Friday, October 28, 2011

A Conservative Notion of Energy

Julius von Mayer (1814-1878)
The relation between food and work is intuitive: eat or die.* We also think that overeating can be offset by exercise and modern treadmills enable this thinking by showing us calories burned. And while the relation between food and work now seems intuitive, the equivalence of heat and work--or more precisely their interconversion--was a non obvious deduction.

Non obvious because work seems focused--while heat seems dispersed. It took centuries of sustained effort by thinkers and scientists to get us where we are today: that heat and work are equivalent and can interconvert.  Along the way, one man nearly took his own life for want of attention: Julius von Mayer.  His story involved blood, and indirectly, iron. To him we owe the First Law of Thermodynamics:
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only change forms
*The German verb sterben, to die, is etymologically linked to our verb to starve.


  1. Yes, but relaxation, meditation and (counter-intuitively?) caloric restriction all extend life. They can also be wonderful trade-offs for doing things more efficiently.

    Since when did efficiency stop being a conservative goal?

  2. Not to belabor the point with a more technical observation, but the prevailing theory of death at this point seems to be telomere shortening. Telomeres are shortened due to cell division - a possible consequence of increased metabolism but not as clearly defined a consequence.

    It's less hokey and more precise than the infomercial stuff about "free radicals", and whatnot, but the extrapolation of mouse data to humans clearly points us in the direction of a link between excessive metabolism and death. And if you want to go to more established biological theories, the larger the animal, the slower the base metabolic rate, the longer the lifespan. So even if limitations on cell division are the ultimate cause of death, metabolism is somehow linked in with it somewhere in there.

    A cruder (and older) analogy would be the process of rust - applied to the body.

  3. One of the niceties of oxygen that you mention in that link is its paramagnetism. The other is the light blue tinge it gives off when condensed. Hopefully these things help offset its more volatile properties.