Greater fuels or greater fools? (part 2)

So if your eyes didn’t glaze over reading about neutrinos, hydrinos and doofusinos in my last post, you may be wondering why I think promoters of revolutionary new energy sources may be bullshitters rather than liars. And what’s the difference anyway? It’s a seemingly minor but important distinction made by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who explained it in a brilliant essay “On Bullshit.”

A bullshitter “is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” writes Frankfurt. “He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Bob Park, who has spent decades debunking pseudoscience, has a slightly different take. He believes ideas like hydrinos and Orbo begin as false leads and are kept alive by pride.

“It always starts out as a mistake, but by the time the mistake comes up the person who started it has such an investment in ego that he can’t admit even to himself he’s been an idiot,” he says.

The would-be inventors certainly are bright enough to have made plenty of money in mainstream pursuits. More than money, Mills and McCarthy seem to crave validation. But I could be wrong. Not about their inventions being useless – I’d wager plenty of money on that – but about them not being like most of their predecessors. There’s a long history of frauds in free energy over many centuries so saying a modern-day developer is not a charlatan, much less believing that he may have something, is a triumph of hope over experience.

According to the Museum of Unworkable Devices, the earliest record of perpetual motion machines is nearly 1,000 years ago in India where the author Bhaskara described an overbalanced wheel containing mercury weights that could keep turning. Similar machines made their way, via the Islamic world, to Europe, where Leonardo da Vinci described several in his notebooks along with explanations of why they would not work.

“Go and take your place with the alchemists,” he intoned.

Despite scientific milestones such as the laws of thermodynamics in the 19th century, such ideas proliferated. A prominent example is John E.W. Keely, who raised the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars from some of America’s wealthiest people in the late 1800s by demonstrating an “etheric generator” that he claimed would be able to make all forms energy obsolete and send a steamship across the Atlantic with the power extracted from a gallon of water. Despite frustrating delays, he assuaged many of his supporters with impressive demonstrations over 26 years and even received limited endorsements from some prominent engineers and scientists, trying but failing to entice Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Google “zero point energy” and you’ll find plenty of modern-day versions. And for all I know many of those people (though certainly not all) are sincere in their own way. But few of those have risen to the level of respectability of Blacklight. So how do they do it?

Blacklight refused to provide contacts for any of its big investors but I managed to track down one of the licensees (and also an investor – he won’t say how much but admits it was “a substantial amount of money”) real estate magnate Chip Akridge, who is still waiting to receive a prototype after signing a deal with Blacklight in 2009. He was introduced to Mills by a friend of his son who was working for the company and claims he was convinced by Randy Booker, a North Carolina physics professor, who he says told him that Mills had solved quantum mechanics (and, incidentally, received compensation from Blacklight). Akridge says that he doesn’t care if the theory is correct as long as the prototype works, of which he seems confident after seeing a demonstration in Blacklight’s lab. Another investor I spoke with some years ago for my original Wall Street Journal piece was the former head of energy banking at Morgan Stanley. He also based his confidence in Blacklight on “independent” validations by obscure academics, and probably also the fact that his CEO, the late Dick Fisher, was an early backer.

This is something Eric Krieg calls the “emperor’s new clothes syndrome.” Accomplished, important and educated men can’t admit that they don’t understand what they are being told or shown. In my own meeting with Mills, which happened at my office rather than in front of glowing orbs or bleeping machinery, I was forced to stop him several times and admit my ignorance of the scientific concepts he was rapidly spitting out to demonstrate his argument. But I’m a journalist, not a captain of industry, and am in the habit of of asking smart people dumb questions.

Is he definitely full of crap or is it possible that, like a once-obscure Swiss patent clerk, the scientific world just hasn’t grasped the profound work of a brilliant mind? Not according to people who have actually studied his theories – and, of the small number of people qualified to express an opinion, very few have done so. University of California astrophysicist Aaron Barth reviewed an older version of his book a decade ago and found numerous errors.

“It doesn’t even rise to the level of a legitimate physical theory that one might potentially test by experiment, since it’s not mathematically coherent or self-consistent,” he wrote in an article for The Skeptic.

So it seems unlikely that there is some sort of vast scientific conspiracy to suppress sources of limitless energy. In fact, given how commercially important it is (and also how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), developers of new power sources too often get the benefit of the doubt from decision-makers. Claim you’ve cooked up a cure for cancer in your garden shed and you’ll be laughed off but say you invented a new fuel and someone might just take a flier on you. What makes Mills and McCarthy so interesting to me is that they have apparently tried so hard to gain some acceptance by the establishment. However, as MIT’s Aaronson points out in his doofusino satire, they didn’t exactly follow an orthodox path themselves:

After I’d conceived of the doofusino, I wrote to Dr. Hubert K. Pickleston, a senior scientist at one of the nation’s top research labs, to ask what I should do next. “Once you’ve developed your Earth-shatteringly brilliant scientific idea,” Dr. Pickleston responded, “step one is to patent the idea, to prevent others from stealing it. Step two is to call a press conference, to tout the revolutionary nature of the idea and its virtually-unimaginable range of commercial applications. Step three is to found a company around the idea, to which you should attract as many high-profile investors as possible. Only after you’ve completed these preliminary steps should you even consider submitting the idea to a journal for peer review.”

I can’t put it any better myself.

About SJ

I know, I know, I already write for a living.
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