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Subject: Re: If matter is made up of particles, then what is energy made up of?

Date: Fri Nov 27 04:46:02 1998
Posted by Ricky J. Sethi
Position: PhD

Hi Matt,

That is a very good question... and very insightful for such a young age! It is certainly very perplexing... you look around you and you notice the apparently concrete nature of all the things you interact with (like desks, chairs, computers, etc.). These things are termed matter and you know that matter is made up of particles (like electrons, protons, and neutrons). That makes sense, right? Particles must be just miniature versions of what you see... maybe like little balls or solid spheres... that make up all the "things" around you... But energy? What the heck is that? You've never felt energy... never seen it. Or have you? In fact, energy is all around you and interacts with you constantly. If you've ever felt the heat from a stove, you've felt energy. If you've ever seen sunlight, you've seen energy. These are all forms of energy. Energy, it seems, isn't made up of any one thing... instead, it's an abstract concept that is popularly defined as "the ability to do work". The different forms that energy can take are discussed brilliantly at t his site, hosted by EnergyQuest (be sure to explore all around this site... it's got LOTS of stuff, including great science projects and experiments for you to try at home).


But if you really want to force a breakdown of energy I guess it's possible to say, for example, that radiation comes in discrete clumps called photons. These can be thought of as making up radiative energy. Similarly, interconversions between the bonds and structures of atoms and molecules can be thought of as giving rise to chemical energy. Electrical energy depends on the movement of electrons. Heat energy can be transmitted via radiation (above), conduction, or convection. Conduction depends on molecules/atoms being close to each other and, similarly, convection relies on a interaction of atoms or molecules. But the general classifications like Potential Energy (energy of position) and Kinetic Energy (energy of motion) can't really be broken down (although, to be technically correct, Quantum Mechanics does tell us that all energy comes in discrete multiples -- for the more masochistic, please see below for details).

Long, rambling attempt to get you really, really confused

If you're still reading this, then you might already have guessed that that's not the whole story... and you're right! The cosmic dance between matter and energy isn't anywhere near as simple as this. You see, they're related on a fundamental level and, in truth, one is the other! As it turns out, matter is every bit as abstract as energy and the ethereal energy that you hear about is as tangible as the matter you interact with! Quick caveat: this part is a lot more free form/stream of consciousness. Feel free to skim the following and don't worry if parts of it don't make sense... the idea is just to get an intuitive feel for what the world you live in is "really made of".

Briefly, matter and energy are interconvertible... one can "become" the other (maybe not easily but it is possible). At their core, the "particles" that make up everyday matter are really not anything like the solid spheres we all tend to imagine. And energy itself is a lot more ubiquitous and intrinsic part of our lives than we usually consider.

First, as was hinted above, matter and energy are completely interconvertible... one can be changed into the other. This equivalence of matter and energy was formulated by one of the most prolific geniuses of science, Albert Einstein, and is expressed by his famous equation E=mc2. So what does this really mean? It means that, at the fundamental level, there really is no difference between energy and matter. One is equivalent to the other.

This can really be seen when you encounter the strangeness that is Quantum Mechanics. This theory of the very small tells us that we can't really think of microscopic particles as particles at all! Instead, we're forced to look at these microscopic "particles" as solid yet not solid... they show aspects of both the solid particles you see around you (like baseballs, for example) and waves (somewhat like those you see on the ocean). It is certainly very strange but it shows that the "ultimate reality" (if there is such a thing) is quite unlike what we experience at our macroscopic level of existence.


So where is all this going? The idea was to show you that although energy might seem like an abstract idea that you can't feel, it's really no different from matter, which, at it's most fundamental levels, is every bit as fuzzy as energy. Both deny definitions in the everyday language that has been tailored to meet the needs of us macroscopic creatures... this language is necessarily insufficient to express anything that falls outside the realm of "normalcy". Hence, the ideas and concepts that we're used to (like everything being made up of something... of everything being broken down to the amalgamation of some fundamental building blocks) not only are not necessarily applicable to what's "really going on" at the level of the very small but they might not even have definitions at that level.

I know a lot of this discussion might seem very strange and you're probably as confused as ever about the answer to your seemingly simple question (often, the simplest questions are the hardest to answer and the most profound). No fears... check out these sights below to get different presentations and interpretations of energy. My experience has been that the more different perspectives you're exposed to, the better you'll learn and the deeper your understanding. So I encourage you to check these sites and search for more on the Web (maybe at Yahoo, like I did, or at Altavista or Infoseek or your own favourite search engine). And, if you have any doubts whatsoever after checking them, please feel free to drop me a line... I'd be more than happy to discuss this with you at length.

Best regards,


Some Cool Bookmarks

  1. This site offers a great overview of energy and the concepts that elementary schoolers should be familiar with.
  2. This site also offers an overview of energy but also provides some historical information on energy.
  3. Here's a NASA site that, once again, offers an overview of the different forms of energy and also talks about the interconversion of matter and energy that occurs in fusion reactions.

For more information on Physics, try the Physics links in the MadSci Library

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