On Monday, I wrote a piece about Steorn, a rather peculiar outfit from Dublin which claims to have discovered a way to produce free energy. This isn't the first time I've come across that sort of thing: there's a lot of it about. A whole tribe believes in zero-point, over-unity or similar energy sources, all of which differ in detail but agree on the main points: they produce more energy than they require to operate, there's no way conventional physics can explain them and they have never ever been shown to work in proper laboratory conditions with third parties present capable of verifying anything.
Alas, the Steorn claims match all that. The chief executive, Sean McCarthy, spends quite some time on the phone with me but I cannot work out if what they say is true, why they're keeping it secret. There's some guff about no academic being willing to risk their reputation in public, which is why the company is convening a secret panel of 12 volunteers — fair enough, but why no details of the mystery machine for the rest of us with no reputations to lose? IP issues, says Steorn, gotta keep secrets for the patent application.
Fair enough... then why invite the man from the Guardian to see it working? That's enough to invalidate a patent application, because it counts as prior publication. More to the point, why invite the bloke from the Guardian, who couldn't be expected to understand enough electrical theory to give the machine a proper once-over, and not people like mdash; oh, for example, me — who have enough physics to ask the questions that everyone's dying to ask?
And so it goes. If half the things they claim are true, then they could easily have something quite obviously astounding to show — say, a box with a lightbulb on, powered purely by their marvellous machine. That's much more impressive than a computer which plonks up some numbers, and they are trying to impress. It doesn't matter how well-disposed one is to the idea, the first time you apply the feather of scepticism to their house of cards, down it comes.
The article I write draws plenty of responses. After a lifetime debating — in various senses of the word — with pseudoscientists of all hues online, I shouldn't be surprised at some of the rancour on display. It's still disappointing that none of the people accusing me of talking out of my hat, being in the pay of the nuclear industry (where do I send the invoices?), or helping prop up the conspiracy of silence will address any of my reasoning — apparently, mere logic is just too easily traduced by the Con.
If this this were true.... ah, the world would change overnight. The obvious stuff would be the end of reliance on oil, which means we could build a huge wall around the Middle East and tell 'em to knock when they're ready to come out and play nice. Ditto nuclear technology, which with the exception of some medical and scientific uses could be outlawed harder'n smallpox. There'd be a problem with heat — we'd be introducing lots of energy from nowhere, which couldn't help but mess things up — but that would be it. Water? Desalinate. Food? Hell, we've got the water.
And space travel — we have the technology to take us to the stars; it's called the ion drive, and it produces a gentle yet constant push that adds up very quickly to extreme velocity. The fuel's not a problem: it's the electricity. No solar power between the stars — it's nuclear power, and you don't want to be building that much of it in orbit — or nothing. Any over-unity energy system would get power from that nothing. So yes, I want it to be true more than any other being on the planet wants it to be true. People like Steorn rely on that. I'd rather they relied on the physics.