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Kinetic energy loss in a gravitational field.

  1. Aug 3, 2013 #1
    If I throw a ball vertically upwards from the surface of the earth, the upward motion slows due to gravity. At the ball's highest point, I have placed a repositioned platform for the ball to rest on; so it sits motionless, perched above the surface of the earth. When the ball began it's flight, it initially had energy of motion (i.e., kinetic). That energy has now vanished as it sits motionless above the earth.

    So here's the question: Assuming energy is ALWAYS conserved, where is the (kinetic) energy? Where can I find it? Where precisely is it stored? To say that the energy will be recovered when the ball is allowed to descend back to the earth does NOT answer the question. To say that the energy resides in the (gravitational) field does NOT answer the question. The energy must be PHYSICALLY stored somewhere.

    Similarly, a photon looses energy (red shift) as it ascends away from earth's gravity. Where can that energy (loss) be found?

    I don't believe there is a simple explanation. I pose the question to explore possible physical model ideas that could conceivably explain the location of the energy.
     
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  3. Aug 3, 2013 #2

    WannabeNewton

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    The gravitational field is a physical thing; it can and does store energy. You are entirely mistaken when you think that the gravitational field is not a physical thing. Fields carry energy and momentum and angular momentum analogous to how particles can carry energy, momentum, and angular momentum; this concept is usually first introduced in intermediate texts on electromagnetism.
     
  4. Aug 3, 2013 #3

    Maybe it would be a good idea to use a gravimeter to figure out the location of the energy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravimeter

    And let's make it a neutron star orbiting satellite-bourne gravimeter, measuring the energy distribution change when a powerful laser pulse is shot from the surface of the neutron star.

    I mean: Let's think about what the gravimeter will say, I don't mean we should actually do this experiment.
     
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2013
  5. Aug 3, 2013 #4

    Nugatory

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    Answering classically - and until we have the classical model down cold, it's premature to consider energy and the gravitational redshift:

    Nowhere. Total energy is conserved, but kinetic energy is not the total energy and is not necessarily conserved. Friction turns kinetic energy into heat, the spinning shaft of an electrical generator turns kinetic energy into electrical energy, a moving object sliding into a spring turns kinetic energy into potential energy, throwing an object upwards turns kinetic energy into potential energy... In all these cases the kinetic energy is gone even though the total energy (sum of kinetic energy and the others) is still conserved.

    You may object that the potential energy is less "real", just a made-up bookkeeping device, something I added in because otherwise energy wouldn't be conserved. That may be, but the fact remains that the law of conservation of energy says that the conserved quantity includes the potential energy.
     
  6. Aug 3, 2013 #5
    I am referring to "the total energy". If the kinetic energy (or red shift energy) is lost, then it must be present elsewhere. Energy of motion is real energy, thus E=mc^2. Said differently, mass (i.e., energy) is lost during the ascension.

    As you aptly put it, "potential energy" is a convenient "book keeping device". In my scenario, there is no heat created, no electricity created, and no discernible location of the lost energy. "Potential energy" is another name for "We don't know where the energy is."
     
  7. Aug 3, 2013 #6

    PeterDonis

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    This equation is not correct for an object in motion. The full equation, accounting for the motion of the object, is ##E^2 = m^2 c^4 + p^2 c^2##, where ##p## is the object's momentum.

    Also, your definition of "real energy" is not a very good one. See below.

    This usage of the term "mass" is not recommended, because it often causes confusion between "relativistic mass" (i.e., energy), and invariant mass (or "rest mass", but the latter term can cause confusion as well). The invariant mass of the object does not change as it rises.

    Also, kinetic energy is frame-dependent, so calling it "real energy" doesn't work very well. If I launch myself upward along with the ball, flying in free fall alongside it, its kinetic energy relative to me is zero. So what happened to its "real energy"?

    But for free-fall motion (such as a thrown ball, if we ignore air resistance), there is a constant of the motion called "energy at infinity", which appears both in Newtonian physics and in General Relativity. This constant is not frame-dependent, so it's a much better candidate for "real energy" in this scenario. See further comments below.

    No, it's another name for "kinetic energy is frame-dependent, but energy at infinity is not". The ball's energy at infinity is the sum of its kinetic energy and potential energy, and it's often helpful to think of it that way. But "kinetic energy" here is defined relative to a static observer, i.e., an observer who is at rest at a constant altitude (which is the way you've implicitly been defining it); so energy at infinity is not frame-dependent, even though kinetic energy itself is.

    This brings up another important point: what is special about static observers? Why does kinetic energy relative to them have a special status, whereas kinetic energy relative to me flying along with the ball does not? The answer is that a spacetime with a spherically symmetric gravitating body in it (which we've all been implicitly assuming here) has a time translation symmetry: it looks the same at every instant of time, if "instant of time" is defined relative to the static observers. Also, such a spacetime is "asymptotically flat", which means that the effects of gravity get smaller and smaller the further away you get from the central body, until they go to zero at infinity. This is what enables the definition of energy at infinity as a constant of motion for freely falling objects.

    The reason I bring this up is that, in a more general spacetime which does not have a time translation symmetry (such as, for example, an expanding universe), there is no way to define anything like energy at infinity, or any global notion of "energy" that remains conserved. Light traveling to us from distant stars loses energy--we observe the energy loss as redshift--and the energy doesn't "go anywhere"; it just vanishes. So the bottom line is that your assumption that "energy is ALWAYS conserved" is not valid; energy conservation only works in certain special situations, and only if you pick the right definition of energy.
     
  8. Aug 3, 2013 #7

    Dale

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    Nonsense. We know exactly where it is. Gravitational potential energy is in the gravitational field. Just because you don't like the answer doesn't mean that the answer is unknown.
     
  9. Aug 4, 2013 #8

    mfb

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    The gravitational field has an energy. This is similar to electric and magnetic fields. Light is an example how electromagnetic fields can carry energy. Capacitors and coils are other examples where it is clear that the fields have energy.
    And your lifted ball is an example where the gravitational field has energy.
     
  10. Aug 4, 2013 #9
    I agree with you 100% Wannabe... The gravitational field is a physical thing but the mechanism for storing energy is NOT classical physics. In fact, the mechanism is not discussed at all. So how does this "thing" called a gravitational field store energy? Classically speaking there exists nothing in the vacuum called "space", nothing in the void between stars with which to store energy. Once again the classical perception is TOTALLY incorrect.

    The gravitational field is a physical system; it is not magic. So what are the (non-classical) options?

    There is energy stored all around us, everywhere in the universe. Imagine if one could tap into that energy! It is apparent that the electromagnetic force (i.e., coulomb potential) has the same energy storage issue. I wonder if it shares the same storage mechanism with gravity?
     
  11. Aug 4, 2013 #10
    I think we all agree that energy is somehow stored in the gravitational (and electromagnetic) field. The real issue (for me anyway) is HOW is it physically stored? It IS NOT magic, there exists a tangible mechanism that we can understand. The problem is that it exists in a tiny subatomic realm that we can not easily see or probe. So I'm wondering what possible physical models can exist in the so-called vacuum between the stars.
     
  12. Aug 4, 2013 #11

    BruceW

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    Well there are two issues here. 1) Is there a common underlying physical mechanism to all kinds of energy? 2) Is energy conservation a tautology?
    1) No, and this is why the concept of energy seems somewhat 'ad hoc'. 2) No, as PeterDonis mentioned, we don't necessarily have energy conservation. For example in General relativity we don't necessarily have global conservation of energy.
     
  13. Aug 4, 2013 #12

    mfb

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    That question is meaningless in physics.
    In the same way, you could ask "how are particles "stored?" - with the same result, that is not physics it is philosophy.
     
  14. Aug 4, 2013 #13
    The question was "Where is the energy"?

    Let's simplify this scenario a bit further to eliminate frame of reference issues. Instead of throwing the ball upwards, I will simply pick up the ball and place it on a perch above the surface of the earth. Simply put, I exert a force through a distance. I have done some work against the force of gravity, expended some energy, and I expect that the energy exerted should be located somewhere.

    Maybe the energy is not stored in a (gravitational) field. Maybe the energy flew away as photon or sub atomic particles. Or what??? However, it is so easy to recover the energy that I believe it to be stored in the surrounding field. Maybe the space vacuum between stars is not really empty...?

    BruceW has alluded to the idea that maybe energy is not necessarily conserved, and we are chasing a ghost. But in this simplified scenario (without energy of motion), I believe energy is conserved. If so, we should be able to locate it.
     
  15. Aug 4, 2013 #14

    BruceW

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    if we talk about classical gravitation, the gravitational potential energy is not stored in any place. It is probably best to think of energy as a property of the system. The system obeys certain physical laws such that there is some quantity that does not change with time, that we call energy. In classical gravitation, there can be no meaning attached to 'where' the energy is.
     
  16. Aug 4, 2013 #15
    mfb - I think if you are asking "How are particles stored" you are really asking "how is it that particles possess mass-energy"? And that is a very important question in physics.
     
  17. Aug 4, 2013 #16

    WannabeNewton

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    Hi there mate. I see what you're trying to ask but I'm not sure if this can actually be answered by physics. There is a gravitational potential energy associated with the gravitational field and kinetic energies associated with particles and we can track exchanges between the gravitational potential energy and the kinetic energies, with the total sum being constrained by the constant total energy (I'm talking about a system of particles interacting only with the gravitational field here).
     
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2013
  18. Aug 4, 2013 #17

    mfb

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    No I do not.
    Apart from that:
    The Standard Model provides a nice mechanism for that.
     
  19. Aug 4, 2013 #18
    When you started learning about the concept of energy, you were probably introduced to kinetic energy first and how it's related to the speed of objects. This has perhaps wrongfully given you the idea that energy is something you can locate in space.

    Energy is a property of a system and, assuming you accept the common definition of energy as a system's ability to do work, there's really nothing strange at all about where the kinetic energy of your earth+ball system "goes". When the ball comes to rest on your platform, the earth+ball system has the same amount of energy as it did initially, i.e. it has the ability to do the same amount of work, but it's now by virtue of its configuration instead of its speed.

    How the energy is stored, i.e. how does the system have the ability to do work, is a much more meaningful question than where is the energy stored.

    :confused: This is nonsense. Energy is an abstract concept but it's understood perfectly well by many without having to resort to some mysterious realm of science.
     
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2013
  20. Aug 4, 2013 #19
    Let's say at time t1 the energy planned to be used to lift a mass, is stored in a gas tank of a tower crane.

    At time t2 the gas tank is empty and the mass has been lifted by the crane.

    Now the energy is somewhere inside a sphere whose center is the gas tank and whose radius is c*(t2-t1).
     
  21. Aug 4, 2013 #20
    BruceW - you make some good clear points. But I disagree. If I exert energy and compress a spring, does it make sense to ask "Where is the energy stored?" Gravitation isn't any different we just can't see what's happening. It's not magic. There is a physical system that absorbs the energy, and allows us to later recover the energy. It's conserved either as a change in mass, a compressed spring, electrical capacitor, or system we have yet to know about.

    Which beckons the question "What is the physical mechanism of gravity?" If I knew how gravity works, I could likely explain where the energy is stored.
     
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