Free Energy, or Not

From: Richard Feder <>
To: Sy Moire <>
Subj: Questions

What’s this about “free energy”? Is that energy that’s free to move around anywhere? Or maybe the vacuum energy that this guy said is in the vacuum of space that will transform the earth into a wonderful world of everything for free for everybody forever once we figure out how to handle the force fields and pull energy out of them?

From: Sy Moire <>
To: Richard Feder <>

Subj: Re: Questions

Well, Mr Feder, as usual you have a lot of questions all rolled up together. I’ll try to take one at a time.

It’s clear you already know that to make something happen you need energy. Not a very substantial definition, but then energy is an abstract thing it took humanity a couple of hundred years to get our minds around and we’re still learning.

Physics has several more formal definitions for “energy,” all clustered around the ability to exert force to move something and/or heat something up. The “and/or” is the kicker, because it turns out you can’t do just the moving. As one statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics puts it, “There are no perfectly efficient processes.”

For example, when your car’s engine burns a few drops of gasoline in the cylinder, the liquid becomes a 22000‑times larger volume of hot gas that pushes the piston down in its power stroke to move the car forward. In the process, though, the engine heats up (wasted energy), gases exiting the cylinder are much hotter than air temperature (more wasted energy) and there’s friction‑generated heat all through the drive train (even more waste). Improving the drive train’s lubrication can reduce friction, but there’s no way to stop energy loss into heated-up combustion product molecules.

Two hundred years of effort haven’t uncovered a usable loophole in the Second Law. However, we have been able to quantify it. Especially for practically important chemical reactions, like burning gasoline, scientists can calculate how much energy the reaction product molecules will retain as heat. The energy available to do work is what’s left.

For historical reasons, the “available to do work” part is called “free energy.” Not free like running about like ball lightning, but free in the sense of not being bound up in jiggling heated‑up molecules.

Vacuum energy is just the opposite of free — it’s bound up in the structure of space itself. We’ve known for a century that atoms waggle back and forth within their molecules. Those vibrations give rise to the infrared spectra we use for remote temperature sensing and for studying planetary atmospheres. One of the basic results of quantum mechanics is that there’s a minimum amount of motion, called zero‑point vibration, that would persist even if the molecule were frozen to absolute zero temperature.

There are other kinds of zero‑point motion. We know of two phenomena, the Casimir effect and the Lamb shift, that can be explained by assuming that the electric field and other force fields “vibrate” at the ultramicroscopic scale even in the absence of matter. Not vibrations like going up and down, but like getting more and less intense. It’s possible that the same “vibrations” spark radioactive decay and some kinds of light emission.

Visualize space being marked off with a mesh of cubes. In each cube one or more fields more‑or‑less periodically intensify and then relax. The variation strength and timing are unpredictable. Neighboring squares may or may not sync up and that’s unpredictable, too.

The activity is all governed by yet another Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle trade‑off. The stronger the intensification, the less certain we can be about when or where the next one will happen.

What we can say is that whether you look at a large volume of space (even an atom is ultramicroscopicly huge) or a long period of time (a second might as well be a millennium), on the average the intensity is zero. All our energy‑using techniques involve channeling energy from a high‑potential source to a low‑potential sink. Vacuum energy sources are everywhere but so are the sinks and they all flit around. Catching lightning in a jar was easy by comparison.

Sy Moire.

~~ Rich Olcott


No knock, the door just opened suddenly.

“Hello, Jeremy.  Rule of Three?”

“Huh?  No, I was down the hall just now when I saw you go into your office so I knew you hadn’t gotten busy with something yet.  Sir.  What’s the Rule of Three?”

“Never mind.  You’re up here about virtual particles, I guess.”

“Yessir.  You said they’re ‘now you might see them, now you probably don’t.’  What’s that about and what do they have to do with abstraction and Einstein’s ‘underlying reality’?”

“What have you heard about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?”

“Ms Plenum says you can’t know where you are and how fast you’re going.”

“Ms Plenum’s got part of the usual notion but she’s missing the idea of simultaneous precision and a few other things.  Turns out you CAN know approximately where you are AND approximately how fast you’re going at a particular moment, but you can’t know both things precisely.  There’s going to be some imprecision in both measurements.  Think about Coach using a radar gun to track a thrown baseball.  How does radar work?”

“It bounces a light beam off of something and measures the light’s round-trip travel time.  I suppose it multiplies by the speed of light to convert time to distance.”

“Good.  Now how does it get the ball’s speed?”

“Uhh… probably uses two light pulses a certain time apart and calculates the speed as distance difference divided by time difference.”

“Got it in one.  Now, suppose that a second after the ball’s thrown the radar says the ball is 61 feet away from the plate and traveling at 92 mph.  Air resistance acts to slow the ball’s flight so that 92 is really an average.   Maybe it was going 92.1 mph at the first radar pulse and 91.9 mph at the second pulse.  So that reported speed has an 0.2 mph range of uncertainty.”

“Oh, and neither of the two pulses caught the ball at exactly 61 feet so that’s uncertain, too, right?”

“There you go.  We know the two averages, but each of them has a range.  The Uncertainty Principle says that the product of those two ranges has to be greater than Planck’s constant, 10-34 Joule·second.  Plugging that Joule-fraction and the mass of an electron into Einstein’s E=mc², we restate the constant as about 10-21 of an electron-second.  Those are both teeny numbers — but they’re not zero.”

“So speed and location make an uncertainty pair.  Are there others?”Zebras“A few.  The most important for this discussion is energy and time.”

“Wait a minute, those two can’t be linked that way.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because … umm … speed is change of location so those two go together, but energy isn’t change of time.  Time just … goes, and adding energy won’t make it go faster.”

“As a matter of fact, there are situations where adding energy makes time go slower, but that’s a couple of stories for another day.  What we’re talking about here is uncertainty ranges and how they combine.  Quantum theory says that if a given particle has a certain energy, give or take an energy range, and it retains that energy for a certain duration, give or take a time range, then the product of the two ranges has to be larger than that same Planck constant.   Think about a 1-meter cube of empty space out there somewhere.  Got it?


“Suppose a particle appeared and then vanished somewhere in that cube sometime during a 1-second interval.  What’s the longest time that particle could have existed?”

“Easy — one second.”

“How about the shortest time?”

“Zero.  Wait, it’d be the smallest possible non-zero time, wouldn’t it?”

“Good catch.  So what’s the time uncertainty?”

“One second minus that tiniest bit of time.”

“And what’s the corresponding energy range?”

“That constant number that I forget.”

“10-21 electron-second’s worth.  Now let’s pick a shorter interval.  What’s the mass range for a particle that appears and disappears sometime during the 10-19 second it takes a photon to cross a hydrogen atom?”

“That’s 10-21 electron-second divided by 10-19 second, so it’d be, like, 0.01 electron.”

“How about 1% of that 10-19 second?”

“Wow — that’d be a whole electron.”

“A whole electron’s worth of uncertainty.  But is the electron really there?”

“Probably not, huh?”

“Like I said, ‘Now you probably don’t’.”

~~ Rich Olcott

And now for some completely different dimensions

Terry Pratchett wrote that Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass.  Physicists don’t agree because the units don’t match up.

Physicists check equations with a powerful technique called “Dimensional Analysis,” but it’s only theoretically related to the “travel in space and time” kinds of dimension we discussed earlier.

Place setting LMTIt all started with Newton’s mechanics, his study of how objects affect the motion of other objects.  His vocabulary list included words like force, momentum, velocity, acceleration, mass, …, all concepts that seem familiar to us but which Newton either originated or fundamentally re-defined. As time went on, other thinkers added more terms like power, energy and action.

They’re all linked mathematically by various equations, but also by three fundamental dimensions: length (L), time (T) and mass (M). (There are a few others, like electric charge and temperature, that apply to problems outside of mechanics proper.)

Velocity, for example.  (Strictly speaking, velocity is speed in a particular direction but here we’re just concerned with its magnitude.)   You can measure it in miles per hour or millimeters per second or parsecs per millennium — in each case it’s length per time.  Velocity’s dimension expression is L/T no matter what units you use.

Momentum is the product of mass and velocity.  A 6,000-lb Escalade SUV doing 60 miles an hour has twice the momentum of a 3,000-lb compact car traveling at the same speed.  (Insurance companies are well aware of that fact and charge accordingly.)  In terms of dimensions, momentum is M*(L/T) = ML/T.

Acceleration is how rapidly velocity changes — a car clocked at “zero to 60 in 6 seconds” accelerated an average of 10 miles per hour per second.  Time’s in the denominator twice (who cares what the units are?), so the dimensional expression for acceleration is L/T2.

Physicists and chemists and engineers pay attention to these dimensional expressions because they have to match up across an equal sign.  Everyone knows Einstein’s equation, E = mc2. The c is the velocity of light.  As a velocity its dimension expression is L/T.  Therefore, the expression for energy must be M*(L/T)2 = ML2/T2.  See how easy?

Now things get more interesting.  Newton’s original Second Law calculated force on an object by how rapidly its momentum changed: (ML/T)/T.  Later on (possibly influenced by his feud with Liebniz about who invented calculus), he changed that to mass times acceleration M*(L/T2).  Conceptually they’re different but dimensionally they’re identical — both expressions for force work out to ML/T2.

Something seductively similar seems to apply to Heisenberg’s Area.  As we’ve seen, it’s the product of uncertainties in position (L) and momentum (ML/T) so the Area’s dimension expression works out to L*(ML/T) = ML2/T.

SeductiveThere is another way to get the same dimension expression but things aren’t not as nice there as they look at first glance.  Action is given by the amount of energy expended in a given time interval, times the length of that interval.  If you take the product of energy and time the dimensions work out as (ML2/T2)*T = ML2/T, just like Heisenberg’s Area.

It’s so tempting to think that energy and time negotiate precision like position and momentum do.  But they don’t.  In quantum mechanics, time is a driver, not a result.  If you tell me when an event happens (the t-coordinate), I can maybe calculate its energy and such.  But if you tell me the energy, I can’t give you a time when it’ll happen.  The situation reminds me of geologists trying to predict an earthquake.  They’ve got lots of statistics on tremor size distribution and can even give you average time between tremors of a certain size, but when will the next one hit?  Lord only knows.

File the detailed reasoning under “Arcane” — in technicalese, there are operators for position, momentum and energy but there’s no operator for time.  If you’re curious, John Baez’s paper has all the details.  Be warned, it contains equations!

Trust me — if you’ve spent a couple of days going through a long derivation, totting up the dimensions on either side of equations along the way is a great technique for reassuring yourself that you probably didn’t do something stupid back at hour 14.  Or maybe to detect that you did.

~~ Rich Olcott

The Universe and Werner H.

Heisenberg’s Area ( about 10-34 Joule-second) is small, one ten-millionth of the explosive action in a single molecule of TNT.  OK, that’s maybe important for sub-atomic physics, but it’s way too small to have any implications for anything bigger, right?  Well, it could be responsible for shaping our Universe.

Quick recap: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) says that certain quantities (for instance, position and momentum) are linked in a remarkable way.  We can’t measure either of them perfectly accurately, but we can make repeated more-or-less sloppy measurements that give us average values.  The linkage is in that sloppiness.  Each repeated measurement lands somewhere in a range of values around the average.  HUP says that even with very careful measurement the product of those two spans must be greater than Heisenberg’s Area.

So now let’s head out to empty space, shall we?  I mean, really empty space, out there between the galaxies, where there’s only about one hydrogen atom per cubic meter.

Here’s a good cubic meter … sure enough, it’s got exactly one hydrogen atom in it.

g25For practice using Heisenberg’s Area, what can we say about the atom? (If you’re checking my math it’ll help to know that the Area, h/4π, can also be expressed as 0.5×10-34 kg m2/s; the mass of one hydrogen atom is 1.7×10-27 kg; and the speed of light is 3×108 m/s.)  On average the atom’s position is at the cube’s center.  Its position range is one meter wide.  Whatever the atom’s average momentum might be, our measurements would be somewhere within a momentum range of (h/4π kg m2/s) / (1 m) = 0.5×10-34 kg m/s. A moving particle’s momentum is its mass times its velocity, so the velocity range is (0.5×10-34 kg m/s) / (1.7×10-27 kg) = 0.3×10-7 m/s.

With really good tools we could determine the atom’s velocity within plus or minus 0.000 000 03 m/s.  Pretty good.

Now zoom in.  Dial that one-meter cube down a billion-fold to a nanometer (10-9 meters, which is still about ten times the atom’s width).  Yeah, the atom’s still in the box, but now its velocity range is 300 m/s.  The atom could be just hanging out at the center, or it could zoom out of the cube a microsecond after we looked — we just can’t tell which.

All of which illuminates the contrast between physics Newton-style and the physics that has bloomed since Einstein’s 1905 “miracle year.”  If Newton were in charge of the Universe, Heisenberg’s Area would be zero.  We could determine that atom’s position and momentum with complete accuracy.  In fact in principle we could accurately determine everything’s position and momentum and then calculate where everything would be at any time in the future.  But he isn’t and it’s not and we can’t.

Theorists and experimenters use the word “measurement” in different ways. A measurement done by a theoretician is generally based on fundamental constants and an Valueselaborate mathematical structure. If the measurement is a quantum mechanical result, part of that structure is our familiar bell-shaped curve.  It’s an explicit recognition that way down in the world of the very small, we can’t know what’s really going on.  Most calculations have to be statistical, predicting an average and an expected range about that average. That prediction may or may not pan out, depending on what the experimentalists find.

By contrast, when experimenters measure something, even as an average of multiple tests, it’s an estimate of the real distribution.  The research group (usually it’s a group these days) reports a distribution that they claim overlaps well with a real one out there in the Universe.  Then another group dives in to prove they or the theoreticians or both are wrong.  That’s how Science works.

You are hereSo there could be a collection of bell-curves gathered about the experimental result. Remember those extra dimensions we discussed earlier?  One theory that’s been floated is that along those extra dimensions the fundamental constants like h might take on different values.  Maybe further along “Dimension W” the value of h is bigger than it is in our Universe, and quantum effects are even more important than they are here.

Now how can we test that?

BTW, Heisenberg will be 114 on Dec 5.  Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Werner!

~~ Rich Olcott

Heisenberg’s Area

Unlike politicians, scientists want to know what they’re talking about when they use a technical word like  “Uncertainty.”  When Heisenberg laid out his Uncertainty Principle, he wasn’t talking about doubt.  He was talking about how closely experimental results can cluster together, and he was putting that in numbers.

ArrowsThink of Robin Hood competing for the Golden Arrow.  For the showmanship of the thing, Robin wasn’t just trying to hit the target, he wanted his arrow to split the Sheriff’s.  If the Sheriff’s shot was in the second ring (moderate accuracy, from the target’s point of view), then Robin’s had to hit exactly the same off-center location (still moderate accuracy but great precision).  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is all about precision (a.k.a, range of variation).

We’ve all encountered exams that were graded “on the curve.”  But what curve is that?  I can say from personal experience that it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an exam where  the average grade is 75.  I want to give everyone the chance to show what they’ve learned.  Each student probably learned only part of what’s in the unit, but I won’t know which part until after the exam is graded.  The only way to be fair is to ask about everything in the unit.  Students complained that my tests were really hard because to get 100 they had to know it all.

Translating test scores to grades for a small class was straightforward.  I would plot how many papers got between 95 and 100, how many got 90-95, etc, and look at the graph.  Nearly always it looked like the top example.  TestsThere’s a few people who clearly have the material down pat; they clearly earned an “A.”  Then there’s a second group who didn’t do as well as the A’s but did significantly better than the rest of the class — they earned a “B.”  As the other end there’s a (hopefully small) group of students who are floundering.  Long-term I tried to give them extra help but short-term I had no choice but to give them an “F.”

With a large class those distinctions get blurred and all I saw (usually) was a single broad range of scores, the well-known “bell-shaped curve.”  If the test was easy the bell was centered around a high score.  If the test was hard that center was much lower.  What’s interesting, though, is that the width of that bell for a given class stayed pretty much the same.  The curve’s width is described by a number called the standard deviation (SD), proportional to the width at half-height.  If a student asked, “What’s my score?” I could look at the curve for that exam and say there’s a 66% chance that the score was within one SD of the average, and a 95% chance that it was within two SD’s.

The same bell-shape also shows up in research situations where a scientist wants to measure some real-world number, be it an asteroid’s weight or elephant gestation time.  He can’t know the true value, so instead he makes many replicate measurements or pays close attention to many pregnant elephants.  He summarizes his results by reporting the average of all the measurements and also the SD calculated from those measurements.  Just as for the exams, there’s a 95% chance that the true value is within two SD’s of the average.  The scientist would say that the SD represents the uncertainty of the measured average.

Which is what Heisenberg’s inequality is about.  Heisenberg area 1He wrote that the product of two paired uncertainties (like position and momentum) must be larger than that teeny “quantum of action,” h.  There’s a trade-off.  We can refine our measurement of one variable but we’ll lose precision on the other.  If we plot results for one member of the pair against results for the other, there’s no linkage between their average values.  However, there will be a rectangle in the middle representing the combined uncertainty.

Heisenberg tells us that the minimum area of that rectangle is a constant.

It’s a very small rectangle, area = h/4π = 0.5×10-34 Joule-sec, but it’s significant on the scale of atoms — and maybe on the scale of the Universe (see next week).

~~ Rich Olcott

Heisenberg’s trade-offs

KiteA kite floating on the breeze.  Optimal work-life balance.  Smoothly functioning free markets.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  Why would an alien from another planet recognize the last one but maybe not the others?

The kite is a physical object, intentionally built by humans to human scale.  The next two are idealized theoretical constructs, goals to be approached but rarely achieved.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) is fundamental to how the Universe works.

The first three are each in a dynamic equilibrium that is constantly buffeted by competing forces.  The HUP comes straight out of the deep math for where those forces come from.  Kites and work stress and markets may be peculiar to Earth, but the HUP is in play on every planet and star.

In the last post we saw that thanks to the HUP we can precisely identify an oboe’s pitch if it plays forever.  We can know precisely when a pitchless cymbal crashed.  But it’s mathematically impossible to get both exact pitch and exact time for the same sound.  Thank goodness, we can have imprecise knowledge of both quantities and actually play some music.

We determine a pitch (cycles per second) by counting sound waves passing during a given duration — and that limits our knowledge.  We can’t know that a wave has passed unless we see at least two peaks.  Our observation period must be at least long enough to see two peaks.  To put it the other way, the pitch must be high enough to give us at least two peaks during the time we’re watching.  This isn’t quantum mechanics, it’s just arithmetic, but it’s basic to physics.

Mathematically the HUP is as simple as Einstein’s E=mc2 equation, except the HUP is an inequality:

[A-uncertainty] x [B-uncertainty] ≥ h / 4π

where A and B are two paired quantities like pitch and duration.

TNT(That h is Planck’s constant, “the quantum of action,” 6.6×10-34 joule-sec.  That’s a very small number indeed but it shows up everywhere in quantum physics.  To put h in scale, one gram of TNT packs 4184 joules of explosive energy.  TNT has a detonation velocity of 6900 meters/sec and density of 1.60 gram/cm3, so we can figure a 1-gram cube of the stuff would burn for 1.2 microseconds and generate a total action of about 5×10-3 joule-sec.  Divide that by Avagadro’s number to get that one molecule of TNT is good for 10-26 joule-sec.  That’s about 10 million times h.  So, yeah, h is small.)

Back to the HUP inequality.  A and B are our paired quantities.  The standard examples that everyone’s heard of are position and momentum, as in the old physicist joke, “I haven’t a clue where I’m going, but I know how fast I’m getting there.”  For things that are tied to a central attractor like an atomic nucleus, A and B would be angular position and angular momentum.  If you’re into solid-state physics you may have run into another example — the number of electrons in a superconducting current is paired with a metric that reflects the degree of order in the conducting medium.  One more pair is energy and time, but that’s a story for another week.

Balance 1But what’s in the HUP inequality isn’t A and B, but rather our uncertainty about each.  A billiard ball might be on the lip of the near cup or it can be all the way across the table — HUP won’t care.  What’s important to HUP is whether the ball is here plus/minus one inch, or here plus/minus a millionth of an inch.  Similarly, HUP doesn’t care how fast the ball is going, but it does care whether the speed is plus/minus one inch per second or plus/minus one millionth of an inch per second.  HUP tells us that we can know one of the pair precisely and the other not at all, or that we can know both imprecisely.  Furthermore, even the imprecision has a limit.

We can’t simultaneously know both A and B more precisely than that little teeny h, but some physicists believe h may have been big enough to launch our Universe.

Next week — HUP, two, three, four

~~ Rich Olcott