By now most of you have heard about some astounding new discoveries that may prove Einstein was wrong about a critical assumption – that nothing can exceed the speed of light. Whether or not further experiments corroborate the findings about neutrinos, the scientists making the claim probably aren’t the only ones excited about challenging such bedrock principles. Plenty of people have tried to violate the laws of physics for fun and profit.
Type “free energy” into Google and you’ll get over 10 million hits that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Whether crackpots, conmen or outright fools, most developers of perpetual motion machines, revolutionary fuels and the like have found an audience with the uneducated and naïve. They have, with good cause, kept their distance from the world of science, expressing contempt for an elite they often cite as having ulterior motives to suppress their breakthroughs. About six years ago though, I met a man who tried to take the scientific establishment head on with a discovery he calls the “hydrino” that, he says, can allow a car travel 1,500 miles on a liter of water and make all other forms of energy obsolete. Hydrinos, he said, are a new and undiscovered form of hydrogen in which the electrons exist below the “ground state” in what one physicist describes incredulously as saying that you’ve gone “south of the South Pole.” Making a fantastic claim like that is easy enough but raising $70 million from a who’s who of the American military and business elite (senior executives of Morgan Stanley and Electronic Data Systems and the commander of U.S. air power in the Gulf War, to name a few) is another, which is why Randell Mills fascinates me (I wrote a short article about it in 2006 for The Wall Street Journal).
I recently discovered that Mills is still at it (he’s been doing this for 20 years) and tried in vain to speak with him or one of his representatives for a piece about scientific quackery that I pitched unsuccessfully this summer to another publication. While he may consider the recent findings about neutrinos to be in error, I have to imagine he is happy about anything that makes physicists squirm.
You see, “Dr.” Mills is not a physicist himself – he is an MD – but he studied physics independently and has written a 1,000 page tome immodestly called “The Grand Unified Theory of Classical Quantum Mechanics.” He’s been trying, with some limited success, to publish his work in prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journals. The scientific establishment, though, scoffs at Mills’s claim to have solved the theoretical anomalies that have flummoxed physicists for over a century and at Blacklight Power, the company that he founded nearly 20 years ago to commercialize his findings.
“It’s got nothing – it’s got no product. To say that it is silly is a gross understatement,” says physics professor Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.
Park is one of the few scientists still willing to speak publicly about Blacklight after a flurry of criticism in the 1990s unleashed threats from Mills’s lawyers. Back then, Nobel laureate and current US energy secretary Steven Chu said he felt sorry for Blacklight investors while Michio Kaku, renowned for his co-discovery of string field theory, quipped in a Village Voice interview that Blacklight has proved at least one hypothesis: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
But Mills claims to have proof of excess energy in independent experiments. Credulous journalists have been all-too-ready to pick up on such fishy assertions. In an especially misleading piece on CNN.com from December titled “Harvard Tests Validate Hydrino Theory,” measurements done at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics by a Dr Alexander Bykanov are cited. But a quick query revealed that Bykanov, who appears to have no academic affiliation, never worked there and that Blacklight merely rented a spectroscope from the center. Blacklight refused to give details for the mysterious physicist. The article was posted on CNN iReport, a site for amateur journalists whose work is not vetted by CNN.
Blacklight inspired a hilarious and biting satire by Scott Aaronson, now a professor at MIT, who contended that his discovery of the doofusino would make hydrinos obsolete.
The recipe for creating a doofusino is simple. First pour two cups of chilled hydrinos into a greased pan, then add 3 to 4 tablespoons of polywater, a teaspoonful of magnetic monopoles, and a pinch of tachyons, dilute homeopathically until nothing remains, and finally stir thoroughly while chanting ‘Kumbaya’ and wishing very hard. Assuming that it’s an alternate Tuesday with Sagittarius rising and that you’ve been a good boy or girl this year, a doofusino will materialize and crawl out of the pan; you can recognize it by its fishy smell and its characteristic “duh-duh-duh” sound.
But if you are going to call a branch of science that underpins much of what we consider modern technology “a bunch of garbage,” as Mills does, then quantum physics, for its sheer weirdness, makes an inviting target. The great physicist Niels Bohr said that those who are not shocked by quantum theory when they first hear of it have not understood it while no less a genius than Einstein spent his final decades struggling to accept its conclusions.
Mills, who was forced to withdraw a patent for hydrinos, seems to relish the controversy. By accusing the physicists who mock him of being bound by dogma, much the way Copernicus was censored by the church, he turns the tables on the scientific establishment.
Taking a page out of the same book is Irish company Steorn, which took out an expensive color advertisement in The Economist in 2006 with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” It claimed to have developed a source of “free, clean and constant energy,” inviting the world’s best scientists and engineers join a jury to validate their claims. Hundreds registered within days. With much fanfare, Steorn promised a public demonstration in London of its machine, called Orbo, in July 2007, but it never even started up. Following another failed demonstration, the jury finally released its verdict in 2009, finding no evidence that Orbo works. Unlike Mills, Steorn’s CEO, Sean McCarthy, was willing to speak with me.
“We took on the world of science and we got a bloody nose,” he says.
But did they? Investors have continued to support the company and they continue to sell licenses. Like Mills, McCarthy is clearly bright and apparently sincere, though also far more self-aware.
“This whole proposition sounds like a con – that’s a fact. Free energy for nothing.”
According to Eric Krieg, an electrical engineer and amateur skeptic who has spent 15 years tracking free energy claims and is a founder of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, the script is familiar.
“Sometimes the inventor gets himself into a corner by staging a fraudulent demonstration. Steorn is a classic case of that.”
Krieg has put up $10,000 of his own money to anyone who can prove him wrong. Though it’s a considerable sum for him personally, he considers the benefit he would gain as a member of a society with a limitless energy source to be greater. On a larger scale, magician James Randi’s foundation has for years offered a $1m prize for evidence of the paranormal or extra-scientific. Both Krieg and Randi made the offer to Blacklight. Asked why he did not go for what should be easy money, Mills claimed he did not want “strangers traipsing around his lab.”
Er, I don’t think that’s the reason. Does that mean I think Mills is a liar, a lunatic or a conman? No, no and no. Or at least probably not. Ditto for McCarthy – not that I would give either man a cent.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking: “Make up your mind already!”
Well, it’s not black and white. The explanation for why they keep going after so many years of failure and the reason that lots of rich, educated people have given them money is a lesson in the confluence of pseudoscience, psychology and “bullshit” (not the kind of bullshit you might be thinking of though).
Stay tuned for part two of this blog post where I’ll explain. Right now there’s a football game to watch.