Tuesday, 27 May 2014

What Is Energy, Really? Part 3: Energy As Time

Imagine that one day, as you walk down the street on your way to your favourite coffee shop, everything around you suddenly stops. Cars stop rolling, birds freeze in midair, and the people around you halt in their tracks, halfway through blinking or sneezing or whatever it is people do as they walk down the street.

You take a look around and observe that you seem to be the only thing in the world capable of movement. There's not a breath of wind, and utter silence reigns. You're not alarmed, because you assume you've stumbled by chance into either a weird temporary rift in space-time or a thought experiment in someone else's blog. You decide to look around, and proceed to enjoy yourself exploring your new world.

After a while though, you get bored and wish that something new would happen. You plop down in the unmoving shade of a tree bent by a wind you can no longer feel. You wonder idly how much time you've spent in this condition, and as you glance at your watch you realize that its hands are stopped. The sun hasn't moved either, and even if you had an hourglass handy its grains would be frozen mid-stream. You're aware, however, that the heart rate of a resting adult is about 70 beats per minute, and so you decide to count your own heartbeats in order to keep track of time.

But after two hundred heartbeats, or about three minutes, your heart and lungs inexplicably stop, and you find yourself incapable of moving a muscle. You too are now frozen, except for your brain, whose neurons are somehow still firing despite receiving no oxygenated blood from the rest of your body. Again, your bodiless consciousness is not alarmed because you know things will probably go back to normal in a couple of paragraphs. You resolve to count seconds and minutes in your head, and thereby prove to yourself that time is indeed still passing.

After about two and a half minutes, though, your brain freezes too, and even your thoughts cease altogether. Of course, you don't experience this third stage of frozenness at all because you don't have thoughts to experience it with, and thus it's no wonder that it's difficult to imagine. (Actually, it's impossible to imagine). Since there's no one to observe you sitting frozen under the tree, it's meaningless to ask how much time passes in this state before the world suddenly and inexplicably starts up again. You get up, stretch, and notice that no one else has noticed anything unusual, and are blinking, sneezing, and going about their business as if nothing has happened.

Of course, from their perspective, nothing has happened, and when you put the question to yourself you're forced to admit that even from your own perspective all that's happened is a whole lot of nothing. You decide to shrug off the experience, knowing that no one will believe you anyway, and continue on your way to your favourite coffee shop.

It's a silly story, but silly stories are best when it comes to illustrating concepts that are exceedingly abstract. This week's topic, our third and final way of looking at energy, can be a real head-spinner if we don't continually drag it back to the concrete by the scruff of its hypothetical neck. This week I'd like to come at the question that titles this series of posts by way of a parallel question: what is time, really, and how do we know that it's passing?

The answer, I propose, is simpler than we might at first think. We know time passes because things happen. If there existed a place where nothing was happening (and I mean nothing, which, as I hope I've made clear, is impossible as well as unimaginable) then time could not be said to be passing in that place. Things happen because they have energy: our thoughts happen because our neurons convert food energy into electrical impulses and waste heat; our watches work because their mechanisms convert electrical energy into mechanical motion and waste heat; the sun appears to move across the sky because the earth converts rotational energy very slowly into friction and waste heat, as the moon's gravity very gradually slows our turning by about a millisecond each year. The movement of things around us, and even the movement of our thoughts, is an expression of the flow of energy.

That's why physicists have tried to understand time's trajectory as the trajectory of energy. You may recall from the first post in this series that energy flows in one direction only, that is, from highly concentrated and useful forms to less concentrated and less useful forms. We visualized this by picturing a stream whose concentrated flow can be harnessed to do work, such as turning a waterwheel. By the time the stream reaches the ocean its energy can't be easily harnessed; it just mingles with the chaotic energy of the ocean's waves and can't be regained. Like the stream, energy never flows from a less useful form into a more useful form; that is, it always flows 'downhill', unless an even more energetic system like the weather moves it back 'uphill' into a more useful form.

Similarly, time never flows backward (although under the right circumstances it can slow down), nor can we travel into the past except by inventing a silly story that involves obvious paradoxes and/or Michael J. Fox. The second law of thermodynamics, which is essentially the lesson illustrated by the flowing stream, says so, and it's no use arguing with nature when she's made up her mind about something. Another way of stating the second law is that over time, concentrations of useful energy always dissipate and entropy always increases.

Entropy is a well-known phenomenon to anyone who's ever mopped a floor. You start out with distinct concentrations of dirt on your floor and on the sidewalk outside: the floor is in a very neat, ordered state compared to the sidewalk, an expression of the energy you put into cleaning it last week. A physicist would say that the floor has low entropy. But after a few days of people tramping in and out, the cleanness of your floor and the dirtiness of the sidewalk have averaged out into a general griminess all around. Both now have high entropy, and will remain that way unless you put more of your own energy into mopping up again.

If this sounds to you like a never-ending battle that you can't win no matter how long you fight, it's probable that either you understand the nature of cleaning pretty well or you're familiar with popular explanations of the scientific concept of entropy. It's a discussion that often leaves off somewhat bleakly, since the facts of thermodynamics as presently understood imply that our universe is making a long and inevitable descent from a state of concentrated, useful energies (hot stars, cold space) toward a state of diffuse and useless energy (a lukewarm, beige soup of particles stretching from one end of the universe to another).

At this point it's worth remembering that facts are one thing, but how we view them is quite another. Science can tell us the facts about how nature works, but it is we who must decide how we feel about those facts. As my readers may or may not be aware, I mop floors for a living, and so I have a special relationship with entropy. It's thanks to entropy that custodians like me have continual employment, and it's thanks to my continued employment that I'm able to see entropy as the universe's gift rather than as a never-ending battle I'm destined to lose. 

Similarly, we can interpret the laws of nature as being rigged against us, and search for meaning in things that seem to transcend the physical universe, or we can choose to embrace what we can't change and learn to admire it, even to feel at home in it. If you choose the second way you begin to notice that nature's way on earth is to make energy's long descent as convoluted and as interesting as possible, like someone telling a story in which each new development is more fantastic than the last. (If you want a distillation of that story, read part one of this series- it's not half bad!) Next week we're going to start uniting the three ways of viewing energy discussed in the last three weeks by looking at a story of humans acting in time, and thereby begin to work our way back toward decoding the message of my short story The Messengers. It's convoluted, to be sure, but it's also sure to be interesting.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

What Is Energy, Really? Part 2: Energy As Power

When I ride the Greyhound bus into the city of Toronto I never fail to set down whatever I've been reading to watch as the downtown draws near and the bus ascends onto the Gardiner Expressway. From fifty feet in the air I watch the warehouses and grey office buildings of the last dozen kilometres give way to old brick factories and the low barracks of historic Fort York. The shoreline of Lake Ontario appears on my right and then the colossal dome of the Rogers' Centre stadium on my left, next to the mighty bastions of the CN Tower. Billboards stretch skyward while buses and cars scurry below. Finally we enter the financial district, where the marble citadels of the Bank of Montreal, the Toronto Dominion Bank, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce keep watch over 'Crane City'. Here colourful banners proclaim condominium vacancies in newly built towers of sparkling glass. Many are an easy stone's throw from the torrent of sound and speeding steel that is the Gardiner.

As I watch from my comfortable bus seat as these wonders slide past I enjoy trying to imagine the enormous energies that have gone into creating and sustaining them. I put on my historian's mindset and at the same time flex my muscles, remembering times I've sweated out my own energy doing physical work. How many Roman masons and wage labourers, I wonder, would have toiled to raise the concrete viaduct that now delivers me into the city's heart? How many generations of medieval peasants and craftsmen would have pooled their efforts to construct even one of these majestic spires of coloured glass? How many merchant princes of the Renaissance would have risked everything for the prestige of erecting a tower in their city square even half as tall as those which house the modern oligarchs of high finance? And yet the condos sprout like dandelions all around me, wonder upon wonder, and most of my fellow passengers have not looked up from their phones.

The question that titles this series of posts comes from a whimsical list I posted near the entrance to my apartment several weeks back under the heading 'Big Questions We Need To Keep In Mind'. 'What is energy, really?' came in just under 'How can we deep-fry more things?' as I recall. I wasn't expecting to actually keep the question bubbling in the back of my mind, much less that it would eventually serve up multiple possible answers. If even one of these ways of looking at energy is new to you, then I've done my job well as a wizard of earth and of earthy metaphors.

The way I want to look at the towers along the Gardiner Expressway today is the way a sixteenth-century prince or a second-century Roman emperor would look at them: as symbols of raw power. Every example of ancient European architecture that survives to the present day was commissioned by a ruler or aristocrat both to serve his domain in some functional capacity as well as to display his power. And power in human societies is and always has been expressed as the ability to muster and command energy.

Think of it this way: moving stone hundreds of miles, as well as supporting the kind of advanced economy that produces architects and skilled labourers, requires energy- lots of energy. For most societies in time this has meant the energy of human and animal muscles, with winds, tides, and rivers allowing that energy to stretch considerably farther. Muscles, in turn, require food energy and land on which to grow that food. A man who could command the kind of energy required to construct a Coliseum or a Versailles had power over men and beasts and land, and the things he built communicated this to his subjects and to visiting foreigners far more clearly than words.

Architecture isn't the only way humans express power over one another, either. Ever since we started figuring out how to store up energy surpluses in the form of cultivated grains like wheat, corn, and rice, the more powerful among us have been figuring out how to spend those surpluses as gratuitously as possible. Conspicuous consumption didn't begin with flashy sportscars running on high-octane fuel, nor even with chariot racing fuelled by acres and acres of hay and oats, although there are strong parallels between the two. As long as there has been money, there have been people eager to spend it on energy-intensive goods and services in order to better display their wealth. I could easily have titled this post 'Energy As Money', but money, as we all know, is power, or at least the set of numerical symbols that quantify the power of humans relative to one another. A rich person has more power than a poor person; a powerful person commands more energy than a weak person.

Horses and chariots provide a telling example. In the ancient world horses were symbols of wealth and prestige partly because they cost so much energy to feed and partly because they played an important role in that other rich man's sport played at the expense of the poor: war. Feeding and equipping armies required enormous amounts of grain energy, and thus winning military conquests (that is, capturing new lands from which to tax grain and slave energy) was highly prestigious. Victorious Roman generals were sometimes granted the honour of a triumphus, a costly and elaborate parade through the city streets displaying marching soldiers, chained captives, and the victor himself robed in purple and riding in a four-horse chariot. This cultural backdrop explains in part why the 'triumphal entry' into Roman-occupied Jerusalem by a certain Jewish carpenter in the first century made such an impression on everyone involved: riding a simple donkey instead of four warhorses was a political statement about the attitude a wise ruler should have toward both war and the energy resources of his people.

You may have noticed, in all of this, that the way humans look at energy is very different from the perspective of the animals in last week's post. To animals energy is life, and everything they do is oriented toward conserving it and thereby preserving their lives. To humans, energy is a resource, something we can control and quantify and use as we see fit. The towers along the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto are an expression of our present civilization's confidence in its own power, a power built on highly useful forms of energy that weren't accessible to previous human societies. How the villages of Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon became the town of York and later the city of Toronto constitutes a chapter in the broader story of that power's rise; how the city of Toronto became the Greater Toronto Dominion in my short story The Messengers is a chapter in the broader story of that power's decline and fall.

Because powers do rise, and they do decline and fall. This is as much a law of history as the rise and fall of individual organisms is a law of nature, and it's both a source of unease to those with power and a source of hope to those crushed under the weight of power. The theme returns again and again in the ancient writings of those asking the hard questions of their own societies: in what ways are we mortal humans, possessed of godlike powers though we be, subject to the laws of time and nature? In our own time there are too few people asking this question, although more and more are starting to ask whether there can be reconciliation between the animals' way of seeing and the human animals' way of seeing. These are very, very interesting questions, but before addressing them I have one more way of seeing to try on.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

What Is Energy, Really? Part 1: Energy As Life

The sun rises over a woodland, flooding the vast cathedral of the forest with light. It's spring, and you can almost see the bare branches stiffening and reaching hungrily for the sun's warmth. As the northern hemisphere tilts sunward and the angle of light falling through the branches to the forest floor becomes more direct each day, the forest stirs and wakes from its long sleep. A fantastic chain of events is about to begin, and it all starts with the phenomenal energy of the sun.

That energy, flung outward into space from a nuclear furnace of unimaginable size and intensity, has travelled more than ninety million miles to reach Earth in the form of heat, light and ultraviolet radiation. Although most of it is either deflected by the Earth's magnetic field, reflected back into space by high-altitude clouds, or converted into ambient heat when it hits the upper atmosphere, enough of it reaches the earth's surface to warm it directly. A seed that has spent years slumbering under the leaf litter now uses that heat energy to begin tapping into its own tiny powerhouse of stored protein and carbohydrate energy. A small shoot sprints to the surface, where it unfolds green leaves mottled with red.

Now the young plant can tap into the energy source it truly desires: sunlight. Most of the sun's energy that reaches the plant reflects off its leaves as coloured light (green mottled with red) or is converted into ambient heat as the plant works to combine solar energy with carbon dioxide, water, and soil in order to make a small store of protein and carbohydrate energy for itself; nevertheless it gathers enough to send up a slender stem and unfold a dainty yellow flower. It is a trout lily, so called for the reddish speckling of its leaves, and it belongs to the class of wildflowers known as spring ephemerals. This means that after a few short weeks it completes its life cycle and drops tiny seeds to the forest floor.

One seed is dragged away by foraging ants, who eat a fleshy bit attached to one end and leave the rest to slumber and await another spring. The ants, like all insects, run on such a lean energy budget that they're sensitive to changes in the amount of ambient heat energy in their environment, and on this warm day they're moving faster than they did earlier in spring. As they scurry this way and that, foraging above ground and distributing food to hatching larvae underground, they convert most of the energy they receive from the seed casing into more ambient heat. But by eating enough seed casings they're able to build up and maintain their bodies with energy-rich proteins and carbohydrates.

Other forest dwellers are well aware of this fact. One ant, venturing up a nearby tree and onto a branch during a subsequent foraging mission, is picked off and eaten by a black-capped chickadee. Although she's many times bigger than the ant, and enjoys the benefits of a circulatory system that distributes heat and nutrient energy from the insects she consumes throughout her body, she too lives close to the edge in terms of energy requirements. If she were to be startled from her roost on a midwinter's night, there's a good chance she wouldn't live to see the morning. But on this spring day she's busily converting most of the energy from her meal into ambient heat as she flutters back and forth between feeding and checking on her clutch of eggs, each of which contains a substantial chunk of her own energy-rich proteins and carbohydrates.

Those proteins and carbohydrates make her eggs tempting targets for a passing blue jay, who spies the chickadee pair bustling in and out of the tree cavity where their eggs are hidden. He perches nearby and performs his best imitation of a red-tailed hawk's harsh keeeerr. As other forest birds dive for cover, the jay swoops in, nabs a brown-speckled egg, and gulps down the energy-rich meal with gusto. Most of that energy will be converted to ambient heat by his muscles, which are strong enough to lift him into the air and power him from one perch to another as he patrols his family's territory.

That is, that's what the egg's energy would have gone toward, but as the jay finishes eating, just out of sight of his protective family group, he fails to notice the red-tailed hawk that has appeared on the scene to investigate what sounded like a hostile male intruding on his territory. The red-tail nabs the jay in turn, and carries off to his nest the energy of both egg and egg-thief in one neat package. Most of it will be converted into ambient heat by his hardworking muscles, of course, but for now he enjoys the fullness of his belly as he rests, gazing out over his territory. The late afternoon sunlight is slanting through the trees and across the meadow that is his kingdom. He's an old widower, and he knows that this meal may well be one of his last. A younger and more vigorous male has been pushing into his territory lately and claiming a greater and greater share of the energy the meadow can provide.

Not long afterward the younger hawk succeeds in pushing the older male out. The deposed monarch lives a few more hungry days before the supply of protein and carbohydrate energy in his body runs too short to sustain him. He dies on the forest floor, where the decomposers- insects, worms, fungi, and bacteria too numerous to name- get to work on him almost right away. From their perspective there's still a lot of energy in the dead body of the hawk, though most of it will be converted into ambient heat as the decomposers gassily digest the hawk's tissues and engage in their own minute struggles for survival.

At long last the light energy that began this convoluted story has been converted almost entirely into heat energy, too diffuse to do anything but raise the temperature of the woods by a tiny fraction of a degree, while the matter that has carried that energy has undergone transformation after transformation before coming full circle as soil, water, and carbon dioxide. That, my friends, is life: one of the greatest stories ever told, and one far more rich and complex than my simple retelling can do justice to. What's more, it's playing out all around us as I write these words and as you read them.

There are two morals I'd like to draw your attention to before wrapping up this post. The first is that matter moves in circles but energy moves in straight lines. That is, matter can be re-arranged and transformed again and again (from soil to living tissue and back to soil indefinitely), while energy moves in one direction only: from highly concentrated and usable forms, through various transformations, toward its ultimate end as diffuse heat. You can picture it as an energy cascade, splashing downward from the sun at the top through to the hawk and the decomposers near the bottom. Just as waterfalls never, ever flow uphill, diffuse energy can never, ever be made useful again without downgrading even more useful energy in the conversion process. Science knows this principle as the second law of thermodynamics.

You can picture the way the second law works a different way by thinking back to Jonathan Erb and his mill. The stream flowing downhill toward the mill has lots of useful energy. The waterwheel that turns the millstone or electric generator is tapping into the stream's energetic flow before it slows down, broadens, and reaches the sea, which has loads of energy but practically none that is useful. Luckily for the Erbs, the stream is replenished by energetic weather systems that do the work of carrying water and useful energy uphill in the form of rain. If you imagine Jonathan trying to do that work himself, say with a pair of buckets, you can easily see why it's laughable to try to work against the second law: he would spend more energy carrying water uphill than he would gain from its flowing back downhill. Even vast, highly energetic weather systems are subject to the second law, since they receive heat energy from the sun, whirl it about the planet, and slowly exhaust themselves as the concentrated heat that fuels them diffuses or leaks back into outer space. Using the metaphor of running water we can phrase the first moral of the story succinctly, if somewhat fancifully: energy flows downhill.

The second moral is that each conversion step in energy's downward journey has a cost to be paid in diffuse heat. You can't get more energy out of less, only less out of more. You can't even get out an equivalent amount, because, as I tried to make clear in my story, acquiring useful energy always costs useful energy, even for plants standing still and soaking in sunlight. That's why a forest ecosystem always contains more plants than insects, more insects than small birds, and more small birds than predators. The species we typically think of as being at the top of the food chain are in one sense bottom feeders; that is, in terms of the energy cascade. Being a carnivore is tough because there's not enough useful energy at the bottom of the cascade to allow you to make mistakes without serious consequences, i.e. a net energy loss after hunting, i.e. starvation. The second moral of the story is as harsh as it is true: nothing comes for free.

Energy flows downhill and it's never free. Got that? Keeping these two principles in mind, we can move on to looking at energy from a very different perspective next week. This time the story's going to involve humans, lots of humans, doing some very interesting things with energy.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

It's Not the End of the World

One of the things I love best about stories is that when done right, they can convey messages more effectively than mere words. With new stories we can think new thoughts, and with new thoughts we can begin to imagine new ways of being in the world. If last week's post caught you off guard, and if after reading it you're left with some unsettling questions ringing in your ears, it means that my message came through. If, nevertheless, you enjoyed reading "The Messengers" and aren't too unsettled to join me in exploring possible answers to those questions, then read on.

"The Messengers" is a work of science fiction. It follows the conventional (though by no means exclusive) definition of SF in that it takes current trends in science and technology, extrapolates them into an imagined future, and uses narrative to explore that future. If my story differs somewhat from popular science fiction, that's because it's premised on unpopular science and imagines an unpopular future. By this I don't mean that the world of "The Messengers" is a dystopia, a genre that currently enjoys enormous popularity; on the contrary, the message I read in it is one of hope rather than anxiety. But my hope is an unusual hope, and I've come to it by an unusual path. 

A few months ago I had a series of conversations with a friend about a subject that concerns us both. She's a talented artist, and in the circles she moves in she's noticed a strong trend in recent years toward themes and imagery of apocalypse, of an imminent and violent end to the world as we know it. I responded by noting a parallel trend in popular culture- think of how many movies have been cranked out in the last five years that feature worldwide disaster, or zombies, or both. My friend is quite aware of the various challenges our world faces, and as someone who has made a vocation out of her sensitivity to the ideas and emotions swirling around her, she was finding it all a little overwhelming. I think I surprised her when I told her that in my assessment the apocalypse fad is a steaming load of horse manure.

Not that I think current global challenges are anything to sniff at, if you'll pardon the extension of the metaphor. In fact, I think most people underestimate them. But where I disagree with the end-of-the-world analysis is that it isn't based on analysis. Popular culture is designed to sell itself by appealing to our emotions, and a spate of end-time blockbusters tells us more about the emotions that make us easy prey for Hollywood producers than it does about the state of the world.

What antidote would a wizard prescribe to someone suffering from emotional manipulation at the hands of pop culture? To balance an excess of hot air I'd suggest something cold and dry; perhaps an infusion of black bile would do the trick. Alternatively, a daily dose of history could have much the same effect. History is famous for being emotionally unappealing, and it's never sold more than modestly outside the glamorous sub-genre of biography. History, unlike Hollywood, can tell us what really happens when societies face huge challenges, and though it can't predict the future, it can outline for us the probable shape of that future.

"The Messengers" takes place in my hometown of Kitchener (formerly Berlin), Ontario in the spring of 2213. Congratulations to those of my readers who know their history and were able to calculate six hundred years from the creation of the Two Row Wampum in 1613. (Four hundred years from the construction of the Joseph and Barbara Schneider Haus would have landed you in the same temporal neighbourhood). The journey of Laura Erb is an intentional nod to the journey of Laura Secord in 1813. Secord walked 30 km to warn the British forces stationed near present-day Thorold, Ontario of an impending surprise attack by the American army then invading Upper Canada from the east. Her message was received not by the British commander, but by a group of Haudenosaunee (Hoh-dee-no-SHOW-nee) allies camped nearby. It was these men who then fought and defeated the invading Americans. My future-historical fable is both a tribute to these stories and a calculated attack on three myths currently wreaking havoc on our collective psychological immune systems, each buoyed up by a lot of hot air and swollen emotion.

The first is that our future must either progress onward and upward toward an ever bigger, faster, and shinier version of the present, or else face an apocalyptic meltdown that leaves the survivors regressing into the stone age. Both these theories ignore historical examples of societies that attempted to dominate nature and failed, or economic and environmental meltdowns that looked like they would end the world but didn't. That said, I do think the Kitchener of two hundred years from now will more closely resemble the Berlin of two hundred years ago than it will the Kitchener of today- I just don't think we'll get there by means of a sudden and dramatic catastrophe. My reasons have to do with with the unpopular science of thermodynamics, and I plan to devote an upcoming series of posts to exploring that science and its implications for our times.

The second myth, equally pervasive and even more damaging than the first, is that Onkwehonwe (Oh-gwey-ho-wey), or Indigenous peoples, have either disappeared from history or will do so presently. The Onkwehonwe people I've met are tough, smart people who know what they want and aren't going to roll over into the grave of lost civilizations any time soon. I think they have quite a lot to teach the rest of us about travelling the river of life, provided we don't try to jump out of our boat and clamber into theirs. To put it another way, we can't ever become Onkwehonwe, but if we're willing to listen and face the truth of our troubled relationship, we stand to learn and gain a lot.

If you read "The Messengers" early last week you might be interested to know that I've since updated the ending of the story, both for clarity and for better representation of this issue. In the new ending, Laura and the young Haudenosaunee man (he should have a name, shouldn't he?) arrive at Kanohnstaton (Gah-no-STAHT-oh) each in their respective canoes, his towing hers, rather than both in one boat. This is an important detail if you're reading on a symbolic level, and as a trained medievalist I always read on a symbolic level.

There's so much more to say about the ongoing story of indigenous/settler relations that I could write another whole series of posts about it, as well as about my own journey to Kanonhstaton, The Protected Place, in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. I'll save that for other days, but if you're interested in a good introductory resource on these issues, I highly recommend the writings of Chelsea Vowel, whose blog âpihtawikosisân has, among other things, an excellent "Indigenous Issues 101" section.

The third and final myth addressed by "The Messengers" is that nature is something we find outside, apart from everyday human affairs, and that the lessons she teaches are interesting but ultimately of secondary importance to human knowledge. Correcting that misconception is one of the central projects of this blog, and that's why next week we're going to dive into a series of riffs on one of nature's most beautiful themes, a phenomenon as mysterious as it is central to the crises of our time.