Non-fiction Physics


Be it all in my head or in fact actually widespread, I need to share this mini exposé on the meaning of potential energy, and its implications. I can thank Konstantinos Alexakos for tuning my brain to these frequencies. 

As taught in high school, potential energy is maybe misconstrued as ACTUAL energy, something substantive, a FORM of energy that is characterized by latency. It is understood to have an inverse relationship with kinetic energy.

BUT, what if potential energy is not that at all? What if, if I lift a ball a few feet above a tabletop, I am not GIVING it potential energy per se, but I am CREATING THE POSSIBILITY for it to acquire kinetic energy? That is, if I were to let it go and it were to fall to the table, the MAXIMUM (kinetic) energy it could acquire would be X. 

Suddenly, potential energy ceases to be defined as a form of energy, and kinetic energy just becomes “energy”.

This is related, through one key metaphor, to the famous slinky drop experiment, which, in short, concludes that at the atomic scale, everything is completely unaware of everything BEYOND its IMMEDIATE surroundings. The bottom of the slinky, though linked to the top, and part of the same object, has no idea what’s about to happen until the very moment the atoms directly above it strike it with the force of gravity. It still “thinks” that the professor is holding it up from the balcony. If this is true of all things at all scales, then how does the potential / kinetic model continue to hold water? Say we were to place the aforementioned ball in an elevator. Its potential energy will increase as the elevator ascends. How is it possible that the ball is AWARE of the distance it could fall? It disagrees with the slinky model regarding how much we assume the atoms of each object KNOW about their surroundings.

So, this area of defining energy is governed by the existence of a gravitational force, and only applies when there is vertical motion. The potential / kinetic energy dualism does not address horizontal motion. Can’t this same ball, (which is perfectly designed to ROLL) have a whole ton of potential energy even when it’s resting on the table, because there is the possibility that I will give it a hard push, filling it with kinetic energy, sending it rolling away?

So the real magic happens when we focus away from the object in question, and onto its environment. The only way to determine accurately an object’s potential and kinetic energy is to determine a FRAME OF REFERENCE. The ball will gain X kinetic energy if it’s dropped from a ten-story building. BUT if I mention there is a 100-foot deep hole dug in the ground at the foot of the building, its potential changes. And what if this ball were to continue falling to the center of the Earth? Completely different potential. And so on. This has been one of the great revelations of relativity, and, even earlier, thermodynamics: FRAME OF REFERENCE is the real key to determining things like the passage of time, momentum, or the expulsion / absorption of energy.

This helps me think of potential energy, and POTENTIAL in general, in a whole new way. I now see it unrestricted by kinetic energy. I see it not in a harmonious, limited deadlock with kinetic energy, but existing in its own realm entirely, independent of it, one separated from it by time, one that constantly changes and is more governed by the rules of POSSIBILITY and FRAME OF REFERENCE (and therefore, chance as well) than a corresponding X of kinetic energy.

Screenshot of a DuckDuckGo image search of “unlock your potential.”

“Unlock your potential.”

This phrase gets used a lot, and I want to address it especially in the instances it applies to the development and maturation of people. We always get told we have great potential, that we must learn to unearth and bring to action, to “results”, or to something tangible by others. In other words, they want us to change our potential (energy) to kinetic (energy). But, given the above precept, the relationship between the two is not so simplistic. Somehow we can be led to believe that each of us is born with some precise amount, X, of potential, which can translate, under the right circumstances, into exactly the same amount, X, of maturation or success– but no more. We are led to believe that X is a constant throughout our lives based on various genetic or home-nurtured factors– but in fact it is more accurate to imagine your “potential” as something in constant flux, depending on your current position in life, changing as you change. If I were to attempt a more concrete definition, a sign of one’s potential at any moment may correspond to how comfortable you are or how challenging your current emploi is. The more challenging your work is, the more there is to learn, the more your potential is. The smartest and most opportunistic of us are able to keep pushing ourselves, or in other words, keep their POTENTIAL high. Again, it is about focusing away from yourself and attempting to regulate your circumstances.

Never to settle with a completed set of tasks, with any salary, with any amount of accrued knowledge, with any foresight– that is the way to go about fulfilling one’s potential. One should never consider one’s potential fulfilled– potential exists precisely because it can never be fulfilled. But it should always be chased. How fast the ball rolls down the table depends only on how hard you can imagine kicking it.

Above: Potential as affected by only your immediate surroundings; and potential as affected by the anticipation of future circumstances.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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