Perpetual truths

July 7th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, bad science, magnets, perpetual motion | 34 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday July 7, 2007
The Guardian

You might remember an Irish company called Steorn: in August 2006 they took out a full page advert in the Economist to announce that they had discovered a source of free energy, a perpetual motion machine no less, in triumphant defiance of that stuffy first law of thermodynamics.

Almost every newspaper in the British Isles gave them lavish coverage in return for this modest expenditure, and before we get into the details, it’s worth pausing on what a great investment that Economist advert was. Steorn have claimed that their perpetual motion machine is validated as working by eight unnamed independent scientists and engineers “with multiple PhDs from world-class universities” (although sadly they’ve declined to name them, citing mutually binding non-disclosure agreements). They now also have a panel of 22 scientists on a “jury” recruited from the ad, which will have given them perhaps thousands of “scientists” to choose from.

I should therefore like to posit the first law of bullshit dynamics, which I suspect this invention may well obey, as follows: “there is no imaginable proposition so absurd that you cannot find at least one person, somewhere in the world, with a PhD or professional post, who is happy to endorse it.” As we’ve already seen with MMR – and the long history of perpetual motion claims – you only need one or two experts, and even if the evidence goes hugely against you, as far as the media are concerned, there’s a story. And as we’ve also seen with MMR, when the negative evidence comes in – like this week with Steorn, say – there is a deathly silence. Shh.

So, in an earth shattering moment on July 4th a scaled down version of Steorn’s technology was to be displayed at an art gallery in London, in front of live webcams [link live this morning, dead this evening] and blinkered naysayers. I have personally been preparing behind the scenes to bring you exciting news of an end to humanities’ energy problems, but sadly the doors of the Kinetica Museum in Spitalfields (open 11am to 7pm) have remained locked, and the most you can see on the live webcam is an immobile perspex disc – designed to show some special arrangement of magnets – a few shoppers walking past the windows, and a statement about technical difficulties possibly caused by “intense heat from the camera lighting”.

I was looking forward to it. At first device was supposed to lift a weight, but then they announced that it would simply rotate. Steorn’s chief executive Sean McCarthy said that the company “decided against using the technology to illuminate a light-bulb, because the use of wires would attract further suspicion from a scientific community that has denounced the invention as heretical.”

Now if I can just put my withering voice on for one moment, let’s be clear: this invention is not heretical, it’s just highly improbable (although I recognise that heresy is an important part of the branding, because even if it’s a thermodynamic one, there’s still something attractively transgressive about getting one over on the law. Very Billy Idol. Very Guns ‘n’ Roses.)

But in any case I wouldn’t worry about the wire, Sean, because if I see magnets arranged on a perspex disc – especially if you’ve got those nice modern neodymium magnets which can easily break your arm when they’re only an inch across – then I can already imagine a perfectly simple way that you could keep a disc spinning, simply by creating a fluctuating electromagnetic field around it.

And of course, it’s amazing to think that the machine might work, but even more fortuitous is finding a source of unexpected energy in the universe – like we did with nuclear fission – but one which is both modest and readily contained. I mean, thank goodness: many of us lead stable lives in delicate bodies and don’t really feel very comfortable with the idea of energy appearing out of nowhere. How often does it happen? I carry strong magnets around a lot, they’re an interest of mine. Are the circumstances created with this perspex disc truly unique, or might the same phenomenon produce a sudden and unexpected release of energy in my trousers?

Look, I’m with everyone else in the media, and indeed the world. I want fish oil pills to solve complex social problems in education. I want one injection to be a major reversible cause of autism. I want one invention to solve the world’s energy problems and I want my jetpack. It’s 2007 for god’s sake. Give me my jetpack, and give me my x-ray goggles. This future is rubbish.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

Video:

Oooh, and here’s an entertaining video from some guy outside of the Kinetica Gallery, where you can see the big poster in the window that says: “”People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it” (a jinxed George Bernard Shaw quote also used by international bowel-whisperer Pilltrick Holford, shortly before his own debagging after an unwise foray into the BMJ comments forum).



Website faff news:

Amazingly the geniuses at Positive Internet have given a free dedicated webserver to solve our hosting woes, and a full grovelly celebration post of their wondrousness is to come once we’re over there. They also host Richard Stallman, so suffice to say this is a very sound organisation indeed with a pretty unambiguous commitment to geek political issues. Some incredibly sharp people have also popped up to help with the move, and hopefully the forums will be back up soon, with a major expansion in other participatory stuff to follow if the clever web people want to stick around, I’ll put it all up for discussion, and it’s good that some people who know how computers work are involved. To be honest, people have been so generous in their offers that I’m half convinced I imagined it. Sorry not to have been around much to explain progress, v busy week, and sorry if the site is slow and occasionally down until we get the transfer done.


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34 Responses



  1. ffutures said,

    July 7, 2007 at 8:11 am

    It’ll be Dean Drives next. Come to think of it, that’s an idea that’s probably about due to reappear in some form before long.

  2. Munin said,

    July 7, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Billy Idol never cancelled a gig because the lights were too hot.

    Moany moany.

  3. BobP said,

    July 7, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Pity they’ve killed all the webcams etc. At the moment, even the Kinetica Museum website is down (they have exceeded their bandwidth limit – ho, ho, ho!)

    On the assumption that this is a scam, what is the motivation? Are they getting funding from some foolish venture capitalist? Government grants? Or is it maybe just a rather daft bit of performance art?

    Mention of problems caused by lighting makes me wonder if there might be a similarity to the Crookes radiometer?
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crookes_radiometer

  4. Mojo said,

    July 7, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Thank goodness it didn’t work. If it worked, it would inevitably have contributed to global warming.

    Well, all that free energy has got to go somewhere, hasn’t it?

  5. BobP said,

    July 7, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Found this quote on venturebeat.com/2007/07/05/orbo-energy-wonder-apparently-a-hoax/ . Unfortunately I can’t trace it back to its orignal source; but let’s see if Steorn would like to deny it:

    Most tellingly he admitted before 4 witnesses that there was no load bearing Orbo device inside the Kinetica museum. No weights being lifted by any device. Just a spinning Orbo (still requiring fixing) . He explicitly said that “the load bearing device is back in Dublin”.

    Ooops.

  6. pv said,

    July 7, 2007 at 11:50 am

    @6 BobP said,
    July 7, 2007 at 10:59 am

    “On the assumption that this is a scam, what is the motivation? Are they getting funding from some foolish venture capitalist? Government grants? Or is it maybe just a rather daft bit of performance art?”

    Or is it Rome Viharo?

    My mum used to have a spinning light sensitive rotor thingy that sat on top of the telly. Whenever there was light it happily rotated all by itself. But no-one knew what it did in the dark… because it was dark!

  7. liverpoolmiss said,

    July 7, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Imagine you owned a company that had minimal revenue year after year and substantial costs.

    Clearly you’d want new investment funds. Either a handful of venture capitalists giving big money each, or many members of the public giving small money each.

    The strategy you were following would be very obvious to outsiders. One would involve closely guarded commercial secrets and non-disclosure agreements with venture capitalists.

    The other would involve a noisy public campaign, casting the net as wide as possible. If your PR strategy was successful then you’d get a long list of people interested in investing, who you could then work on behind the scenes.

  8. andrew said,

    July 7, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    I’m inclined to focus on the financial side of the story.
    They’ve pulled in 14 million euro in investment, including 8 million after the Economist ad came out, (despite saying they weren’t seeking any more investment).

    To transfer that into their own pockets, they’d have to call it salary, and pay it to themselves over a couple of years. So they’d have to spin the whole thing out for a while, with occasional displays of effort for the benefit of the investors. By the end, they have enough to retire on, and walk away whistling a happy tune.

    I see the focus on the pseudo-science angle as a bit of a red herring. The device itself is just the bog-standard perpetual motion routine. The only novel feature is the unusually high PR spend (the Economist ad, the PR agency, hiring the Kinetica museum). That’s the secret of their success – they had the vision to think that little bit bigger…

  9. Mojo said,

    July 7, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    As far as I remember, Steorn announced a demonstration of a device in the same art gallery back in December.

    I can’t find the announcement of the demonstration (there’s a reference on the Steorn forum to “the deleted Kinetica thread” – I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it), but I’ve found Sean’s announcement of the cancellation:

    “Yes we where planning a presentation on the history of OU and a quick demo at the new kinetic meseum in London on Tuesday. This was going to be done quitely because we really like the idea of Kinetica. However this is now a presentation only for obvious reasons.”

    www.steorn.com/forum/comments.php?DiscussionID=30141&page=4&Focus=829811#Item_13

  10. tom1 said,

    July 7, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Of course Springtime for Hitler turns out to be a success.

  11. Mojo said,

    July 7, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Does that bring Godwin’s Law into play?

  12. TimW said,

    July 7, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Intense heat from the lighting was the problem. So did they
    - turn a few lights off?
    - move the lights further from the demo?
    - quickly hire a cooling system?

    No, they postponed the demo indefinitely.

  13. Mojo said,

    July 7, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    Judging from the picture from the camera showing a partial view outside the gallery as well as the display case area, the lighting on the display case was not particularly bright on Friday. The cameras seemed to be working fine.

  14. ACH said,

    July 7, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Maybe the electrosensitive lobby sabotaged it. It hasn’t been proved safe yet, and someone should think of the children.

  15. Dr Aust said,

    July 7, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    It all reminds me of cold fusion, or of the endless bogus products based on “Special Structured Water” of various (claimed) kinds.

    www.chem1.com/CQ/clusqk.html

    It certainly seems clear there are people who will set up bogus companies marketing bogus, though superficially peer-reviewed and journal-published science.

    For an American example, also water-based, see:

    www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/ATG/index.html

  16. JQH said,

    July 7, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    The endless delays are similar to the tactics of a nineteenth century perpetual motion machine scammer name of John E. W. Keely. Anybody foolish enough to have invested in Steorn can wave goodbye to their money.

    I agree this future is crap. Had this discussion with a colleague a few years back when our tube train was cancelled due to wrong kind of contractors on the line. Where are:

    1. Crewed interplanetary travel and commerce, Lunar City, Martian Settlements;

    2. My personal helicopter;

    3. Clean, pollution free cities;

    4. The democratic World State?

    And please take Global Warming away. Don’t want it.

  17. tom1 said,

    July 7, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    I suspect I’me being financially naive but, if they really were foolish enough to bet the farm on a perpetual motion machine, wouldn’t you expect their revenue to drop through the floor? That would tally with their R&D costs, the poor dumb saps.

    Actually, what I find more interesting is, given that the accounts show their heading for bankruptcy, why would they be posting them on their website?

  18. liverpoolmiss said,

    July 7, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Companies only go insolvent when outgoings exceed inflows.

    Revenues from sales aren’t the only form of inflow! Investors pouring money in can keep a company wallowing in cash for years – assuming, of course, that the company can sustain a good enough story to keep people gagging to invest.

  19. TimW said,

    July 7, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    If you wanted to attract the interest of some scientists, where would you advertise? In The Economist, obviously.

  20. tom1 said,

    July 8, 2007 at 2:38 am

    Liverpoolmiss,

    Presumably banckruptcy and prison will all be averted so long as they get a gazillion pounds for their invention before whoever’s paying the bills breaks their legs.

  21. Mojo said,

    July 8, 2007 at 6:55 am

    BobP said, “andrew – where did you find the stuff about 8 million investiment?”

    It was in an article in the Irish Sunday Times, apparently. The original doesn’t seem to be on the web, but it’s been posted on Steorn’s forum here:

    www.steorn.com/forum/comments.php?DiscussionID=56611

  22. andrew said,

    July 8, 2007 at 10:49 am

    BobP: “andrew – where did you find the stuff about 8 million investiment?”

    The Irish Sunday Times archive is behind a paywall, but the story simply reports the contents of a share allotment form submitted to the Irish Companies Registration Office in April.
    The Steorn company submissions are here:

    www.cro.ie/search/submissionse.asp?number=330508&BI=C

    The most recent “B5 Return of Allotments” form (submission number 5094720) was received 03/04/2007.

    The form is stamped 3 Apr 2007, and the date of the allotment is 26 March 2007.
    (“The return must be delivered within one month after the allotment”).

    The allotment for cash consideration was:

    Number of shares: 5,284
    Share class: Ordinary
    Nominal value per share: Euro 0.01
    Amount paid or due and payable on each share: Euro 1,583.43
    Amount paid or due including premium: Euro 8,377,433

    That is, a share allotment of Euro 8,377,433 was made on 26 March 2007.
    (The names of the shareholders etc are also on the form).

    The form costs Euro 2.50 to download, I’ll email a copy to Dr.G., I’m not entirely sure what the copyright position is if you want to display it on the site.

    The context is that, on October 11 2006, Sean McCarthy of Steorn said the following on the Steorn forum:
    “First we have made it clear that we are NOT going to accept any new investment while this process continues. So for us if this where a scam there is no return on the investment (some will say that the media/Jury process is in fact a cover-up of an old fraud!!!). Any investment into our company will be a matter of public record and hence can be found. So if we are not telling the truth on this matter it will be found out.”

    www.steorn.net/forum/comments.php?DiscussionID=19663&page=2&#Item_18

    This statement is often quoted to argue that Steorn can’t be a scam as they aren’t seeking investment.
    The point here is simply to compare this statement with the B5 submitted to the CRO on 3 April 2007.

  23. liverpoolmiss said,

    July 8, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Excellent digging Andrew!

    It would be interesting to know the total number of shareholders making up the EUR8.4m, and hence the average size of investment.

  24. andrew said,

    July 8, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    The allotment date is the date on which ownership of the shares transfers to the shareholder, and on which the money is “paid or due and payable”.

    It is from that date that the shareholder owns the shares, and owes the company the money for them. An investment is a transaction like any other (money-for-shares), the date is the date for the transaction as a whole. The money is owed from that date, the payment terms are by mutual agreement.

  25. andrew said,

    July 9, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    (the post I’m replying to has gone missing in the host changeover, but anyway…)
    BobP: “unfortunately the most recent detailed accounts which are in the public domain is dated 31/12/2005″

    As it happens, early in 2007 Steorn’s unaudited P&L figures for 2006 were up on their Investor Relations web page, but they’ve since pulled the 2006 accounts off the page.
    Luckily, I have a copy of the page.

    Here’s Steorn’s Investor Relations page now, with the 2006 figures missing:
    www.steorn.com/about/investor/
    and these are the 2006 figures that they’ve removed from the page:

    Year to 31 December 2006

    Net Revenues:
    Fees Earned: 0
    Total Revenues: 0

    Expenses:
    Cost of sales: 0
    Research and Development costs: (1,495,756)
    Management and marketing costs: (662,552)
    Admin costs: (1,089,630)
    Profit (loss) before tax: (3,247,938)

    In 2006 they had zero (exactly zero) revenues, and a loss of 3.2 million Euro, up from a loss of 1.8 million Euro in 2005.
    Their cumulative loss for 2004-2006 was 5.8 million Euro, which pretty much covers where their earlier 6 million Euro investment went, and shows why they needed more money in 2007.
    If they’re spending 3.2 million a year, their new 8.4 million Euro investment will last another two and a half years, till Autumn 2009 or thereabouts.

    For 2006, their “Management and Marketing” plus “Admin” costs were 1.7 million Euro, whereas “R&D” was 1.5 million.
    Someone seems to be collecting significant “management and marketing” fees.
    Also, with 1.5 million spent on R&D, wtf was that perspex box at the museum all about?

  26. raygirvan said,

    July 10, 2007 at 1:20 am

    I very much like Professor Sir Eric Ash’s comment that if the Steorn thingy worked, the getout from the law of conservation of energy would manifest as consequences right across the whole edifice of physics. Just as radioactivity, isotopes and stars show there are major getouts to the matter-energy divide, you’d expect that if twiddling magnets could make energy from nowhere, there would be signs in physical phenomena of it happening elsewhere (maybe in high-energy electromagnetic phenomena like pulsars).

  27. testtubebabe said,

    July 10, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Is the fact that is an Irish company of any relivance

  28. CuriousPencil said,

    July 10, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    An enlightening video of the ‘Challenge’ can be found here: www.steorn.com/orbo/validation/challenge/

    A partial transcript follows; mirth-fuelled involuntary micturation prevents me from providing a more complete version.

    “The technology develops free energy, the free energy can be used to move your car, power your phone, take your house off the ground.”

    “The technology is the ability to construct certain magnetic fields that when you travel around the magnetic fields starting and stopping at the same position you’ve suffered a net gain of energy. Quite simply the analogy would be you know, you walk up to the top of the hill and you walk back down to the bottom of the hill but in doing that you’ve gained energy. And it really is that simplistic.
    This is another step in the evolution of the development and exploitation of energy, there’s absolutely no question about that, and everything that means.

    But there’s roadblocks, and the first roadblock is the world of science.”

    Sean Mc Carthy, CEO Steorn.

    ((The second roadblock being, presumably, reality.))

  29. hairnet said,

    July 10, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    This requires more than re-writing thermodynamics, maxwells equations need editing as well if the stuff about magnetic fields is..ahem,..*cough*, true. Sorry writing that last bit of sentence was tricky.

  30. BobP said,

    July 10, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Here’s the missing post which should have appeared inbetween the 2 posts from andrew a bit further back -

    Thanks andrew- I checked for other filings with the the CRO – unfortunately the most recent detailed accounts which are in the public domain is dated 31/12/2005 (filed on 15/3/2007, and well out of date). I would have been prepared to fork out 2.50 for a reasonably recent set of accounts. Never mind.

    andrew, I think it’s very useful to have these figures out in the public domain – thanks for your thorough research. It is firghtening to see how much money the Steorn people a) have available, b) have spent.

  31. criv said,

    July 11, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    It’s a nice day. . . for a trans-gression (of the first law of thermodynamics)

    Hmm, needs work.

  32. jburton said,

    July 12, 2007 at 9:31 am

    Hi all,

    I was just wondering why the Guardian edited out the two references to MMR from your article?

    Jon

  33. Antifia said,

    November 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I may be mistaken, but isn’t perpetual motion devices rulled out by the second law of thermodynamics? The first one is about conservation of energy – you cannot win. It is the second one, about enthropy, that prevents you from breaking even.

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