So, it’s this kind of day today…
About 13.8 billion years ago, the Universe came into existence, for whatever reason you choose to believe. During that event, all of the energy that was, is, and ever will be spewed forth. Some of it, after some time, coalesced into matter, mostly hydrogen mixed with helium in a 3-to-1 ratio, with a pinch of all the heavier elements for flavor.
In addition to creating matter, the primordial energy of creation also imparted all of these particles with kinetic energy, the energy of motion, transferred to them in the form of thermal energy radiated from space itself.
Nothing particularly interesting happened for about half a billion years, particles just kind of flew around the ever increasing expanse of space. However, due to the fact that they had mass, the universe actually gave another type of energy to all matter…gravitational potential energy. The particles attracted each other into great clumps of inert matter and, as they did so, converted this potential energy into kinetic energy, causing them to fall towards one another, increasing in speed. As they got closer and closer, collisions became more and more common and this kinetic energy was rapidly transferred between them, something that we perceive as temperature.
At some point, the temperature became so great that the kinetic energy was enough to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between the like-charged particles, allowing in the strong nuclear force to “stick” them together and the process of nuclear fusion began.
Through potential energy, these nuclear furnaces converted the small amount of mass lost in the fusion process back into energy, which was radiated out into space. After a while, the star would die, projecting it’s remaining matter back into the universe to seed the creation of the next generation of stars.
After (probably) three rounds of this, the Sun came into existence about 5 billion years ago. What matter wasn’t consumed by its creation gravitationally collapsed to create the multitude of rocky bodies that orbited it, propelled by that same potential and kinetic energy.
On Earth, like on the other bodies, larger leftover chunks of rock and ice pummeled the surface. Unlike the others, however, the distance was such that the energy emitted from the Sun was enough to keep the kinetic energy of the water molecules high enough to avoid forming crystals and freezing. It was low enough, however, to keep them from flying apart completely and vaporizing.
Like the early Universe, nothing particularly interesting happened for another billion years. However, the energy pouring onto Earth from the Sun allowed order to arise, fending off the ever-present influence of entropy. Self-replication, powered by the Sun, gave rise to more and more complex structures.
About 350 million years ago, plants really began to take over, covering the Earth, powered by the Sun via photosynthesis. They used it’s energy to create carbohydrates, made up of atoms of carbon and hydrogen provided by the destruction of the Sun’s progenitor. This chemical potential energy could then be broken apart at a later time to fuel the process of life, fending off chaos…at least until the energy ran out and death occurred.
As the plants and their unused energy were buried, pressure and heat, yet again manifestations of gravitational potential energy, converted them into coal and natural gas. Deep in the Earth they remained…until the surface order empowered by the Sun gave rise to us.
About 200 years ago, we figured out how to extract these materials. By burning them, we can release that chemical potential energy and do work. Coal is burned to heat water, inciting a phase change to steam, imparting kinetic energy to a turbine blade, which rotates a magnet in a coil of wire, transferring that kinetic energy to the electrons, generating electricity.
These electrons are propelled to my home by electric potential energy, created by a difference of charge which acts like a form a pressure. They travel through thousands of miles of copper, agitating the atoms along the way, generating heat and being radiated into space.
What energy survives this process is sent to its destination, guided by the electric potential created by the piezoelectric switch at the base of my water heater. This potential is so great that the electrons are forced out of the conductor and into the air, jumping across the gap of the ignitor. The kinetic energy of the electrons is high enough to raise the temperature above the flash point of the natural gas being passed through the same gap. The energy is enough to break apart the 350 million year old methane molecules, which then mix with the oxygen, only present because life started releasing it into the atmosphere all those years ago. The same life, amusingly enough, that created the methane in death.
This oxidization releases heat, which is transferred to the water through vigorous atomic collisions. This hot water is then pumped through the house, driven by a pressure potential, to my shower, where it falls onto my skin.
The kinetic energy of the molecules is transferred to thermoreceptors in my skin, made possible by a 3-billion year battle between the Sun and entropy. The energy is once again converted, this time used to create an electric potential on the thermoreceptor cell’s surface. This induces an electrical potential cascade in my peripheral nerves, sending charge up my spinal cord, and into my thalamus, the switchboard of my brain.
My thalamus uses the energy conveyed from the electron flow to free proteins which bind with receptors in specific neurons, using the chemical potential energy to release acetylcholine into my bloodstream. This activates the neurons of my cerebral cortex, again through a conversion from chemical potential energy to electrical potential energy. This increase boosts my attention and that, combined with the increased blood flow caused by the vasodilatation induced by increased body temperature, gives me the idea to write this blog.
And then I had a cup of coffee…