The Law of Conservation of Energy

There is a law in physics called the conservation of energy. This law states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed only transformed from one form to another. (In his famous equation, Einstein showed that matter is just one form of energy.) How can we recognize this on a practical day-to-day level?

The other evening as I was walking from work to my car, I passed a flowering shrub situated under a street lamp. If it had not been for the street lamp I probably would have walked right on by. Instead my attention was attracted to a rather large moth working away on the flowers. This particular moth was a white-lined sphinx moth. (In flight and while feeding, moths of this type both look and behave much like small hummingbirds and are sometimes called hummingbird hawk moths. The white-lined sphinx has a 2 1/2" - 3 1/2" wingspan.) While watching this one, I realized that there were actually half a dozen or more working this particular shrub. Since the only other one I had seen was a dead one (now one of my "bug walk" specimens) I found along the Pacific Highway while I was out for a walk last year, this was quite a treat.

Just for fun, let us look at some of the ways energy is involved in this event. The energy from the sun, coupled with the energy derived from the soil and the plant food supplied by the gardeners, coupled with the energy from the water delivered to the grounds by rains and aqueducts helped the plant to grow. That is, energy was converted into leaves, roots, flowers. Some of the energy was expended by the roots to break up the soil and some more was released back into the air through respiration. More importantly for this event, some of this energy was used to make the nectar that the moths were consuming. During this process, then, some of the plant's energy was transferred to the moths. The moths converted this food energy, generating heat so they could maintain the body temperature necessary for flight. They converted some of it into pheromones (scents) to attract mates and successfully reproduce. They transferred some of it mechanically to the air by beating their wings. Respiration would transfer more. During the course of their rounds, the moths would transfer the reproductive energy of the plants currently locked in the pollen. As each moth moved about it would leave a trail of energy wherever it went, a trail that would radiate outward like a wake causing small changes in the dynamic balance of energy. Some of the energy would be stored internally too in strained muscles, memory patterns, strengths and weaknesses. Up to this point I have not even touched upon the energy involved in the activity of the soil insects and microbes, the weather patterns, and the numerous other processes that must have taken place and must have been taking place for this event to have occurred at this particular time and place.

Some of that energy came away with me. Over the course of the next few days the fragment that had stayed with me as memory worked inward (in fits and starts). After a few aborted attempts to work outward it has combined with other energies and now appears on this page. As you read this, it continues to work outward even more, leaving behind a wake, now including you also as a focus, radiating inward and outward. The scary thing is that, for better or worse, the wake never ends - it can't for that is the nature of energy (or is it perhaps the energy of nature?).

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201