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Richard Feynman’s “Conservation of Energy” – Sarah Smith

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Dr. Feynman as pictured in the 1965 Nobel Prize announcement, which he,Sin-Itiro Tomonaga ,and Julian Schwinger were awarded “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”.

You have to know—I don’t speak physics. I read books about life and humans and humanity and I speculate, personally and communally, about what the author meant and why and what I feel about it. So when Feynman approached me, I knew the terms he was using (“energy”, “conservation of energy”, “gravitational”, “potential”, “mechanism”), but I felt nothing about them because I didn’t know what they meant. Like a classic book you’ve never read—I knew the associations I was supposed to have with these terms but I didn’t know why or how I was supposed to reach those conclusions.

On my first reading of Feynman’s chapter on the conservation of energy, I wasn’t awed by his explanations of how the world works. Halfway through I did come to a whoa-this-is-real moment, but for the most part, I examined Feynman’s language and how he felt about what he was saying. He said that energy is an abstract idea—how could that be? Energy is the physical of the physical; it’s what runs us and turns our pages and swings our pendulums and gets us places. But as Feynman says, “[energy] is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete.” But because our idea of energy is based in our minds—and yes, on the measurements of energy—we can think of it as abstract. If it were mapped out, if we knew its dimensions and units and why and how, it would no longer be abstract. Feynman clearly understands what he’s talking about and isn’t just regurgitating facts; the abstract-concrete distinction is probably not something a novice physicist would ever get to.

Something we can measure about energy is the heat of heat energy (really just another form of kinetic energy). We (read: physicists) know that a mechanism, like a spring, won’t move perpetually, and that’s because some of the kinetic energy within it is moved to a disorder in the atoms, which proceed to wiggle around and prevent the spring from bouncing up and down eternally like we want it to. We cannot see these atoms wiggling around like they do, but we know that they’re there, because we can measure the heat they produce.

To explain the law of conservation of energy, Feynman gives the analogy of a child playing with blocks (he uses Dennis the Menace). Dennis has 28 blocks, and no matter what he does or how he plays or where he goes, there are always 28 blocks. At one point his mother finds one under a rug—still 28—and at another point it seems there are 30, but really Bruce came to visit and accidentally left some of his blocks. Later she cannot see several of the blocks, but it turns out they are just in Dennis’s dirty bath water. At this point, I made a note: “Everyman.” Feynman writes for Everyman, and even in the next sentence when he starts giving formulas that will tell how many blocks are in the bath based on how high the water is

(#of blocks seen)+{[(weight of box)–16 oz]/3 oz}+{[(height of water)–6 in.]/¼ inch} = constant

he is still writing for Everyman. He gives a concrete example that would make sense to a child, even if, like me, he was not quite sure where that formula came from.

Feynman ends with an application, maybe even an ultimatum. He tells how we get energy from the sun and uranium and hydrogen (though not safely), but that the energy in 10 quarts of water can be equal to the electrical power generated in the entire US. “It is up to the physicist to figure out how to liberate us from the need for having energy,” Feynman says. “It can be done.”

Feynman closes one section with this statement: “[Energy] does not tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.” Physicists do not know what energy is, or how it works, but Feynman assures us that they can indeed measure it. So it is; energy is. It is a thing that exists regardless of humans or what we want or do, and it began because of nothing we did. Here is the cosmic why? But no matter how much and how deeply humans study physics, it will never tell us why it does anything, only that it does. In this way, physics teaches us a lesson: physics is what is, and there is nothing that tells the meaning in this is. I won’t go so far as to say that physics tells us there is no meaning, but I will venture to say that based on physics, nothing that is (within “this nature”, as Feynman says) can tell us meaning concretely.

When Feynman began on kinetic energy, my mind removed itself from the playful distance we keep when reading fiction, the distance from which I have always tried (and failed) to understand scientific ideas. In fiction we keep this distance as necessity; we have to take ourselves out of this world so our brains can relax. We avoid thinking about reality and “reality” at once. But Feynman does not teach about “reality”—only about Reality, capital R, real, true, is. Back to this essence of being, physics is bare bones, existing without all the fluff of art and humanity and our need for meaning. Here in my reading I was awed, and clearly it made me sappy. I wrote the note “literature feels” on that page, and I pondered how physics just     is         but literature is the meaning, the feeling, the fluff—not in that it is extraneous but in that it is the flesh to physics’s bones.

Though I don’t completely understand all these concepts, I’m not sure I have to. To be in Feynman’s words, his notions of the world’s beauty (at one point he calls a line of reasoning beautiful), is to attempt to understand what the world is. It is not a concept I’m sure I can even describe, but because I deal so much in feelings and associations and connotations, I can never say certainly, “This is what is.” And the fact that there is a way, one specific certain concrete way that the world is, is appalling and beautiful to me. I cannot accept it because it is beyond me: indeed, above me and below me and around me, but I must accept it. It is the basis for me and for everything I love. The reality behind these concepts is what turns my pages, what allows my book to fall from my hand when I fall asleep, and what enables circuit boards and cello strings and the chiming of grandfather clocks. The flesh of literature is beautiful, but the bones that move it and its creators have the foreign, mysterious beauty of what solely is.

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