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Pseudoscience on the Internet

Reality Check

Milton Rothman

Skeptical Briefs Volume 6.4, December 1996

Pseudoscience has become more sophisticated and, perhaps, more mainstream than it used to be. Imagine my surprise to see a full-page advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Sunday, September 15, 1996, with a headline proclaiming “America’s Declaration of Energy Independence Is Here.”

On this page we learn of an exposition to be held at Philadelphia’s newest basketball arena, the Corestates Center, displaying dozens of new inventions. This show was scheduled for September 23.

Numerous marvels were promised: a 318 Chrysler engine, modified to run on heat taken directly from the air; a heat system that can produce “free electricity” from the air; an engine cycle that lifts 250 pounds a foot high using the air pressure in the room; a gravitational torque intensifier that intensifies energy from the earth’s gravitation; and dozens of other items guaranteed to give you something for nothing. The feature presentation is a technology that can totally neutralize all radioactive nuclear waste and make it harmless in a matter of seconds. Professor Yull Brown is advertised as the most important man in the entire world.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this fascinating exhibit. Apparently, neither were the local newspapers, because I saw nothing in the news sections following the announced date. How sad that we saw no reports in the papers of inventions that will solve our impending energy crisis. How sad that we saw no report of a new and successful perpetual motion machine of the second kind.

We are all familiar with perpetual motion devices of the first kind. These are the commonplace machines that produce energy out of nothing, violating the first law of thermodynamics. This law, of course, is nothing more than conservation of energy as applied to heat engines. The second law of thermodynamics is less well known. This law tells us that it is impossible to withdraw heat from a reservoir (a gas, a liquid, or a solid) at a single temperature and convert it into mechanical energy (unless the heat travels downhill, so to speak). A heat engine always needs a hot place (a source, from which heat is extracted) and a cold place (a sink, to which exhaust heat goes). A device which claims to extract heat out of the air or the ocean (without a sink, or without supplying external energy) is a perpetual motion machine of the second kind.

Thus, the Better World Technology exhibit is no more than an attempt to sell the public devices which have been tried without success for many years — in some cases, for hundreds of years. The only people who will make money out of this event will be the sponsors who are able to induce the gullible and ignorant to invest money in their schemes.

The sad thing is that I have been watching inventions like this come and go for the past sixty years, since I left the childish interests of high school and embarked upon the professionalism of college. Not once during that time has somebody gotten a Nobel prize for a machine that made energy out of nothing, or for a machine that could collect the heat of the monster ocean. But my skepticism concerning these endeavors is not founded on the failure of individual machines. I know that none of these machines can possibly work because they violate fundamental laws of nature.

Addendum: Since writing the above, I have received a copy of Phactum, the newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT). Tom Napier, an electronics engineer and devotee of critical thinking, writes that he and some other skeptics attended the above assembly and found themselves surrounded by about 3,000 true believers listening to talks about the wonderful inventions just described. The level of technical knowledge displayed by the speakers was what you might expect from somebody who had flunked thermodynamics in school. Discussion of a heat pump showed an inventor who thought that if you used one unit of electrical energy to pump six units of heat energy from one place to another, you were generating five units of energy. With that kind of logic, you could turn your air conditioner into a generator. But the audience ate it up.

From CSICOP’s Executive Director Barry Karr come two clippings. One, from Business Week (September 30, 1996), tells us of an amazing discovery made by a Russian scientist working in Finland. The scientist, Eugene Podkletnov, has, we are told, been doing research on high temperature superconductivity at the Tampere University of Technology. (High temperature superconductivity is exhibited by certain materials at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, which is quite a bit higher than the temperature of liquid helium.) Cooling a ceramic disk to -334°F, he “zaps it with an electromagnetic field that causes it to spin.” (Not mentioned is the fact that the disk must be levitated in a vertical magnetic field.) At an angular velocity of 3,000 rpm anything placed above the disk loses about 2% of its weight, regardless of what kind of material it is. This is taken as evidence of antigravity.

Another article, in the New Scientist (September 21, 1996), reports pretty much the same discovery, except that this time the superconductor is in the form of a ring, spinning at 5,000 rpm. This time we are told that the ring is suspended in a magnetic field. We are also told that anything placed above the ring has its weight reduced by “up to 2%.” Both articles agree that a paper was submitted to the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, published by the British Institute of Physics, and was scheduled to be published in the October issue. It is difficult to determine what happened subsequently. Business Week claims that Podkletnov withdrew the paper from publication after one of his coauthors complained that he was no longer connected with the project. Cries of fraud were raised. New Scientist, on the other hand, says that the paper was withdrawn after Tampere University issued a statement denying all knowledge of antigravity research. Following which Petri Vuorinen, the supposed coauthor, issued a statement denying he had ever worked on antigravity research.

What is one to believe?

Hoping to obtain more information, I jumped into my webcrawler and typed in the keyword “Podkletnov.” No hits were recorded. (A hit is a positive response when you are looking for a keyword on the Internet.) I then cleverly thought of trying “antigravity.” Aha! That was the secret. This keyword gave me sixty-eight hits, although at least two of them were problematical, with titles of “Guide to Classical Indian” and “Jazz Fusion.” My eyes gave out before I reached the end of the text, but it is possible that one of the jazz groups mentioned includes the word “antigravity” in its name. All I learned from this exercise is that there are a lot of people out there seriously discussing antigravity (as well as perpetual motion, UFOs, and other topics) as a real possibility.

Finally, under a pile of papers, I unearthed a printout labeled “The Institute for New Energy,” which I had a few weeks ago searched out for some forgotten reason. This missive lists for its keywords: New Energy, Free Energy, Cold Fusion, Space Energy, Zero Point Energy, Aether, Ether, Antigravity, and Levitation, among others. Below the keywords are listed several dozen abstracts of articles on these topics for the edification of that part of the population that does not think professional scientists know what they are talking about. Among these is an article on the Podkletnov work published in the Sunday Telegraph, September 1, 1996. This tells us nothing new except for the formula of the superconducting material used.

So there we are. Lots of fuss and fury. Strange that for a topic of such importance there has been no mention in the New York Times or in Science. But what do we expect? The stuffy mainstream scientists have always been hostile to new and original ideas. Perhaps in my next column I will unearth more goodies from the Internet. It is a never-ending source of insanity.

One thing the antigravity folk have not noticed is that their discovery gives them a perpetual motion device as well as a means for space travel. Yes, it gives us free energy, in unlimited quantities. For it is only necessary to put a wheel, like a Ferris wheel, over the superconducting disk (or coil). If you locate it so that half the wheel is over the disk and half is to the side, then half the wheel will be lighter than the other half. Then this will truly be an unbalanced wheel and will turn endlessly, driving a generator and giving an endless source of mechanical or electrical energy, which, of course, is impossible.

I knew about this disproof of antigravity sixty years ago when I was a voracious science fiction reader. We loved to disprove the gravity shield H. G. Wells used in First Men in the Moon. In this story the intrepid space travelers used a material called “cavorite” to block the force of gravity from their ship, which, as I have shown above, is impossible. Science fiction writers never worry about what is possible or impossible. But scientists do.

Once again we use an established law of nature (conservation of energy) to argue against a proposed antigravity scheme. (We don’t have to know anything about gravity to use conservation of energy.) And once again we return to my fundamental theme: once a conservation law has been established with a high degree of accuracy, it is not going to be overthrown, no matter how many malcontents out there may rail against the stuffy establishment. I've seen this going on for over sixty years, and I don’t expect it to change. I admit it would be fun to know in detail just how Podkletnov got his 2% reduction in weight. Was it an error in measurement? Was it an environmental effect such as air currents or electrostatic fields? Was it a plain hoax? But I don’t have the time or energy to go to Finland to find out.

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Milton Rothman

Milton Rothman is a physicist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.