"andrew cooke" <andrew@...>
Thu, 12 Jul 2007 19:53:26 -0400 (CLT)
In the shower this morning I was trying to think how I would answer if
someone asked for advice about investing in Steorn (the company
claiming to have invented a perpetual motion machine).
I think the first thing to do is be completely open and admit that
there are no certainties. We do not - as many people have commented -
know everything. There is always room for the unexpected. But if I
am dealing with a businessman - someone with money to invest - that's
OK. That's normal life. What is important is the risk and likely
Now the likely return on free energy has the possibility to be huge.
So if you have money to throw away, it might seem like a no-brainer:
the loss won't hurt, so there's nothing to lose. And there's no real
answer to that, except that if you've got so much money that you
really can throw it away - that money is essentially meaningless -
then what do you need more for?
Leaving that more moral argument aside, the scenario where physics can
help is where the money isn't free; where you want to make an
intelligent call on the risks involved.
So we're reduced to a question something like: why do I, armed with an
understanding of human nature that is, I guess, average, and an
understanding of physics that is pretty damn good think the chances
that this is a scam much more likely than the chances this is a
I want to start with just the human nature side of things. As a
baseline we can look at the relative number of scams and scientific
breathroughs. If true, this would be a monumental, earth shattering,
mind blowing scientific breakthrough. The kind of thing that happens
once a century, say. That's pretty rare.
In contrast, people are always scamming. I get spam email every day
from people that make money by lying. And it doesn't even have to be
intentional. People get things wrong by mistake even more often.
This weekend I will be working on my kitchen because the guy I paid to
check it against official standards gave me the wrong advice. This is
The baseline, before we get to any details of physics, is that there's
already a strong bias towards human falibility. People screw up and
straight down lie all the time. In contrast, scientific revolutions
come once or twice a century. So if someone makes amazing claims
they're probably wrong. It's a pity - we'd all like free energy - but
But still, can we do better? Can we say whether this particular
scientific claim is more or less likely than any other? I think we
can, and I think the conclusion is that Steorn's claim is particularly
To justify that, at last, I need to talk about physics. The argument
I will use is that physics is much more interconnected (holisitic)
than most people believe. That means that there's a relatively well
defined body of "common sense physics" that is extremely stable. This
explains not just why Steorn's claim is likely wrong, but also why
physicists end up having to do extremely complicated, expensive
experiments to make new discoveries. And since that seems like I am a
physicist arguing that physicists should be given lots of money then
I'll finish with a pesonal comment arguing that, instead, it means
physics is largely no longer worth investing in.
It's a frustrating fact of modern life that "science" is criticised
for being too narrow minded. "Science" is contrasted with more
"holistic" approaches which inter-connect many different aspects of
complex systems. This is frustrating because, on a very basic level,
physics *is* holistic. And for many physicists this is a beautiful,
"deep" result that says something amazing about nature, and which
makes the subject so interesting.
What do I mean about physics being holistic? I mean that the
explanations physics gives for the way the world works tend to repeat
and inter-connect. So phenomena that seem completely unconnected are,
in fact, closely related.
The reason why this is overlooked is easy to understand, but somewhat
paradoxical: the relationships become clearer and simpler as you use
more and more maths. For some strange reason, mathematics seems to be
a natural language for describing the world. This is unfortunate,
because it means that important ideas about our environment are best
expressed in a language that few people speak well.
Imagine you are walking around a mountain, following a narrow,
rambling goat's trail. The trail goes up and down, switches back on
itself, winds around rocks, cuts through streams. You doggedly keep
walking - eventually you get back to where you started. So, after
folling this complex, difficult path, you come back to where you first
began. What is more obvious than the following fact: where you
started, and where you finished, which are at the same place, have the
That is so obvious it sounds as though I am not saying anything. Of
course you are at the same height - it's the same place.
And yet. In words, that is a nice story. In maths, in physics, it
can be made into a much more general rule. The same maths that
"proves" something so obvious about walking round a mountain is the
same maths that says that Steorn cannot make energy by moving magnets.
You can perhaps see how the ideas carry across: instead of describing
the person, you describe the movement of the magnet; two magnets
pulling towards each other is described by the same maths as running
This is the power of physics: that it connects something as
intuitively obvious as walking around a mountain with moving magnets
in Steorn's secret technology.
Please don't think that my argument against Steorn stops here. My
case is more subtle. Let's review what we are trying to do.
We're trying to get a handle on how likely it is that Steorn's claims
are a likely breakthrough. Obviously, any breakthrough is going to
seem wild and crazy. If it didn't it wouldn't be a breakthrough!
In other words, if there is a breakthrough, then something changes in
what I just said. Somehow the maths has to change so that moving
magnets is not the same as walking round a mountain.
So what we need to ask ourselves is: how is the maths likely to
change? Given that breakthroughs do occur, what do they look like?
If we are going to have a scientific revolution, can we predict where
it will happen?
One way to understand physics is to compare it to language. If you're
reading this, you understand English. But you understand some words
better than others. Words like "shoe" or "run" are easy. It would be
hard to imagine a world in which you had misunderstood the meaning of
"shoe". Compare that with, say, the word "secular". Yesterday I was
reading a paper on the "Secular Evolution of Galaxies". The title
made no sense to me - I thought "secular" was something to do with
being independent of religion. Turns out it can also mean "long term".
I'm just stating the obvious - some words are "plain" and some are
"fancy". If someone told you that you had misunderstood a fancy word,
well, no surprise. Why is this? It's because the fancy words are
rare. You use the plain workds every day. Everyone uses them.
Everyone is clear on what they mean. But the fancy words are used
less frequently and so are more uncertain.
The same thing works in the language of maths and physics. There's
plain old physics and fancy new physics. And just like in language
the fancy parts are where change is most likely.
So we need to find some way of separating "plain" and "fancy" physics.
If Steorn are claiming a breakthrough in fancy physics then we are
more likely to give them credence. A change to plain, old,
well-understood physics, however, seems less likely.
Plain physics is everyday physics. It's what I called, earlier,
"common sense physics". This "basic" physics is pretty solid, boring
stuff, and it covers a lot of ground. That's because we've been doing
physics for a long time. The common phenomena are well understood.
New ideas are pushed towards the edges, to extreme conditions.
But, you might say, is this true of revolutions? Aren't revolutions
important because they change plain old physics as well? The answer,
surprisingly, is "no". Plain old, common-sense physics has stayed
pretty much the same through the last three revolutions in physics
(special relativity, quantum mechanics, general relativity). It turns
out that even when we get a major revolution, the central core of
"everyday physics" stays pretty much the same.
Sure, the fine details change slightly, but the changes are really,
really small. Take special relativity for example. It's amazingly
cool, but it only really changes anything when you're moving at near
the speed of light. So, for example, special relativity predicts that
when I move my watch will get out of time. But the change is tiny in
everyday life: if I get in my car and drive down the road my watch
"loses" around a millionth of a millionth of a second every hour.
That's nothing. In practical terms that just doesn't matter.
So special relativity - which was a huge revolution in physics - had
very little impact on plain old common-sense physics. And the same is
likely to be true for future revolutions, because we already
understand the boring stuff very well indeed.
That doesn't mean that special relativity is not important. Through
devices like atomic bombs it can affect us all. But the very nature
of atomic bombs is extreme - they are hot and noisy and generally
unpleasant to be near when they go bang. They do not fit into a
plastic box in a museum for a nice demonstration.
And this is common knowledge amongst physicists. This is why
researchers, who are all trying like crazy to find something new, are
so obsessed with extreme conditions. Instead of doing experiments
with strings and rules, like I remember from school, they build huge
atom smashing devices. It's not because they want to waste money -
it's because fancy physics is where the new stuff will be found.
Another extreme is the very small. But, again, "extreme" is the
important factor - we're not talking "small as a button" (or, in the
case of Steorn, "jeweller's bearings", but so small that complex
machines are needed as an interface. Machines requiring technology
and expertise that aren't common to web developers (Steorn's original
So the case against Steorn is that it's just not crazy enough. They
don't require thousands of cubic metres of some strange gas, or huge
energy sources, or strange particles - just a bunch of magnets.
That's the kind of revolution we had 150 years ago. We've already
done that - the ground is bare, exhausted.
Finally, the corollary of all this is clear enough: it's unlikely that
revolutionary advances in physics will affect us much. At least not
in an every-day kind of way. Nothing like electric lighting did, for
example. Instead, any "products" are likely to be extreme - a new way
of killing us all, perhaps.
I wrote the above a while ago, but never posted it. Today I was
reminded when I stumbled across this -
- which is kind-of pathetic in its ordinariness.