In spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. In late summer, though, it's more a case around here of what on earth to write about. It is the journalistic silly season, when everyone's on holiday and nothing's really happening until September.
Canny people know how to fill that space. One lot who got the timing just right is Steorn, a company apparently composed of three people working from a business park in Dublin. Flicking through the seasonally adjusted pages of an anaemic edition of The Economist last week, I saw their full page advert claiming a "blasphemous" breakthrough in energy generation. Thence to their Web site, which is a creditable production saying the company has a small bundle of aluminium, motors, disks and wires that effectively produces power out of nowhere. Interested scientists are invited to apply to become part of a panel of 12, which will then be asked to test the device.
Coo. And Steorn is putting its money where its mouth is. A full-page advert in the Economist costs many tens of thousands of pounds. The Web site is very professional, and the London PR company involved is one that also handles ITV, Halifax, John Lewis and others of that stature. This is a substantial investment — and, since it doesn't seem aimed at selling anything, inviting investment or producing anything measurable, it's a huge chunk of their own money in what even the company will cheerfully admit is a PR stunt.
It is also pseudoscience of the highest order. The general idea has been around for a while and has spawned many impassioned claims: you spin magnets around in a clever way and get more energy out from a system than you put in. This is generally agreed as impossible: it's perpetual motion, it breaks the laws of thermodynamics, and in the long and gaudy history of pseudoscience it ain't never worked yet. Which is not to say it never will: science is full of astounding discoveries that turn the accepted truths on their head. History is also full of total balderdash masquerading as science.
Fortunately, there are easy ways to tell pseudoscience: grand claims with no way to verify them, important facts that are alluded to and not presented, claims of conspiracy or closed-mindedness by the scientific community, production of claims by press release rather than scientific papers. Steorn more than fulfils all of these: it is, by any objective test, pseudoscience.
So what on earth are they playing at? In a long and very impassioned phone call with Steorn's chief executive Sean McCarthy, I had some theories flatly denied and others half-confirmed. It is not a teaser for an Xbox game It is nothing to do with a TV programme It has nothing to do with promoting anti-fraud systems (Steorn's corporate history is in detecting and preventing high-tech fraud), which was my personal favourite.
The official story — and one they are at pains to emphasise — is that the idea of convening a panel of 12 top scientists to do secret tests is the best way they can think of to get their ideas accepted by the scientific community. Time after time, McCarthy said, they'd tried to get people to look at what they were doing, but nobody was prepared do so. Those who did refused to go on the record.
None of this makes sense. Here's why.
There are two sorts of scientific discovery: the predicted and the unpredicted. Predicted is great: you have a theory, you come up with some physical ramification of that theory...