Introduction to Physics: The Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy

Professor Lomonosov, the first-term assignment for your class, Introduction to Physics, was to “reflect and expand on a topic of your choice from the course syllabus”. I am a liberal arts student majoring in English and needed a science credit to graduate. I chose your course because I enjoyed watching the television show “Big Bang Theory” with my mom when I was younger. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a comedy about physics and physicists.

While perhaps a hesitant physics student, I came across the Law of Conservation of Mass in the textbook early in the semester and decided to write about that. The idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, the central theme of the Law of Conservation of Mass, is intriguing to me, especially considering recent events in my life. Yet, despite my curiosity, my essay is late. I was sidetracked by a family issue and honestly haven’t expended the required amount of energy into the research and writing that you said you expected of your students. Please let me explain before I present my paper.

My mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease just after the term started. Having lived with her day-to-day, all my life, I didn’t notice the slow changes in her behaviour until they were pointed out to me by our family doctor. He saw her less frequently, once every few years, and for him the changes he observed were as dramatic as the Grand Canyon to a tourist, though not in such a grand way. I only saw her slow and steady meandering, like the Colorado River which carved the canyon over a 5-million-year period. The doctor couldn’t tell me for how long mom had the disease.

Mom was always keeping lists and leaving notes. I always thought it was just part of her quirky personality, like when she joined a Pentecostal group and spoke in tongues. I didn’t realize the volume of those lists and notes increased as her memory and attention declined. Some of the kitchen cupboard doors were covered with Post-It notes, from where they’d fall like colourful autumn leaves on to the brown laminate countertop.

Looking back, I think I ignored the signs or at least interpreted them in a way that would not require any action on my part. I feel bad about that now. Much like in class, how you described entropy as being the measure of disorder and uncertainty in a system, in our household, order grew quickly into disorder. Over the weeks following her diagnosis, mom’s life went from bad to worse. My life kind of stopped.

Being just the two of us, I needed to take care of mom. At first, I tried to balance my schoolwork with looking after her but leaving her alone in the apartment became impossible. One day, after coming home from school, I found our refrigerator filled the blocks of cheddar cheese. Mom liked cheddar cheese. On another day, she decided to go grocery shopping and returned to the apartment with a squeaky-wheeled supermarket shopping cart. She had pushed it along St. Clair Avenue to our building. Even worse, it was filled with someone else’s groceries. I thought it was funny at first, until the police knocked on our door.

That wasn’t her first altercation with the police; they twice returned her home after finding her on the steps of Our Lady of Perpetual Care, late at night, waiting for the church to open. The last time, the parish priest had asked her to leave the building when he was locking the door in the evening. It was winter, she was seriously underdressed and very cold. Caring for mom was like minding a big energetic child. She seemed always to be getting into mischief. Then things got worse. Like a block of ice sublimating into steam, the entropy and disorder in our lives increased substantially.

Mom turned into a bad-tempered and stubborn child who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, communicate her needs. She began to lose her self-control, including that of her anger and bladder. Her eating habits were as erratic as her personal hygiene. She started to lose weight, refused to leave her bed, and would only offer me a low growl or laugh hysterically when I entered her room. I was kept busy making meals, washing her clothes and sheets, and eventually helping her bathe. She didn’t seem to mind me standing near the tub, eyes averted, as much as I did, apart from the continuous growling. I got over my embarrassment after she started soiling her pants. Shortly after that started, social services made an unannounced visit and determined that “the support systems in place are insufficient in both quality and quantity to provide the level of care necessary for the comfort, health, and safety” of mom. I protested. She was removed from our apartment and died two months later of pneumonia in a city nursing home after she fell and broke her hip. I miss her terribly.

The American poet, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) suggested that life goes on indefinitely because the atoms that comprise our bodies are used by other living and non-living forms after we die:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, and if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and ceas’d the moment life apprear’d. All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass, 1855

That makes sense to me, given my understanding of Physics and The Law of Conservation of Mass, and suggests to me that mom is still here with me.

The Law of Conservation of Mass says that while the shape or form of matter can change, its mass does not. For example, water (H2O) can turn into ice or steam, but its mass is preserved whether highly concentrated by frigid temperatures or dispersed by high heat. And while wood will burn in a fire, the elemental carbon in the logs is transformed into carbon dioxide that is dispersed into the atmosphere and absorbed by plants during photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is my favourite example of the Law: plants will absorb six carbon dioxide molecules (6 CO2) from the air and six water molecules (6 H2O) from the soil and, using the energy from sunshine, convert that into one C6H12O6 molecule and 6 oxygen molecules (6 O2). If you add up the number of individual elements before and after the plant transformed them, they are the same. That’s the conservation of mass. Those six leftover O2 molecules from photosynthesis are the oxygen in the air we breathe, whereas that C6H12O6 molecule the plants create is sugar or, more properly, glucose.

That plants convert carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, along with some water, into sugar would have impressed mom. Mom, her matter or at least her mass, is preserved and dispersed around me, being absorbed by plants, and turned into other types of matter. I’d like to think that mom is mostly C6H12O6; she’d smile sweetly at that.

Like Walt Whitman’s smallest sprout, mom is contained within our world and universe, and will continue to be indefinitely, because that’s true of every other element since time began. The astronomer Carl Sagan said that we are all made of “star stuff” created from exploding red dwarf stars shortly after the Big Bang, some 18.3 billion years ago. What he meant was that our bodies are 65% oxygen and 19% carbon, not the first elements but two that were created later in the life of the universe from the furnaces of exploding stars. Mom’s favourite singer, Joni Mitchell, said it best in her song “Woodstock” when she sang the refrain:

We are stardust,

Billion-year-old carbon,

We are golden.

Joni Mitchell, Woodstock, 1969

So, like those elements from the burnt-out stars, mom remains part of me and the world, and will continue to be for a very long time. This gives me comfort. But what is perhaps even more compelling are the implications of the Law of Conservation of Energy, which was discussed in the chapter following the Conservation of Mass in my physics textbook.

Like that governing Mass, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system but can be transformed into different types of energy. If you consider the white cue ball rolling across a level pool table and about to contact a stationary 8-ball, the two balls and the pool table would be considered a system. Once force is applied to the white cue ball, from a pool cue, some of its kinetic rolling energy would be transferred to the stationary 8-ball upon contact, and most of the rest of the energy would remain with the cue ball. Both balls would move forward at different rates of speed, dependent on their mass and kinetic energy until friction and gravity, or the side of the table, stopped them.

Mom expended on me, or transferred to me, a lot of energy. She was a wonderful mom. Some of that energy remains, even after her mass has been transformed. It occurred to me one day, after going to the bathroom and performing my habitual toilet paper ritual before flushing, that I was replicating something mom taught me 18 years ago. I had been following that behavioural script unconsciously for almost two decades and will most likely continue my toilet paper ablutions the same way until my mass also transforms. My table manners, how I tie my shoes, my sensitivity to the proper forms of grammar and, yes, how I wipe my bum are the direct result of energy transfers from mom. While not as visible as she once was, mom is clearly within and without me.

I realize I may be taking more than a few liberties in my reflections on the Laws of the Conservation of Mass and Energy, but the strength of these laws is not only in their ability to predict future outcomes, but also in their generalizability and applicability to other fields of interest. However, there is one condition that must be met for both the conservation of mass and energy. The Laws apply in an isolated system: a system that does not interact or exchange with its external surroundings. This, I feel, presents a conundrum for me and especially for mom because my mom and I were a system, and a pretty isolated system at that, beginning with my father’s death and continuing through mom’s dementia.

After my mom’s passing, as I distracted myself by reading my Intro Physics textbook. I slowly came to realize that the notion that some small portion of mom’s mass, specifically her soul, had gone to heaven was contrary to the Law of Conservation of Mass, because of the isolated system rule. Let me explain. Our world and the universe that encompasses it are part of an unimaginably vast geographical space. It’s a closed or isolated system, like the perfect thermos from which neither the hot coffee (matter) or the heat (energy) inside it can escape. Heaven, on the other hand, has no geographical or physical location. It is, by definition, outside of the temporal physical realm we inhabit and therefore outside of our isolated system, at least currently. Heaven is removed from our isolated universe of a thermos bottle. Although my knowledge of physics is limited, at least as much as my understanding religious doctrine, I can only conclude that mom is not in heaven. But neither is she in hell. Mom is still on earth or at least in the universe.

Mom would not be happy about this outcome. While understanding the practical implications of physics – those falling Post-It notes irritated her to no end – she didn’t know much about the theories and laws of physics. That is a good thing. Although it brings me comfort, mom would be upset about not being in heaven and somewhat amused knowing she might now be sugar made by “the smallest sprout” here on earth. Mom had wilder and grander notions of an afterlife.

When I wasn’t home with her, being at school or working at the mall, I didn’t miss my mom. There was no reason to miss her. I took for granted I’d see her later at home. Yet, even now, with the knowledge that she is all around me, I miss her. The theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, might have been extrapolating from the Law of Conservation of Energy when explained the sense of loss and mourning after the death of a loved one as follows:

It isn’t absence that causes sorrow. It is affection and love. Without affection, without love, such absences would cause us no pain. For this reason, even the pain caused by absence is, in the end, something good and even beautiful, because it feeds on that which gives meaning to life.

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, 2017

Mom transferred her love and affection to me, and it remains. I suppose, in time, I’ll stop missing her but sometimes I’ll spot a woman in the mall or on the street and convince myself it is mom. That would be an extreme example of the Law of Conservation of Mass, if it was indeed her. It never is, of course, but each time my heart would beat as fast as if it was. This doesn’t happen much anymore. I find this disappointing.

Things change. Or maybe they don’t. You said at the beginning of the term, when you were talking about entropy, that “change is the only constant.” I think that’s true when I think back on how my predicable and orderly life changed in step with my mom. But on another level, nothing changes. It seems that we and our universe are a finite collection of atoms, governed by some indecipherable set of laws and a dose of randomness, that continually reshape themselves. Mom and I and everyone else who ever lived, or ever will, are just incidental hitchhikers along for the briefest of rides. We are golden.

Based on what I have read in the Intro Physics textbook and my reflections about physics and its laws, I would argue that while change is constant, it is also true that nothing changes. It’s a paradox of physics. The 19th century journalist and author Alphonse Karr said: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 1.” To me, that seems to be the essence of the Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy and of life. I think Joni Mitchell and Walt Whitman might have agreed.

These are my reflections on the Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy, and my first term assignment.

Thank you.

  1. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” ↩︎

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