The Ecosystem is a Living Thing

As is true of all living things (including our selves) the ecosystem requires (minimally) the following to stay alive:

The flow of energy through itself (energy is required to do work; work includes everything that moves or grows; without energy, nothing lives or grows).

The recycling of materials – we aren’t talking about this today, but notice this is the one we are trying politically to do — because it is easier than actually trying to solve the energy problem. Recycling is a good thing but it can not solve the energy problem. Because energy does not recycle.

The flow of information through time so the system knows how to function – also we aren’t talking about this today.

If the living ecosystem were to die, nobody knows what would happen, but if you need a metaphor think of your own body, because all living things require these same things.

Deep Doodoo

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem is that intentions which are based on faulty assumptions are doomed to failure.” Steve McCurry http://stevemccurry.wordpress.com

FYI, below is a letter I sent to a fellow scientist.

1. If all scientists thought alike we would be in deep doodoo. They nearly do and we are.

2. If the scientists were paying attention to the whole living reality it wouldn’t be necessary for me and a couple of other people (most prominently and tirelessly, Jane Goodall) to spend all our time trying to draw their attention to the emergent properties of the entire living system within which we make our only home.

Actually, the reason I think you should read COLLAPSE has to do with the details of how these things do and have happened in the past, within the past 6000 years. Diamond does an excellent job of bringing all the data to bear on the holistic reality in multiple different cases of collapses that were caused by more growth than the resources of the ecosystem could support. So in hindsight we can see what caused the collapse, and it was different in every case (except of course for the foundational cause, which was excessive growth of economy and population). Whatever are his conclusions I already knew before I read the book, but the reason for reading is the lovely collection of facts that he presents — the details he uses to construct a world view that is in accord with the facts on the ground. Taken together, Diamond’s COLLAPSE and Barabasi’s LINKED should be read by every scientist who believes the details are more important than the whole picture — or believes we can understand the whole picture by adding up all the details.

The whole point of networks, such as the internet or the ecosystem, is that the details can change without loss of the emergent properties — up to a point. The emergent property of the ecosystem is all of life on this earth. And when we reach the point, the collapse is awesome, it is very quick and it’s not possible to go back — oops, shouldn’t have done that — and change it. And we can’t know what that point is by studying the details. And of course we can not avoid it by reducing global warming because global warming is only a symptom, not the cause of the unbalanced ecosystem; the only viable solution is to modify our growth ethic or at least our growth behavior, and the only good that I see coming from our obsession with global warming is that we might make the connection between global warming and over-use of resources. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be have decided to use global warming as an excuse to not deal with over-growth.

Nobody needs me to help treat the symptoms of an overtaxed ecosystem — war, genocide, starvation, disease and the other methods the ecosystem uses to try to save her own life in the face of cancerous growths in her body. The world abounds with people trying to make their reputations by claiming to do something that will help — something that will not, in fact, change the cancerous growth that threatens the ecosystem because the things most people choose to do simply add to the problem of overgrowth. Especially as we continue to let the corporations and the corporate media (even PBS and the NGOs that I have studied) rename every problem as a lack healthy growth and then throw more growth in as the supposed solution.

There is no such thing as healthy, sustainable growth in a living thing.

  • Congratulations all you who have helped to make this almost a book: Bare Bones Ecology – or rather Part one, Energy. This is the final entry on the blog, and the book is now in production. Probably I will find a way to post it on this blog so that you may print it out, hold it in your hands, read from front to back, and share with others who want to know more about the home we live in and to be able to understand more about how our behaviors affect her survival.

  • P.S.(LL I would add Chaos to the reading list)

    Light Energizes Life

    Energy Flows-Or Nothing Happens

    Light is one kind of energy. There are many things about light that we don’t understand, but we only need three bits of very well established scientific fact to cover the most important aspects of how energy flows through the ecosystem to keep all of life alive.

    1. Light is energy. We have defined energy as the ability to make actions happen, and light can make actions happen. For example, when light hits your eyes it activates molecules in a nerve cell that sends the message to your brain. That is one kind of work. Energy is the ability to do work.

    2. According to the second law of thermodynamics, pushing anything from a lower level of organization to a higher level requires work. Work is necessary to push any kind of action “uphill,” but “downhill” actions can happen without help. It requires energy for you to climb the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building, but it requires no energy to get to the bottom if you fall off. In a more relevant example, anything that is more complicated or more powerful is “uphill.” To make a cake requires energy, but it can fall apart by itself. Cake is more complicated than flour. Life is the most complicated thing on earth. Cells require energy all the time in order to maintain their complex organization. They do this, with regard to energy, by balancing the “uphillness” of complexity with the degradation of energy. The light gives its energy to maintain the complexity of life. This is possible because energy takes different forms.

    3. Some forms of energy are “uphill” from others. For example, light energy can release some of its energy to become heat, but heat energy can not spontaneously change back into light, because heat is a lower form of energy. Plants use light energy to make what I am referring to as organic energy (in food). Light energy is a higher form than organic energy, and organic energy is a higher form than heat energy.

    So, the bottom line is that life maintains its “uphill” complexity, by changing light energy to organic energy and using the organic energy to feed the whole ecosystem. For some people, this is the definition of life. Life is working, working, working all the time to keep itself from falling apart, and — if it stops working — it does fall apart. It dies.

    That’s why people are alive and cake is not. Once you turn off the oven, the cake has no way to maintain its high level of organization and eventually it will fall apart. The miracle of life is that it can use light energy to keep itself organized and functioning — and it does this inside of itself. Inside every cell in our bodies and every organism in the ecosystem. So far as we know, nothing else in the universe can do this. Only life.

    So the first half of our life story is about the amazing way that plants, and some bacteria, are able to capture light energy and convert it to food energy that we have referred to as organic energy. The process happens only in green plants and bacteria and it is called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of capturing light energy and converting it to form the energy attractions that bond together groups of atoms and small molecules to make large organic molecules. They capture the light using a pigment molecule that is called chlorophyll.

    Capturing, or absorbing light energy is no problem. Absorption of light energy happens all around us; it is what makes the colors. Pigment is any substance that absorbs light. Light from the sun includes (contains, is made of) several different kinds (different wave lengths or different energy types) of light. We see some of these in rainbows, and we can see them because our eyes are activated differently by the different wave lengths of light energy.
    We see a cat because sunlight hits the cat and bounces off the cat into our eyes and energizes some nerve cells. This cat is orange, because only the orange light bounced off her. The other wavelengths were absorbed by the pigments in her hair. (We wrote a whole book about hair pigments, soon to be published, called The Colors of Mice, but that is blatant advertising and has nothing to do with our story here.)

    The wavelengths that bounce off — that are not absorbed by the pigment — are still light energy; the wavelengths that are absorbed into the hairs change to a lower form of energy. For example, heat energy; that’s why the cat is stretched out in the sunlight on a cool day. It makes her feel warm and cozy. The pigment of a black cat absorbs most of the light that shines on it. A white cat reflects most of the different wavelengths of light. The green rug in this picture is reflecting green light back to our eyes and is absorbing the other wavelengths.

    Plants, as you already realize, reflect the green light and keep the other wavelengths. Unlike cat hair pigment, however, the plant pigments (chlorphylls) do not allow the light energy to degrade into heat energy. Instead, the plant has a very complicated series of biochemical reactions that converts some of the light energy to make the energy bonds of large organic molecules. We will talk about the chemical reactions in some other post.

    Absorbing the light into a pigment molecule of (mostly) plants –and then using the energy to make food molecules — is the first half of the flow of energy through the ecosystem.

    The second half is distribution of the energy so that all the parts of the ecosystem can stay alive. We discussed last time why an internet requires all its parts if it is to maintain resilience and sustainability.

    To recap, the energy that does all this work comes from food. And of course you know what happens when you have no food. The only food we can use to stay alive is organic molecules, and the organic molecules are made by plants. If someone tells you there is no limit to the energy available to us — because it comes from the sun — they are wrong. You and I both know we can not eat sunlight; our food comes from plants, and we are definitely limited by the amount of plants on earth, not by the amount of sunlight. If someone tells you we can make organic molecules for ourselves to eat, that is true, but unfortunately it takes more energy to make the food than we can get back when we eat it. And anyhow food is not the only thing that keeps the ecosystem alive. The ecosystem is an internet; it requires a lot of things, and the most important is to keep all those things in balance.

    The whole ecosystem stays alive by keeping a critical balance among all the different life forms that do the various ecosystem jobs we talked about last time, and a balance among the three forms of energy, light energy, organic energy and heat energy.

    The ecosystem stays alive because the energy from the sun flows from one of its life forms to another to another to another, doing the work of keeping cells alive. Cells of plants, cells of bacteria, cells of turnips, cells of your body, cells of trees, cells of potatoes, cells of tigers, cells of worms, cells of mosquitoes, grass, horses, fish. You get the idea but if you want a visual cue you can look to the elegant, if simplistic, diagram below.

    Every time we eat a bite of food (with the energy it contains) and then our body breaks down the food to release the energy bonds, and uses that energy to do the work of keeping our cells alive — every time we do any of those things, some of the energy is lost as heat. Nobody can eat heat, so then some plant somewhere in the ecosystem must capture more light energy to make more organic energy for our next bite.

    Of course we know energy is not the only good thing we get from food. We will discuss other things — primarily carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen atoms and small molecules like water and carbon dioxide — in the third section of this book when we explain how the ecosystem recycles these materials into and out of our food. The point here is that the energy does not recycle. It is lost as heat. That’s why the plants must be constantly making more organic molecules to keep the entire ecosystem alive.

    For the whole ecosystem to stay alive, it must provide food for every living part of itself. It must maintain the balance among the numbers of plants and the number of organisms that eat plants and the organisms that eat other organisms. And even more, the ecosystem must maintain the balance between the light energy that it uses to make organic energy, and the heat energy that is released when organic energy is burned to do work.

    That’s why we have global warming. The energy balance is off. It has been for a good while.

    Therefore, the only long-term cure for global warming is to help the ecosystem to restore her balance. We could do it, but not if we try to use any method that causes more heat to be released into the ecosystem. We can not cure global warming, and the starvation that comes with it, by burning anything or by growing our economy or our population.

    Because growth Is what caused the problem in the first place.

    “Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference between their purposes and those of God.” Abraham Lincoln

    Energy Flows-Or Nothing Happens

    Light is energy. There are many things about light that we don’t understand, but why should we understand everything? We only need three bits of very well established scientific fact to cover the most important aspects of how energy flows through the ecosystem to keep all of life alive.

    1. Light is energy. We have defined energy as the ability to make actions happen, and light can make actions happen. For example, when light hits your eyes it activates molecules in a nerve cell that sends the message to your brain. That is one kind of work. Energy is the ability to do work.

    2. According to the second law of thermodynamics, pushing anything from a lower level of organization to a higher level requires work. Work is necessary to push any kind of action “uphill,” but “downhill” actions can happen without help. It requires energy for you to climb the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building, but it requires no energy to get to the bottom if you fall off. In a more relevant example, anything that is more complicated or more powerful is “uphill.” To make a cake requires energy, but it can fall apart by itself. Cake is more complicated than flour. Life is the most complicated thing on earth. Cells require energy all the time in order to maintain their complex organization. But the important thing is that the entire system always is in balance because the downhill slide of energy balances its uphill push to the system. This is possible because energy comes in different forms.

    3. Some forms of energy are “uphill” from others. For example, light energy can change to heat energy by itself, but heat energy can not spontaneously change back into light energy, because heat is a lower form of energy. Plants use light energy to make what I am referring to as organic energy (in food). Light energy is a higher form than organic energy, and organic energy is a higher form than heat energy.

    So, the bottom line is that life maintains its complexity, even though it is always working “uphill,” because the entire ecosystem is provided with organic energy. For some people, this is the definition of life. Life is working, working, working all the time to keep itself from falling apart, and — if it stops working — it does fall apart. It dies.

    That’s why people are alive and cake is not. Once you turn off the oven, the cake has no way to maintain its high level of organization and eventually it will fall apart. The miracle of life is that it can use light energy to keep itself organized and functioning — and it does it inside of itself. Inside every cell in our bodies and every organism in the ecosystem. So far as we know, nothing else in the universe can do this. Only life.

    So the first half of our life story is about the amazing way that plants, and some bacteria, are able to capture light energy and convert it to food energy that we have referred to as organic energy. The process happens only in green plants and bacteria and it is called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of making organic molecules using the energy from light.

    Capturing, or absorbing light energy is no problem for a pigment molecule such as the chlorophyll of plants. Pigment is any substance that absorbs light. Absorption of light energy happens all around us; it is what makes the colors. Light from the sun includes several different kinds (different wave lengths or different energy types) of light. We see some of these in rainbows, and we can see them because our eyes are activated differently by the different wave lengths of light energy.

    So we see a cat because sunlight hits the cat and bounces off the cat into our eyes and energizes some nerve cells. This cat is orange, because only the orange light bounced off her. The other wavelengths were absorbed by the pigments in her hair. (We wrote a whole book about hair pigments, soon to be published, called The Colors of Mice, but that is blatant advertising and has nothing to do with our story here.)

    The wavelengths that bounce off — that are not absorbed by the pigment — are still light energy; the wavelengths that are absorbed into the hairs change to a lower form of energy. For example, heat energy; that’s why the cat is stretched out in the sunlight on a cool day. It makes her feel warm and cozy. The pigment of a black cat absorbs most of the light that shines on it. A white cat reflects most of the different wavelengths of light. The green rug in this picture is reflecting green light back to our eyes and is absorbing the other wavelengths.

    Plants, as you already realize, reflect the green light and keep the other wavelengths. Unlike cat hair pigment, however, the plant pigments (chlorphylls) do not allow the light energy to degrade into heat energy. Instead, the plant has a very complicated series of biochemical reactions that converts some of the light energy to make the energy bonds of large organic molecules. We will talk about the chemical reactions in some other post.

    So, absorbing the light into a pigment molecule of (mostly) plants –and then using the energy to make food molecules — is the first half of the flow of energy through the ecosystem.

    The second half is distribution of the energy so that all the parts of the ecosystem can stay alive. We discussed last time why an internet requires all its parts if it is to maintain resilience and sustainability.

    So, to recap, the energy that does all this work comes from food. And of course you know what happens when you have no food. The only food we can use to stay alive is organic molecules, and the organic molecules are made by plants. If someone tells you that there is no limit to the energy available to us — because it comes from the sun — they are wrong. You and I both know we can not eat sunlight; our food comes from plants, and we are definitely limited by the amount of plants on earth, not by the amount of sunlight. If someone tells you we can make organic molecules for ourselves to eat, that is true, but unfortunately it takes more energy to make the food than we can get back when we eat it. Any anyhow food is not the only thing that keeps the ecosystem alive. The ecosystem is an internet; it requires a lot of things, and the most important is to keep all those things in balance.

    The whole ecosystem stays alive by keeping a critical balance among all the different life forms that do the various ecosystem jobs we talked about last time, and a balance among the three forms of energy, light energy, organic energy and heat energy.

    The ecosystem survives because the energy from the sun flows from one of its life forms to another to another to another, doing the work of keeping cells alive. Cells of plants, cells of bacteria, cells of turnips, cells of your body, cells of trees, cells of potatoes, cells of tigers, cells of worms, cells of mosquitoes, grass, horses, fish. You get the idea but if you want a visual cue you can look to the elegant, if simplistic, diagram below.

    Every time we eat a bite of food (with the energy it contains) and then our body breaks down the food to release the energy bonds, and uses that energy to do the work of keeping our cells alive — every time we do any of those things, some of the energy is lost as heat. Nobody can eat heat, so then some plant somewhere in the ecosystem must capture more light energy to make more organic energy for our next bite.

    Of course we know energy is not the only good thing we get from food. We will discuss other things — primarily carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen atoms and small molecules like water and carbon dioxide — in the third section of this book when we explain how the ecosystem recycles these materials into and out of our food. The point here is that the energy does not recycle. It is lost as heat. That’s why the plants must be constantly making more organic molecules to keep the entire ecosystem alive.

    For the whole ecosystem to stay alive, it must provide food for every living part of itself. It must maintain the balance among the numbers of plants and the number of organisms that eat plants and the organisms that eat other organisms. And even more, the ecosystem must maintain the balance between the light energy that it uses to make organic energy, and the heat energy that is released when organic energy is burned to do work.

    That’s why we have global warming. The energy balance is off. It has been for a good while.

    Therefore, the only long-term cure for global warming is to help the ecosystem to restore her balance. We could do it, but not if we try to use any method that causes more heat to be released into the ecosystem. We can not cure global warming, and the starvation that comes with it, by burning anything or by growing our economy or our population. Because growth within our living ecosystem burns organic energy.

    And too much growth is what caused the problem in the first place.
    “Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference between their purposes and those of God.” Abraham Lincoln

    Levels of Organization

    The Ecosystem is a Network of Levels of Organization

    The diagram below needs explanation, but it won’t be easy, because the ecosystem is so complicated that it is impossible humanly to represent or to fully understand.
    If you find it mind boggling to comprehend the levels of organization, all interacting among and between themselves, then you are just like the scientists, the politicians, the religious and everyone else. Fortunately, we do not need to understand all the little details of the system in order to have a good idea of how it functions — the structural and functional requirements for it to stay alive — and that is our goal. A basic appreciation of the beautiful idea of networking. and of the levels of organization. is background for understanding the flow of energy, and of other things, through the living ecosystem. Life is possible because of the internet of living and nonliving things through all the levels. The basic format of these realities is outlined in the below diagram.

    The ecosystem consists of sets and subsets of living and nonliving entities that interact between and among themselves. We can not represent the entire system in a diagram for two reason. One is that the sets and subsets (levels of organization)
    are flexible, a fact that is necessary for their survival (sustainability). The other is that there are just too many interactions to understand or represent.

    For example, looking to the diagram, there are ecosystems within ecosystems. I am a functioning part of the pasture ecosystem and the East Texas group of ecosystems and in fact all the ecosystems in the world because I contribute to the materials (such as carbon dioxide) and the energy flow and many other activities that occur within each of these ecosystems and the whole earth ecosystem. If I could draw all the lines of interaction between myself and all the other ecosystems and all the other levels of organizations, the entire page would be black. So I drew only one or two or a few lines to feebly represent just a few interactions.

    Imagine that everything interacts with everything on this diagram in some way(s) and also everything interacts with millions of other entities that make up the living system. For example, your heart interacts with every other component of your body; your resilience and therefore your survivability (sustainability) would be unlikely if any of these interacting components of your body were missing. All the organs work together to maintain your life. This is represented by the lines between the heart and kidney and skin on the diagram. However, it is true of every organ in your body. They all interact. Similarly, the leaves, bark and other organs of a tree all interact with each other to make the tree alive, and the tree interacts with nearly everything else in the ecosystem, including us.

    We are only one component of the metabolism of the ecosystem. Our lungs breathe the oxygen that is provided by plants; our food gives us the energy we require for life; the environment degrades our wastes, so that we are not suffocated in a dung-heap of the unused byproducts of our metabolism. These processes are carried out by other organism that all are interacting within all the big and little ecosystems of life on earth. We could not survive without the other elements of the ecosystem, and we also contribute to the other elements of the ecosystem.

    Levels of organization are shown on the diagram by the large headings on the left side of the page. Levels of organization are a special type of interaction that we have discussed before. Everything in the universe is composed of other, smaller things. These relationships are referred to as levels of organization. A very few example relationships of this kind are shown in the diagram with vertical lines. To summarize some of the levels of organization that exist:

    1-The whole earth ecosystem is made up of smaller ecosystems and organisms. The whole earth ecosystem is the biggest (most inclusive) unit of life on earth.
    2-Organisms are made up of organs and their environment
    3-Organs are composed of specialized tissues and their environment.
    4-Tissues are composed of specialized cells and their environment
    5-Cells can be organisms or they can be subunits of organisms. The cell is the basic unit of life. Below the cellular level of organization, life as we define it is not present in the interacting systems of which it is composed.
    6-Cells would not be alive without the precisely organized organelles, macromolecules and molecules of which they are composed.
    7-Organelles are subunits of the cell that perform specific functions. For example, the chloroplast is an organelle that is made up of macromolecules and molecules that, in the environment provided by the cell can do the processes of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of changing light energy to chemical energy that is used to form the energy bonds of macromolecules.
    8-Macromolecules are organic molecules joined together with smaller molecules by energy bonds.
    9-Molecules are made of atoms that are joined together in very specific ways by energy bonds. The kinds of energy bonds and the kinds of relationships between the atoms are not random. They depend upon the fact that different kinds of atoms have different characteristics.
    10-Atoms can not be seen or directly measured individually. However, if we collect a few million/billion atoms all together in one place we would call that an element. There are not very many elements that (in their special combinations as molecules) make up all the living and nonliving things of the ecosystem. These elements/atoms are diagrammed by chemists in the “periodic table.” A lovely book by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann describes and illustrates all these basic elements (and atoms) of our existence.

    Atoms are studied by physicists. There are many metaphoric descriptions of atoms, but the bottom line is we do not fully comprehend atoms from our perch so much higher up in the levels of the ecosystem (just as we do not fully comprehend things that are at levels of organization over our heads. Our sensory organs are designed to function in our own level.) What we need to know is that atoms are matter (they have mass, which means they have weight and volume. Everything from your desk to your grandmother is composed of atoms). Atoms also carry the energy that we require to do any kind of action in our lives or in the ecosystem. The energy of atoms determines how the different atoms can make energy bonds with other atoms so that molecules can form, and macromolecules.

    It is important to know that humans do not understand most of these interactions. It’s also important to remember that any system that has more interactions, to a point, is likely to be more resilient (suggested reading linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi). Resilience is largely the result of complexity and is essential to life. Increased complexity of a network increases resilience because it makes available “fail-safe” options by providing several methods of accomplishing each process. Increased complexity can also increase the efficiency of energy usage (notice these elements also can be true of social organizations).

    However, this does not mean that more complexity is always better than less complexity. Complexity is not the only element of life that is essential, and complexity must be maintained in balance with all the other essential components of ecosystem viability. Too much complexity can be as harmful to the balanced organization of a network as too little complexity. We could not be alive if the nature of the chemistry and physics of our environment were different than they are, or if the interactions within the ecosystem ceased to function. All the levels and all the interactions make us what we are.

    Metabolism


    Isn’t it interesting that so many cultures have historically honored or revered the sun as the source of life — and then science found that the sun is indeed the source of the energy for our individual lives and for the life of the entire earth ecosystem. And we know it is accomplished by metabolism, and we know how metabolism functions to convert the energy from sunlight into organic energy that the ecosystem then uses for every little bit of work in every cell that it requires to stay alive.

    According to Webster’s Handy College Dictionary, metabolism is: “The chemical process of absorbing food.” The computer says: “the ongoing interrelated series of chemical interactions taking place in living organisms that provide the energy and nutrients (that is food) needed to sustain life.” I don’t like either of those definitions, and it is easy to find books, videos, all sorts of information about human physiology that tell us how we eat and absorb our food and get rid of the waste products. So I also won’t discuss those in detail, for the same reason. All these resources tend to be so anthropocentric (human centered, as though the whole process is all about us) that many people imagine, as did the primitive peoples, that food is magically provided for us on this earth and the only thing we need to do is find it and eat it. This is so far from the reality that we are threatening the health of the ecosystem by our voracious finding and eating.

    The reality is that our food is only a subunit, a natural part of the whole system of energy flow through the ecosystem that is and must be maintained in a delicate balance if the entire ecosystem is to be properly nourished. Because we can not survive without the ecosystem, it is important that we know as much as we can about the entire system if we are to help it maintain that balance so we can continue within it.

    The whole scheme of energy flow in the ecosystem is built upon the first and second laws of thermodynamics. How was the whole system created? We have no primary data. But we do have measurable facts that describe how the flow of energy NOW maintains the life of the ecosystem minute by minute and day by day in our physical universe, and that will be my definition of metabolism.

    The incredible beauty of the living process is the way in which organisms convert the light energy into organic form to circulate the energy throughout the ecosystem so that it can be used to do all the tiny and huge kinds of work that all of life requires. What I am calling organic energy consists of several sorts of energy relationships — energy bonds that join atoms together to make molecules.

    A molecule is a group of atoms that are joined together by energy bonds. Big molecules have more energy bonds than small molecules. Organic molecules are big molecules. They are composed mostly of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen because of the ways in which they are capable of joining with each other. We will remember again what you probably already know, that the major organic molecules are proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and nucleic acids.

    We will not try to describe all the chemistry of these reactions for two reasons:

    1. That sort of information is rather easy to find in books, text books and on the web and it is usually presented more or less accurately — though out of context.

    2. The context is the most important part if we want to survive within the living earth ecosystem. So that’s what we will talk about. However, we do need to know a couple things about molecules and energy. So for now, we will make one point of chemistry that matches the point we made recently about the second law of thermodynamics.

    The major organic molecules are actually macromolecules. Macromolecules are big molecules that are made of smaller molecules that are joined together by energy bonds. Proteins are made of long strings of amino acids; large carbohydrates are composed of smaller carbohydrates; lipids are composed of smaller lipids; nucleic acids are made of nucleotides. Just to give you an idea of comparative sizes of these molecules, the smaller subunits might consist of 12 to 25 or 30 atoms joined together, while the larger sizes can contain hundreds or thousands of the smaller molecules. All held together with energy bonds. So there is more energy in big molecules than there is in little molecules.

    When you remove or break the energy bonds of a large molecule, it comes apart. For example, when a protein is “digested” in your gut it is broken down to the amino acids of which it is composed. In organisms, both the joining together and the taking apart is controlled by other molecules in the cell. Every cell is a hotbed of molecules doing this kind of work and other kinds of work that keep the cell alive.

    If that is confusing, please let me know so I can make it more clear because from now we will refer back to this idea. Living cells are able to make large organic molecules from their subunits by adding energy to the system. This requires work because it is an “uphill” process relative to the second law of thermodynamics. Living cells are also able to break down the large molecules. This is a “downhill” process according to the second law, and so of course it could happen spontaneously with the release of energy. However, these are strong bonds so it might take as long as a mountain falling down if we wait for it to fall apart by itself, and the energy would be of no use to us in that case. Living cells, therefore, also have systems to break apart large molecules into smaller molecules, in a controlled way, at the right time when the energy is needed, and save the energy and circulate it around in the cell to do whatever work is needed for the cell to stay alive.

    VERY IMPORTANT POINT. At every step of using the energy that is released, about 10% of the energy is lost from the system as a byproduct in the form of heat energy that can not be used to run the metabolism of life. That’s another manifestation of the second law. The WHOLE SYSTEM — the whole ecosystem — takes energy from the sun and converts it to organic energy that it shunts around in the ecosystem to do the work of staying alive. However energy does not RECYCLE. When it is used up it goes away as heat energy and it is gone from the system forever. Light energy comes in, it gets used and converted to heat energy and it goes away. As always, this balance must be maintained if life is to be.

    Energy Levels

    A Question and And Answer From Our Group

    “What do you mean by high energy and low energy? Isn’t the sun made of nuclear energy?”

    The question from one of our group relates to the book in progress and especially the most recent posts on the subject of energy. Another reader, sent me a fine reference to understand the second law of thermodynamics, written by a chemist. http://secondlaw.oxy.edu. Whoever wrote it thinks that the second law is: “The biggest, most powerful, most general idea in all of science.” Check it out. It’s good reading, and big ideas are great fun once we understand them.

    Remember the second law says that “high energy” (we could say more concentrated energy as they do on the web site) can change to low (less concentrated) energy but not the other way around. They use the example of a hot frying pan that can release its heat energy but can not get it back again without someone doing the work of adding energy back into the system.

    As always, our scientific words and laws are meant to explain the power and reality of The Creation, not the other way around. Therefore we must look at what happens in order to determine what is a higher energy or a lower energy. If a type of energy can change into a different form of energy, then the first is a higher form and the second is a lower form.

    So we know which type of energy is higher energy by observation. Another way to observe is to see what kind of energy is given off when a substance degrades (for example what kind of energy is given off spontaneously as the sun burns). These include:

    Nuclear
    Light
    Heat
    Light energy can not spontaneously revert to nuclear; heat energy can’t change back to either light or nuclear energy. There are many more forms of energy. We particularly focus on light energy because it is the source of organic energy — and organic energy drives the ecosystem.

    The ecosystem is uniquely able to capture the energy from light, that it then uses to create organic energy. Only in the life form of the earth ecosystem, so far as we know, is energy captured in organic molecules which are then used to transfer energy throughout the system in a controlled fashion. The controlled flow of energy throughout the ecosystem is accomplished by the metabolic processes of cells, organisms and ecosystems. Light energy is a higher form than organic energy, which is a higher form than heat energy.