Monday, July 09, 2007

Dogma: Science, Religion and Perpetual Motion

I'd not paid much attention to the recent puzzling interest in a perpetual motion/free energy device, but it turns out the puzzle has two interesting pieces.

One is that if you want to get lots of attention for having very unlikely beliefs, you need only take out a full page ad in The Economist. That sinking ship (recently flattering Romney?!) can still command attention.

The more interesting bit is the opportunity to discuss the alleged distinction between dogma in religion and science. A BBC editorial, by a titled academic engineer no less, has written a gentle review of what is overwhelmingly likely to be delusional thinking (emphases mine):

BBC NEWS | Technology | The perpetual myth of free energy
Professor Sir Eric Ash is an electrical engineer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

... The most recent attempt is from Mr Sean McCarthy, the Chief Executive Officer of an Irish company called Steorn.

His invention, known as the "Orbo", is a mechanical device which uses powerful magnets on the rim of a rotor and further magnets on an outer shell.

Mr McCarthy is convinced that it is working. He took a full page advertisement in the Economist last year to say so, and to attract volunteer scientists to check the authenticity of his claims...

... Mr McCarthy appreciates that if the device really works it is in contradiction of the law of conservation of energy, which he sees as a dogma of science...

... There is an implied reference to religious dogmas, and it is just here that one can see the source of the misunderstanding.

Most religions feature a multiplicity of dogmas.

A person who is an adherent of that religion may not necessarily believe each and every one of the dogmas. Beliefs cannot of course be chosen a la carte - but there is a degree of flexibility which can accommodate quite significant differences.

The law of conservation of energy is not like this.

It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant, although it may change forms, into heat or kinetic energy for example.

In short, law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

Denying its validity would undermine not just little bits of science - the whole edifice would be no more. All of the technology on which we built the modern world would lie in ruins.

There is no flexibility in the acceptance of the law as true - at all times, and in all circumstances.

It is the failure to appreciate the difference between this scientific law and a law of religion or of society which is why we know - without having to examine details of a particular device - that Orbo cannot work.

... Mr McCarthy kindly agreed to see me.

He is a very friendly person aged just over 40, trained originally as a mechanical engineer.

He has also worked in software engineering and on control systems for the oil industry.

He came across his invention by chance whilst developing an independent power system for CCTV cameras. The company, founded in 2000 and supported privately, is now wholly devoted to developing Orbo.

When asked about the conservation of energy Mr McCarthy says quite frankly that he does not know where the energy that provides perpetual motion comes from. He wonders whether he is somehow harnessing so-called "zero point" energy, a type of residual energy found in a system and first proposed by Einstein.

Zero point energy is the lowest possible energy a system can have and therefore cannot be removed.

He also points out that cosmologists believe in the presence of dark matter and dark energy. Might they somehow help his cause?

I believe that Mr McCarthy is truly convinced of the validity of his invention. It is, in my view, a case of prolonged self deception.

I ended our conversation by giving totally unsolicited advice: to drop Orbo and get back to software engineering.

It would not have been unreasonable had he then grabbed me by the collar and thrown me out of the window. He did none of these things and was totally genial.

Might I have convinced him? I do hope so.

The science/religion distinction here is perhaps not as clear as Ash suggests. I McCarthy were right, would science and technology collapse so completely? Is the religious impulse qualitative more resistant to dogmatic transformation?

It is true that religion survives shifts in core dogmas that seem rather large. For example, on can dispense with the "trinity" and still be Christian (but not Catholic). On the other hand, if one dispensed with the entire concept of deity altogether, would religion survive?

I think religion would survive the loss of deity. Not all religions have deities; some forms of Buddhism do not (some make "the" Buddha into a de facto deity).

Similarly, I think science would survive the loss of the principle of the conservation of energy. Maybe we'd decide that we're running in a simulation (this is the logical equivalent of religious belief, but from a different angle) and adjust to that. Or maybe we'd decide energy can leak across Branes (a favorite of science fiction writers). Or maybe we'd simply recognize that cosmologists are trying to figure out where the universe "came from", which suggest at least a minor tweak to the simple understanding of the "law" of the conservation of energy (also the definition of entropy and the arrow of time, btw).

I don't think we can distinguish between science and religion on the basis of dogma, I think it plays qualitatively similar roles in both domains. I do think one can make a rough distinction in terms of principles of "disproof" and the role of replicable experiments, though the border certainly gets fuzzy at the extremes of physics (incidentally, natural selection is pretty robustly in the science camp; the anti-secularists are wasting their powder on biology, they should stick with physics).

So I'd bet every penny my family has that McCarthy is wrong about his machine, but I think Ash is wrong about the dogma distinction.

Which bring us to the last question. How did McCarthy, who was a mechanical engineer, fall into the mystical trap of perpetual motion? I think that leads us to the nature of belief and delusion in the human mind; I suspect if he did not have pre-existing tendencies to peculiar beliefs that he may be suffering the entropic decay that entraps us all, sooner or later. There's no escape, yet, from the trinity of thermodynamics.

No comments: