Tag Archives: matter

More uncertainty about matter and energy


When I wrote about wave-particle duality and an electron possessing the characteristics of both matter and energy [see my post entitled ‘Electron uncertainty’ on July 27th, 2016], I dodged the issue of what are matter and energy.  As an engineer, I think of matter as being the solids, liquids and gases that are both manufactured and occur in nature.  We should probably add plasmas to this list, as they are created in an increasing number of engineering processes, including power generation using nuclear fission.  But maybe plasmas should be classified as energy, since they are clouds of unbounded charged particles, often electrons.   Matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy.  So clearly, the boundary between matter and energy is blurred or fuzzy.  And, Einstein’s famous equation describes how energy and matter can be equated, i.e. energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Engineers tend to define energy as the capacity to do work, which is fine for manufactured or generated energy, but is inadequate when thinking about the energy of sub-atomic particles, which probably is why Feynman said we don’t really know what energy is.  Most of us think about energy as the stuff that comes down an electricity cable or that we get from eating a banana.  However, Evelyn Pielou points out in her book, The Nature of Energy, that energy in nature surrounds us all of the time, not just in the atmosphere or water flowing in rivers and oceans but locked into the structure of plants and rocks.

Matter and energy are human constructs and nature does not do rigid classifications, so perhaps we should think about a plant as a highly-organised localised zone of high density energy [see my post entitled ‘Fields of flowers‘ on July 8th, 2015].  We will always be uncertain about some things and as our ability to probe the world around us improves we will find that we are no longer certain about things we thought we understood.  For instance, research has shown that Bucky balls, which are spherical fullerene molecules containing sixty carbon atoms with a mass of 720 atomic mass units, and so seem to be quite substantial bits of matter, exhibit wave-particle duality in certain conditions.

We need to learn to accept uncertainty and appreciate the opportunities it presents to us rather than seek unattainable certainty.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Arndt M, Nairz O, Vos-Andreae J, Keller C, van der Zouw G & Zeilinger A, Wave-particle duality of C60 molecules, Nature 401, 680-682 (14 October 1999).


Electron uncertainty

daisyMost of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Michael Faraday’s ability to ‘accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [see my post entitled ‘Steadiness and placidity’ on July 18th, 2016] was exceptional and perhaps is one reason he was able to make such outstanding contributions to science and engineering.  It has been said that his ‘Expts. on the production of Electricity from Magnetism, etc. etc.’ [Note 148 from Faraday’s notebooks] on August 29th 1831  began the age of electricity.  Electricity is associated with the flow of electric charge, which is often equated with the flow of electrons and electrons are subatomic particles with a negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 atomic mass units.  A moving electron, and it is difficult to find a stationary one, has wave-particle duality – that is, it simultaneously has the characteristics of a particle and a wave.  So, there is uncertainty about the nature of an electron and most of us find this concept difficult to handle.

An electron is both matter and energy.  It is a particle in its materialisation as matter but a wave in its incarnation as energy.  However, this is probably too much of a reductionist description of a systemic phenomenon.  Nevertheless let’s stay with it for a moment, because it might help elucidate why the method of measurement employed in experiments with electrons influences whether our measurements reflect the behaviour of a particle or a wave.  Perhaps when we design our experiments from an energy perspective then electrons oblige by behaving as waves of energy and when we design from a matter perspective then electrons materialise as particles.

All of this leads to a pair of questions about what is matter and what is energy?  But, these are enormous questions, and even the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said ‘in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is’, so I’m going to leave them unanswered.  I’ve probably already riled enough physicists with my simplistic discussion.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.

Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature [the epilogue], Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

What a waste

20120609_wom915Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc², does not influence everyday interactions of energy, E and mass, m.  The speed of light, c is 299 792 458 m/s which is very big number and implies a huge amount of energy is required to create a small amount of mass.  This means that energy and mass are independently conserved.  For energy, this is the first law of thermodynamics while the law of conservation of mass is usually attributed to Antoine Lavoisier.  On a planetary scale, the conservation of mass implies that we can assume that the quantity of matter is constant.  Can we apply the second law of thermodynamics to matter as well as energy?  One interpretaton of the second law is that Gibbs energy, or the energy available to do useful work, must decrease in all real processes.   This also applies when matter moves through our economic system.  For instance, we must do work to convert mineral ores into useful products which gradually degrade through use and natural processes, such as corrosion, until they become scrap and we must expend more resources to recycle them and make them useful again.  The sun provides us with a steady supply of useful energy, so that in energy terms planet Earth can be considered an open system with energy flows in and out.  Conversely in mass terms, planet Earth is effectively a closed system with negligible mass flow in or out, so that we do not have a steady supply of new matter from which to manufacture goods.  However, most of us behave with open-world mindset and throw away matter (goods) that are no longer useful to us when we should be repairing and recycling [see my post entitled ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st 2013].  Maybe we can’t reach the zero-waste status aimed at by people like Bea Johnson, but most of us could do better than the 2.2 kg of solid waste produced each day by each of us in OECD countries. That’s 2.1 tonnes per year for an average OECD household (2.63 people)!


The New Sustainable Frontier – principles of sustainable development, GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy, September 2009.

Daniel Hoornweq & Perinaz Bhada-Tata, What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, World Bank No.15, 2012.