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What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe?
Posted on Friday, September 21, 2007 @ 23:50:35 EDT by vlad

Testimonials From WorldChanging/by Jeremy Faludi

We've all heard claims of green inventions that are too good to be true: the zero-point energy generator, the water-powered car, the device for talking with dolphins to achieve world peace. Sometimes they amuse us; sometimes they confuse us, as we try to determine whether they're legitimate or not; and sometimes they just annoy us. But can they ever help us?

Yes: by keeping our imaginations open, and by honing our evaluation skills -- skills which are useful both when deciding between existing technologies, and when thinking about technologies on the horizon.

Some high-quality nutball vaporware that has crossed my desk in the last year or two includes:

  • The guy selling kits and manuals for "how to run your car on zero-point energy". (Zero point energy is always a favorite with the perpetual motion crowd.)
  • The water-powered car (or at least water-powered welding) was a huge media hit, even getting onto mainstream papers and TV stations.
  • The Beck Mickle Hydro waterwheel supposedly generates 1-2 KW of power from just a 20cm drop in a stream; many smart people I know were excited about it, but someone on PES Wiki ran the numbers and calculated that there isn't 1 or 2 kW in streams that small to begin with.
  • Steorn's Orbo has a classy, professional website, but with zero content, and a planned demonstration was called off at the eleventh hour.
  • The "gear turbine" engine is such a mess I don't even know what to say about it.
  • And of course, there's everybody's favorite, cold fusion.

(By the way, if anyone wants to share particularly fun lunatic fringe inventions in the comments, go for it!)

Most of these inventors have notoriously poor spelling and grammar, and have extended conspiracy theories as to why their inventions are not being embraced by the public. Those are the sincere ones. The ones with the slick presentations who promise a lot and then call off their demonstrations at the last minute are the con artists, playing off people's desperation to find energy alternatives. And there's the occasional prankster like David Jones, a real scientist who claimed to make perpetual motion machines just to mess with people.

Then there's the grey-area inventions: the ones that are legitimate, and often brilliant rethinkings of how to do things, but are too difficult to feasibly produce or run. The Massive-Yet-Tiny Engine, which claims to have a power-to-weight ratio 40 times better than conventional internal combustion engines, is probably one of these. The folks at AutoBlog had a long list of reasons why the engine is probably impossible to make, yet they encouraged the inventor and his company to keep pursuing it. As one commenter pointed out, the internal combustion engine has 100 years and over a trillion dollars in R&D behind it. Fusion is still in this category, even though there's no fundamental principle of physics keeping it out of reach. Many people think that fuel cells are in this category, and decades of debate have ensued.

Should we just sit back and snicker at these fringe inventions? No. Being skeptical is good, but being cynical is bad, because cynicism is obedience. The cynic assumes nothing can be done, and so does not try to do anything. It's too late for that; the state of the world is too dire for cynicism. We need idealism and we need action. But we need to act with clear heads, and pursue the most promising leads.

So how do we decide which paths lead to massive change, and which are too good to be true?

We need a basic understanding of physics, of course, but moreover we need to ask the right questions. The best list of questions I've seen is at From The Wilderness:

  1. How Much Energy is Returned for the Energy Invested (EROEI)?
  2. Have the claims been verified by an independent third party?
  3. Can I see the alternative energy being used?
  4. Can you trace it back to the original energy source?
  5. Does the invention defy the Laws of Thermodynamics?
  6. Does the inventor make extravagant claims?
  7. Does the inventor claim zero pollution?
  8. Can I see blueprints, schematics or a chemical analysis of how it works?
  9. Infrastructure Requirements: Does the energy source require a corporation to produce it? How will it be transported and used? Will it require new engines, pipelines, and filling stations? What will these cost? Who will pay for them and with what? How long will it take to build them?

Ansering question number one often requires sophisticated expert analysis. For instance, it comes up often when talking about biofuels, because some studies show that corn ethanol has an EROEI of only 0.8, so you have to put in more energy than you get out, while other studies put it at 1.3, making it a (barely) green alternative to gasoline. (Incidentally, the EROEI of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is usually quoted at over 10, and biodiesel ranges from around 3 for US crop-based production to a theoretical 10 for algae-based production.)

Questions two, three, four, six and eight above should raise your scam-alert flags: any inventor who refuses to tell you how their device works or let skeptics test it is obviously a fraud. Quesion five is the downfall of the classic crackpot perpetual motion-ist, and is usually easy to spot as long as you have enough information to run the numbers; it's not nearly so difficult as calculating EROEI. Finally, question nine is the killer for many of the grey-area technologies (including, so far, fuel cells).

So keep your mind open to new inventions and wild claims, but know how to evaluate them. And likewise, don't forget to be skeptical of established and well-funded technologies that still don't have a chance in the long run. Bet your time and money on the most promising leads.

Source: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007224.html



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Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by vlad on Saturday, September 22, 2007 @ 00:03:35 EDT
(User Info | Send a Message) http://www.zpenergy.com
Many interesting comments worth reading. An extract below:

Nice article. Despite having a physics and engineering background, I quickly moved from sceptic through puzzled and over the fence into the believers side regarding Steorn's impossible claims. Things have moved on. I am a member of the SPDC and now stand back on the safe side of the fence half-expecting to climb over sometime soon. I no longer trust my own judgement and counter my optimism with the odd kick to remind myself of my own subjectivity.
So, is wishful thinking clouding my ability to see the scam? Despite everything, I find it difficult to pull the plug completely and do not believe that everyone working at Steorn is lying.
Perhaps you could have added another factor to the mix:

What do you stand to lose from keeping an open mind on a particular claim?

In Steorn's case, no one should be betting money right now but at least the answer is in the post (by extremely creepy-crawly snail mail). There is a qualified and independent jury and they will report on their findings. This will kill or make Steorn. For this reason and others, I will pay the price of keeping an open mind.

Posted by: Paul Story [www.paulstory.com] on September 12, 2007 12:23 AM


Dear Jeremy,
(was it Jeromos- a few generations ago?)

Good paper, however I advise you to make some serious non-prejudicial documentation re cold fusion.
You can start with New Energy Times of Steve Krivit.
Best wishes,

Posted by: Peter Gluck [info.kappa.ro] on September 12, 2007 3:03 AM




Posted by: DR.KATHRINE MARTIGNONI on September 12, 2007 2:03 PM


I don't think you can define a set of overly simplistic guidelines like that and evaluate a "free energy" technology on that basis. As Steorn has said, only an independent, fair and thorough scientific investigation process can conclusively reveal whether a claim is real or fabricated. Everything else is speculation.

And that is precisely the route Steorn has taken. So I think everyone should just shut the fu** up until the scientists give their verdict about Steorn.

Posted by: Manu Sharma [orangehues.com] on September 12, 2007 10:00 PM


Life on the fringe gives one a perspective that allows free thinking. If our thoughts stayed "in the box" we would not get anywhere, to Justin's point. It seems at time that most things have already been invented, except for the fantastical, far-fetched and "impossible" ones. In our every changing world of Peak-Oil and Global Warming I feel that the ideas generated by the Fringies will help us transition from a carbon-based-non-sustainable society to hopefully something very different. How we get there will take all of us being OPEN to Fringe thinking, and be skeptical in a helpful way.

Posted by: Jim Robb [www.pedaleconomics.com] on September 13, 2007 4:39 AM


“Would it not make sense if the U.S Government spend a significant fraction (1/10?) of its trillion dollar per year (!!!) defense budget on coming up with a true energy alternative? A few years of this kind of funding would attract the best minds in industry, and would yield world-changing results.”

What lovely magical thinking.

Throwing money at a problem, any problem, even ones as fundamental and intractable as thermodynamics, will result in their soon being overcome.

By the same model if we spend a trillion dollars on, say, yoga flying, a few years later we can expect to all be floating about the skies?

I doubt it.

Obviously creative problem solving is required; we call that science & engineering. We do a lot of it, and I think you’ll find little argument we can do more & do it better in many cases.

But haring after extraordinary claims that violate how we understand the universe operates, that’s proven to be unproductive. It makes for a great sunday morning supplement story, but hasn’t been how progress has been made.

As Carl Sagan famously noted “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, a paraphrase of Laplace’s “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”

So far the wight of evidence for these remarkable, indeed inexplicable claims, has been flimsy indeed. Rolling out a contraption and claiming it worked yesterday, and that it’ll work again at some undetermined future date, yesiree, is the equivalent of claiming the dog at the homework.

You can’t blame those who are well informed about physics, mathematics, and the scientific process (not the business of science, but the intellectual underpinnings) for rolling their eyes at these sort of shenanigans.

Posted by: Michael Maggard on September 13, 2007 8:55 AM

Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by Veryskeptical on Saturday, September 22, 2007 @ 03:24:08 EDT
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Knowledge of what will work and what will not work is often hard to come by. Evaluating a proposition is highly dependent on your own understanding of the world and not on the understanding of the people and propositions you are reviewing.

Your personal nut case may turn out to be the greatest genius who ever lived in the eyes of future generations and both you and they may be wrong. Due diligence is always necessary if you intend to become involved with a particular project but the quality of that diligence depends upon the person doing it. In the end you pays your money and takes your chance.

As for people who do not intend to do anything but kibbitz the quality of your criticism depends on the quality of your knowledge which in many cases is small to nonexistent. On the whole if your only experience with the proposal is that this cannot be right because it contradicts what your high school physics teacher told you about thermodynamics or read in Popular Mechanics it might be better if you refrained from commenting. Your subjective sense of the impossible is as likely to betray you as not.

I have read over the years so much of this kind of thing. I discount it so heavily that I wouldn't trust your judgement if you pointed out a fraud I had certain knowledge of. I would believe you are doing little more than offering a self rightous guess.

It is late and I am tired but I just had to say something. I see your comments as equivalent to betting the sun will come up tomorrow. You will almost certainly win your bet but you really don't know anything about what will happen tomorrow and some day you might just get a big surprise.

Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by malc on Monday, September 24, 2007 @ 04:03:16 EDT
(User Info | Send a Message) http://web.ukonline.co.uk/mripley
Be very very careful about invoking the current laws of physics.  Those thermodynamic "laws" are based on an observation of closed systems.  There is no absolute proof of the behaviour i.e. why.

All current laws are simply the currently accepted view of the world.  These may change and have done so many times in the last 2 hundred years. 

New discoveries can often lead to a change in those laws but this also means that the new discovery breaks the current laws! So beware.

Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by fullofnrg on Saturday, September 22, 2007 @ 21:03:58 EDT
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I don't know. Those crazy guys like Doctor Robert W. Brussard and Philo T. Farnsworth seemed to have the right idea with a ton of drawings and specifications and patents but for some unknown reason are ignored and were or are underfunded. Dr. Brussard only worked on the Tokamak at Princeton and has researched the hell out of fusion and Mr. Farnsworth was the genious behind the magnetron as well as numerous other breakthroughs including real fusion. 

Why does our world even ignore the ones with great credentials? Money, money, money. That's why. Even if you have a great idea it is an uphill battle to get any recognition even if you can spell or use proper grammar. Sutch a teribble shhame that are. 

The answers are there but if no one can make a buck off it forever and ever then there is no impetus behind it. The same thing happened to Tesla with J.P. Morgan as well as many others. (Tesla was a fringe scientist too but you probably wouldn't be reading this on your computer right now if it wasn't for him, that crazy Croat).

We are our own worse enemy in some respects but also when the oil rich run the world why would they want to change? They survive on the toil of us, the ignorant, spoon fed slaves who believe whatever they tell us. Free press my ass....

Knowledge is being suppressed whether you believe it or not and thankfully the Internet is turning the tide. Even though "the fringe" is being publicized (and there are good ideas there too), so are classical scientific breakthroughs that never makes the regular papers. Those in charge can't stop it and they are afraid, very afraid, because they know the end is near for their house of cards. Can't wait for the end of them......selfish bastards all...

BTW Ethanol is another commodity now you have to buy so guess why they are pushing it? It's an awful idea that not only will make life on this planet worse environmentally but also will cause all food based products to become absurdly expensive. It's already begun. Bought eggs or milk lately? There really is a connection there. Meat will be next as well as bread and anything grain based. Who's making the money? Not us. What a great idea. Huh?

My opinion.....Excuse my poor gramma...she does the best she can  (drum roll, cymbal crash...o.k. that sucked)

Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by pulsed_ignition on Saturday, September 22, 2007 @ 22:35:41 EDT
(User Info | Send a Message) http://diamondlube.com
Just like the farmers son (Philo), another man (a jeweler) that simply was not qualified is using what many called the impossible plasma, because it could not possibly work. The products are being shipped world wide, including a shipment to Dubai that produced shockingly phenomenal, positive results. (ebay is the greatest) The material is synthetic diamond, virtually indestructible and the best lubricant available. Real products, real breakthroughs all without you needing to invest in developing the new technology - what more could you ask for?

www.hyprlubes.com [www.hyprlubes.com]



Re: What We Can Learn From The Lunatic Fringe? (Score: 1)
by fullofnrg on Saturday, September 22, 2007 @ 22:33:05 EDT
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I apologize to Doctor Bussard for mispelling his name in my last post. If you want to read more about his work this pretty well sums it up. My gramma is better today...See last post to get it...

http://www.thepriceofliberty.org/07/05/07/ward.htm [www.thepriceofliberty.org]


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