In physics, heat is a measure of change. Temperature measures how much kinetic energy is happening in a given group of atoms or molecules; heat is the transfer of that energy to a cooler group of atoms or molecules. It’s thermodynamics, and its renowned “First Law” states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, just transferred or converted. Its discovery in the early 19th century is credited to a Frenchman named Sadi Carnot, who studied steam engines — new and inefficient at the time — and published exactly one book, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire. By “motive power,” he meant the capacity of a motor to do work, to lift weight.
Understanding how energy behaves in the physical world opened doors of discovery that would lead to ever more sophisticated machines and others that would illuminate medicine. Our bodies take in the chemical energy stored in food and turn it into warmth and movement. We’re open systems, being impacted by and affecting everything around us every time we breathe or move.
It’s fascinating to contemplate how these physical realities, operating outside of our field of everyday vision — we can see the results, but not the molecular -level process — mirror our psychological experiences as living creatures, becoming metaphors. We know what we mean when we describe someone’s attitude as warm or cold, and we know it creates an energetic effect that passes from person to person. And just as with physics, it’s the warmth that does the work and empowers things to move.
The second dictionary definition of warmth speaks to this shared understanding. Oxford Languages says it’s a synonym for enthusiasm, affection or kindness. Metaphorically speaking, one could easily see a correspondence between enthusiasm and “the motive power of fire.”
So where does it come from, this force that is neither created or destroyed? Ah, now there’s a question. No less a physicist than Werner Heisenberg, the discoverer of quantum mechanics and winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize, acknowledged that he hadn’t come close to an answer to that one. “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist,” he said. “But at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” Albert Einstein put it another way. “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind,” he said.
Historically, physicists and scientists in general run the gamut from pantheism (Einstein) to Lutheran (Heisenberg) in terms of their personal spiritual choices. But what you won’t find is a sincere scientific mind who claims to have the Final Answer to how, when or where all of This began, much less why. In terms of observable scientific evidence, sun worship probably makes more logical sense than anything else out there, while still leaving big piles of unanswered questions.
The beautiful thing is, like the scientists, we don’t really need those vast answers to observe and understand how energy actually works and how to work with it. Physicists have made that painfully obvious, with a long list of discoveries that can help or harm, heal or kill. And in the realm of exchanges between humans, where warmth is enthusiasm, affection and kindness, we don’t need Big Proof to see how impactful the results can be.
Warmth put to work can be as simple as tiny everyday courtesies we show to strangers, as seemingly ordinary as organizing a get-together, as complex as opening a business or starting an organization. In all cases, it has a ripple effect. Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that you offer everyday courtesy to someone who’s too mad, sad or preoccupied in that moment to do the same — that energy, that warmth, is still not lost. It may sink in for them and have a delayed impact that you won’t directly see. It may be instructive to a witness who’s now reflecting on their own choices. Energy is never truly lost.
Warmth put to work is Jill Pacheco at the Broadway Bubble taking action when she learned of a young customer’s solo pregnancy. “When she said the father had left, it really grabbed my heart,” says Pacheco. “When I had my kids, I had people behind me. So we threw her a baby shower. We did the whole thing, made a diaper cake, gave her all the stuff a baby needs, had a really nice lunch. We joke that we all became aunts when she brought the baby in.”
Warmth put to work is Kitt Potter organizing meals and a tour of Kingston highlights to arts educators from all over the world who share an understanding — that creativity is the best medicine we have for hurting spirits. Unlike academic subjects that have right and wrong answers and yes or no questions, the arts invite each individual to express emotion and unique perceptions; making art is how we find out who we are. It’s proven to reduce stress and conflict and improve memory and concentration, freeing up human energy for still more kindness and discovery.
Unlike the physical science of thermodynamics, the metaphysical science of human kindness has been known for as long as we’ve had humans. “Kindness” is mentioned in the Bible over 200 times, and the word “kind,” over 400. And that’s not to give Christianity some sort of monopoly — I couldn’t find the exact comparative statistic for the Quran, but I did find someone who’d sorted 227 verses focused on compassionate living. Kindness is central to the teachings of Confucious and Buddha and to countless indigenous wisdom tales. Every known wisdom tradition contains some version of what Christianity has come to call the Golden Rule.
Despite all this, kindness often seems to be given nothing beyond lip service in the mainstream political conversation. Imagine how different the world might look if it were central instead, if every decision made was made with kindness in mind.
We’re really lucky here. The fabric of Kingston’s community is interwoven with strong threads of organized kindness, radiating out into how we treat each other in the little moments that can make or break a day, generating a warmth as real as any engine — the fire that brings motive power to life. As scientists are becoming ever more effective in manipulating energy, leading to technologies that may yet empower us to protect our precious biosphere, we’re getting more and more practiced at spreading the radiant energy that is kindness. No one and nothing can stop us from keeping it centered in our own minds and decisions. So look out for it, nurture it, and pour it all over everyone, every chance you get — it’s the way the work gets done.
The everyday thermodynamics of KIND THOUGHTS, WORDS & ACTS