In quantum physics, the traditional physical rendering of nuclear particles is thrown out the door and matter is imagined as a collection of waves. It’s not that electrons and protons et cetera cease to exist, it’s that what we conceive of as an atom may not exist in its observed form for more than an instant. Electrons were once considered the sole property of one atom, who may or may not negotiate a time-share agreement with neighbors for coveted valence electron real estate, the most stable investment for material longevity. But consider that in an electrical wire, the electrons are moving up or down the length of the wire, actually passing from atom to atom kind of like buckets in an old fire brigade. So the atom is now simply a temporary result of the coincidence of wave actions which conduct energies through material – a highway interchange if you will. Like the particular configuration of cars one might capture by photographing the interchange, the particular atom you “see” exists only in the moment of observation, and then ceases to be exactly so ever again. The concept is perhaps best illustrated by a quote from Heraclitus, who, writing five centuries before the days of Christ might well have unwittingly been the first quantum physicist:
“You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you.”
Which brings me back to the question: why does energy matter?
On the surface, it is becoming increasingly clear that our current energy market cannot sustain healthy social development, and that we must identify and cultivate promising alternative technologies. Solar, wind, and hydro power have been around longer than we usually care to admit given their still limited implementation. Before there existed President Carter addressing Congress about solar energy, and appropriating $88 billion toward alternative energy research (those are 1979 dollars, mind you!), there were many houses in our country’s history that had implemented windmills, water wheels, solar heat collection, and other technologies. We Americans are an ingenious lot, and faced with a lack of available electrical grid, we often invented whatever was necessary for creature comfort. What we need now is to apply the highly structured rigors of factory line processing to these and other renewable energy technologies born of personal innovation. Lack of supply has been an issue in the solar, wind, and biofuel industries as the markets have adjusted to high foreign demand. I’m all for solar and wind farms anywhere on the globe, but clearly we need to change legislation to make alternative energies more attractive domestically if we ever want companies to earmark space on production lines for us.
Digging deeper into cells, one might start to see other patterns at work. Why is it that all living things need energy to survive? What drives our demand? Where does that energy come from? How do we convert it to a form that is useful to us? If energy is an excited state of potential which transfers and transforms, but never becomes more or less than it is at any one moment, then what we need is to collect energy in places (our bodies) like a pool of temp workers, ready to chip in and haul rocks on command. When boiled down, most of earth’s usable energy arrives on earth as radiation from the sun. What doesn’t is generated from within the relatively cooler center of our own planet. We as creatures have collectively devised many biological pathways for converting solar radiation into usable energy, and have learned to take advantage of various physical properties of matter conducive to energy transformation. Without input, our only choice is to reduce output. Beyond a certain point, such reduction is unrealistic, and we must find outside sources of fuel. Recent advances in biofuels try to answer the need for a more immediately efficient conversion of energy than that offered by fossil fuels. We also create physical structures designed to convert solar, wind and water (gravity based and hydrothermal) energies into usable form. All are basically engineered pathways for solar energy to store and collect.
When viewed through the lens of quantum physics, as discussed earlier, then all of matter necessarily ceases to have truly unique properties. In explanation, though what we perceive as an atom has a physical structure, it is only at a brief moment. The electrons, and even the nuclear particles, are constantly being traded from one atom to another in wave motion. So though an electron may pass from an atom of silver to an atom of lead, there is nothing about it that says it is either a “silver electron” or a “lead electron”. It is just an electron. And the same is true of other particles which combine and recombine at discrete moments in time to form the atom familiar to our minds.
So the game of energy becomes one of pathways. We don’t change the force available to push electrons through a substance, we simply try to clear paths for them to bully their way through matter losing as little force as possible. The qualities that make a good conductor or insulator are related to their inherent magnetism. Positive and negative charges push and pull and hopefully, the overall structure of the material stays stable and allows electrons to flow like a river through the molecular structure. Or not to, depending on which you desire. Basically, everything has SOME ability to conduct electricity: that’s why you can get shocked through air. The way to increase the efficiency of our energy collecting devices is to cultivate energy pathways where appropriate and also to perfect storage capability of energy once collected. One third of the light that hits the planet reflects back off into space immediately, and another 5 to 10% of the energy is absorbed by our atmosphere on the way down to earth. What does hit the surface should be cultivated carefully.
Ever seen the movie “What the *”%#^” Do We Know”? There is a scene about an experiment in which a research team wrote words on bottles of pure water and stored them for a period of time. Later, they took microscopic pictures of the water’s molecular structures and found that water stored in containers with positive messages had a different, more orderly crystalline structure than those in containers with messages of discord. This is a nice analogy for the next generation of solutions we seek in the energy field. We must physically alter our perception of energy as a finite thing and instead see it as a state of being. If we can align our politics and resources together in harmony, like a rogue wave, we add energy to the equation by working together in a unified fashion. There do exist different technologies for delivery of this galactic energy bonanza, but if we continue to work in isolation from each other, we will never realize the true conductive property of collaboration. This may eventually prove true even down to the microscopic levels discussed earlier.
Energy matters because matter IS energy. So without energy, we cease to have matter (at least in its current atomic form). If you ever doubt that taking power generation into your own hands is a significant achievement, think about what you’ve just read. We all have certain power generating capabilities simply resulting from our own consumption as animals, but by exploring the various pathways for energy to enter the equation and cultivating a more direct consumption pattern than traditional distributed power we increase the potential for material life on this planet in an even greater sense than the actual energy collected. Which means that your available energy generation (energy is never created, it simply transforms) is an exponential gain, not just an isolated act. By controlling your own energy fate, you are actually contributing to the continued existence of all matter. Now that’s a cause worth fighting for.