Everyday energy: phlogiston


There is a hint of phlogiston in the notion of energy as an element, or even as a thing.  It isn’t wrong, just slightly backwards.  Remember that phlogiston solved the question of “what is fire?” in a way that was like elemental fire but more scientific sounding.  “Energy” does the same thing, but in a way that is even more scientific sounding.  This is why energetics survived until Einstein finally showed that atomic theory was mathematically necessary.  But the upshot of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics is that energy isn’t a thing that goes from here to there.

As Planck noted, you shouldn’t ever talk about energy in nature, only the difference in energy, just as you shouldn’t talk about entropy, only the change in entropy.

“Energy itself cannot be measured, only its difference. For that reason one used to deal, not with energy, but with work, and even Ernst Mach, who had so much to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy, and who in principle kept away from all speculations beyond the field of observation, has always avoided speaking of energy itself.  Likewise, in thermochemistry, one has always stuck to the thermal effect, that is, to energy differences, until Wilhelm Ostwald in particular emphatically showed that many detailed considerations could be significantly abbreviated if one dealt with energy itself instead of with calorimetric numbers. The additive constant which was at first still undetermined in the expression for energy, has later been finally determined through the relativistic law of the proportionality between energy and inertia.”

-Planck’s nobel lecture

It is ironic that special relativity made it possible for physicists to continue talking about energy as a thing, because this would lead to the fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between quantum information and the position of inertia, i.e., that position is somehow subordinate to quantum information.  Also, energy theory works pretty well for mapping human scale objects, but it breaks down completely at quantum mechanics and relativity, and at these levels of detail it looks stupid.  For quantum mechanics you need communication theory, while the inertia of matter in space requires special relativity.

In linguistics, the absence of position or time in information explains why, in languages without many cases, prepositions are so arbitrary and prolific, and why cases proliferate in certain other languages.  Representing position and inertia with information leads to a certain kind of madness, which is why visual diagrams and maps are essential for construction and engineering projects where position cannot be left to the probability of understanding prepositions and cases in just the right way.

Inertia is not well defined in terms of energy, but it is the bedrock of relativity.  Energy, then, is a map that blends communication theory and inertial theory.  Because it is a blended map, it breaks down at the fine details of information and the grand scale of general relativity.  Energy theory only works really well for cannon balls confined by a strong gravitational field.


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