More uncertainty about matter and energy


When I wrote about wave-particle duality and an electron possessing the characteristics of both matter and energy [see my post entitled ‘Electron uncertainty’ on July 27th, 2016], I dodged the issue of what are matter and energy.  As an engineer, I think of matter as being the solids, liquids and gases that are both manufactured and occur in nature.  We should probably add plasmas to this list, as they are created in an increasing number of engineering processes, including power generation using nuclear fission.  But maybe plasmas should be classified as energy, since they are clouds of unbounded charged particles, often electrons.   Matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy.  So clearly, the boundary between matter and energy is blurred or fuzzy.  And, Einstein’s famous equation describes how energy and matter can be equated, i.e. energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Engineers tend to define energy as the capacity to do work, which is fine for manufactured or generated energy, but is inadequate when thinking about the energy of sub-atomic particles, which probably is why Feynman said we don’t really know what energy is.  Most of us think about energy as the stuff that comes down an electricity cable or that we get from eating a banana.  However, Evelyn Pielou points out in her book, The Nature of Energy, that energy in nature surrounds us all of the time, not just in the atmosphere or water flowing in rivers and oceans but locked into the structure of plants and rocks.

Matter and energy are human constructs and nature does not do rigid classifications, so perhaps we should think about a plant as a highly-organised localised zone of high density energy [see my post entitled ‘Fields of flowers‘ on July 8th, 2015].  We will always be uncertain about some things and as our ability to probe the world around us improves we will find that we are no longer certain about things we thought we understood.  For instance, research has shown that Bucky balls, which are spherical fullerene molecules containing sixty carbon atoms with a mass of 720 atomic mass units, and so seem to be quite substantial bits of matter, exhibit wave-particle duality in certain conditions.

We need to learn to accept uncertainty and appreciate the opportunities it presents to us rather than seek unattainable certainty.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Arndt M, Nairz O, Vos-Andreae J, Keller C, van der Zouw G & Zeilinger A, Wave-particle duality of C60 molecules, Nature 401, 680-682 (14 October 1999).




  1. Professor Patterson, I took your course and also bought the book you mention, The Energy of Nature, thank you for the recommendation. The reason I bought the book was, I wanted to know more about “ENERGY” and what is it. The author in chapter writes, “must have consisted entirely of radiant energy” The does not go on to explain what is the radiant energy, or where did it come from. Could you care to tell me your version of the story?


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    1. Radiant energy is the term usually used for energy in the form of some part of, or all of, the electromagnetic spectrum from relatively low frequency, long wavelength radio waves to high frequency, short wavelength gamma waves with infrared, visible and ultraviolet light in between them. The energy content of a photon of gamma radiation is very high whereas a photon of radio radiation has a very low energy content.

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