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'Free' Energy or Perpetual Madness?

April 2013

There are people I've developed a great affinity for via the internet without ever meeting face to face. Donald Simanek is one of them. From the first time I began putting up links to worthwhile Physics sites his pages have figured heavily. I've just discovered another great part of his site, The Museum of Unworkable Devices

Last Month I was musing about how we scientists can let healthy skepticism spill over into some kind of mutant cynicism. There is probably no place we are accused of this as much as with "perpetual motion" (or the term now in fashion "free energy") machines. We are just so "closed minded" on this aren't we? Proponents of these machines love to cite quotes where scientists said something couldn't be done - whether its getting a man to the moon or harnessing nuclear energy or whatever. The fact is, we've been wrong before and surely we'll be proved wrong on this one. How can you fight logic like that?

What many people don't realize is that there is nothing as exciting to Physicists as the likelihood that an old law is about to be corrected. Everybody wants in on the act. I was a graduate student in semiconductor Physics when "High Temperature Superconductors" were discovered. Everybody wanted in! And what about "Cold Fusion"? Sure the press made up this Chemists versus Physicists thing, but inventing things is what the press does when they have a big story and new facts aren't coming fast enough. (oops, there goes my cynical side again) At least from where I was watching, every Physicist was hoping it was true and wanted to get their hands on some Palladium to try it for themselves.

So why is perpetual motion different? I don't think it is. Sure there is a bit of the "never cry wolf" syndrom. The looooooong list of failures certainly has bred a hesitation to waste time on yet another claim. But fundamentally I don't think there is a difference. If somebody could present a credible reason why a certain type of device would provide "free energy", Physicists would be spending all night in the lab constructing one of their own.

So what constitutes a "credible reason"? Lets compare this with flying to the moon. There were good arguments presented why the proposed methods wouldn't work, and those methods don't. New methods were found. When somebody says "let's do it this way instead", then scientists and engineers will consider the new way and if it is credible they will look more closely. What many people don't realize is just how all-encompassing the arguments against perpetual motion are. The law of conservation of energy spans a huge amount of physics. We can look at proposals and immediately say there is nothing new. Even without finding exactly where the flaw lies, it can be obvious enough that there is a flaw.

Do I think a perpetual motion machine will ever be invented? I don't deny its possible, but as Donald Simanek says it probably won't come from the crop of would-be inventors currently out there. The ones I've looked at are spinning their wheels in areas that we know won't work. If the First Law of Thermodynamics is ever violated with some machine, I predict it will be one which violates "for every action there is and equal and opposite reaction". In fact, I would suggest determined inventors begin there rather than with a machine.

Take a look at The Museum of Unworkable Devices, its fun and educational.

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