Wish you had more energy? You’re not going to get it here!

When I wake up, it always seems like I’m hungry. But when I eat something, it makes me sleepy. I think I’ve struggled with this phenomenon most of my life. Put simply, when it comes to energy, it seems that if I have any at all, I immediately use it up. When I use it up, I don’t have any more energy.

Does this seem like a paradox?

Another scientific paradox, the Heisenberg Principle, is named after Werner Heisenberg. His original explanation of the principle was that at any given moment you could not know both the exact position and exact momentum of an object — at least to the same degree of accuracy. The more precisely I know an object’s position, the less accurate will be my assessment of its momentum.

A corollary might be that if I know how long it’s been since I’ve eaten, the less precise I can be about how much energy I have left.

The Heisenberg Principle is sometimes confused with the “observer effect,” which states that the act of measuring the position of an object changes the momentum, or the other way around. So eating changes my energy state, and sleeping changes my hunger state. (Scientists actually get paid for coming up with this kind of stuff, you know!)

Energy is a vital commodity for humans, but energy itself is a paradox. We can’t really “use up” energy. It doesn’t ever go away. It just “is.” Scientists don’t know where it comes from, but it’s always around to some degree. We change its form when we turn coal or gas into heat or electricity. Even though we can’t destroy energy, we can waste energy by changing it into a form we can no longer use.

When we use energy it changes form. Plants change light energy into chemical energy in the form of sugars. Animals eat plants and turn chemical energy into mechanical energy when they use muscles. Some people think we shouldn’t eat animals. I don’t know about that, but I know we shouldn’t eat broccoli.

We can only benefit from fossil fuels by burning them up. There is not an infinite amount of any fossil fuel. We may argue about how much we have, but if the earth is a hollow sphere filled with fossil fuel, we know the quantity is l.083x1012 km3.

The reason we call it electrical “current” is that we can only use it if it is running away. Electricity is the flow of electric charge through an electrical conductor. It acts like water flowing from your faucet. Its speed depends on how hard it is being pushed (pressure) and on whether or not the gate, or faucet, is open. This is all described by something called Ohm’s Law. (My friend Ralph says he is not responsible for it even though his last name is Ohm.)

Ohm’s Law says that the flow of electrons (current in amperes) is equal to the force pushing the electrons (called voltage) divided by the size of the pipe (called resistance). I could probably explain more about that except I just ate, and you know what that means …

I’m thinking there must be two kinds of energy. There is one kind that is only useful to us when it is being used up. This kind of energy makes waste and pollution. Electrical plants that run on burning fuel would be an example. Then there is the kind of energy that is transformed, through a series of events, so that it can be reused. This is what happens in the natural world when energy is recycled from life to new life.

This can be called “farming.”

Could we plant more plants, to grow continuously through the year, in order to use up the carbon dioxide waste from burning stored fossil fuels? I’ll have to think this one through, so I think I’ll grab a snack and take a little nap.

Gary McCallister, mccallis@ coloradomesa.edu, is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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