As you return to lectures this autumn, think about the role that energy plays in whatever area you are studying. Energy is a concept that pervades all areas of science, engineering, and technology. Energy production, flow, and consumption play a central role in the modern world, driving economic, political, and social change. Are you an aspiring engineer, scientist, or social scientist, or are you studying business or management? Will you be working on term papers or a dissertation? Will you be writing up your work for publication? We believe that an understanding of the way that energy issues impact your work can give you new and deeper perspectives on your subject. Following the flow of energy through a system, whether physical, social, or economic, can provide a structure that unifies and enhances your publication or presentation. The book The Physics of Energy provides a comprehensive introduction to the underlying science of energy that may help in understanding and identifying how energy processes work in any context of interest.
The basic laws of physics constrain options for addressing real-world problems such as efficient energy storage, climate change, and the treatment of nuclear waste. An engineer, economist, manager, or politician with personal understanding of the science behind energy issues has a significant advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Thus when MIT established its energy curriculum, a core objective was to undergird the breadth and complexity of energy studies with a thorough foundation in the science behind the issues. This is why MIT’s energy studies curriculum begins with a course on the fundamental science of energy sources, uses, and systems. Implementing this goal was the challenge that led us to create our course on The Physics of Energy. Initially we had no intention of writing a book, but to our surprise, no existing textbook met our needs. Our students required a text that credited their knowledge of basic college math and physics, that covered the landscape of energy sources and uses broadly and at a consistent level, and that focused on the science uncomplicated by excursions into economics, regulation, and politics. A decade of teaching and writing lecture notes, with input from generations of students led finally to our newly published book, The Physics of Energy.
Our book covers the basic as well as applied science of energy. It presents a scientific foundation for engineering applications and a basis for informed discussions of economic, political, and regulatory issues. On subjects ranging from the limits on efficiency of solar cells to the flow of energy through climate systems, and on technologies ranging from wind turbines to air conditioners, you will find clear and concise presentations of the basic science and technology.
Are you studying to be an engineer or a designer? The devices and systems you create must acquire, store, transform, and utilize energy efficiently. Much of the engineering effort in producing smart phones, automobiles, refrigerators, and other products of the modern age goes into improving the way in which these devices process energy. The understanding of energy processes you will find in The Physics of Energy can provide a better appreciation of trade-offs or suggest new ideas for improved technologies.
Are you, like many of the students in our MIT class, working in the social sciences or a student of management or business? Competition for and exploitation of energy resources and technologies have given rise to some of the most intractable problems in the contemporary world. Externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions or radiation associated with energy production and conversion pose vexing problems for societies. From fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas to renewables such as solar, wind, and water power, energy resources and conversion systems are central considerations in social, economic, and political decision making. They will only become more important as we struggle with the inexorable effects of climate change that result from human energy usage. The Physics of Energy is designed to be the go-to reference for a scientific perspective on all of these subjects.
Are you studying to be a scientist and interested in the application of science to real world systems? Energy emerges as a unifying concept that underlies the evolution and structure of most physical systems. Energy governs the dynamical evolution of physical systems from the quantum world of photovoltaics to biological systems that have evolved in large part to optimize the gathering and utilization of energy from the environment.
Whatever your area of study, as you work on your next substantial research or writing project, you should ask questions like:
‘What is the role of energy in the system?’
‘Are there other energy sources or other ways of processing energy that may be relevant here?’
‘Are there limits to how efficient the energy processes involved in these systems can be?’
‘How do energy choices in this domain affect economic and political spheres?’
By asking these questions and forming a clear understanding of the role energy processes, limits and efficiencies play in whatever systems you are writing about, you can help frame the conceptual structure and logic of your presentation. Incorporating clear scientific understanding into your arguments will strengthen the effectiveness and clarity of your written work. While today’s energy systems can seem bewilderingly complex, understanding how these systems work begins with a clear foundation in the basic science of energy. Whatever systems or domain you are interested in, it is likely that energy plays a significant role. The Physics of Energy is the resource that lays out the basic principles to inform your work and provides a springboard to further research and study of the role of energy in many of the most fascinating and crucial questions of modern times.
The Physics of Energy, by Washington Taylor and Robert L. Jaffe is now available from Cambridge University Press. Read a free chapter here, and buy a copy
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