Monday, 28 August 2006

Perpetual Dreams

Yet another claim of free energy, this time due to magnets. And yet again, the media report these claims without critical examination. Of course it isn't the job a newspaper to analyse the scientific aspects in great depth, but a bit of meta-analysis may have been useful to apply to all such non-mainstream claims (from the Guardian article):

And they are so confident that they have thrown down the gauntlet to the scientific community in a bid to prove that they have rewritten the laws of physics. Last week, frustrated that they couldn't persuade scientists to take their work seriously, McCarthy, Walshe and the other 28 shareholders of Steorn, a privately owned technology research company, took out a full-page advertisement in the Economist. In it, they called upon scientists to form a 12-member jury to decide whether their free-energy system is real, hoaxed, imagined or incorrectly well-intentioned.

The problem is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that the burden of proof in such a case is really on the side of those making such claims. When modern physics, within its long-established borders, has been so successful and consistent, coming up with a perpetual motion machine would seem to be extremely unlikely.

According to McCarthy and Walshe, the marketing manager, there have been no fewer than eight independent validations of their work conducted by electrical engineers and academics "with multiple PhDs" from world-class universities.

The fact that conventional physics is so successful and consistent, any credible evidence that the inventors' claims were true would have any true physicist to drop everything they were working on, and instantly switch to studying such a violation of all known laws of physics. They are claiming up to 4 times as much (mechanical) energy as they are putting in. A signature of free energy this large would be absolutely unmissable. Why haven't we seen anything run? They need only hook up one of their devices via a generator to the electricity grid and start making money.

Of course, the whole affair is running along the usual lines for a fringe claim. Conventionally, if a scientist makes a great discovery, after filing the necessary patents of course, they will disclose the set-up and techniques required to reproduce those results by independent researchers. If others are able to reproduce the results or confirm the observations, then one can have more confidence in the validity of the original claims. However, the inventors of this latest affair are, "seeking a jury of twelve qualified experimental physicists to define the tests required, the test centres to be used, monitor the analysis and then publish the results." This strike me as very odd. Science is not about testing black boxes. Without access to the inside of the black box and an attempt to understand its properties, the whole thing looks especially dubious. Why are their white papers restricted to registered academic users of their web-site and potential jurists? Why not post them on the arXiv like every other working physicist? The papers, here and here, claiming an anti-gravity effect above rotating High Tc superconducting discs were posted there (not that I find these claims credible either).

Even the Pons and Fleischmann affair was conducted slightly more openly. Other researchers tried to reproduce the experimental set-up but failed to obtain convincing data. Even then, the manner in which th original "results" were announced, the supposed signatures of fusion, and the ultimate lack of firm confirmation by anyone else has lead to cold fusion dying away. The supposed mechanism of cold fusion was at the extreme boundary of known physics, ultimately beyond it, but at least it was not totally inconsistent with what we know (just a extremely inconsistent).

It isn't up to the physics community to take up any "challenge", the challenge is for the inventors to back up their claims with proper disclosure for a truly scientific evaluation. Until that is done, the whole business cannot be taken seriously.

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