Friday, July 03, 2009

Free lunch

I have a friend here in Ireland who is commendably committed to the environment. He is professionally involved in such things as energy-efficient houses and pollution-free waste management. He powers his car with recycled cooking oil. And he chases the oldest dream of humankind -- perpetual motion.

Well, perhaps it's not the oldest dream, but it is certainly durable. At least since the Renaissance there has been an endless stream of proposed gizmos that put out more energy than they take in. My friend has been keen on two current projects, one in Australia and one here in Ireland. As is often the case, the machines use magnets in one way or another. I can't tell you exactly how, because -- well, those are trade secrets.

The Irish company is Steorn Ltd., their device is called Orbo, and to hear them tell it, Orbo is the answer to our energy woes. When scientists scoffed, the company convened an international panel of experts to vet their claim. More than two years have passed and the verdict is in: Orbo is a pipedream.

Will that stop Steorn? Not if my friend's unflagging enthusiasm is any indication. The dream lives on, the ratchets click, the magnets spin, and all of Orbo's big and little brothers huff and wheeze and try to squeeze free energy out of thin air.

It is probably useful here to distinguish between scientific eccentrics and scientific cranks. Scientific eccentrics, like my Irish friend, are a cheerful lot, who don't give a hoot about prevailing views. They are convinced that no law of physics is carved in stone. The right tension on the spring, the right frequency on the oscillator and -- voila! -- our energy problems are solved! Scientific cranks, on the other hand, are gloomy sorts who feel put upon by the world, and who are convinced that the only thing standing between themselves and revolutionary success is the close- mindedness of the scientific establishment.

Scientific cranks we can do without. Scientific eccentrics may not do much to advance scientific learning, but they are having fun and they are motivated by a selfless humanitarianism -- qualities that a healthy society can hardly do without.