From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The facts of the matter
May the mass times acceleration be with you
Let's get physical!
Atoms trying to understand atoms
Warning icon orange.svg This page contains too many unsourced statements and needs to be improved.

Energy could use some help. Please research the article's assertions. Whatever is credible should be sourced, and what is not should be removed.

Energy is a physical quantity that can be assigned to any system, and which was traditionally understood as the ability to do work. The energy of an object is now understood as its capability of producing a force that can do work, as well as its ability to transfer heat.[1]

Conservation of energy is one of the most fundamental empirical principles in science. As far as we know, energy can never be created or destroyed, though mass can be converted to energy and vice versa (which is what Einstein's famous E = mc2 means).

Popular and economic uses of the term[edit]

Today, "energy" commonly refers to energy in forms harnessed to fuel human activities, e.g. electricity, petroleum, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar, wind.

In physics[edit]

The history of our understanding of energy is one of the best known examples of unification in physics. Over time kinetic energy, gravitational potential energy, heat, electromagnetic energy, sound intensity, and chemical energy all were described using a single measure, one which was conserved even as these types of energy changed into each other.

Perhaps the single most profound unification came from Einstein's theory of special relativity. In special relativity, the mass of an object contributes to its total energy, such that when the object is at rest, the energy contribution from that mass is described by the famous equation E=mc2. Subsequent experimental work has confirmed that mass is a form of energy, and that mass can be converted to and from other forms of energy.

Classical physics postulates that the laws of physics don't change at different points in spacetime. Noether's Theorem, which makes this assumption mathematically precise, implies that as a result of this assumption, Energy must be conserved, meaning that it cannot be created or destroyed. This is also true in quantum mechanics, where the Hamiltonian operator can be used to measure the expectation value (average after many measurements) of the energy of some state.

Energy can be measured. Units for expressing quantities of energy are:

The Joule: the amount of energy expended in applying a force of one Newton over a distance of one meter.

The calorie: the amount of energy required to heat one gram of water by one degree celsius.

The (Capital C) Calorie: also called a nutritional calorie or kilocalorie (kCal), the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water by one degree celsius.

The British Thermal Unit (BTU): the amount of energy required to heat one Avoirdupois pound of water by one degree fahrenheit.

The Watt-Hour: Equal to 3600 Joules (a watt is one Joule per second).

The Electronvolt (eV): The amount of kinetic energy imparted on a single electron by accelerating it through one volt of potential difference in a vacuum; that is to say, one volt times the charge of an electron (about 1.602×10-19 Joules).

Concept of work[edit]

The concept of work is what connects force and energy. A force is said to do work if, when acting on a body, there is a displacement of the body in the direction of the force, expressed via the formula

where the domain of integration is the section of the path along which the force is applied. For example, a force applied to a body lifting it to some height is said to do work on the body, changing the body's total energy. Work is a result of a dot product between two vectors, meaning that if the directions of the force and movement are perpendicular, no work is done by the force. For example, gravity does no work on a body moving on a horizontal surface because the force is perpendicular to the movement. Since work is the change of a body's energy, they have the same units. In the metric system, energy is measured in Joules.

Pseudo-scientific use of the term[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Energy woo

Devotees of New Age beliefs use the term "energy" for almost anything for which they don't have a scientific explanation, including for emotion ("I'm feeling some bad energy") and for processes within the human body ("the flow of energy seems to be blocked"). They believe that crystals, sounds, light, pyramids, and numerous other objects with which they associate magical properties, give off or transform some sort of "energy" that is traveling somehow through some postulated universal ether and affecting everyone with a positive or negative effect.

When science types complain that they can't detect these energies, the advocates call them "subtle energies" — thus they don't have to explain why they can't be detected.

If a politician (and a born-again politician to boot) promises to prioritise raising "the energy" - consider wondering how the public will set about starting to begin to measure "the energy".[2]

Qi (chi) is the ancient Chinese form of life-giving energy, as manipulated in acupuncture and in reflexology. It doesn't exist either, any more than does orgone energy.

Everything is energy[edit]

Those who promote some form of pantheism or universal consciousness, as well as woomeisters, sometimes claim that science has proven that "everything is made of energy" and that this somehow explains the unity of all things (or psychic powers, or the "law of attraction").[3][4] While it's certainly true that any system has an energy associated with it, saying that "in science, everything is energy" is not even wrong. In the physical sciences, energy is a computable quantity, a number that can be associated with any system. Energy is not a substance any more than "mass" or "volume" are substances, and therefore nothing can be "made of" energy any more than it can be "made of" volume or "made of" mass. This technical sense of the word "energy" is different from the vernacular usage (which often treats light, sound, heat, and electricity as substances which are types of energy).

Regrettably, various forms of the "everything is energy" meme have been propagated in popular science, where it is sometimes used as a shorthand for the principle of mass-energy equivalence.

This differs from "String Theory", which suggests as a theory of everything that electrons and subatomic particles are 1-dimensional "strings" of energy, and from some related principles which suggest that possibly all strings are pieces of the same string (so that all things are connected but not, at all, in a hokey spiritual way). Though several string theories have exceptional cleverness and math behind them, there has been practically no suggestion for tests of falsifiability.

Energy as life/consciousness/goat[edit]

In keeping with New Agers' usage of "energy" to describe anything and everything, "spiritual" concepts such as God, the soul, consciousness, or life itself are often described as types of energy.[5] Assuming that they mean anything like what real scientists mean by the term, it's total bunk to call any of those things "energy". For one, God and souls are physically undetectable, whereas energy is. How could we possibly know that God is a form of energy? For another, consciousness and life seem to be very specific, complex processes.[6] Energy is a single scalar measurement of a system (one which can be easily calculated, by the way, without including any contribution from "consciousness"). To compare energy to these processes seems to be meaningless, like comparing the aesthetic appeal of a Picasso painting to its total weight.

Confusion with force[edit]

Exerting a force on an object does not necessarily result in the expenditure of energy. This is somewhat counterintuitive to us humans, whose muscles have to vibrate (and thus expend energy) every time they exert a force, even if the thing they're exerting a force against doesn't move.

Think of it this way: You have a Volkswagen beetle with a big heavy spring strapped to its front bumper. In front of you is a building with a bathroom scale strapped to the side, level with your front bumper. You slowly drive the Volkswagen into the building spring-first, compressing the spring tighter and tighter, until the bathroom scale you're driving it into reads 100 pounds. You then set the parking brake, turn off the engine, and walk away. The spring is still exerting a force of 100 pounds against that building, as evinced by the bathroom scale, but you're no longer expending any energy. That spring can keep on exerting 100 pounds of force against that building until it rusts away. Only if you release the parking brake, and let the spring push the Volkswagen backwards, will the energy stored in that spring be released.

Confusing force with energy is a common thread to some geocentrist arguments. "Scientists say the sun keeps the Earth in orbit around it by exerting a gravitational force continuously — but when I light a stick of dynamite, the force of the explosion is expended and then stops. The sun can't exert a force against the Earth indefinitely, it would run out!"[note 1] Joseph Newman also made this mistake in at least one place in his self-published Energy Machine screed.

Pseudosciencentific conceptions of "energy"[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Pseudoscience

See also[edit]


  1. That last part is technically true, but only because the sun is not immortal and will eventually run out of fuel. (The key word being "eventually"; it still has several billion years left in it.)


  1. Simple Wikipedia article on energy
  2. Rawhiti-Connell, Anna (3 April 2024). "Taking decisions and raising the energy: the government's new action plan". In Sowman-Lund, Stewart. "Prime Minister Christopher Luxon released the government's new priority list yesterday [...] number 18 on the list is 'Raise the energy New Zealand brings to key relationships through international engagements'." 
  3. Is everything in this universe just pure energy?
  4. The new Science: We are made of Energy, not Matter
  5. Consciousness and Energy
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Process.