“The Universe is an inseparable web of vibrating energy patterns.“
– Paul Davies
Nature receives, stores, and transforms energy
All of Nature, living and non-living, are receivers, storehouses, and transformers of energy. Connections in Nature are the essential conduits for the lifeblood of energy that is vital to the functioning of our universe at all levels. Energy needs to flow for Nature to function. There are smaller flow patterns inside larger flow patterns. Electrons and protons beget atoms. Atoms beget molecules. Molecules join to form our body organs, mountains, and oceans. In the course of this journey, energy changes into different useful forms.
Ecosystems at all levels are useful to Nature only when they are able to hold and pass energy to and from components within the system and to other surrounding systems. Whether it be the flow of solar energy to Earth, the storage of energy in our plants, the metabolic processes within animal species, or the functioning of food webs, the primary goal of all conservation work is to protect these energy conduits.
Energy, as the operating currency of Nature, is involved in two equally important processes. One process is the transformation of Nature’s energy from one form to another. The second process is the transportation of energy within and between entities in Nature.
Physics teaches us that energy is neither created nor destroyed. But, it can change from one form to another. In this blog, we will examine energy transformation from one form to another.
The story of how our sun’s energy is transformed into a forest, a stream, or ourselves is amazing. Author Paul R. Fleischman, in his book entitled “Wonder” , provides an excellent summary that serves as a background for our discussion about energy flow.
“Every person consists of atoms that have been sorted and arranged. The energy for this task explodes out of other atoms as they are being melted inside of suns, and then rippled down to us as sunlight. In the black space between the sun and us, the waves of sunlight convey energy that can be used on Earth to bond, communicate, create, and transform. Energy has bathed the Earth, and due to this glow, the Earth has had the power to rearrange atoms in uncountable magnitudes, over eons, until the atomic world has been reshaped into whales and women, astronomers and novelists. Everything we see and touch consists of matter rearranged by information and energy. Everything is in connections and bonds.”
Western science has confirmed that matter can be transformed into energy and energy can be transformed into matter. All of Nature on and in our Earth comes, directly or indirectly, from sunlight. Within our sun’s nuclear furnace, two hydrogen nuclei are fused together to form one helium nucleus. The energy left over from this nuclear fusion process within the sun reaches the sun’s surface. Here some of that energy is converted to electromagnetic photons of light which are radiated and reach our Earth. In this basic solar process, we see matter being transformed into energy.
The primary source of energy for nearly all of life on Earth is our sun’s photon energy. Within our biosphere, this energy is first transformed by a process known as photosynthesis. Through a series of energy transforming chemical reactions, photosynthetic organisms within plants, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria are able to transform light energy into chemical free energy. This chemical energy is stored as carbohydrates (sugars) within leaves and some other green parts of plants. In this process, our sun’s energy is transformed and stored in a form that is useful to other life on earth. In the process of transforming energy, the chemical reaction in the photosynthetic process absorbs and uses atmospheric carbon dioxide and expels oxygen into the atmosphere. In carrying out this chemical process, photosynthesis maintains atmospheric oxygen levels and supplies all of the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for life on Earth.
All 400,000 species of plants and a few species of bacteria use sunlight and the process of photosynthesis to obtain and store their energy. Some organisms obtain their energy by consuming other organisms. These organisms include most types of bacteria and all of the animal and fungi species. In all of these forms, life transforms and transports the basic energy from the universe. Paul Fleishman notes:
“A small plant, say an African violet, in a little pot on my windowsill, is capable of catching sunlight, taking electromagnetic energy out of the sky, civilizing it, controlling it, and thereby sliding it into the bonds between chemicals in living green cells. Because of this skill of plants, our own bodies can eventually be made. All green plants are our ancestors and our maker… Life’s two simultaneous tasks are building large complex structures of precise and skillful molecules; and moving energy, by making and breaking chemical bonds, to build, rebuild and maintain life…Every blade of grass is touched by the light of heaven which it turns into the sugar of life. Green photosynthesizers transform the Universe because they are skillful traffic directors for the flow of electrons, by which we move energy into chemical bonds…We humans are pure energy in the form of matter. Life is structure, formed by atomic placement, and life is the flow of energy within those structures.“
Like the photosynthetic organisms, we humans, and other animals, also transform and store energy. We inhale the oxygen produced by plants to facilitate the transformation of our food into chemical compounds that hold energy for later use. The cells in our body parts, organs such as our lungs, blood, and liver, perform these energy transformations and store the byproducts. Because of these processes, we humans are containers of transformed energy that originated from the energy in the universe.
From this brief description of energy flow from our sun, into our Earth, and into our bodies, we can see that energy is a flowing currency that results in life through its processes of transformation. All of life, including ourselves, are relational network structures, systems, and webs that are formed by and accommodate energy flow. In addition, Nature’s energy transformation processes are the means by which her structures are fabricated.
From great rivers to the minuscule molecular bonds that form the cells in our bodies, physical structure is a product of Nature’s energy flow processes. Recently, modern science has found that energy is the creator and transformer of physical forms and shapes. The “Constructal Theory” states that Nature’s forms and shapes are created to accommodate the flow of energy.
The sandy beach pattern, familiar to all beach combers, is created by the energy of the water that flows over the sand. The water molecules become flowing streams. The water’s kinetic energy pushes the sand around to create evolving physical patterns. These patterns are created because the sand accommodates the kinetic energy that causes water to flow. Without energy, there would be no rivulets or streams. Even the rivulet’s raw materials, sand and rock, would not exist without the energy that is needed for the breaking, decomposition, and erosion of mountains into sand.
Biosynthesis is the process by which structures in all living organisms are created. Biosynthesis depends upon energy transformation for the creation of life on our planet. Those of you familiar with some biochemistry know that the energy rich ATP molecule serves as a common intermediary between energy consuming and energy yielding chemical processes in a cell. Energy requiring biosynthetic processes must be coupled to the energy yielding breakdown of ATP.
While the raw chemical materials may be available, no biosynthesis, including the creation of ourselves, would take place without the energy available in ATP. This is a form of self-organization and feedback which can only take place in the presence of energy flow.
Mankind’s alteration of ecosystems can impair or destroy Nature’s energy flow.
The elimination of keystone predators, gaseous emissions that impair the flow of our sun’s energy, the alteration of river systems, and the destruction of forests are examples of how humanity has affected important connections in Nature that have resulted in altered energy flow.
Understanding connectedness is important because it is Nature’s connectedness that facilitates her fundamental currency – energy. Developing a “connectivity consciousness” by stewards of Nature is crucial to the conservation of our environment. This consciousness starts by becoming informed. Species play very different roles in their ecological networks where their form and behavior is often closely related to their connectedness.
By studying and understanding Nature’s energy flow, you will acquire and understand the following important ideas:
- Nature is defined by her dynamic interrelationships between everything and anything in the Universe.
- Energy is the unifying force that defines these relationships. Energy is the operating currency which connects and drives all animate and inanimate objects in the Universe.
- Nature’s interconnections are the conduits for energy flow between and within Nature’s systems.
- Ecosystems are collections of Nature’s energy conduits. The organizing principles under which ecosystems are organized define our Earth.
- The job of the conservationist is to define and preserve Nature’s energy conduits.
Worth Your Extra Attention
This blog is part of a series of posts that focus on Nature’s organizing principles. The previous blog posts are:
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.