Soundbite science: Mr Bacon, your time is up


An Irish company has claimed to have achieved the impossible and created perpetual motion. UCD research fellow Dr John K. White is not convinced

An Irish company claims that it has broken the laws of physics with a so-called “free energy”, or over-unity device. The contraption involves an arrangement of magnets that somehow breaks the holiest of physic laws – that energy cannot be created from nothing.

But the real news is that the scientific method has been broken. It isn’t the physics that is suspect: it’s the hype.

Francis Bacon is credited with defining the “scientific method” in 1620, although the phrase only became fashionable in the mid-20th century to help codify science and to formalise research and experiments. There is no ‘one way’, but repetition is stressed so others can verify unknown claims, no matter how far-fetched or potentially ahead of their time.

Many have followed such stricture from Robert Boyle (‘pressure is inversely proportional to volume’, 1662) to Louis Pasteur (the existence of bacteria, 1862) to large scientific and engineering teams that invented the transistor (1948), the laser (1960), or now those who smash sub-atomic particles at speeds approaching the speed of light to explain mass (2009 onward).

Alas, when an Irish company placed a full-page ad in The Economist three years ago, claiming that they could power mobile phones and cars without recharging, and thus save the world, Bacon et al were discarded and the media came running.

The company challenged twelve scientists to dispute their findings on “free energy”, their euphemism for perpetual motion, even quoting George Bernard Shaw to tug at our sympathies: “All great truths begin with blasphemies.” Three years on, they are still making the claim, despite not having published one piece of information on the how or incited one scientist to verify the why.

We all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, let alone free energy. A simple refutation suffices: hook the output of the contraption to the input, and you will continuously get more energy out. Keep doing so and you will ultimately create more energy than in the universe: a logical impossibility. Indeed, the physics is simple, in the same way that throwing cards in the air make a mess rather than reforming as a perfect deck. Science is not that hard.

As for the Irish company and free energy… come on. In my role as a public scientist, I was invited to look at the device, which didn’t work on the day. Nor did it work in a great public demonstration when the public was invited to see the whirling ‘science’. And yet people still ask and hope.

Alas, the scientific method has become a soundbite, tossed away like a contestant on a television reality show. But we shouldn’t be that gullible. Learning and knowledge are being short-changed. The only thing a working engine and this story have in common is that they are both powered by hot air. As a scientist and natural sceptic, I saw nothing scientific about such a device.

Something for nothing? Yes – or rather, for the cost of an advertisement and a lot of free publicity. No method, no science. And why one seeks scientific verification by advertising in The Economist seems, to me, to be economically and not scientifically motivated.

As media guru Marshall McLuhan warned, “the medium is the message” – how we do something is as important as what we do. Science and learning are not soundbites. Both take time and work and organised thought.

But when content goes unquestioned or unsubstantiated, we end up with cold fusion, over-unity devices, and Star Trek masquerading as science (sorry guys – hyperspeed spaceships are a fiction too). And so we end up with poor scientific understanding in our schools and in our lives.

Perhaps the problem is that science cannot publicly inform in 15 seconds about seemingly impenetrable ideas such as the first law of thermodynamics, magnetic fields, or the impossibility of over-unity devices. Science is not sexy enough and has to be hyped up with flashy claims.

It is true that science can confuse an uninformed public, despite its increasing impact in today’s world. This only means that we need to communicate better. But anyone worth his or her sodium chloride knows that some kind of method is needed to show how things work – not slick marketing or magic shows that cuts corners on real science.

Dr John K. White is a research fellow in the UCD School of Physics.