Okay – this is really bothering me. You’re all a lot smarter than I, so of course I turn to you first (well… second, after Wikipedia) for answers.

I’ve been reading Denis Brian’s biography on Einstein and the book contains lots of references to something called "energy". It says stuff like

"everything in the universe is a repository of enormous, latent energy"

"the formula implied that mass is frozen energy"

"every gram of matter contains this tremendous energy"

Over the years I’ve also talked to lots of spiritual types who like to tell me about ‘energy envelopes’ and chakras which are apparently an energy. The body has an ‘energy aura’. My friend Sailor Bob the guru likes to say that the universe is "intelligence energy".

 So I went looking for a definition of what this thing called ‘energy’ really is.

Wikipedia was, of course, my first port of call. It says:

In general, the concept of energy refers to the potential for causing changes. The word is used in several different contexts. The scientific use has a precise, well-defined meaning, whilst the many non-scientific uses often do not. In physics, energy is the ability to do work and has many different forms (potential, kinetic, electromagnetic, etc.) No matter what its form, physical energy has the same units as work; a force applied through a distance. The SI unit of energy, the joule, equals one newton applied through one meter, for example.

Okay, so what is the precise scientific meaning of ‘energy’? Until 1807, scientists used the term ‘vis viva’ (latin for ‘living force’) instead of energy, which sounds similar to the way it’s often used by my spiritualistic friends. So what does Wikipedia say the term means now?

The concept of energy change from one form to another, as a "driver" for natural processes, is useful in explaining many phenomena.

… in the context of physics energy is said to be the ability to do work

Okay but.. what is it? What is it made of? Can I touch it or smell it is visualize it in any way? The chemical and biological definitions for energy are similarly vague. The term gets used like there is an a priori understanding on behalf of the reader that energy does, in fact, exist. And yes I still don’t know what they are talking about. It reminds me of talking to spiritual friends about "soul". What is it? They cannot tell me, just that they believe it exists. It seems about as good as I can get for "energy" as well.

Wikipedia also has this to say:

During a 1961 lecture for undergraduate students at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman, a celebrated physics teacher and a Nobel Laureate, had said "There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law — it is exact so far we know. The law is called conservation of energy [it states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes]. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity, which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number, and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same…"

So Feynman says it isn’t a thing as such. It’s a principle. An abstract idea. A useful imaginary premise. I found this quote somewhere else: 

"It is important to realize that in physics today," says Richard P. Feynman, "we have no knowledge of what energy is." Feynman was one of the three recipients for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics and was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.

We don’t know. No idea. This bothers the HELL out of me. Scientists use this term every day but nobody knows what it is??? It’s one thing for spiritual fairy people to use vague terms, I kind of expect that. But I hold science to a different standard. It’s okay for fairy lovers to accept "belief" over evidence and rational thinking, but I expect scientists to be my source of deep thinking about the true nature of things. I expect the scientific method, a process for evaluating empirical knowledge under the working assumption of methodological materialism, which explains observable events in nature as a result of natural causes, rejecting supernatural notions. As yet the definitions of "energy" I can find seem about as supernatural as they come. It’s almost enough to make me buy some prayer beads.

With respect to uses of the term "energy" in spirituality, Wikipedia says this: 

… refers to a widespread belief in an interpersonal, non-physical force or essence. Vitalism is a general term for a force that animates living things. Believers consider spiritual energy to be of a different type than those known to science. Various ideas pertaining to spiritual energy have been postulated in various cultures, prominent amongst them are: 

  • The Christian idea of the soul or spirit
  • The traditional Chinese qi
  • The Indian chakra or shakti
  • The New Age/paranormal aura
  • The "orgone energy" of Wilhelm Reich
  • The morphogenetic fields of biologist Rupert Sheldrake
  • The Odic force of chemist Carl von Reichenbach

    Various forms of mysticism often associate "bad energy" with disease, and "good energy" and healing powers. Most theories involve the ability to actively influence one’s energy.

Okay… no help here? These definitions seem to try to define one word with an equally vague word. Energy is Soul. Riiight. So Sayeth The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

So if anyone out there can help me understand what energy really is, ping me. Come on G’Day World and enlighten us all.