. Unlike traditional hydropower, which captures water and then releases it, this new type of hydro harnesses a river’s constant flow.

The race for renewable sources of energy is far from over, and the winners may ultimately be those that mimic nature rather than subverting it. Because one thing is certain: we cannot change physics. We can’t overpower the energy of nature. It’s everywhere. Hurricanes will still whip up over the oceans; deep within those same seas, all sorts of critters are bartering energy; the water’s own energy controls the shape of coastlines with its force. Back on land, elephants’ lumbering footsteps reverberate miles away, sending messages in energy to each other, and to countless other creatures that respond to the vibrations with their own energy transfers — feeding, mating, decomposing. Energy runs the world. We just work here.

Photo credit: Eric Vance, EPA Chief Photographer, via Flickr

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