Professor Emeritus of Physics, Illinous State University
No word stolen from physics is (ab)used in the woo literature more than energy. The most famous equation in physics is often cited as proof that matter and soul are one and the same, a tenet of mysticism. Analyzing the concepts of energy and mass in physics reveals the fallacy of this abuse
Pseudoscience is adamant about attaching itself to science. After all, maybe if it zooms in on the second half of its name repeatedly and intensively, the first half of the name will have a chance of fading away. The most popular science among pseudoscientists is no doubt physics. If they use words such as quantum, field, duality, complimentarity, and non-locality—no matter how much they mutilate the words—they and their discipline will sound more “scientific” and will sell better to the unsuspecting public. This inimical association of pseudoscience with science ought to be vigorously and publicly rebutted.
No word has been mutilated more severely in the woo literature than energy. Positive energy, negative energy, healing energy, organic energy, mental energy, and karma energy are just a few examples of “energies” adrift in the vast ocean of pseudoscience. Mystics and mystery-mongers have abused the word so often that it has now acquired a mystical halo comparable to words such as holism, consciousness, natural, and wholesome. There appears to be a good reason for this: energy is, after all, nonmaterial, and the most famous equation in physics, E=mc2, equates it to mass, which is material. The equivalence of the nonmaterial spirit (or soul) and matter—which is at the heart of mysticism—is only one small step away! Take this example:
Since the mass of a particle increases with velocity, a particle can have any number of relativistic masses. . . . In other words, particle accelerators are misnamed. They do not increase the velocities of subatomic particles (the definition of “acceleration”) as much as they increase their mass. Particle accelerators are actually particle inlargers [sic] [massifiers?]. . . . Einstein’s formula E=mc2 says that mass is energy: energy is mass. Therefore, strictly speaking, mass is not a particular form of energy. Every form of energy is mass. Kinetic energy, for example, is mass. . . . Wherever energy goes, mass goes.
The first part of this quote reflects the confusion that arose in the early days of relativity, namely that mass is velocity-dependent. This confusion led to some absurd conclusions such as that a moving object exhibits two different masses (inertia) in reaction to a force, depending on whether the force is applied parallel or perpendicular to the velocity of the object! The confusion was so bothersome that Einstein, who at the beginning of relativity theory talked about a “relativistic mass.”
It is not good to introduce the concept of the [velocity-dependent] mass… of a moving body for which no clear definition can be given. It is better to introduce no other mass concept than the “rest mass” m. Instead of introducing [the velocity – dependent mass] it is better to mention the expression for the momentum and energy of a body in motion.
The second part of the earlier quote from Zukav’s book, which exploits the now-abandoned interpretation of mass mentioned above and emphatically equates it to energy, is a pressure sales pitch for the equivalence of soul and matter:
In the East, however, there never has been much philosophical or religious … confusion about matter is a relative world, and an illusory one … Perhaps this accounts for the fact that the preposterous claim that mass is only a form of energy is unexpectedly palatable [in Buddhist literature].
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, came to the conclusion that “sprit is the real and eternal” and “the only true substance, “while matter is “the unreal and temporal” and a “false belief or illusion.” … Eddy’s belief about sprit and the illusion of matter sounds curiously similar to Einstein’s vision about energy being the basis of matter.
It is therefore imperative to dissect the concepts of energy and mass as used in physics to reveal the vast difference between the precise, identifiable, and measurable energy in physics, and the vague, unidentifiable, immeasurable, and unobservable energy used in mysticism and healing.
Is Energy Nonmaterial?
To answer this question, consider kinetic energy as an example. Kinetic energy is the energy associated with the motion (velocity) of an object. Asking whether kinetic energy is material is tantamount to asking whether velocity is material. Now you can see the absurdity in even phrasing the question. Velocity is a property of matter in motion, and there is no sense in asking whether a property is material. A red apple is material. Does it make sense to say that redness is non-material? This confusion of matter with one of its properties, energy, is a common pitfall in which even trained physicists can fall, and a dangerously effective tool that quack scientists use to promote their woo. Energy is a property of a material object. It makes as much sense to say that energy is nonmaterial as to say that the greenness of grass or the blueness of the sky is nonmaterial.
The most convincing example of the abuse of E=mc2 is when it is applied to matter-antimatter annihilation, where matter and its antimatter, which is also material – transforms completely into “pure energy.” When an electron meets its antimatter, the positron, they disappear. However, something remains after their disappearance. That is the pure (non-material) energy we commonly – and mistakenly- hear about. What really happens is that the masses of the two particles turn into the energy of two photons, particles of light, which happen to be massless.
Zen Buddhists have developed a technique called kaon… A kaon is a puzzle which cannot be answered in ordinary ways because it is paradoxical. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a Zen kaon. Zen students are told to think unceasingly about a particular kaon until they know the answer. There is no single correct answer to a kaon. It depends on the psychological state of the student…
Physics is replete with kaons, i.e.,(sic) “picture a massless particle.” Is it a coincidence that Buddhists exploring “internal” reality a millennium ago and physicists exploring “external” reality a millennium later both discovered that “understanding” involves passing the barrier of paradox?
Eastern mystics and pseudoscientists may delight in attributing paradoxes to modern physics to forcefully align it with their belief system, but if there are paradoxes it is only because we try to understand a physical phenomenon on the basis or our limited, incomplete, and mostly wrong intuition and intuition is a hallmark of mysticism.
Is Mass Material?
After all, if we want to know whether or not mass is material, we have to know how to “see” it, i.e. measure it.
The oldest instrument for measuring mass is a balance scale where you put one object on the right side of a scale and another on the left. If the two sides of the scale are leveled, the two objects have the same mass. To quantify mass, a unit of mass is needed. Kilogram is by convention, the mass of one liter of water. So, if we put half a liter of water on one side and an unknown mass on the other and the scale is balanced, the unknown mass is half a kilogram.
When the forces of the Earth’s gravity on the two masses are equal, the scale balances, because mass is a property of an object that determines the strength of the gravitational force on that object.Gravitational scales are useful when objects have sufficiently large masses.
The mass of any particle is determined by certain interactions in which that particle participates. In other words, mass is simply a property of particles measured in the way they interact with forces and other particles. Thus if it’s interaction that determines mass, then it’s interaction that determines the materiality of an object. That is a very important conclusion that is often overlooked.
In fact, Eugene Wigner (1939), the Hungarian-American mathematical physicist and the winner of 1963 Nobel Prize, proved mathematically that a material particle is described by its mass and spin, either of which could be zero.
In conclusion, the E of E =mc2 is always the energy of material particles that can either produce the mass on the right or be produced by the latter. There is no instance in nature in which mass transforms into energy (or vice versa) without some material particles carrying that energy. No connection exists between the soul-matter equivalence of mysticism and the energy-mass equivalence of relativity.
Excerpts from the article, published in Skeptical Inquirer Vol.40, No.4