5X5 Episode 74

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5X5 Episode 74
Perpetual Motion Machines
4th August 2009

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5X5 73 5X5 75
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Show Notes

Perpetual Motion Machines[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we are talking about perpetual motion machines, also known as free energy machines. It seems that—

R: or scams.

S: Or scams. That's right. These are claims for machines that are called perpetual motion machines because they claims that they can move indefinitely or forever—that they can perpetually move. Or free energy machines because such machines can generate an endless supply of energy, apparently, in some cases, out of nowhere. Of course, such machines can't possibly exist.

E: Any why can't they exist? I wonder. There must be law of physics that determine that they cannot exist.

B: Absolutely. These laws are called the laws of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is the study of energy in all its forms whether it's chemical or kinetic or heat or light or even potential energy. It's a pretty complicated topic and I don't claim to be an expert at all on it, but the laws at a very high level are relatively easy to understand and the first two that are most important and pertain to this topic are the first law of thermodynamics, which is that energy is never created or destroyed. It changes from one form to another but it can never come from nothing or dissolve into nothing. And the second law states that as energy changes from one form to another, some energy is inevitably lost as heat. This means that energy conversions are never 100% efficient. This is called entropy, which measures the amount of disorder in a system. These are among those absolute laws of the universe. They are part of the fabric of the universe, like time or gravity. They have never been observed to fail.

R: And another absolute law of the universe is that every generation must have a perpetual motion machine that's proposed and that then fails. They have been around since, I think, the 1100s-ish.

E: Even before then, Rebecca. Eighth century is when the first recordings of potential perpetual motion machines have been documented.

R: Even people like da Vinci and Bernoulli proposed different machines that they thought might work, and of course, none of them actually did.

S: Sometimes people will propose perpetual motion machines or free energy machines and claim that they do not violate the laws of thermodynamics, but that they are tapping into some exotic or subtle energy source, like zero-point energy, for example. However, none of these proposals have panned out, either. Essentially, the claim there is that physicists and scientists over the last couple of hundred years have missed this source of energy—this pretty basic fact about our universe, but that this lone inventor, this crazy genius has been able to figure out how to tap into this energy and will overnight solve all of our energy problems and transform our civilisation. There is nothing inherently impossible about this; it's just damn unlikely. And so far, despite the fact that there seems to be an endless sequence of such claims, no one has ever been able to do anything remotely like that.

E: And, like most of these subjects when we talk about pseudosciences and the perpetual motion proponents are not free of this—they fall into two categories. People who believe that they actually have a machine that is, in fact, redefining the laws of physics and they are under some sort of self-deception that this is actually working. And then there are the people who are trying to deceive other people and commit fraud in order to line their pockets with riches.

S: Usually, the fraudulent end of the spectrum—it takes the form of looking for investors. They are looking for people to invest in this new technology. Because once it hits, not only will you have the benefit of being able to produce endless energy, which then maybe you could sell back to the grid, for example to make money. But also you'll be on the ground floor of this transforming technology. So often they don't sell the thing itself; they sell the promise of the machine. The promise of investing in the research. Of course, the product itself is always just around the corner, but it never, never arises. I also think that even though I do think that some people honestly believe that they have figured out something that everyone else has missed or tapping into some source of energy previously unknown to science—that they cut corners, as well, often. They may be a believer to some degree in what they are claiming, but I don't they think that they cleanly separate from those who are committing fraud. I think that if they were, we would more often see admit that they were hopelessly wrong, that they made a mistake and that their claims are simply false. Usually, we don't get that confession or admission at the end that they were mistaken in their claims. They persist in their claims of having a perpetual motion machine even after it's disproven over and over again and we've seen this most recently in the Irish company Steorn that is persisted for years in claiming they have such a device despite negative expert reviews and failure to demonstrate what they claim they can do.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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