The law of conservation of energy
Teaching Guidance for 14-16
Energy is conserved. What does this really mean, and why is it true?
Water in a reservoir is more or less conserved. So the amount of water can always be calculated from the amount that was there some time ago,
plus the amount that has come in,
minus the amount that has gone out (you may have to take account of evaporation as well as water drawn off).
Another way of saying the same thing is that water can’t be made or destroyed. For there to be more, it has to come in; for there to be less it has to go out.
Energy is similar. If you take any volume of space, then the total energy inside that volume at a given time is always the amount that was there earlier,
plus the total amount that has come in through the surface,
minus the total amount that has gone out through the surface.
Another way of saying the same thing is that energy can’t be made or destroyed. For there to be more, it must have come from somewhere; for there to be less it must have gone somewhere else. This also means that energy is a calculable quantity. The practical teaching implication here is that it is important to do sums about energy changes – how much in, how much out – and not just to talk generally about it.
The conservation laws, such as the conservation of energy, give physics its backbone. They are not really statements of knowledge but they contain implicit assumptions and definitions. They are however tied to the natural world, and they contain experimental knowledge.
The emergence of energy physics
By the early 19th century, steam engines were widely used. Both physicist and engineers sought to understand them by developing a ‘theory of steam engines’. Through the 1840s, as part of this process, several key people developed the concept of energy and its conservation : Mayer, Joule, Helmholtz and Thomson.
Julius Mayer, a German physicist, was the first person to state the law of the conservation of energy, in an 1842 scientific paper. Mayer experimentally determined the mechanical equivalent of heat from the heat evolved in the compression of a gas (without appreciating that heat could be explained in terms of kinetic theory).
In 1847 another German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, formulated the same principle in a book titled On the Conservation of Force. By contrast with Mayer, Helmholtz did view heat as matter in motion. The idea of conservation arose from his interest in animal (body) heat. He may not have known about Mayer’s prior work.
Between 1839 and 1850 the English brewer James Joule conducted a remarkable series of experiments, seeking to unify electrical, chemical and thermal phenomena by demonstrating their inter-convertibility and their quantitative equivalence. His numerical results and conclusion were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society with the title
On the mechanical equivalent of heat.
William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) took the next step, considering the problem of irreversible thermal processes, until that time simply a contradiction between Carnot and Joule. Carnot, in his 1824 theory of heat engines, had argued that heat could be lost; more recently Joule argued that energy was convertible from one form to another but could be destroyed. In Thomson’s 1851 scientific paper
The Dynamical Equivalent of Heat, he contended that energy was "lost to man irrecoverably; but not lost in the material world". Thomson was thus the first person to understand that all energy changes involve energy dissipation.
From energy to thermodynamics
In the second half of the 19th century Thomson and other scientists (including Clausius, Rankine, Maxwell and, later, Boltzmann) continued to develop these ideas. Kinetic theory and the science of thermodynamics gradually became established, with energy conservation as its First law and energy dissipation as its Second law.