The Mystery of Energy

Someone on some podcast I was listening to (Coach Will here, btw) mentioned Richard Feynman recently. It was the 80th time for me (and I still hadn’t read anything by the Nobel-prize winning physicist), so I picked up a short sampling of his lectures called Six Easy Pieces.

The title is a joke, because the book is 6 essays on the hardest damn ideas known to man. Things like gravity, and energy, and quantum… stuff.

But it’s ok. In Feynman’s words, anyone who says they understand quantum physics doesn’t understand quantum physics (it’s...unknowable, currently. I guess. Shrug).

After all, there’s value in not knowing things, too. In knowing what you don’t know, and generally knowing what it is to be ignorant.

Which leads me to one of the sentences in the slim volume that has stuck with me, gnawed at me: we don’t really know what energy is.

We all know what energy feels (“push”, force, heat) and looks like (light). And the first law of thermodynamics tells us that there’s a conservation in energy--it must come from and go somewhere, but new energy is never created.

But we also realize, in some sense, that energy is unknowable. For example: where does it come from? It is the water the fish swims in, the medium of our lives, so ubiquitous that it disappears to us.

As Feynman explains, we only know how to measure the energy of a system before and after tiny “events”. Using lots of math we can prove that all of the energy was accounted for between our measurements. But we certainly don’t (currently) have a way of seeing energy as it moves.

What?

Well--it seems that the world, at its tiny-est scales, operates between the cracks of our awareness. We’re left trying to grasp (guessing, literally, via probabilities) where and when energy is.

I was out of my depth in the physics realm from page one of reading, but what I saw Feynman talking about is something I’m more familiar with: how even as it can’t quite be observed explicitly, energy is apparent to us, intimately..

See, while we can’t capture energy itself, exactly, we can trace its literal path through us.

DO THIS: Lean your head over to the side, feel a stretch on the opening side of your neck. That’s a line of tension, formed through a regular, recurrent pattern of loading (in this case, the force involved with hanging your shoulder from your ear). You just felt the evidence of energy moving through the system of your neck.

Each force (energy) our bodies experience is absorbed and dispersed by the masses of tissue that make us up. So even while we can’t really perceive energy exactly, we have a deep awareness of it all the same.

Consistently applied forces with enough zeal behind them to actually demand a response from your tissue signal your cells to go to work--to adapt your body--in response to the stressor. And that tissue? It will now be changed, characterized by an increased resilience to exactly the forces that kicked off the adaptation in the first place.

At the end of the day, we are only as capable in our various ventures as our tissue is able to absorb and disperse forces--without, that is, going bang (or pop, rip, tear, crunch, etc) and manifesting as an injury. More than any other single physical purpose, our bodies indicate that we are purpose-built for energy-dispersal, in all its many forms.

In this way, we know exactly what energy is.

We can feel it, and we bear evidence of it’s constant march all around, and indeed through, us. And we can direct it, as movement (and therefore, vibration, expression, conversation, art, performance, speed, etc, etc). But more on that another time.

Go disperse some energy (and find your gold),

Coach Will