Free Lunch and Irish Breakfast

by Kieran Healy on August 22, 2006

A couple of chancers in Dublin calling themselves Steorn claim to have developed “a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy”—in other words, they say they have a perpetual motion machine. As they helpfully point out, this “appears to violate the ‘Principle of the Conservation of Energy’, considered by many to be the most fundamental principle in our current understanding of the universe.” On the other hand, Steorn’s actions thus far confirm some more sociological principles, including the first of the seven warning signs of bogus science, viz, “The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.” Steorn have published a “challenge” in the Economist seeking a “jury of twelve qualified experimental physicists.”

All of this – and the media attention these guys are getting – makes me feel bad for some friends of mine at Science Foundation Ireland, who have worked very hard to build up Ireland’s scientific research infrastructure over the past few years. It also reminds me of a joke. Pádraig is walking along the beach when he finds a battered oil lamp. He rubs it an a genie appears, offering to grant him three wishes. “I’d like a bottle of Guinness that never runs out!” says Pat. The genie claps his hands and a bottle appears. Pat tips it upside-down and for a few minutes watches in delight as the stout pours endlessly from the bottle onto the beach. “That’s fantastic!” he says. “I’ll have two more of these, please.”

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Project Syndicate » The seven warning signs of bogus science
08.22.06 at 10:19 am

{ 26 comments }

1

Matt 08.22.06 at 8:46 am

It’s interesting that their website sends a “we’re sophisticated” message– quite different from the usual “we’re nuts” message that your usual crank-affiliated site emits.

2

Kevin Donoghue 08.22.06 at 8:52 am

Wikipedia says:

According to information available from the Irish Companies Registration Office, Steorn has not filed accounts since October 28, 2004. Under current Companies Registration Office practice strike-off procedures could begin against Steorn by the end of October 2006. A strike-off would have serious consequences, such as the loss of Steorn’s limited liability status. Furthermore, any assets of the company, including any patents or other intellectual property, would become the property of the Irish State.

Well, that should ensure Ireland never again suffers a fiscal problem.

I see they are based in Docklands. They are probably picking up some of the energy generated by the humongous amount of construction activity going on around them.

3

kid bitzer 08.22.06 at 8:53 am

ah, never enough Paddy jokes.

4

Kieran Healy 08.22.06 at 8:59 am

ah, never enough Paddy jokes.

With a higher per capita GDP than the UK these days, we’re the ones laughing.

5

Chris Bertram 08.22.06 at 9:20 am

Someone I’m quasi-related to launched a perpetual motion machine some years ago. His was based on magnets, allegedly. It did seem a bit of step up for a former washing-mashing repair man and fish-and-chip shop proprietor to have developed a technology that would revolutionize our understanding of physics, but that didn’t stop the company getting a few column inches in the Financial Times. He seems to have moved on to other ventures, but I still have a share-certificate (gratis to friends and relatives) in a box somewhere.

6

Ginger Yellow 08.22.06 at 10:31 am

It’s interesting that their website sends a “we’re sophisticated” message—quite different from the usual “we’re nuts” message that your usual crank-affiliated site emits.

Really? I gave it 102 points using a slightly modified Crackpot Index.

7

Jason Kuznicki 08.22.06 at 11:27 am

What puzzles me is that The Economist agreed to publish this at all. Wow.

8

tzs 08.22.06 at 12:19 pm

What IS it about magnetism and perpetual motion machines? Wonder if this guy is related to a similar idiot I knew in Japan who claimed to have come up with a perpetual motion machine. (Um, no. You have single-handedly managed to reinvent the dynamo, with the magnets placed on the moving parts and holding the current-carrying bits steady. Congratulations.)

Dunno if it’s still being run, but sometime back there used to be a publication called Hydrogen and Fuel Cell newsletter. Used to attract the Free Energy kooks like flies (much to the amusement of the author/editor.) He took sardonic pleasure at putting in the news squibs as free energy “entrepreneurs” would get hauled in to court on charges of fraud as their business ventures crashed and burned.

9

Ted 08.22.06 at 1:05 pm

Along with the physicists, the jury ought to have professional debunkers/magicians. James Randi would be an excellent first choice.

Most likely this is “sleight-of-hand”. So an experienced illusionist would soon expose the “science” for what it truly is.

10

bi 08.22.06 at 1:53 pm

The “jury of twelve” will be hand-picked by the company, if the comments on Slashdot are any guide.

I’m waiting for the sock puppets to come along and liven up the atmosphere.

11

gmoke 08.22.06 at 2:51 pm

http://pesn.com/2006/08/21/9500298_Steorn_free_energy_gauntlet/

“During this time of development and refinement, Steorn has had a number of independent tests done, each of which has validated the technology. However, out of fear of damaging their academic reputations, never have those scientists involved in the qualified testing been willing to go public with their findings. Around 90% of the scientists Steorn approached declined to test one of the devices. Some just hung up the phone, according to McCarthy.

“So frustrated with this lack of willingness on the part of accredited personnel to go on the record, McCarthy said that six months ago his company was just about ready to give up the project. In his view, getting credible scientific confirmation of the technology is foremost….

“The selection of the jury will screen out anyone who has past involvement or other indications that might be construed as showing support of the technology in some form or other. ‘We want cynics,’ said McCarthy.

“‘We are not seeking validation from the court of public opinion. What we need is validation from the academic world,’ he said. Once that has been achieved, then the public can know….

“To protect the intellectual property, the company has filed seven international (PCT) patents, two of which have already become public; another will become available within a few days.”

12

bi 08.22.06 at 3:27 pm

gmoke: The first paragraph is obviously some stupid fiction that only sounds convincing to people who haven’t heard of “blind peer review”.

13

Tracy W 08.22.06 at 4:57 pm

My bet is that they’re measuring AC voltage and current using DC meters.

14

dsquared 08.22.06 at 6:33 pm

With a higher per capita GDP than the UK these days, we’re the ones laughing.

and a lower GNI, mainly thanks to dividend and interest payments to the ancient oppressor, larfolarfolarf.

15

bi 08.23.06 at 1:45 am

By the way…

Kevin Donoghue: I wonder if they’re also into tax protest, like those guys at Neo-Tech.

16

gerry 08.23.06 at 3:18 am

Kieran finds a way to make me feel even worse about the popularity of un-science. I thankfully haven’t heard about this in the Irish media – not that I pay too much attention to the Irish media these or any days.

Why can’t we burn witches anymore?

17

Kevin Donoghue 08.23.06 at 4:18 am

…and a lower GNI….

Wrong, unless you have a stockbroker’s definition in mind – adjustments for long lunches and so forth.

http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/Resources/GNIPC.pdf

18

Henry (not the famous one) 08.23.06 at 5:00 am

Presumably the same one who wished his friends were back there with him–which would explain the need for two more.

19

Harald Korneliussen 08.23.06 at 5:07 am

“It’s interesting that their website sends a “we’re sophisticated” message—quite different from the usual “we’re nuts” message that your usual crank-affiliated site emits.”

That’s because they are sophisticated – sophisticated frauds.

20

ajay 08.23.06 at 5:32 am

With a higher per capita GDP than the UK these days, we’re the ones laughing.

That chip chafing your shoulder much?

21

Ginger Yellow 08.23.06 at 5:38 am

Interesting about the patent thing. Their website only claims that it’s patent pending (how convenient).

22

Nix 08.23.06 at 6:53 am

A prediction:

A ‘jury’ is selected, consisting entirely of fringe scientists, crackpots, and the terminally short of money willing to say anything for next week’s meal.

The ‘jury’ announces success, in a blaze of publicity. Not enough information is released for replication.

The company’s share price rockets.

The Steornites vanish, having reinvented an infinite money machine of ancient vintage.

23

john m. 08.23.06 at 9:20 am

What puzzles me is that The Economist agreed to publish this at all. Wow.

They did it for the money, which is strangely consistent with their current world view.

I can’t quite see what these guys are going to get out of this…they are not a public company so no stock advantages spring to mind and I can’t see a decent PR angle…any other suggestions?

24

Ginger Yellow 08.23.06 at 12:49 pm

Cranks never need a reason. That’s why they’re cranks.

25

bi 08.24.06 at 6:31 am

john m., Ginger Yellow: maybe they’re trying to get other free energy cranks to donate money to them. Or maybe there’s something we all missed.

26

Tom 08.25.06 at 11:25 am

“With a higher per capita GDP than the UK these days, we’re the ones laughing.

and a lower GNI, mainly thanks to dividend and interest payments to the ancient oppressor, larfolarfolarf.”

Less socialized – better yet !

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