Allow me to explain how I discovered the first law of thermodynamics—as a child.

One Christmas I got a new bicycle, except that it wasn’t new. It was my brother’s old bicycle, re-painted and with new tires. By this time I had somewhat recovered from the death of Santa Claus, and I had even managed to segregate that parental game from my more serious beliefs in God and Christ, primarily because in my dreams and interior world, the concept of justice and logic still reigned supreme.

I had a few major misconceptions. I could accept the idea that the world was round, but I had misunderstood our relationship to this globular theory—I presumed we were living on the inside of the globe, on the bottom, where the dirt and trees were. I often dreamed of venturing out some day and traveling to the edge of the earth where the shell-like sky rounded down to encircle the dirt. I wondered what it might be like actually to see that seam that divided things terrestrial from things celestial.

This theory, while problematic to a contemporary scientist, nevertheless contained for me a logical relationship to everything I observed, no less than did Ptolemy’s geocentric universe to the thinkers of his day (and for everyone else for some thirteen hundred years afterward). But what I further formulated was the idea that energy could not be created, that it could change form, but it could not come from nothing—the first law of thermodynamics.

I realized this that same Christmas day when I learned to ride the new bike I had inherited from my brother via my Santa Claus father. My father was an incredibly expedient teacher, if not always a gentle one. He taught me to ride the bike in one afternoon. He took me to the top of our hill—the one on which we lived. He put the bike in the street with me on it. He aimed me down the hill, gave me a hefty push, and then let go.

The fact that I hit a telephone pole at the bottom of the hill in no way impaired the joy I felt speeding down and having a brief sense of the way the thing worked—not just the propulsion by means of churning my feet, but the way that I could keep upright by turning in the direction of my falling, the last turn of which happened to be in the direction of said hard wooden pole.


So I got back on, pushed it to the top, and went down again, only this time on my own. By the end of the day, I was able to determine the direction I would go sufficiently well that I ventured going up the hill on the bike. The first time was a failure. I couldn’t muster sufficient energy, and the bike fell down with me on it under the screeching tires of a station wagon coming over the hill from the other direction—it was a really nice green station wagon with the real wood sides (a “woody” as they would later be called in 1960’s Beach Boys tunes), and the lady driver is probably still shaking somewhere in some other realm.

The point is that over time I began to appreciate how much more energy it required going up the hill than it did going down the hill. This observation led me to marvel that by simply pushing a pedal, my father could make our 1946 Pontiac sedan go up the hill without his seeming in the least exhausted. Somehow, somewhere, I theorized, energy was being transferred to those car wheels.

I realized that nothing could simply go up without someone paying the price for the bounty of this power

In effect, I intuited that something cannot come from nothing, especially where energy is concerned.

This realization, which I later understood better as I investigated the mechanics of the internal combustion engine when I made model airplanes, tied in neatly with my world view about justice and Santa Claus and God.

The harnessing of goodness would necessarily bring about good results. It could be no other way. Goodness or love, I sensed, was a force, a kind of energy, whereas evil was not a force—it was a lack of force, a lack of goodness or love!

I had discovered a spiritual principle that would sustain me for the rest of my life:

… intelligible realities such as the praiseworthy attributes and perfections of man are purely good and have a positive existence. Evil is simply their non-existence. So ignorance is the want of knowledge, error is the want of guidance, forgetfulness is the want of remembrance, foolishness is the want of understanding. All these are nothing in themselves and have no positive existence …

It follows therefore that there is no evil in existence: Whatsoever God has created, He has created good. Evil consists merely in non-existence. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 303-304.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

1 Comment

characters remaining
  • Steve Eaton
    Jul 20, 2017
    Thank you! The conservation of matter & energy certainly is an idea
    with spiritual applications, one of
    the countless symbols that mirror
    that other realm!