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Physics LibreTexts

Conservation of Energy


j / Why does Aristotle look so sad? Is it because he's realized that his entire system of physics is wrong?


o / The skater has converted all his kinetic energy into gravitational energy on the way up the side of the pool. Photo by J.D. Rogge,



Consider the hockey puck in figure h. If we release it at rest, we expect it to remain at rest. If it did start moving all by itself, that would be strange: it would have to pick some direction in which to move, and why would it pick that direction rather than some other one?


Figure h: A hockey puck is released at rest. If it spontaneously scooted off in some direction, that would violate the symmetry of all directions in space.

If we observed such a phenomenon, we would have to conclude that that direction in space was somehow special. It would be the favored direction in which hockey pucks (and presumably other objects as well) preferred to move. That would violate our intuition about the symmetry of space, and this is a case where our intuition is right: a vast number of experiments have all shown that that symmetry is a correct one. In other words, if you secretly pick up the physics laboratory with a crane, and spin it around gently with all the physicists inside, all their experiments will still come out the same, regardless of the lab's new orientation. If they don't have windows they can look out of, or any other external cues (like the Earth's magnetic field), then they won't notice anything until they hang up their lab coats for the evening and walk out into the parking lot.

Another way of thinking about it is that a moving hockey puck would have some energy, whereas a stationary one has none. I haven't given you an operational definition of energy yet, but we'll gradually start to build one up, and it will end up fitting in pretty well with your general idea of what energy means from everyday life. Regardless of the mathematical details of how you would actually calculate the energy of a moving hockey puck, it makes sense that a puck at rest has zero energy. It starts to look like energy is conserved. A puck that initially has zero energy must continue to have zero energy, so it can't start moving all by itself.

You might conclude from this discussion that we have a new example of Noether's theorem: that the symmetry of space with respect to different directions must be equivalent, in some mysterious way, to conservation of energy. Actually that's not quite right, and the possible confusion is related to the fact that we're not going to deal with the full, precise mathematical statement of Noether's theorem. In fact, we'll see soon that conservation of energy is really more closely related to a different symmetry, which is symmetry with respect to the passage of time.

The principle of inertia

Now there's one very subtle thing about the example of the hockey puck, which wouldn't occur to most people. If we stand on the ice and watch the puck, and we don't see it moving, does that mean that it really is at rest in some absolute sense? Remember, the planet earth spins once on its axis every 24 hours. At the latitude where I live, this results in a speed of about 800 miles per hour, or something like 400 meters per second. We could say, then that the puck wasn't really staying at rest. We could say that it was really in motion at a speed of 400 m/s, and remained in motion at that same speed. This may be inconsistent with our earlier description, but it is still consistent with the same description of the laws of physics. Again, we don't need to know the relevant formula for energy in order to believe that if the puck keeps the same speed (and its mass also stays the same), it's maintaining the same energy.

In other words, we have two different frames of reference, both equally valid. The person standing on the ice measures all velocities relative to the ice, finds that the puck maintained a velocity of zero, and says that energy was conserved. The astronaut watching the scene from deep space might measure the velocities relative to her own space station; in her frame of reference, the puck is moving at 400 m/s, but energy is still conserved.

This probably seems like common sense, but it wasn't common sense to one of the smartest people ever to live, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He came up with an entire system of physics based on the premise that there is one frame of reference that is special: the frame of reference defined by the dirt under our feet. He believed that all motion had a tendency to slow down unless a force was present to maintain it. Today, we know that Aristotle was wrong. One thing he was missing was that he didn't understand the concept of friction as a force. If you kick a soccer ball, the reason it eventually comes to rest on the grass isn't that it “naturally” wants to stop moving. The reason is that there's a frictional force from the grass that is slowing it down. (The energy of the ball's motion is transformed into other forms, such as heat and sound.) Modern people may also have an easier time seeing his mistake, because we have experience with smooth motion at high speeds. For instance, consider a passenger on a jet plane who stands up in the aisle and inadvertently drops his bag of peanuts. According to Aristotle, the bag would naturally slow to a stop, so it would become a life-threatening projectile in the cabin! From the modern point of view, the cabin can just as well be considered to be at rest.


l / Galileo Galilei was the first physicist to state the principle of inertia (in a somewhat different formulation than the one given here). His contradiction of Aristotle had serious consequences. He was interrogated by the Church authorities and convicted of teaching that the earth went around the sun as a matter of fact and not, as he had promised previously, as a mere mathematical hypothesis. He was placed under permanent house arrest, and forbidden to write about or teach his theories. Immediately after being forced to recant his claim that the earth revolved around the sun, the old man is said to have muttered defiantly “and yet it does move.”

The principle of inertia says, roughly, that all frames of reference are equally valid:

The principle of inertia

The results of experiments don't depend on the straight-line, constant-speed motion of the apparatus.

Speaking slightly more precisely, the principle of inertia says that if frame B moves at constant speed, in a straight line, relative to frame A, then frame B is just as valid as frame A, and in fact an observer in frame B will consider B to be at rest, and A to be moving. The laws of physics will be valid in both frames. The necessity for the more precise formulation becomes evident if you think about examples in which the motion changes its speed or direction. For instance, if you're in a car that's accelerating from rest, you feel yourself being pressed back into your seat. That's very different from the experience of being in a car cruising at constant speed, which produces no physical sensation at all.


m / This Air Force doctor volunteered to ride a rocket sled as a medical experiment. The obvious effects on his head and face are not because of the sled's speed but because of its rapid changes in speed: increasing in 2 and 3, and decreasing in 5 and 6. In 4 his speed is greatest, but because his speed is not increasing or decreasing very much at this moment, there is little effect on him.

A frame of reference moving at constant speed in a straight line is known as an inertial frame of reference. A frame that changes its speed or direction of motion is called noninertial. The principle of inertia applies only to inertial frames. The frame of reference defined by an accelerating car is noninertial, but the one defined by a car cruising at constant speed in a straight line is inertial.


k / The jets are at rest. The Empire State Building is moving.

Example 2: Foucault's pendulum

Earlier, I spoke as if a frame of reference attached to the surface of the rotating earth was just as good as any other frame of reference. Now, with the more exact formulation of the principle of inertia, we can see that that isn't quite true. A point on the earth's surface moves in a circle, whereas the principle of inertia refers only to motion in a straight line. However, the curve of the motion is so gentle that under ordinary conditions we don't notice that the local dirt's frame of reference isn't quite inertial. The first demonstration of the noninertial nature of the earth-fixed frame of reference was by Léon Foucault using a very massive pendulum (figure n) whose oscillations would persist for many hours without becoming imperceptible. Although Foucault did his demonstration in Paris, it's easier to imagine what would happen at the north pole: the pendulum would keep swinging in the same plane, but the earth would spin underneath it once every 24 hours. To someone standing in the snow, it would appear that the pendulum's plane of motion was twisting. The effect at latitudes less than 90 degrees turns out to be slower, but otherwise similar. The Foucault pendulum was the first definitive experimental proof that the earth really did spin on its axis, although scientists had been convinced of its rotation for a century based on more indirect evidence about the structure of the solar system.


Figure n: Foucault demonstrates his pendulum to an audience at a lecture in 1851.

People have a strong intuitive belief that there is a state of absolute rest, and that the earth's surface defines it. But Copernicus proposed as a mathematical assumption, and Galileo argued as a matter of physical reality, that the earth spins on its axis, and also circles the sun. Galileo's opponents objected that this was impossible, because we would observe the effects of the motion. They said, for example, that if the earth was moving, then you would never be able to jump up in the air and land in the same place again --- the earth would have moved out from under you. Galileo realized that this wasn't really an argument about the earth's motion but about physics. In one of his books, which were written in the form of dialogues, he has the three characters debate what would happen if a ship was cruising smoothly across a calm harbor and a sailor climbed up to the top of its mast and dropped a rock. Would it hit the deck at the base of the mast, or behind it because the ship had moved out from under it? This is the kind of experiment referred to in the principle of inertia, and Galileo knew that it would come out the same regardless of the ship's motion. His opponents' reasoning, as represented by the dialog's stupid character Simplicio, was based on the assumption that once the rock lost contact with the sailor's hand, it would naturally start to lose its forward motion. In other words, they didn't even believe in the idea that motion naturally continues unless a force acts to stop it.

But the principle of inertia says more than that. It says that motion isn't even real: to a sailor standing on the deck of the ship, the deck and the masts and the rigging are not even moving. People on the shore can tell him that the ship and his own body are moving in a straight line at constant speed. He can reply, “No, that's an illusion. I'm at rest. The only reason you think I'm moving is because you and the sand and the water are moving in the opposite direction.” The principle of inertia says that straight-line, constant-speed motion is a matter of opinion. Thus things can't “naturally” slow down and stop moving, because we can't even agree on which things are moving and which are at rest.


p / As the skater free-falls, his gravitational energy is converted into kinetic energy.

If observers in different frames of reference disagree on velocities, it's natural to want to be able to convert back and forth. For motion in one dimension, this can be done by simple addition.

Example 3: A sailor running on the deck
  • A sailor is running toward the front of a ship, and the other sailors say that in their frame of reference, fixed to the deck, his velocity is 7.0 m/s. The ship is moving at 1.3 m/s relative to the shore. How fast does an observer on the beach say the sailor is moving?
  • They see the ship moving at 7.0 m/s, and the sailor moving even faster than that because he's running from the stern to the bow. In one second, the ship moves 1.3 meters, but he moves 1.3+7.0 m, so his velocity relative to the beach is 8.3 m/s.

The only way to make this rule give consistent results is if we define velocities in one direction as positive, and velocities in the opposite direction as negative.

Example 4: Running back toward the stern
  • The sailor of example 3 turns around and runs back toward the stern at the same speed relative to the deck. How do the other sailors describe this velocity mathematically, and what do observers on the beach say?
  • Since the other sailors described his original velocity as positive, they have to call this negative. They say his velocity is now -7.0 m/s. A person on the shore says his velocity is 1.3+(-7.0)=-5.7 m/s.

Kinetic and gravitational energy

Now suppose we drop a rock. The rock is initially at rest, but then begins moving. This seems to be a violation of conservation of energy, because a moving rock would have more energy. But actually this is a little like the example of the burning log that seems to violate conservation of mass. Lavoisier realized that there was a second form of mass, the mass of the smoke, that wasn't being accounted for, and proved by experiments that mass was, after all, conserved once the second form had been taken into account. In the case of the falling rock, we have two forms of energy. The first is the energy it has because it's moving, known as kinetic energy. The second form is a kind of energy that it has because it's interacting with the planet earth via gravity. This is known as gravitational energy.1 The earth and the rock attract each other gravitationally, and the greater the distance between them, the greater the gravitational energy --- it's a little like stretching a spring.


Figure i: James Joule (1818-1889) discovered the law of conservation of energy.

The SI unit of energy is the joule (J), and in those units, we find that lifting a 1-kg mass through a height of 1 m requires 9.8 J of energy. This number, 9.8 joules per meter per kilogram, is a measure of the strength of the earth's gravity near its surface. We notate this number, known as the gravitational field, as g, and often round it off to 10 for convenience in rough calculations. If you lift a 1-kg rock to a height of 1 m above the ground, you're giving up 9.8 J of the energy you got from eating food, and changing it into gravitational energy stored in the rock. If you then release the rock, it starts transforming the energy into kinetic energy, until finally when the rock is just about to hit the ground, all of that energy is in the form of kinetic energy. That kinetic energy is then transformed into heat and sound when the rock hits the ground.

Stated in the language of algebra, the formula for gravitational energy is

GE = mgh ,

where m is the mass of an object, g is the gravitational field, and h is the object's height.

Example 5: A lever

Figure q shows two sisters on a seesaw. The one on the left has twice as much mass, but she's at half the distance from the center.


Figure q: Example 5.

No energy input is needed in order to tip the seesaw. If the girl on the left goes up a certain distance, her gravitational energy will increase. At the same time, her sister on the right will drop twice the distance, which results in an equal decrease in energy, since her mass is half as much. In symbols, we have


for the gravitational energy gained by the girl on the left, and


for the energy lost by the one on the right. Both of these equal 2mgh, so the amounts gained and lost are the same, and energy is conserved.

Looking at it another way, this can be thought of as an example of the kind of experiment that you'd have to do in order to arrive at the equation GE=mgh in the first place. If we didn't already know the equation, this experiment would make us suspect that it involved the product mh, since that's what's the same for both girls.

Once we have an equation for one form of energy, we can establish equations for other forms of energy. For example, if we drop a rock and measure its final velocity, v, when it hits the ground, we know how much GE it lost, so we know that's how much KE it must have had when it was at that final speed. Here are some imaginary results from such an experiment.

m (kg) v (m/s) energy (J)

1.00 1.00 0.50

1.00 2.00 2.00

2.00 1.00 1.00


Comparing the first line with the second, we see that doubling the object's velocity doesn't just double its energy, it quadruples it. If we compare the first and third lines, however, we find that doubling the mass only doubles the energy. This suggests that kinetic energy is proportional to mass times the square of velocity, mv2, and further experiments of this type would indeed establish such a general rule. The proportionality factor equals 0.5 because of the design of the metric system, so the kinetic energy of a moving object is given by



r / A vivid demonstration that heat is a form of motion. A small amount of boiling water is poured into the empty can, which rapidly fills up with hot steam. The can is then sealed tightly, and soon crumples. This can be explained as follows. The high temperature of the steam is interpreted as a high average speed of random motions of its molecules. Before the lid was put on the can, the rapidly moving steam molecules pushed their way out of the can, forcing the slower air molecules out of the way. As the steam inside the can thinned out, a stable situation was soon achieved, in which the force from the less dense steam molecules moving at high speed balanced against the force from the more dense but slower air molecules outside. The cap was put on, and after a while the steam inside the can reached the same temperature as the air outside. The force from the cool, thin steam no longer matched the force from the cool, dense air outside, and the imbalance of forces crushed the can.

Energy in general

By this point, I've casually mentioned several forms of energy: kinetic, gravitational, heat, and sound. This might be disconcerting, since we can get throughly messed up if don't realize that a certain form of energy is important in a particular situation. For instance, the spinning coin in figure s gradually loses its kinetic energy, and we might think that conservation of energy was therefore being violated. However, whenever two surfaces rub together, friction acts to create heat. The correct analysis is that the coin's kinetic energy is gradually converted into heat.


Figure s / The spinning coin slows down. It looks like conservation of energy is violated, but it isn't.

One way of making the proliferation of forms of energy seem less scary is to realize that many forms of energy that seem different on the surface are in fact the same. One important example is that heat is actually the kinetic energy of molecules in random motion, so where we thought we had two forms of energy, in fact there is only one. Sound is also a form of kinetic energy: it's the vibration of air molecules.

This kind of unification of different types of energy has been a process that has been going on in physics for a long time, and at this point we've gotten it down the point where there really only appear to be four forms of energy:

  1. kinetic energy
  2. gravitational energy
  3. electrical energy
  4. nuclear energy

We don't even encounter nuclear energy in everyday life (except in the sense that sunlight originates as nuclear energy), so really for most purposes the list only has three items on it. Of these three, electrical energy is the only form that we haven't talked about yet. The interactions between atoms are all electrical, so this form of energy is what's responsible for all of chemistry. The energy in the food you eat, or in a tank of gasoline, are forms of electrical energy.

Example 6: You take the high road and I'll take the low road.

Figure t shows two ramps which two balls will roll down. Compare their final speeds, when they reach point B. Assume friction is negligible.


t / Example 6.

Each ball loses some gravitational energy because of its decreasing height above the earth, and conservation of energy says that it must gain an equal amount of kinetic energy (minus a little heat created by friction). The balls lose the same amount of height, so their final speeds must be equal.

Example 7: The birth of stars

Orion is the easiest constellation to find. You can see it in the winter, even if you live under the light-polluted skies of a big city. Figure u shows an interesting feature of this part of the sky that you can easily pick out with an ordinary camera (that's how I took the picture) or a pair of binoculars. The three stars at the top are Orion's belt, and the stuff near the lower left corner of the picture is known as his sword --- to the naked eye, it just looks like three more stars that aren't as bright as the stars in the belt.


Figure u: Example 7.

The middle “star” of the sword, however, isn't a star at all. It's a cloud of gas, known as the Orion Nebula, that's in the process of collapsing due to gravity. Like the pool skater on his way down, the gas is losing gravitational energy. The results are very different, however. The skateboard is designed to be a low-friction device, so nearly all of the lost gravitational energy is converted to kinetic energy, and very little to heat. The gases in the nebula flow and rub against each other, however, so most of the gravitational energy is converted to heat. This is the process by which stars are born: eventually the core of the gas cloud gets hot enough to ignite nuclear reactions.

Example 8: Lifting a weight
  • At the gym, you lift a mass of 40 kg through a height of 0.5 m. How much gravitational energy is required? Where does this energy come from?
  • The strength of the gravitational field is 10 joules per kilogram per meter, so after you lift the weight, its gravitational energy will be greater by 10×40×0.5=200 joules.

Energy is conserved, so if the weight gains gravitational energy, something else somewhere in the universe must have lost some. The energy that was used up was the energy in your body, which came from the food you'd eaten. This is what we refer to as “burning calories,” since calories are the units normally used to describe the energy in food, rather than metric units of joules.

In fact, your body uses up even more than 200 J of food energy, because it's not very efficient. The rest of the energy goes into heat, which is why you'll need a shower after you work out. We can summarize this as

Example 9: Lowering a weight

◊ After lifting the weight, you need to lower it again. What's happening in terms of energy?

◊ Your body isn't capable of accepting the energy and putting it back into storage. The gravitational energy all goes into heat. (There's nothing fundamental in the laws of physics that forbids this. Electric cars can do it --- when you stop at a stop sign, the car's kinetic energy is absorbed back into the battery, through a generator.)

Example 10: Absorption and emission of light

Light has energy. Light can be absorbed by matter and transformed into heat, but the reverse is also possible: an object can glow, transforming some of its heat energy into light. Very hot objects, like a candle flame or a welding torch, will glow in the visible part of the spectrum, as in figure v.


v / Example 10.

Objects at lower temperatures will also emit light, but in the infrared part of the spectrum, i.e., the part of the rainbow lying beyond the red end, which humans can't see. The photos in figure w were taken using a camera that is sensitive to infrared light. The cyclist locked his rear brakes suddenly, and skidded to a stop.


Figure w: Example 10.

The kinetic energy of the bike and his body are rapidly transformed into heat by the friction between the tire and the floor. In the first panel, you can see the glow of the heated strip on the floor, and in the second panel, the heated part of the tire.

Example 11: Heavy objects do not fall faster

Stand up now, take off your shoe, and drop it alongside a much less massive object such as a coin or the cap from your pen.

Did that surprise you? You found that they both hit the ground at the same time. Aristotle wrote that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. He was wrong, but Europeans believed him for thousands of years, partly because experiments weren't an accepted way of learning the truth, and partly because the Catholic Church gave him its posthumous seal of approval as its official philosopher.

Heavy objects and light objects have to fall the same way, because conservation laws are additive --- we find the total energy of an object by adding up the energies of all its atoms. If a single atom falls through a height of one meter, it loses a certain amount of gravitational energy and gains a corresponding amount of kinetic energy. Kinetic energy relates to speed, so that determines how fast it's moving at the end of its one-meter drop. (The same reasoning could be applied to any point along the way between zero meters and one.)

Now what if we stick two atoms together? The pair has double the mass, so the amount of gravitational energy transformed into kinetic energy is twice as much. But twice as much kinetic energy is exactly what we need if the pair of atoms is to have the same speed as the single atom did. Continuing this train of thought, it doesn't matter how many atoms an object contains; it will have the same speed as any other object after dropping through the same height.