Bad science

Perpetual motion goes into reverse

Ben Goldacre
Saturday July 7, 2007
The Guardian

You might remember an Irish company called 
Steorn: in August 2006 it took out a full page 
advert in the Economist to announce that it had 
discovered a source of free energy, a perpetual 
motion machine no less, in triumphant defiance of 
that stuffy first law of thermodynamics.

Almost every newspaper gave it lavish coverage in 
return for this modest expenditure. Steorn has 
claimed that its machine is validated by eight 
independent scientists and engineers "with 
multiple PhDs from world-class universities" 
(although sadly it declined to name them, citing 
mutually binding non-disclosure agreements). It 
now also has a panel of 22 scientists on a "jury" 
recruited from the ad.

I should therefore like to posit the first law of 
bullshit dynamics: "There is no imaginable 
proposition so absurd that you cannot find at 
least one person, somewhere in the world, with a 
PhD or professional post, who is happy to endorse 

As we've already seen with the long history of 
perpetual motion claims you only need one or two 
experts, and as far as the media are concerned, 
there's a story. And when the negative evidence 
comes in - like this week with Steorn, say - 
there is a deathly silence. Shh.

So, on July 4 a scaled down version of Steorn's 
technology was to be displayed at the Kinetica 
museum in Spitalfields, east London, in front of 
live webcams and blinkered naysayers. But sadly 
the doors have remained locked, and the most you 
can see on the live webcam is an immobile perspex 
disc - designed to show some special arrangement 
of magnets - and a statement about technical 
difficulties possibly caused by "intense heat 
from the camera lighting".

I was looking forward to it. At first the device 
was supposed to lift a weight, but then Steorn 
announced that it would simply rotate. Steorn's 
chief executive, Sean McCarthy, said that the 
company "decided against using the technology to 
illuminate a light bulb, because the use of wires 
would attract further suspicion from a scientific 
community that has denounced the invention as 

Let's be clear: this invention is not heretical, 
it's just highly improbable (although I recognise 
that heresy is an important part of the branding, 
because even if it's a thermodynamic one, there's 
still something attractively transgressive about 
getting one over on the law. Very Billy Idol. 
Very Guns N' Roses.).

But in any case I wouldn't worry about the wire, 
Sean, because if I see magnets arranged on a 
perspex disc then I can imagine a simple way to 
keep a disc spinning, by creating a fluctuating 
electromagnetic field around it.

And of course, it's amazing to think that the 
machine might work, but even more fortuitous is 
finding a source of unexpected modest and readily 
contained energy in the universe - like it did 
with nuclear fission.

Look, I'm with everyone else in the media, and 
indeed the world. I want fish oil pills to solve 
complex social problems in education. I want one 
injection to be a major reversible cause of 
autism. I want one invention to solve the world's 
energy problems and I want my jetpack. It's 2007 
for God's sake. Give me my jetpack, and give me 
my x-ray goggles. This future is rubbish.

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