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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