Steorn "Free Energy" Claims

Posted by bert hubert Sun, 20 Aug 2006 12:25:00 GMT

Regular readers of this blog may know I have an interest in new physics, or as some of my learned friends call it, fringe physics, the latter not being a positive connotation.

This week a company called Steorn took out a full page advertisement in the Economist, a respected newspaper, announcing their invention of a ‘free energy’ device. Part of the exact text of the ad reads:

“Imagine - A world with an infinite supply of pure energy. Never having to recharge your phone. Never having to refuel your car”.

To validate their bold claims, they are seeking twelve “most qualified and most cynical” scientists. We are told a number of physicists have already investigated their device, but are unwilling to go on the record with their endorsement.

Now, does all of this make sense? Is it a setup, or a scam, or a bunch of delusioned people?

(Update: ok, I have a theory based on research reported on the Wikipedia. It appears the company Steorn is somewhat defunct, and may have in fact been empty. One thing that might have happened is that someone took over this empty shell, and is using it to launch a kind of ’Space Cadets’ TV show. This is exacerbated by the fact the the advertising agency that does the Steorn promotion is also used by ITV. See this article).

The media has already sought and found a number of scientists willing to say it can’t possibly be true, with choice quotes like “Irish energy miracle ‘a joke’”.

State of Physics

This article isn’t really about the possible veracity of their claims, but I do want to say a few things about the state of physics.

Arthur C. Clarke said in 1962:

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Over the years this dictum has changed, and we can safely remove the word ‘elderly’ from the above. For the past half century, physics has mostly been about adding more decimal places to known science, while studiously ignoring things that distract from the grandour of the fine laws of physics.

And indeed, the cries of ‘impossible’ are heard a lot, and again in the case of Steorn. They might well be correct. But physics is no longer the secure place it once was. Breaking the speed of light is also impossible, but when that same speed became an impediment to the ‘big bang’ model of physics, it was quickly decided that, well, if we’d have to otherwise rewrite all our laws, then the speed of light CAN be broken.

This is called the inflationary theory of the creation of the universe, and it is currently the most widely supported explanation of the big bang. From the Wikipedia entry on the ’Inflationary Epoch’:

“Most scientists estimate the duration of the inflationary epoch as 10^-32 of a second. During this time, the size of the universe increased by a factor of 10^50 from an initial size of 10^-26 meters in diameter (a hundred billion times smaller than a proton) to approximately one hundred million light years (10^24 m) in diameter.”

This is then usually followed by a vigorous handwaving, meant to distract the reader from the fact that we’ve just broken the very laws of physics we are trying to save:

“This exponential inflation solves many of the problems of a simple big bang, such as the flatness problem and the horizon problem.”

In the same way, the world of physics is currently straining to explain a rather large number of anomalies, like what is causing the universe to expand in the way it is. This has led to the invention of ‘dark matter’ (regular matter hidden in the universe, that we don’t see because it emits nor reflects any light), which is not too controversial, but the sums still didn’t work out. So ‘dark energy’ has been posited to make everything fit. The problem is that said dark energy can’t very well exist under our current laws, as it is supposed to exert ‘negative pressure’, acting as a sort of negative gravity. And it has to be 70% of the mass of the universe.

Furthermore, precise and decade long measurements of space probes show they are moving in different paths than they should be, both when passing very quickly and closely to the earth, and when they are very far away. The anomalies are small but highly persistent. See Is the physics within the Solar system really understood?, and the Wikipedia entries on the flyby anomaly and on the Pioneer anomaly.

To wrap this all up, the current state of physics is not solid enough for bold “Impossible!” statements, because impossible things are rather regularly posited to make up the gap between reality and current laws of physics.

Steorn’s challenge

Let’s assume they honestly believe they’ve found something. How would we go about things? It stands to reason they want to make money from their invention, history has been unkind to inventors hoping to get their just rewards without also being good business people.

Also, many inventors have gone crazy and rushed out with bold claims which later proved to be hard to validate. In the current conservative science climate, if a third party makes a single failed attempt at replicating the claim, you are effectively excommunicated.

The problem is that any new physics is bound to be somewhat tricky to show, because if it weren’t, we’d have noticed the ‘new’ effects already, and they wouldn’t be new.

The situation can be compared to making a souffle, which is notoriously difficult to do right. Everything has to be just so, otherwise we don’t end up with a fluffy and delightful meal, but a soggy wet mess.

Let’s say you have a physicist friend, and you describe him the joys of a souffle, and he doesn’t believe a word of it, and requests the recipe. Still not believing a word of it, he’ll head to his kitchen, and lo, he ends up with a soggy wet pie.

And if this happens with your ‘new physics’ experiment, you are toast. We all know souffles exist, and in this case, he probably did not get everything “just right”, probably not helped by his staunch disbelief.

But in the world of physics, anybody having made a bold claim that could not be (fully) validated instantly is shunned. Recent history is rife with experimenters being researched for fraud, and being evicted fromt their universities. Doing new physics is a career limiting move.

So, imagine we are Steorn, and we honestly believe we’ve hit something new, now what. Their claim that physicists have already looked at their claims but refuse to go on the record is highly plausible, for the reasons described above.

However, from this we can probably also derive that their effect can’t be stunningly obvious, as in that case they’d be able to just present people with the aforementioned phone that never needs recharging.

Their current actions best fit the situation where they have a small effect that they believe can be scaled up to something real with the right amount of investment, which they might be able to attract if they can find “respected scientists” to sign off on their current results.

I’ll be following this exciting “Willy Wonka” like event for as long as it takes, expect more posts.

In the meantime, the theory that this might all be a scam is not too plausible, Steorn has existed for a while now, the people involved appear to be real, they’d be throwing away a lot. More information is appearing on the Wikipedia Steorn entry all the time, it might be interesting to watch that too.

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