Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Summary - Energy Concept

Historically, the energy concept was only invented to include a few phenomena, but it was later generalized more and more to apply to new situations, for example nuclear reactions. This generalizing process resulted in an undesirably long list of types of energy, each of which apparently behaved according to its own rules.

The first step in simplifying the picture came with the realization that heat was a form of random motion on the atomic level, i.e., heat was nothing more than the kinetic energy of atoms.

A second and even greater simplification was achieved with the realization that all the other apparently mysterious forms of energy actually had to do with changing the distances between atoms (or similar processes in nuclei). This type of energy, which relates to the distance between objects that interact via a force, is therefore of great importance. We call it potential energy.

Most of the important ideas about potential energy can be understood by studying the example of gravitational potential energy. The change in an object's gravitational potential energy is given by

ΔPEgrav = -FgravΔy , [if Fgrav is constant, i.e., the the motion is all near the Earth's surface]

The most important thing to understand about potential energy is that there is no unambiguous way to define it in an absolute sense. The only thing that everyone can agree on is how much the potential energy has changed from one moment in time to some later moment in time.

Last Update: 2010-11-11