Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 2

In last week’s post I commenced a brief and highly selective look at the history of the energy concept. The purpose of this historical approach to our inquiry is to get some sense of how the pioneering investigators might have made sense of their experience of the physical world, unaided—and hence also, in a sense, unconstrained—by the conceptual tools that we take for granted today. This in turn might help us to get a better sense of what the energy concept is all about in experiential terms. The aim of all of this is to ensure that, in thinking about societal energy challenges and dilemmas, we hold the conceptual tools, rather than the conceptual tools holding us.

We started out in Part 1 by considering some of the early forerunners of the modern energy concept through the work of Galileo, Descartes and Leibniz, all important pioneers in the branch of physics known as mechanics. While the contributions of these investigators all preceded the arrival of the earliest heat engines—the general class of machines that enabled the rise of industrial society, and that continue to provide the overwhelming majority of electricity and transport today on a global scale—they had little direct influence on the rise of the mechanised world. For most practical intents and purposes, we can consider the historical precedents of the modern energy concept in terms of two largely independent paths: the physicists and mathematicians travelled by one route; on the other, we find the engineers. These paths would eventually undergo a significant convergence, but at the end of the seventeenth century, the two groups typically had quite distinct interests. While we might say that the physicists tended to focus on describing and explaining physical phenomena, the engineers were interested in harnessing physical phenomena for practical human purposes. Nonetheless, there were still important instances of crossover between the groups. The French physicist and mathematician Guillaume Amontons (1663-1705) was an important figure in this respect. Not only did he propose a conceptual design for a novel heat engine, in work published in 1699 he attempted to quantify its useful effect in terms of the labour of “men and horses”, still at that time the dominant prime movers for most areas of economic activity. In doing so, he effectively pre-empted the concept of work.[1] Motivated by the engineers’ need for a means of quantitatively comparing performance amongst different types of machines, the work concept as we know it today emerged during the early years of the eighteenth century.[2] Continue reading

Accounting for a most dynamic world—Part 1

And how awkward is the human mind in divining the nature of things, when forsaken by the analogy of what we see and touch directly?

—Ludwig Boltzmann, in a letter to Nature, 28 February, 1895 [1]

Last week, in describing the observed invariances associated with each of the three energy laws, I phrased these as tendencies associated with systems. Presenting the laws in this way involved a deliberate effort to avoid the default approach of privileging real entities. What I mean by this is that it was very tempting to simply write “Energy law 1 recognises that some thing is conserved” instead of writing this as I actually did: “Energy law 1 recognises a conserving tendency”. I did this in order to make clear that I was not assuming prior existence of a thing or entity that is conserved.

To continue in this way would make everyday discourse pretty awkward. Proposing an entity-like thing to stand for the observed tendency provides a very practical way of proceeding as we communicate about our experiences with one another. More importantly though, proposing such a conceptual entity—in the case of law 1, this is in fact the system’s total or internal energy—allows for the formalisation of the observed tendency, and in particular, its quantification. It would be difficult to overemphasise the significance of this enablement of quantification. With quantification comes the ability to reduce our descriptions of situations in which we’re interested to a relatively small number of parameters. This in turn allows us to divert our attention from most of what we experience—it gives us a structured basis on which to organise our thinking about any situation, allowing us to deal with much more ‘experiential territory’ at one time than would otherwise be the case. As a consequence of this, we’re afforded increased instrumental power to manage and control the situations in which we’re interested. The formalisation aspect of this is very important: when a concept is formalised, we establish an agreed common basis on which to compare our understanding with one another, and hence to know what each other means when we talk about something. This enables highly effective coordination of actions amongst and across social groups—provided that those whose actions are so coordinated give sufficient attention to maintaining the structures supporting the formal status of their coordinated understandings. In contemporary societies, the default responsibility for this tends to be assigned to specific groups of knowledge experts, and the typical means for managing this is via formal educational institutions, such as the social infrastructure of schools, universities and the government bureaucracies that regulate them. Continue reading