Friday, May 9, 2008

Activation energy

In physics, things "want" to be in a lower energy state. Given the chance, most things will on their own move to a lower-energy state, and things in lower-energy states are more stable than things in higher-energy states.

Top of hillExample: a ball on top of a hill has a lot of gravitational potential energy.

Bottom of hillA ball on top of a hill will probably not stay there for long. Rather, it will release some of its gravitational potential energy by rolling down the hill. Then, the ball will be where it "wants" to be.

Bottom of small hillThings become more complicated when there are multiple low energy spots.

Now, the ball is in a stable place, but it's not in the "best" place. It has to find the energy to go uphill before it can get to the lowest-energy place it "wants" to be.

Bottom of large hillThe energy needed to go up that hill, to gain access to the next stable location, is called "activation energy". Not a term in most people's everyday vocabulary, but I think it can describe experiences most people have frequently. We want to do something, we know it will move our life in a desired direction. Once started, it's easy to continue down(hill) on the path toward this goal. But getting started (up that first hill) takes a good amount of energy: activation energy.

Whether it's doing an exercise routine, or making new friends, or initiating a new religious practice: once started, these are activities that come naturally. Once in the midst of this kind of thing, I've sometimes wondered why I had any hesitation at the beginning. I find some comfort in relating my experience to the laws of physics, and this perspective has sometimes helped me gather the "activation energy" needed to add things I want into my life.

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