metrics matter more or less

Joule's apparatus for measuring the mechanical equivalent of heat energy. A descending weight attached to a string causes a paddle immersed in water to rotate. Caption by Wikipedia, 6 May 2014Most critters including humans get their get-up-and-go from the stuff they eat and drink. And they get stuff to eat and drink by using their get-up-and-go (to hunt or fish, harvest crops, stroll to the nearest McDonalds, etc).

Scientists say you can’t make new get-up-and-go or get rid of old get-up-and-go. You can only change get-up-and-go into a different form of get-up-and-go, or into stuff.

Likewise, they say you can change stuff into other stuff or into get-up-and-go. But you can’t make new stuff and you can't destroy existing stuff.

(For example, you can’t get rid of a McDonalds burger, you can only change it into shit. No, hang on, it’s shit in the first place. Better example needed).

By now you’re probably thinking that this post is a load of reprocessed burger. With every word you read, you’re probably muttering or snarling, “says who?”

“Says the Law,” says I in reply.

“What frickin’ law?” snarls you.

“The Law of the Conservation of Get-up-and-go*” replies I.

But whether you conserve or you don't, if you're too massive you can't get up and go for all the tea in China. In other words, if you eat too much stuff you’re stuffed, but no matter. Actually, yes matter: in this post “stuff” means “matter”. And “get-up-and-go” means “energy”.

Einstein’s equation, E=MC2, can be used to work out the energy equivalent of the mass** of any given chunk of matter, if you’ve got nothing better to do. The equation says that Energy (E) equals mass (M) multiplied by the speed of light (C) squared.

Light travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second. Squaring that number yields 34,596,000,000 (34.596 billion).

In kilometres per second, the speed of light squared is roughly 90,000,000,000 (90 billion).

In parsecs -- a unit of distance beloved by astronomers and cosmologists -- light travels way less than 1 measly parsec per second.

So light travels further and faster on 1 tank of kilometres than on 1 tank of miles or 1 tank of parsecs, unleaded or leaded.

No it doesn't. Ignore the previous paragraph. It’s really really rubbish. Pure unadulterated shite. Crapola deluxe. It's not even wrong. It's a reductio ad absurdum. Light travels just as far and as fast (or as slow) in miles per second as it does in kilometres per hour, parsecs per week or any other units or combinations thereof.

The same principle applies to anything that can be measured: distance, mass, gravity, acceleration, volume, density, momentum, rotation, energy etc. Whatever you measure is not affected by the units you choose to calibrate the measurement (ie the units you choose to express the numerical value of whatever you are measuring.)

Now light may be fast, but it may not be the fastest thing in the universe. Physicists think there may be sub-atomic particles that travel faster than light (eg the still-hypothetical particle known as the tachyon).

But even if it's true that light is the fastest thing in the universe, it may not be the fastest thing there is.

According to the eggheads, it's not impossible that there are universes other than the one we know and love. And it's not impossible that in another universe, the numerical value of a so-called constant such as the speed of light is different to the value that applies in this universe. And if it’s not impossible for light to travel faster than 186,000 miles per second, then terms such as “fast” and “fastest” may need to be regauged in order to be meaningful. (Not to mention terms such as "constant"!)

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the fastest thing there is. Nothing is absolutely fast or slow or large or small or long or short or dense or diffuse or hot or cold. The only absolute is Everything (cap E, one word). Every thing else is relative, including the size of numbers such as 90 billion, which is

  • larger than the number of days in the week

  • but smaller than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy (estimated at 400 billion) and

  • dwarfed by the estimated 5,000,000,000,000,000 ants (5 quadrillion, short scale) on Earth alive at any one time.

And that's why, IMHO, comparisons between different methods of producing energy (eg in a nuclear vs a coal-fired power plant) can never be meaningful because they’re not engauged (physics joke: an oxymoron if ever there was one). But rather than risk being charged for attempted humour, let me explain.

Before I explain, however, let me reiterate the key points made so far.

  • Stuff (matter) can be converted into get-up-and-go (energy).

  • The energy equivalent of the mass of a chunk of matter can be worked out with Einstein’s equation, E=MC2.

  • The number you choose to represent C2 in the equation -- whether you choose 35 billion or 90 billion or anything else -- does not directly determine how much energy you can get from a chunk of matter.

  • Whatever the size of the numbers representing energy and mass in the equation, the speed of light remains the same. It's said to be a constant. Light travels just as fast or as slow whether the speed is measured in miles per second, kilometres per hour, parsecs per week or any other units or combinations thereof.

Whatever numbers are plugged into Einstein's equation, whatever units of measurement are used, nuclear processes*** are said to be the most efficient ways for humans on this planet at this time to produce energy.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I can smell disingenuousness with both nostrils sealed shut, and spot an attempted hoodwink with both eyes gouged out.

The problem is there’s no common ground on which to base the comparison. For example, say you wanted to compare the “energy efficiency” of a coal-fired power plant with that of a nuclear power plant. Would you base the comparison on

  • mass (eg 1 kilogram of coal vs 1 kilogram of uranium), or

  • volume (eg 1 cubic metre of coal vs 1 cubic metre of uranium), or

  • density (eg the number of coal molecules in one cubic metre vs the number of uranium molecules in one cubic metre), or

  • number (eg 100 lumps of coal vs 100 molecules of uranium), or

  • cost (of building a coal-fired power plant vs the cost of building a nuclear power plant), or

  • impact on the environment, or

  • all of the above, or

  • none of the above, but rather something else entirely?

I don't know whether you would get more or less energy from burning coal in a coal-fired power plant than you would get from applying nuclear processes to the same quantity/amount of coal in a nuclear power station. I don't know if it's even currently technically possible to get energy by splitting or joining the nuclei of atoms in the coal molecule. But even if it is possible, there would still be no valid way to compare the energy-efficiency of a nuclear power plant vs a coal-fired power plant, there would still be the issue of there being no common ground on which to base the comparison. In everyday conversation, the words “amount” and “quantity” are widely used and easily understood. In physics those words are too vague to be useful.

Whether it’s in the form of coal, gas, oil, water, uranium, plutonium, einsteinium, californium, damp carpet or camel dung, matter is the key ingredient in almost every recipe for cooking up some energy****.

In energy matters, matter matters. Maybe that's because matter IS energy IS matter. But we seem to have strayed from the fundamental point of this post. Yes it does too have one. In fact it has two and three bits, as you can see below.

  1. Every thing is relative, including the size of numbers, and

  2. Whatever you measure is not affected by the units you choose in which to calibrate the measurement.

    • Einstein's equation E=MC2 (energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light) can be used to work out the energy equivalent of the mass of a chunk of matter.

    • How much energy you can get from a chunk of matter is not affected by the units you choose in which to express numerical values for mass, energy and the speed of light in Einstein's equation.

    • Nuclear power plants and coal-fired power plants both convert matter to produce energy. But there's no valid way to compare the "energy-efficiency" of either against the other because there are too many variables and too little common ground on which to base the comparison. No matter how much get-up-and-go you have.



* In physics, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change — it is said to be conserved over time. ... Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but can change form, for instance chemical energy can be converted to kinetic energy in the explosion of a stick of dynamite. (wikipedia, 6th May 2014).

Similarly, in metaphysics the Law of the Conservation of Karma, which determines the future outcomes of present actions, states that the overall quantum of justice in a just universe is conserved, and that justice cannot be created or destroyed but only can be transformed into another form.

** Mass is a tricky terms to define. It doesn't necessarily mean weight, though in most sublunary circumstances it does.

*** In this post "nuclear processes" includes cutting up or joining together the nuclei of atoms (fission or fusion, respectively).

**** Exceptions I can think of include electromagnetic induction, in which electricity is produced by a varying magnetic field, the strong force, the weak force (or the electroweak, if you prefer). Solar power is derived from the matter burnt in the furnace we call the Sun. “Wind power” relies on molecules of matter comprising Earth’s atmosphere.



The image shows Joule's apparatus for measuring the mechanical equivalent of heat energy. A descending weight attached to a string causes a paddle immersed in water to rotate. (Caption by Wikipedia, 6 May 2014.)


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mgeorge said...

According to the religion of capitalism, this constraint - overall conservation - does not apply to growth, consumption, profiteering and (by implication) privilege. Money supposedly represents some real value, but the mysterious forces of interest and inflation cause it to appear, disappear and even strangle you.

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge,

You make a good point. Perhaps the Conservation Laws are proclaimed and enacted by the Creator together with one important escape clause: that the works of humans are outside the jurisdiction of the Conservation Laws. It's an escape clause designed to benefit not humans, but rather the rest of the Universe, ie they get to escape from us, because nothing we do is sustainable. And therefore there will come a time when nothing at all remains of humans or their works. :)

On that cheerful note, thanks for your comments!

Antares said...

Gah. You've completely boggled my mind. Thanks!

masterymistery said...

Antares, better to be completely boggled than only partially boggled! Thanks for stopping by. MM