The Energy Illusion

Understanding Nothing
Do you remember any school physics? It was my favourite and best subject at school despite poor and disinterested teaching. By university all interest had gone and it was a case of passing course work and exams – rote learning. The system had won. Like everyone else I learned the laws, formulas and their applications without ever questioning. One thing remained in my favour. I had a sense of understanding absolutely nothing – not even the simplest aspect of physics. I could ace the exams with a little bit of work – but understood nothing at all. (In fact nearly all of my study effort went into studying English and reading literature – where I knew I understood even less!) In the complete absence of guidance from an adult (I was just turned 17 years old) or mentor all this did was remove any confidence or curiosity that might have remained. Beer and girls rapidly became much more appealing alternatives. (They still are if I’m honest – but I don’t drink now and discovered that girls can have some potentially disagreeable side effects!)

Somewhere along the way – long after escaping from the degree factory the penny dropped and I realised that it wasn’t me who was stupid – it was the teachers – or at least the “system” (perhaps both). It wasn’t me who didn’t understand physics – nobody did – and nobody mentioned that. In fact the key to physics and all of science is to realise that you don’t understand and to let that discomfort lead you to more questions.
Last summer I quickly read through the book “ChiRunning” by Danny Dryer and immediately reacted negatively to the mystical reverence given to the unmeasurable, unquantifiable and unprovable concept of Chi Energy. I felt indignation that the word “energy” which is our word for a measurable, quantifiable and apparently concrete entity could be abused in this sloppy and weak minded manner. With this in mind I set about re-reading the book much more carefully with a view to writing a detailed critique ripping it apart and to simultaneously try to abstract whatever useful information might be hidden in there. It was obvious from the start that it was essential to first of all clarify what Western “energy” actually is. When thinking about “energy” that old familiar feeling of “not understanding” resurfaced, which is a warning that something is amiss. I’d never tried to pin down the concept of energy before but simply disliked sloppy references to mystical “energies” that couldn’t exist in a measurable way. In contrast I’d learned to respect the use of the word “energy” for things that clearly did exist in a measurable way. With all our different types of energy ranging through mechanical, chemical, electromagnetic and so on, it still felt to me that I was missing something using this umbrella word “energy”.

One thing however I felt was sure: People who claim to feel or sense unmeasurable energies and who can vouch for their existence beyond all known science often use this to elevate their status and fortify their delusions. They do this by conferring upon themselves a level of superiority, authority and access to an imaginary supernatural, spiritual world – claimed always to be much better than our miserable and pathetic “real” one. None of this could be confronted without first of all resolving any potential confusion over Western “Energy”. 

The “Energy” Illusion
Everyone assumes that “energy” is well understood and defined as a concept. Until the industrial revolution and the advent of thermodynamics with steam engines there was no word “energy” in the English language. The concept didn’t exist. We translate Chi as “energy” without giving the slightest thought to this and without putting our minds in the context of the world as viewed through the eyes of someone living several thousand years ago – with no modern science to explain gravity, electricity, heat, light, magnetism, etc. It seems that prior to the industrial revolution the West had a parallel concept to Chi which was the “living force” or “vis viva” which also embraced practically everything whether measurable or not. During the industrial revolution this concept managed to linger on as “élan vitale” – applied only to biological organisms as the special essence that animated life. Eventually that seems to have been abandoned even though nobody can actually define what separates living from inanimate matter.

(Wikipedia excerpt No 1)

The word energy derives from the Greek ἐνέργεια energeia, which possibly appears for the first time in the work of Aristotle in the 4th century BCE

The concept of energy emerged out of the idea of vis viva (living force), which Gottfried Leibniz defined as the product of the mass of an object and its velocity squared; he believed that total vis viva was conserved. To account for slowing due to friction, Leibniz theorized that thermal energy consisted of the random motion of the constituent parts of matter, a view shared by Isaac Newton, although it would be more than a century until this was generally accepted. In 1807,Thomas Young was possibly the first to use the term “energy” instead of vis viva, in its modern sense.[5] Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis described “kinetic energy” in 1829 in its modern sense, and in 1853, William Rankine coined the term “potential energy“. It was argued for some years whether energy was a substance (the caloric) or merely a physical quantity, such as momentum

The concept of “life force” never completely died away thanks partly to Erwin Schrodinger, one of the greatest modern scientists and one of the fathers of quantum mechanics. In his ground breaking book “What is Life” published in 1944 he postulated that life was a “molecule” – leading to the search for and discovery of DNA. He also suggested in the same book that there was a “life force” and called it “negative entropy”. Entropy means “disorder” – so the life force he was referring to was something that created spontaneous order. Note that this is the first time we see a clear connection between “energy ” and “order” as in “organisation”. Yet entropy – or disorder is considered as always increasing in the universe on the whole and was clearly linked to heat production.

What bothered me particularly in trying to understand “energy” was that there is a long list of different types and they all appear to be interchangeable – but profoundly different. Potential into Kinetic into Electrical into Chemical into Electromagnetic into Heat. Nuclear energy being the only one to interchange with Mass. But if I asked myself to picture this “energy” as an entity I couldn’t. Where is the “energy” thing that constitutes “potential energy”? In the absence of anything tangible it seemed that the ability to “measure” and “calculate” was all that this word could represent.

I’d already encountered the way that some engineers believe in “dynamic equilibrium” as being a reality. The self proclaimed “most famous engineer in the world” telling me that the universe is in balance – because his grasp of reality was obscured by mathematics. Dynamic equilibrium is a fiction where accelerations are replaced by imaginary forces to balance out a system only for the purpose of calculation. This is a mathematical tool which works. Energy looked more and more to be another “fiction” and just a mathematical tool and as a “concrete” thing, nothing more than an illusion.

(Wikipedia excerpt No 2)
During a 1961 lecture[6] for undergraduate students at the California Institute of TechnologyRichard Feynman, a celebrated physics teacher and Nobel Laureate, said this about the concept of energy: 

There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the 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.
The Feynman Lectures on Physics

The Stonier Model
The only “concrete” thing that we can relate to this “energy” is, as Shrodinger was suggesting,  “order” or “organisation”. In the 1980s and 90s Professor Tom Stonier of Warwick university managed to formally integrate “information physics” with the standard concept of “energy” so as to bring about a more grounded explanation. Before we go there let’s recap:
1. “Energy” is a new word referring only to an abstract mathematical principle and it can always be measured. We have no general word to describe anything concrete – though we can refer to diverse aspects directly such as heat, light, gravity, electricity, acceleration, chemical bonding, phase changing etc. In the distant past all of this would have been blanket covered by the concept of “living force”.
2. The ancient Chinese concept of Chi is assumed by us to be “energy” but it can neither be identified as an entity nor measured. Chi is also viewed as a “life force”.
3. Schrodinger related “life force” to “negative entropy” (order as a product of activity). Stonier  formally connected “energy” with “information” – which is much harder to quantify and measure (although possible).

Ironically, the Chinese “Chi” is turning out to be more concrete than our abstract “energy” because it has kept it’s roots in “life force” and hence “order as a product of activity”.

Stonier demonstrated that we need to consider Matter, Energy and Information as the three corners of a triangle. The lines joining the three corners have to be viewed as axes with all possible states being either on the axes or inside the triangle. The pure Matter/Energy axis (with no Information) is disorganised hot matter – Plasma. The pure Energy/Information axis (with no Matter) is massless electromagnetic radiation – Light. The pure Matter/Information axis (with no energy) is organised crystals at 0°Kelvin. Most states are somewhere inside the triangle and involve all three – Energy/Information/Matter. Not one of those three properties can exist independently – so the context is fundamentally important.

Removing the Mystical
None of the above justifies the “mystical” interpretations of “Chi” nor much of the philosophical Chinese medicine based upon it. What is does do is warn us to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Franz Mesmer was a perfect example of this actually happening. He was a doctor who discovered that he could manipulate some force or fluid travelling through the body. He wanted to align this with modern science so he referred to this “substance” as “animal magnetism”. He could “magnetize” all sorts of objects and use them to re-balance the flow of this substance in dozens of people at one time. The “re-balancing” involved people experiencing wild convulsions. Mesmer had much more success as a doctor curing people of diverse problems with this than by any other means and it became wildly popular world wide. Eventually a scientific panel including Benjamin Franklin proved this “animal magnetism” to be totally nonexistent. Mesmer was made out to be a complete fraud and was ridiculed and destroyed despite his success with patients. True – there was no “energy”, nothing physical or measurable “flowing” through the body – but people were cured. Even the scientific panel had not wanted to destroy Mesmer – the public and media did that. Mesmer had unwittingly in fact discovered hypnosis and this was eventually made evident through one of his students – the Marquis de Puységur. Sigmund Freud started off as a hypnotist and through this he understood the existence of the separate unconscious mind. Today there are still charlatans who sell their services as “magnetizers” in France and elsewhere. This gets stretched even further by unscrupulous opportunists who sell actual “magnetic” pads to cure aches and pains etc. Chemists sell this junk along with homeopathy because they can make money and the placebo effect can’t really be ignored. Much Chinese medicine appears to function through the power of hypnotism – which is like an amplified placebo effect. Chi is often described in an identical manner to Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” and this mystical and quasi religious aspect is clearly mistaken.

If we remove the mystical nonsense from “Chi” then the remainder seems to be pretty promising. It’s a word that could perhaps be used to handle Stonier’s quantifiable Matter/Energy/Information model.

Schrodinger-Stonier Chi 
The aim of ChiRunning is to replace inefficient ways of movement with efficient ones. That sounds relatively simple but it isn’t. It requires great insight. Danny Dryer the author realised that the ancient Chinese had this insight and all he needed to do was to apply it specifically to running. The basic insight came from Tai chi. Dryer has exploited this brilliantly.

With Tom Stonier we can move away from the idea of energy just changing from one form to another and see that it also changes into information or organisation – and that information also changes between forms and reconverts to energy. It takes work to organise! Stonier identifies three basic forms of information – structural, kinetic and potential.

The body is an Energy Transducer – it uses information to convert energy from one form to another, to convert energy into information and to perform work more efficiently.

The brain is an Information Transducer – it uses energy to convert one form of information into another.

ChiRunning is about using the body, brain and forces of nature in harmony – so it is really about understanding and exploiting all of those “conversions” that are going on. “Schrodinger-Stonier Chi” is remarkable but not mystical or supernatural and it can be fully quantified albeit currently a difficult task.

This article has been intense enough without plunging into definitions from information physics so I’ll jump directly to the practical implications.

The body and environment have structural information. Even the location of the body is part of this structure and organisation. All of this structure can and will be re-organised over time.

The body contains energy and the universe around it does too in the form of gravity, heat, light and in mechanical forms (wind and waves).

Conscious efficient and constructive use of those energies and their conversion into useful information is what “chi” is all about. Unconscious use of energy tends to be incredibly wasteful and even powerfully disorganising and destructive. We tend to be oblivious to this. We run by trying to make our legs stronger and wreck our joints in the process. We should run by relaxing and exploiting gravity for propulsion, using the large core muscles around the hips and spine. Chi is the organising regenerative force – the spontaneous “negative entropy” that takes place locally when we get it right. It’s why you can run to the top of a mountain without tiredness when you don’t fight against yourself. You use the free energy of the universe (gravity in this case) and work in harmony with it instead of against it. You selectively relax your muscles instead of fighting yourself. You align your body and mind with nature and its forces. This is a flow as opposed to a resistance and energy does flow through your body in the sense that information converts it with great ease and minimum waste. Your use of muscle power is amplified through good mechanics aligned with the forces of nature. Your mind focuses and re-focuses removing the resistance of chattering dialogues in your head and feedback information converts into more useful information; patterns, perspectives, decisions, intentions. Chi flows through your brain too. You identify and connect with your interior through your senses – engaging the strength of your core – aligning and resonating with the external world through the forces of nature. You become grounded and strong with a sense of identity, purpose, meaning and will power as your metaphysical world evolves. There is nothing mystical about it. It is concrete.

Energy Transducers create two conditions necessary for the production of useful work: (1) They create a non-equilibrium situation (Dynamics in skiing – falling over); and (2) they provide a mechanism of countervailing force necessary for the production of useful work.  (The ski – bringing you back up)

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