Monday, July 14, 2008

Too Good To Be Ethical

You've probably heard the saying, "If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't'." If someone came up to you and offered to let you invest in a project to make free energy, what would you do? Or what if you were looking for an engineering job, and got an offer from a company working on such a project? This isn't as farfetched as it sounds.

Over my years as an engineering professor, I have run across my share of techno-eccentrics: people who promote ideas or theories that obviously violate the known laws of physics. Some of them were relatively harmless—the guy who thought he could replace all of Maxwell's electromagnetic equations with diagrams of springs, for example, or the fellow who said he found a meteorite in Barton Creek in Austin and claimed to have made a battery with it that generates huge amounts of energy. But every so often I come across someone who is clearly using an idea like this to raise lots of money. And then things get complicated.

Recently I heard a presentation by a fellow who claims to have developed a way to generate energy from nothing. He's been working on this for the last twenty years, he says, and now has built a system that takes eighty-five kilowatts of power to run and puts out 800 kilowatts—you do the math. No fuel, no solar input or anything, just run it and it makes energy from nothing.

How does it work, if it works as he claims? Well, there are two things to be considered: what he says it does, and what it actually does. They may not be the same. What he says he does is to heat up gas or air with a microwave oven and a high-voltage transformer until some quantum-mechanical things go on, and presto!—free energy.

Now, quantum-mechanical things are always going on everywhere, and people have been heating gas with microwaves and high-voltage transformers for decades. Nobody other than the gentleman in question has claimed to get out eight times more power than they put in for hours at a time. Although he appeared at a scientific meeting, he clearly delivered more of a sales pitch than a technical presentation. He admitted he wasn't telling everything he knew, claiming that he had to protect his investors, from whom he has already raised millions of dollars.

This situation raises a number of questions which need to be addressed in a logical order. The first question is, does he really get the results that he claims? The scientific way of answering this question is to try to duplicate his experiment. But this is impossible, because he has already told us that he hasn't described all the details necessary. The purpose of describing experiments, all the way back to Robert Boyle of Boyle's Law, is to make things so clear that anyone with the necessary equipment can duplicate them and get essentially the same results. By refusing to do so, the free-energy man is clearly not acting like a scientist, but like a promoter.

The law of macroscopic conservation of matter-energy (allowing for the conversion of matter into energy as in nuclear fusion reactions) is so basic to modern science, that any reputable scientist will resort to almost any other alternative than to question it. But this gentleman runs right up to the issue and says you can get away with violating it under some conditions having to do with quantum mechanics. Judging by some other things he said, he is using the words "quantum mechanics" merely as an incantation to get people to suspend their common-sense disbelief that you can get energy from nothing.

Philosophically speaking, there is a logical possibility that he has evaded the conservation of matter-energy, but if he has, it's the biggest scientific discovery of the last three centuries. In order to be recognized as such, however, the data must be presented in a scientific way for experimental validation, and this has not been done. A discovery that is not generally recognized is not yet a dis-covery, in that it remains covered or concealed to most people except perhaps to the discoverer. And if this fellow really has something, it's clear to me that he doesn't understand the details of the scientific issues involved.

Well, if he's not a scientist, is he acting like an ethical engineer? That takes us to the next question: is he consciously perpetrating a fraud, or does he sincerely believe that he's getting free energy? This question is not so easy to answer. Some crooks plan to be crooks from the start, know they are acting as crooks, and even glory in their crookedness. But many con artists have a psychological makeup that allows them to maintain an emotional belief in the legitimacy of their crooked scheme, even as they are pocketing the profits and delivering little or nothing of value to the victims. When they're caught, they will make excuses like, "Well, if you had just let me operate for another six months, everything would have worked out fine and everybody would have gotten their money back." This faith in the rightness of their evil schemes allows them to sell their ideas with a zeal and sincerity that convinces the gullible—and there are always plenty of those types around, even among trained professionals.

Nevertheless, just because a crook believes sincerely in a fraud doesn't make it any less of a fraud. Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating the law, a sincere belief that a fraud is either technically or legally sound is no excuse for perpetrating it on people. That is why all good engineering is based on the best available scientific principles. If an engineer happens to discover something that seems to violate a well-known physical law, the first thing to question isn't the physical law—it's the engineer's own experiments and calculations. And while these days, few working engineers are in fields where they have opportunities to make fundamental scientific discoveries, it has been known to happen.

The case of Karl Jansky is an example. Purely as a practical matter, he was hired by the Bell Telephone Labs to investigate sources of radio noise in order to improve long-distance shortwave transmission in the 1930s. When he detected a mysterious source of noise that seemed to move around slowly with the seasons, he tracked it for an entire year in order to make sure it was really coming from outer space. Once he was sure of his findings, he published his results. Without really meaning to, Jansky founded the scientific discipline of radioastronomy. This discovery wasn't the kind that he could have personally profited from, but if it had been, I think he would have had the integrity to report it to his employers and to the scientific community anyway.

I expect our free-energy friend will go on for a while raising capital with his flashy machinery until the inevitable crash, which he will blame on anything and everything except himself. Of course, there's the tiny, tiny possibility that he's really on to something. If he is, well, you read about it here first. But if I were you, I wouldn't hold my breath.

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