Saturday July 7, 2007
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 â€“ 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 â€“ like this week with Steorn, say â€“ 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 â€“ designed to show some special arrangement of magnets â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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.
Â· Please send your bad science to email@example.com
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.