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Sci-Fi Art, the Levitron, and Collapsing Atoms

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Volume 7.4, December 1997

One of the results of a long and checkered career is the accumulation of assorted information, most of which does me no good. However, during this summer’s flap over the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell incident, I realized how my adolescent interest in science fiction aided my later career as a skeptical physicist. One of the very first science fiction magazines I ever looked at was the November 1929 issue of Science Wonder Stories, published by the legendary Hugo Gernsback. The cover of this magazine shows a spaceship that looks like a giant Frisbee, clutching in its tentacles a dwarfed Woolworth building. The cover was painted by Frank R. Paul, an artist whose skill at depicting scientifically advanced marvels set the style for the science fiction of the decade.

An earlier issue of the same magazine (August 1929) shows on the cover a spaceship shaped like a giant soup bowl. Clearly, Paul enjoyed depicting space vehicles with shapes other than the conventional torpedo. This style was adopted by other artists. Just the other day I was poring through microfilms of The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin from 1936, on the trail of historical information concerning the Democratic National Convention of that year. Along the way I observed that the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century comic strip showed Buck cavorting about in a spaceship shaped just like a saucer. Paul’s influence had rippled out over the years.

The point is that the idea of space vehicles shaped like flying saucers was imprinted in the national psyche for many years prior to 1947, when the Roswell incident took place. It didn’t take much stretching for the first observers of UFOs to assume that the unknown objects hovering in the sky had the same disk shape as the science fictional vehicles. It is nice to know that science fiction has had such a profound influence on society, but sometimes I wish it were not quite so profound.

A number of readers have written concerning the Levitron — the magnetic levitating top I discussed in a recent Skeptical Briefs (June, and see also September, Letters). The consensus is that the top does levitate — if handled with care. Some readers were able to make it work some of the time. The more expert spinners made it work most of the time. One reader found that some of the tops did not work at all. A paper published in the American Journal of Physics on the theory of a spinning magnet in a vertical magnetic field did a computer solution of the exact equations of motion of this system and found that the description of the stability of this top is more complicated than the description in the brochure that comes with the Levitron. But the device does possess regions of stability, so it is not a fraud.

Altogether, this has been an educational experience, demonstrating that sometimes science is a social phenomenon. If I had depended entirely on my own experience, I might have concluded that the Levitron was a fake. However, since there were no reasons for thinking it impossible, I thought I'd better ask other people, and was delighted to find that it is actually not a piece of pseudoscience. Thank you all.

The desire to get something for nothing is a universal trait. Even as scientists become more precise about their understanding of energy, amateurs expend more effort looking for ways to circumvent the laws of nature so as to obtain energy at little or no expense.

We know that energy exists in the universe in many ways. The air contains thermal energy. The oceans contain thermal energy. The laws of nature, however, tell us that we can only extract useful energy from this ocean of heat by making use of temperature differences between two parts of the system, or else by using energy from somewhere else, as in an air conditioner or heat pump.

We also know that individual atoms possess energy, even when in their lowest, most quiescent state, called the ground state. The atom cannot exist with less energy than it has in the ground state, we are told by the principles of quantum mechanics.

This brings us to a clipping sent by CSICOP’s executive director Barry Karr. This clipping tells us of a scientist who claims that atoms can be collapsed to a state lower than the ground state, resulting in the emission of heat energy. To find out more, I dove onto the Internet and found myself at the Web site of Blacklight Power, Inc.

Here I discovered that the scientist is Randell L. Mills, M.D., of Yardley, Pennsylvania. His idea, in brief, is that a container of hydrogen gas, together with a simple catalyst, is heated to about 250ºC. The hydrogen atoms supposedly collapse to an energy state below the ground state, corresponding to a fractional quantum number. The collapsed atoms are called “hydrinos.” The transition from ground state to the lower state results in the emission of energy in the form of heat, without radiation. The heat produced is much greater than that required to start the reaction.

When I tried to access the detailed theory page, I found that the only way I could read this page was with the help of an Adobe Acrobat Reader, a piece of software that could be downloaded onto my computer. I did this, but when I tried to use this reader, it asked me for a password. Where do I get a password? (I suspect there is another piece of Adobe software that I must buy.)

At any rate, there is one firm and certain conclusion I can pass along to readers: You can watch the newspapers steadily for the next ten years and you will not see an announcement that Blacklight Power, Inc., has built a power generator obtaining cheap energy out of the collapse of hydrogen atoms. This is my firm prediction.

Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.