History of Science: The Nature of Energy

The Story of Energy: The Physical Laws that Govern the Universe

Spark (2019)

Film Review

This documentary explains how scientists came to understand the nature of energy (which came to be expressed in the two laws of thermodynamics) in the 18th-19th century. The history of science has always intrigued me as it’s so rarely taught in public schools.

In the 18th century, what we now call science was referred to as “natural philosophy.” German-born Gottfried Leibnitz was the first “natural philosopher” to study the properties of energy. He believed the universe could be described by the same principles that drove simple machines invented during the Renaissance. He eventually concluded that the world is machine driven by a living force put there by God.

Together with the French doctor Papin, Leibnitz devised theoretical principles for capturing heat energy for useful purposes. A hundred fifty years later, engineers would use these principles to develop the steam engine.
The science of thermodynamics would be launched by French military engineer Nicholas Carnot. In his 1824 book Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, Carnot recorded his observation that heat can only flow from a warm area to a cool area.In 1850, German physicist Ruldoph Clausius developed mathematical formulas for both the first and second law of thermodynamics. The first law states that energy can never be created or destroyed – it can only change from one form to another. The second law states that all systems move from a state of low entropy to one of high entropy.

It was only through the discovery of atoms* that Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann was able to prove that entropy existed. According to Boltzman, heat is transferred  when heated highly excited atoms excite other atoms.


*Boltzmann and others were able to mathematically prove the existence of atoms long before scientists developed the technology to “see” them.

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