Maps and territories: the very abstract nature of the energy concept

Over the previous three posts I’ve sketched out a high-level map of a conceptual landscape. The terrain we’ve been looking at, and for which we now have a very broad overview suitable for orienting our inquiry, is comprised of a set of interrelated ideas that together make up the modern energy concept. In other words, we’ve created our map not by looking directly at the physical phenomena to which the energy concept relates but by looking at the conceptual structures that others have developed on the basis of their own immediate encounter with physical phenomena and the perceptions that arose for them with these experiences. This is not to say that our map is not based on direct encounters with the particular terrain we’ve depicted—it’s just that the encounters are of a very different nature. The direct encounters upon which our map is based, rather than being of a physical nature, have their origin in the social realm of language and culture. The map represents a set of ideas already in widespread social circulation—and so the landscape it deals with is one comprising concepts formed and expressed in language.

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Thinking with systems—Part 3

This week’s post is the final in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. These posts are intended to provide a set of reference points for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. In Part 1, I presented an introduction to systems ideas as a way of thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and then went on to introduce the first of three foundational energy laws, energy law 1 relating to energy conservation. In Part 2, I looked at energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal. In Part 3 the focus is on energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’. I’ll wrap up the series with some brief comments on what this all implies for the way that we think about energy and how this will  prepare the way for subsequent inquiry into energy and societal futures.

Energy law 3: Action—what happens as energy disperses—is minimised through time

The last of the three foundational laws might in some respects be considered the most experientially obvious, while at the same time being the most challenging to deal with in the formal conceptual language available to us. This will bear further consideration down the track, as we look at the consequences following from the high level of abstraction involved in dealing with energy ideas. Given that in this post it’s the conceptual treatment we’re focusing on, this section will necessarily be the most arduous in terms of the formal ideas and language that we need to deal with—in fact I’ll need to resort to a mathematical function or two; there are also a couple of graphs coming up to represent the ideas. Continue reading

Thinking with systems—Part 2

This week’s post is the second in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. These posts are intended to provide a set of reference points for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. In Part 1, I presented an introduction to systems ideas as a way of thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and then went on to introduce energy law 1, the law of energy conservation. This was the first of three foundational energy laws that this three-part series lays out. In Part 2, I introduce energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal. This will pave the way for Part 3 next week, in which I’ll look at energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’.

Energy law 2: Energy tends to spread out from being more to less concentrated

Drawing on the last phase of the example introduced in Part 1, the very simple chair-floor-bottle system with a single degree of freedom, we’re now in a position to set out the second major law governing energetic behaviour of systems: energy tends to disperse or spread out in space from being more locally concentrated to being less concentrated, unless there’s no physical pathway available for doing so. This is a very general description of the physical behaviour that the second law of thermodynamics deals with. As with the energy conservation law, this sets a bedrock constraint to which all possible future states of any system that we care to conceive—whether physical, biological or social in nature—are subject. In other words, energy laws 1 and 2 describe limits to the possible evolutionary pathways for all situations. Continue reading

Thinking with systems—Part 1

This week’s post is the first in a three-part introduction to the formal language of energy, as a foundation for subsequent discussion about just what it is that the energy concept deals with. My aim is to cover some essential ideas here—where they come from, how they relate to one another—in sufficient detail for later inquiry into the higher-level relationships between energy and societal futures. A central purpose of the approach I’m advocating is to maintain a connection between our understanding and use of energy-related concepts, and day-to-day experience of our physical world. It’s my contention that we might then be better placed to appreciate and respond to the societal dilemmas we’re confronted with through clear eyes—as free as possible from the fog of confused conceptions. To this end, I’ll commence from the outset by situating energy, as is proper to the nature of that concept, in a systems context—and this requires a basic introduction to systems ideas in their own right. Further along the track, we’ll then be able to build on these ideas—systems in general, and energy from a systems perspective—as appropriate to the inquiry at hand. The overall ‘narrative of ideas’ running through the three posts introduces three foundational ‘laws’ relating to the behaviour of physical systems in energetic terms. A very simple situation will be used to illustrate each of the three laws, providing an opportunity to appreciate what each means in terms of familiar experiences. Part 1introduces the systems view as an approach to thinking about any situation in which we’re interested, and with this as background, looks into energy law 1, that of energy conservation. In Part 2, I’ll look at energy law 2, relating to energy dispersal; and in Part 3 I’ll  take an in-depth look at energy law 3, sometimes paraphrased as the ‘economy law’.

In last week’s post, I introduced the energy concept as the capacity to do work or transfer heat. In establishing this relationship between energy, work and heat, we have a handy basis for linking energy—an abstract concept used to think and communicate about physical situations in which we’re interested—with direct physical-world experiences. For while work and heat have very precise meanings in this context—they are formally defined, abstract concepts in their own right—these meanings relate closely to the common use of these terms in everyday language. Before we delve further into energy, work and heat though, there’s a more basic matter that we need to deal with, one that goes right to the heart of developing an effective working relationship with the energy idea: a capacity is always a capacity of something. But just what is it exactly that has this capacity that we’re interested in?

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