I was fishing for a new topic and, at first, herbal medicine came to mind. But after looking over the evidence, it was clear that garlic, ginseng, and St. John’s-wort have proven benefits. There are other herbal remedies whose proponents claim abilities in excess of what has been shown, and there is a danger of overdosing. But the idea itself is not inherently pseudomedical. So I moved onto cryonics, but found this an honest field. Proponents acknowledge huge obstacles and admit the cryonics rests on a foundation of the barely theoretical and highly implausible. It’s pretty much a mesh of a Pascal’s Wager variant and H.P. Lovecraft. Cryonic businesses promise customers a frozen cadaver and they deliver.
I prefer to aim at full blown hogwash, so I kept searching until my scope landed on perpetual motion machines. In the skeptic movement, one’s ears are tuned to detect nonsense. Alarm bells go off when hearing terms like harmonic convergence and toxin cleanser. In the perpetual motion field, however, the device itself is the deceptive term.
Such a machine would be capable of running forever with no outside intervention or energy input. This clashes with the first two laws of thermodynamics. The first law states the amount of energy is constant and can be neither created nor destroyed. The second law states the amount of energy put into a system will always be more than the amount of energy that system puts out. So any machine will have inefficiency, even if it’s just friction or the load of the machine. A machine could never manage 100 percent efficiency, much less the 101+ percent that the more brazen proponents claim.
Historially, the most common types of perpetual motion machines are overbalanced wheels. This wheel is continually reinvented and continually failing. These wheels operate on angular momentum and a well-designed one will run for quite a while. But friction will eventually stop it. At some point, there will be insufficient force from the falling of one ball to raise the wheel to a point where the next ball overbalances.
If one is a good enough amateur engineer and magician, a perpetual motion machine charade can last long enough to keep an audience focused. But if it really worked, the only audience you’d be demonstrating for is the one watching you accept your Nobel Prize.
Purported machines are based on either deception or a misunderstanding of physics. In the former, demonstrators use a hidden source for additional energy, and bandy about terms like magnetic polarization, gravitational work, and zero-point energy to impress and confuse the scientifically illiterate.
Many perpetual motion machines create the illusion of motion by exploiting coefficients of friction. If pulling a tablecloth slowly, objects on the table go with it. But if a person yanks the cloth quickly and skillfully, the objects remain on the table since the friction coefficient drops. This principle has industrial applications, such as when a conveyor vibrates asymmetrically, going quickly one way and more slowly the opposite direction. People invent machines similar to this and think they’ve demonstrated perpetual motion. Failed claimants of the past 15 years include Yuri Potapov, Genesis World Energy, and Steorn Ltd. Steorn cancelled a demonstration when the device met with “technical difficulties,” a seeming impossibility for a perpetual motion machine.
Moving from the deceived to the fraudulent, Dennis Lee is one of the field’s more enduring names. However, the only thing he has in perpetual motion are the props in his shell game. Lee has been making claims about his ability to deliver free energy for the past quarter of a century without demonstrating one.
Eric Krieg of the Center for Scientific Inquiry attended Lee’s seminar to examine his tactics. Rather than science, Lee hit on the political, claiming victimhood from an international, decades-long conspiracy to keep his machines from the public. He had promised a demonstration, but rescinded that because he said government agents had infiltrated the audience to arrest him if he proceeded. He kept another promise, the one affording attendees the chance to pay $25,000 to become dealers of this unseen wonder machine. Lee has multiple fraud convictions, which he cites as proof of the conspiracy.
Then we have Tom Bearden, who holds that unlimited free energy can be extracted from the vacuum of space-time. He demonstrates a trio of pseudoscience hallmarks by calling himself a conspiracy victim, a scored genius, and by being forever on the verge of discovery without making one. He also claims an associate was killed by a poison ice dart and warns of a ruse whereby government agents take out inconvenient inventors by rear-ending their vehicle, transporting them in an adjacent ambulance, and injecting them with a pernicious fluid. This must be working since all perpetual motion machines have been repressed.