Posts Tagged ‘energy’

After the roaring success of similar campaigns for both Tibet and Willy, it’s now time to discuss Free Energy. (Ha.)

The idea of free energy is pretty much what it sounds like. It doesn’t just work in the “free cable” sense of tapping into someone else’s pipeline, but rather by actually creating new and usable energy, often literally from thin air. It’s like taking candy from a baby, then selling it to another baby, then stealing it back again, and repeating the pattern indefinitely.

These kinds of machines which promise ultimate power at low, low prices are still a recurrent phenomenon, and make for pretty big business. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people regularly claim to have invented or discovered some device, mechanism, or physical process which would render that whole fossil fuel problem moot. It’s an appealing notion, to have something which could power itself and let you siphon off the overflow, storing and using all this new energy as it spills out from… somewhere. Unfortunately – at least, if you’re living under Homer Simpson’s roof and obey the laws of thermodynamics – the Universe places an inconvenient embargo on the whole idea.

Although there might seem to be many ways you can “get” energy where there wasn’t any before, you’re never really conjuring anything out of nowhere. If you light a match, you’ll be releasing heat (thermal energy) that wasn’t around before, but it comes at the cost of the resources you’re burning. The amount of energy released in the flame exactly matches the lost energy that existed in a different form in the chemicals that made up the match.

Calculated in this broader, chemical sense, energy isn’t something that can ever be created or destroyed, but only transferred from one state to another. If you burn some oil for energy, you can’t keep the oil and burn it again. If a system is kicked into action by something falling, like water in a water wheel, then it would take at least as much energy as you got out of it if you wanted to raise the stuff back up to its original height again. (This is why Wikipedia’s gallery of perpetual motion machines are all doomed to failure; a system can’t, by itself, generate more energy than it uses to keep itself going indefinitely.)

Them laws of thermodynamics ain’t no slouch, incidentally. The first one – pretty much the “no conjuring” rule as described above – is among the most solidly convincing theories in modern science. If you throw that out, then a whole lot of really useful physics goes with it. Centuries of sophisticated learning and understanding shouldn’t be scribbled over with the first new and crazy idea to come along with Earth-shattering claims.

However cunningly you try and arrange something with magnets to keep propelling itself around on its own metaphorical steam, it can’t be done.

If a flywheel is spinning, and seems happy to keep on doing so pretty much indefinitely (some are set up with such low friction that their rundown time is measured in years) then that’s all well and good, and may be a useful way of storing energy, such that it can be usefully transferred from one form to another. But to get any energy out so that you can use it, you need to let the flywheel push against something else to power it – and in so doing, you’ll be exerting a similar push against the spin of the flywheel, causing it to slow down from the friction. The energy you get out can never be more than the energy you had to put in to get it spinning that fast in the first place.

If you want to run a car on water, you’re going to have to do something more than Stanley Meyer did, because if all you’re doing is separating water into the oxygen and hydrogen that it’s made of, then burning the hydrogen and oxygen to make water again, you’re never going to get any more out when it burns, than you needed to put in to separate them. You just go round in circles, and no work is being done.

Unless, y’know, you’re throwing out almost all of physics again. That site describes the problem of how do it “economically”, and says that by traditional methods the car “could not recharge from the process quickly enough”, but makes it sound like levels of energy input and output are two separate issues to be improved upon. They don’t seem to mention the thing about needing more than 100% efficiency, which makes recharging from the process “quickly enough” about as likely as being able to run fast enough to overtake your own knees.

Creating energy this way would be like magicking water into existence by taking some water, freezing it, then melting the ice, and experting to find more water than you started with. It’s not going to get you very far. You don’t get something for nothing.

Admittedly, not every device needs to get something from nothing, while still being intended to revolutionise the world of making stuff go. Wikipedia lists several resource-consuming machines which provide apparent perpetual motion, like that little drinking-bird thing that helped Homer keep the power plant safe while he went out to buy a muu-muu. (Huh, lot of Simpsons references in this entry. Well, two.) The way those work is surprisingly sophisticated, and there’s some fascinating science behind subtle sources of energy like ambient temperature gradients, or pressure from photons.

This isn’t any kind of a loophole around the laws of thermodynamics, but maybe you don’t need to circumvent them, if energy can be grabbed from plausible sources, in such quantities that it might seem effectively free to us. I can’t rule that out, but the problem then comes back to the perennial sticking point: if you want to be taken seriously, publish some damn science. If you actually do an experiment, and find something to support your claims, and then tell other people what you did so that they can try it too and see if you’re still right, then vindication surely awaits. But what you’re saying sounds unlikely, and it sounds very similar to some other unlikely-sounding things, which are demonstrable nonsense and which break many well established laws of science. You’re going to have to actually show us something impressive.

Of course, there are always reasons why they can’t do that just now, often relating to the various conspiracy theories in place to suppress the knowledge of this world-changing technology, and preserve the status quo for those who find it profitable. I’m not aware that any significant evidence has ever been presented that this is actually happening – of course, this could mean that it’s all been covered up, but it could more simply mean that it was never there. (More on conspiracy theories in general over here.)

I’m sticking with my “publish some damn science” argument. I don’t see how data from every scientific lab could be kept out of every respectable scientific journal – those scientists and journals would be fascinated to learn anything new that’s well supported (that’s kinda what science is, after all), even if some politicians and oil magnates wanted it kept quiet.

But when established science is so strongly indicative that you’re full of shit, in a field with a history of fraud (and other business practices which should maybe raise a suspicious eyebrow), we’re going to wait for some actual evidence before accepting that you, unlike the conmen and failures who’ve gone before, really have revolutionised everything we understand about the Universe. And while everybody seems cagey as to how these things are supposed to work, and what tests might be done to find out whether they really do, and while Reuters reports credulously on supposed new developments, we’re going to keep doubting that The Man is keeping you down.

Science loves discovering things which it can’t explain, and which shatter old paradigms. Find us some actual evidence, or even just show us what’s going on and let us find it, and the scientific and skeptical community will totally be on your side. Stop holding press conferences and asking for more and more research money. It’s not working.

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Qi is a term from traditional Chinese culture, translating into modern English as “some sort of mystical cosmic energy or something”. It has been understood as things like “breath” or “spirit”, but the New Agers have got a hold of it now and they’re not letting go. (Damn those Westerners, with their bastardisation of an ancient dignified culture, and their technological advances, and their evidence-based medicine.) However, it doesn’t seem to be any less vague a term in either case.

“Energy” is a favourite term of the New Age movement despite nobody seeming to know what it means. (It’s not to be confused with the scientific concept of energy as a measure of ability to do work, of course. This use of “energy” actually means something and can be measured in useful ways; this is one reason why you don’t see many hippie physicists.) I can’t find a case of qi being much more precisely defined than this – it seems to just be some ethereal, non-physical, immaterial, abstract stuff, which has some place in our model of reality but not one that anyone can measure. It’s an extremely convenient formulation: its definition is so vague that just about anything can be claimed to be affected by it, but whenever empirical data fails to show up you can just say that “it doesn’t work that way”. Because there’s no consistent or well-defined way it does work, you can be as evasive as you like about the results.

Basically, qi is the force by which the “karate master” in this video knocks people out. Like when he waves his hands around that guy’s head without touching him and… nothing happens. But that’s a special case, because the guy may have had his tongue in a certain place in his mouth, which totally nullifies the effects. Yes, apparently that’s actually how it works. Also if you raise one toe and lower another, that’ll do it to. Wiggle your feet a bit and you’re totally safe from energy which would otherwise knock you on your arse. Oh, it also doesn’t work if you don’t believe in it. I don’t know how much more evident it needs to be that this is nonsense. Try maintaining a skeptical attitude to electricity while sticking a fork in a mains outlet, and see how far that gets you. (Note: do not actually see how far this gets you.)

Qi is also what the Kiai Master in this video is using to make people fall down by waving his hands… until he’s faced by someone who doesn’t buy into his crap, at which point he gets punched in the face.

Amidst all the blather about “life force” and whatnot, a number of seemingly testable claims about qi seem to be made. For instance, “I can exert a force to knock someone over by channeling this energy” is easily tested, and the above videos provide some pretty good disconfirming evidence. Even if the claim is something like “I can do all that, but only if the person isn’t moving their tongue or their toes in a particular way”, I can still imagine putting together a testing protocol where people’s extremities are carefully monitored as the power of the qi is supposedly flung their way.

Believers in pseudoscience are always keen to complain when people actually try and find out if the stuff they’re pushing really works, as if this is somehow unfair. But like anything else, if qi actually does something, then if you want us to believe it, you’ll have to tell us something it actually does, and then let us see whether it actually does it. If it could ever be convincingly demonstrated, then it wouldn’t matter that it’s all vague and mystical nonsense. If it works, it works.

It doesn’t work. It’s not there. The magic is nothing more than mentalism, the medical uses are nothing more than placebos. The long and illustrious history of qi as something widely believed in by millions of people who didn’t understand what it is, dating back to a time when you could expect to be dead by 30 and nobody had even invented the lever yet, isn’t very impressive in the face of absolutely no supporting evidence.

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