Archive for the 'Bad Physics' category

Hydrinos: Impressive Free Energy Crackpottery

Dec 29 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

Back when I wrote about the whole negative energy rubbish, a reader wrote to me, and asked me to write something about hydrinos.

For those who are lucky enough not to know about them, hydrinos are part of another free energy scam. In this case, a medical doctor named Randell Mills claims to have discovered that hydrogen atoms can have multiple states beyond the typical, familiar ground state of hydrogen. Under the right conditions, so claims Dr. Mills, the electron shell around a hydrogen atom will compact into a tighter orbit, releasing a burst of energy in the process. And, in fact, it's (supposedly) really, really easy to make hydrogen turn into hydrinos - if you let a bunch of hydrogen atoms bump in to a bunch of Argon atoms, then presto! some of the hydrogen will shrink into hydrino form, and give you a bunch of energy.

Wonderful, right? Just let a bunch of gas bounce around in a balloon, and out comes energy!

Oh, but it's better than that. There are multiple hydrino forms: you can just keep compressing and compressing the hydrogen atom, pushing out more and more energy each time. The more you compress it, the more energy you get - and you don't really need to compress it. You just bump it up against another atom, and poof! energy.

To explain all of this, Dr. Mills further claims to have invented a new
form of quantum mechanics, called "grand unified theory of classical quantum mechanics" (CQM for short) which provides the unification between relativity and quantum mechanics that people have been looking for. And, even better, CQM is fully deterministic - all of that ugly probabilistic stuff from quantum mechanics goes away!

The problem is, it doesn't work. None of it.

What makes hydrinos interesting as a piece of crankery is that there's a lot more depth to it than to most crap. Dr. Mills hasn't just handwaved that these hydrino things exist - he's got a very elaborate detailed theory - with a lot of non-trivial math - to back it up. Alas, the math is garbage, but it's garbage-ness isn't obvious. To see the problems, we'll need to get deeper into math than we usually do.

Let's start with a couple of examples of the claims about hydrinos, and the kind of favorable clueless press they've received.

Here is an example of how hydrino supporters explain them:

In 1986 Randell Mills MD developed a theory that hydrogen atoms could shrink, and release lots of energy in the process. He called the resultant entity a "Hydrino" (little Hydrogen), and started a company called Blacklight Power, Inc. to commercialize his process. He published his theory in a book he wrote, which is available in PDF format on his website. Unfortunately, the book contains so much mathematics that many people won't bother with it. On this page I will try to present the energy related aspect of his theory in language that I hope will be accessible to many.

According to Dr. Mills, when a hydrogen atom collides with certain other atoms or ions, it can sometimes transfer a quantity of energy to the other atom, and shrink at the same time, becoming a Hydrino in the process. The atom that it collided with is called the "catalyst", because it helps the Hydrino shrink. Once a Hydrino has formed, it can shrink even further through collisions with other catalyst atoms. Each collision potentially resulting in another shrinkage.

Each successive level of shrinkage releases even more energy than the previous level. In other words, the smaller the Hydrino gets, the more energy it releases each time it shrinks another level.

To get an idea of the amounts of energy involved, I now need to introduce the concept of the "electron volt" (eV). An eV is the amount of energy that a single electron gains when it passes through a voltage drop of one volt. Since a volt isn't much (a "dry cell" is about 1.5 volts), and the electric charge on an electron is utterly minuscule, an eV is a very tiny amount of energy. Nevertheless, it is a very representative measure of the energy involved in chemical reactions. e.g. when Hydrogen and Oxygen combine to form a water molecule, about 2.5 eV of energy is released per water molecule formed.

When Hydrogen shrinks to form a second level Hydrino (Hydrogen itself is considered to be the first level Hydrino), about 41 eV of energy is released. This is already about 16 times more than when Hydrogen and Oxygen combine to form water. And it gets better from there. If that newly formed Hydrino collides with another catalyst atom, and shrinks again, to the third level, then an additional 68 eV is released. This can go on for quite a way, and the amount gets bigger each time. Here is a table of some level numbers, and the energy released in dropping to that level from the previous level, IOW when you go from e.g. level 4 to level 5, 122 eV is released. (BTW larger level numbers represent smaller Hydrinos).

And some of the press:

Notice a pattern?

The short version of the problem with hydrinos is really, really simple.

The most fundamental fact of nature that we've observed is that everything tends to move towards its lowest energy state. The whole theory of hydrinos basically says that that's not true: everything except hydrogen tends to move towards its lowest energy state, but hydrogen doesn't. It's got a dozen or so lower energy states, but none of the abundant quantities of hydrogen on earth are ever observed in any of those states unless they're manipulated by Mills magical machine.

The whole basis of hydrino theory is Mills CQM. CQM is rubbish - but it's impressive looking rubbish. I'm not going to go deep into detail; you can see a detailed explanation of the problems here; I'll run through a short version.

To start, how is Mills claiming that hydrinos work? In CQM, he posits the existence of electron shell levels closer to the nucleus than the ground state of hydrogen. Based on his calculations, he comes up with an energy figure for the difference between the ground state and the hydrino state. Then he finds other substances that have the property that boosting one electron into a higher energy state would cost the same amount of energy. When a hydrogen atom collides with an atom that has a matching electron transition, the hydrogen can get bumped into the hydrino state, while kicking an electron into a higher orbital. That electron will supposedly, in due time, fall back to its original level, releasing the energy differential as a photon.

On this level, it sort-of looks correct. It doesn't violate conservation of energy: the collision between the two atoms doesn't produce anything magical. It's just a simple transfer of energy. That much is fine.

It's when you get into the details that it gets seriously fudgy.

Right from the start, if you know what you're doing, CQM goes off the rails. For example, CQM claims that you can describe the dynamics of an electron in terms of a classical wave charge-density function equation. Mills actually gives that function, and asserts that it respects Lorentz invariance. That's crucial - Lorentz invariance is critical for relativity: it's the fundamental mathematical symmetry that's the basis of relativity. But his equation doesn't actually respect Lorentz invariance. Or, rather, it does - but only if the electron is moving at the speed of light. Which it can't do.

Mills goes on to describe the supposed physics of hydrinos. If you work through his model, the only state that is consistent with both his equations, and his claim that the electrons orbit in a spherical shell above the atom - well, if you do that, you'll find that according to his own equations, there is only one possible state for a hydrogen atom - the conventional ground state.

It goes on in that vein for quite a while. He's got an elaborate system, with an elaborate mathematical framework... but none of the math actually says what he says it says. The Lorentz invariance example that I cited above - that's typical. Print an equation, say that it says X, even though the equation doesn't say anything like X.

But we can go a bit further. The fundamental state of atoms is something that we understand pretty well, because we've got so many observations, and so much math describing it. And the thing is, that math is pretty damned convincing. That doesn't mean that it's correct, but it does mean that any theory that wants to replace it must be able to describe everything that we've observed at least as well as the current theory.

Why do atoms have the shape that they do? Why are the size that they are? It's not a super easy thing to understand, because electrons aren't really particles. They're something strange. We don't often think about that, but it's true. They're deeply bizarre things. They're not really particles. Under many conditions, they behave more like waves than like particles. And that's true of the atom.

The reason that atoms are the size that they are is because the electron "orbitals" have sizes and shapes that are determined by resonant frequencies of the wave-like aspects of electrons. What Mills is suggesting is that there are a range of never-before observed resonant frequencies of electrons. But the math that he uses to support that claim just doesn't work.

Now, I'll be honest here. I'm not nearly enough of a physics whiz to be competent to judge the accuracy of his purported quantum mechanical system. But I'm still pretty darn confident that he's full of crap. Why?

I'm from New Jersey - pretty much right up the road from where his lab is. Going to college right up the road from him, I've been hearing about his for a long time. He's been running this company for quite a while - going on two decades. And all that time, the company has been constantly issuing press releases promising that it's just a year away from being commercialized! It's always one step away. But never, never, has he released enough information to let someone truly independent verify or reproduce his results. And he's been very deceptive about that: he's made various claims about independent verification on several occasions.

For example, he once cited that his work had been verified by a researcher at Harvard. In fact, he'd had one of his associates rent a piece of equipment at Harvard, and use it for a test. So yes, it was tested by a researcher - if you count his associate as a legitimate researcher. And it was tested at Harvard. But the claim that it was tested by a researcher at Harvard is clearly meant to imply that it was tested by a Harvard professor, when it wasn't.

For something around 20 years, he's been making promises, giving very tightly controlled demos, refusing to give any real details, refusing to actually explain how to reproduce his "results", and promising that it's just one year away from being commercialized!

And yet... hydrogen is the most common substance in the universe. If it really had a lower energy state that what we call it's ground state, and that lower energy state was really as miraculous as he claims - why wouldn't we see it? Why hasn't it ever been observed? Substances like Argon are rare - but they're not that rare. Argon has been exposed to hydrogen under laboratory conditions plenty of times - and yet, nothing anamalous has even been observed. All of the supposed hydrino catalysts have been observed so often under so many conditions - and yet, no anamolous energy has even been noticed before. But according to Mills, we should be seeing tons of it.

And that's not all. Mills also claims that you can create all sorts of compounds with hydrinos - and naturally, every single one of those compounds is positively miraculous! Bonded with silicon, you get better semiconductors! Substitute hydrinos for regular hydrogen in a battery electrolyte, and you get a miracle battery! Use it in rocket fuel instead of common hydrogen, and you get a ten-fold improvement in the performance of a rocket! Make a laser from it, and you can create higher-density data storage and communication systems. Everything that hydrinos touch is amazing

But... not one of these miraculous substances has ever been observed before. We work with silicon all the time - but we've never seen the magic silicon hydrino compound. And he's never been willing to actually show anyone any of these miracle substances.

He claims that he doesn't show it because he's protecting his intellectual property. But that's silly. If hydrinos existed, then just telling us that these compounds exist and have interesting properties should be enough for other labs to go ahead and experiment with producing them. But no one has. Whether he shows the supposed miracle compounds or not doesn't change anyone else's ability to produce those. Even if he's keeping his magic hydrino factory secret, so that no one else has access to hydrinos, by telling us that these compounds exist, he's given away the secret. He's not protecting anything anymore: by publically talking about these things, he's given up his right to patent the substances. It's true that he still hasn't given up the rights to the process of producing them - but publicly demonstrating these alleged miracle substances wouldn't take away any legal rights that he hasn't already given up. So, why doesn't he show them to you?

Because they don't exist.

126 responses so far

Second Law Silliness from Sewell

Dec 12 2011 Published by under Bad Physics, Intelligent Design, Uncategorized

So, via Panda's Thumb, I hear that Granville Sewell is up to his old hijinks. Sewell is a classic creationist crackpot, who's known for two things.

First, he's known for chronically recycling the old "second law of thermodynamics" garbage. And second, he's known for building arguments based on "thought experiments" - where instead of doing experiments, he just makes up the experiments and the results.

The second-law crankery is really annoying. It's one of the oldest creationist pseudo-scientific schticks around, and it's such a terrible argument. It's also a sort-of pet peeve of mine, because I hate the way that people generally respond to it. It's not that the common response is wrong - but rather that the common responses focus on one error, while neglecting to point out that there are many deeper issues with it.

In case you've been hiding under a rock, the creationist argument is basically:

  1. The second law of thermodynamics says that disorder always increases.
  2. Evolution produces highly-ordered complexity via a natural process.
  3. Therefore, evolution must be impossible, because you can't create order.

The first problem with this argument is very simple. The second law of thermodynamics does not say that disorder always increases. It's a classic example of my old maxim: the worst math is no math. The second law of thermodynamics doesn't say anything as fuzzy as "you can't create order". It's a precise, mathematical statement. The second law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system:

\[ Delta S geq int frac{delta Q}{T}\]

where:

  1. \(S\) is the entropy in a system,
  2. \(Q\) is the amount of heat transferred in an interaction, and
  3. \(T\) is the temperature of the system.

Translated into english, that basically says that in any interaction that involves the
transfer of heat, the entropy of the system cannot possible be reduced. Other ways of saying it include "There is no possible process whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a cooler body to a warmer one"; or "No process is possible in which the sole result is the absorption of heat from a reservoir and its complete conversion into work."

Note well - there is no mention of "chaos" or "disorder" in these statements: The second law is a statement about the way that energy can be used. It basically says that when
you try to use energy, some of that energy is inevitably lost in the process of using it.

Talking about "chaos", "order", "disorder" - those are all metaphors. Entropy is a difficult concept. It doesn't really have a particularly good intuitive meaning. It means something like "energy lost into forms that can't be used to do work" - but that's still a poor attempt to capture it in metaphor. The reason that people use order and disorder comes from a way of thinking about energy: if I can extract energy from burning gasoline to spin the wheels of my car, the process of spinning my wheels is very organized - it's something that I can see as a structured application of energy - or, stretching the metaphor a bit, the energy that spins the wheels in structured. On the other hand, the "waste" from burning the gas - the heating of the engine parts, the energy caught in the warmth of the exhaust - that's just random and useless. It's "chaotic".

So when a creationist says that the second law of thermodynamics says you can't create order, they're full of shit. The second law doesn't say that - not in any shape or form. You don't need to get into the whole "open system/closed system" stuff to dispute it; it simply doesn't say what they claim it says.

But let's not stop there. Even if you accept that the mathematical statement of the second law really did say that chaos always increases, that still has nothing to do with evolution. Look back at the equation. What it says is that in a closed system, in any interaction, the total entropy must increase. Even if you accept that entropy means chaos, all that it says is that in any interaction, the total entropy must increase.

It doesn't say that you can't create order. It says that the cumulative end result of any interaction must increase entropy. Want to build a house? Of course you can do it without violating the second law. But to build that house, you need to cut down trees, dig holes, lay foundations, cut wood, pour concrete, put things together. All of those things use a lot of energy. And in each minute interaction, you're expending energy in ways that increase entropy. If the creationist interpretation of the second law were true, you couldn't build a house, because building a house involves creating something structured - creating order.

Similarly, if you look at a living cell, it does a whole lot of highly ordered, highly structured things. In order to do those things, it uses energy. And in the process of using that energy, it creates entropy. In terms of order and chaos, the cell uses energy to create order, but in the process of doing so it creates wastes - waste heat, and waste chemicals. It converts high-energy structured molecules into lower-energy molecules, converting things with energetic structure to things without. Look at all of the waste that's produced by a living cell, and you'll find that it does produce a net increase in entropy. Once again, if the creationists were right, then you wouldn't need to worry about whether evolution was possible under thermodynamics - because life wouldn't be possible.

In fact, if the creationists were right, the existence of planets, stars, and galaxies wouldn't be possible - because a galaxy full of stars with planets is far less chaotic than loose cloud of hydrogen.

Once again, we don't even need to consider the whole closed system/open system distinction, because even if we treat earth as a closed system, their arguments are wrong. Life doesn't really defy the laws of thermodynamics - it produces entropy exactly as it should.

But the creationist second-law argument is even worse than that.

The second-law argument is that the fact that DNA "encodes information", and that the amount of information "encoded" in DNA increases as a result of the evolutionary process means that evolution violates the second law.

This absolutely doesn't require bringing in any open/closed system discussions. Doing that is just a distraction which allows the creationist to sneak their real argument underneath.

The real point is: DNA is a highly structured molecule. No disagreement there. But so what? In the life of an organism, there are virtually un-countable numbers of energetic interactions, all of which result in a net increase in the amount of entropy. Why on earth would adding a bunch of links to a DNA chain completely outweigh those? In fact, changing the DNA of an organism is just another entropy increasing event. The chemical processes in the cell that create DNA strands consume energy, and use that energy to produce molecules like DNA, producing entropy along the way, just like pretty much every other chemical process in the universe.

The creationist argument relies on a bunch of sloppy handwaves: "entropy" is disorder; "you can't create order", "DNA is ordered". In fact, evolution has no problem with respect to entropy: one way of viewing evolution is that it's a process of creating ever more effective entropy-generators.

Now we can get to Sewell and his arguments, and you can see how perfectly they match what I've been talking about.

Imagine a high school science teacher renting a video showing a tornado sweeping through a town, turning houses and cars into rubble. When she attempts to show it to her students, she accidentally runs the video backward. As Ford predicts, the students laugh and say, the video is going backwards! The teacher doesn’t want to admit her mistake, so she says: “No, the video is not really going backward. It only looks like it is because it appears that the second law is being violated. And of course entropy is decreasing in this video, but tornados derive their power from the sun, and the increase in entropy on the sun is far greater than the decrease seen on this video, so there is no conflict with the second law.” “In fact,” the teacher continues, “meteorologists can explain everything that is happening in this video,” and she proceeds to give some long, detailed, hastily improvised scientific theories on how tornados, under the right conditions, really can construct houses and cars. At the end of the explanation, one student says, “I don’t want to argue with scientists, but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to explain if you ran the video the other way?”

Now imagine a professor describing the final project for students in his evolutionary biology class. “Here are two pictures,” he says.

“One is a drawing of what the Earth must have looked like soon after it formed. The other is a picture of New York City today, with tall buildings full of intelligent humans, computers, TV sets and telephones, with libraries full of science texts and novels, and jet airplanes flying overhead. Your assignment is to explain how we got from picture one to picture two, and why this did not violate the second law of thermodynamics. You should explain that 3 or 4 billion years ago a collection of atoms formed by pure chance that was able to duplicate itself, and these complex collections of atoms were able to pass their complex structures on to their descendants generation after generation, even correcting errors. Explain how, over a very long time, the accumulation of genetic accidents resulted in greater and greater information content in the DNA of these more and more complicated collections of atoms, and how eventually something called “intelligence” allowed some of these collections of atoms to design buildings and computers and TV sets, and write encyclopedias and science texts. But be sure to point out that while none of this would have been possible in an isolated system, the Earth is an open system, and entropy can decrease in an open system as long as the decreases are compensated by increases outside the system. Energy from the sun is what made all of this possible, and while the origin and evolution of life may have resulted in some small decrease in entropy here, the increase in entropy on the sun easily compensates this tiny decrease. The sun should play a central role in your essay.”

When one student turns in his essay some days later, he has written,

“A few years after picture one was taken, the sun exploded into a supernova, all humans and other animals died, their bodies decayed, and their cells decomposed into simple organic and inorganic compounds. Most of the buildings collapsed immediately into rubble, those that didn’t, crumbled eventually. Most of the computers and TV sets inside were smashed into scrap metal, even those that weren’t, gradually turned into piles of rust, most of the books in the libraries burned up, the rest rotted over time, and you can see see the result in picture two.”

The professor says, “You have switched the pictures!” “I know,” says the student. “But it was so much easier to explain that way.”

Evolution is a movie running backward, that is what makes it so different from other phenomena in our universe, and why it demands a very different sort of explanation.

This is a perfect example of both of Sewell's usual techniques.

First, the essential argument here is rubbish. It's the usual "second-law means that you can't create order", even though that's not what it says, followed by a rather shallow and pointless response to the open/closed system stuff.

And the second part is what makes Sewell Sewell. He can't actually make his own arguments. No, that's much too hard. So he creates fake people, and plays out a story using his fake people and having them make fake arguments, and then uses the people in his story to illustrate his argument. It's a technique that I haven't seen used so consistency since I read Ayn Rand in high school.

53 responses so far

Free Energy Crankery and Negative Mass Nonsense

Dec 01 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

I've got a couple of pet peeves.

As the author of this blog, the obvious one is bad math. And as I always say, the worst math is no math.

Another pet peeve of mine is free energy. Energy is, obviously, a hugely important thing to our society. And how we're going to get the energy we need is a really serious problem - almost certainly the biggest problem that we face. Even if you've convinced yourself that global warming isn't an issue, energy is a major problem. There's only so much coal and oil that we can dig up - someday, we're going to run out.

But there are tons of frauds out there who've created fake machines that they claim you can magically get energy from. And there are tons of cranks who are all-too-ready to believe them.

Take, for example, Bob Koontz.

Koontz is a guy with an actual physics background - he got his PhD at the University of Maryland. I'm very skeptical that he's actually stupid enough to believe in what he's selling - but nonetheless, he's made a donation-based business out of selling his "free energy" theory.

So what's his supposed theory?

It sounds impossible, but it isn't. It is possible to obtain an unlimited amount of energy from devices which essentially only require that they be charged up with negative mass electrons and negative mass positrons. Any physicist should be able to convince himself of this in a matter of minutes. It really is simple: While ordinary positive mass electrons in a circuit consume power, negative mass electrons generate power. Why is that? For negative mass electrons and negative mass positrons, Newton's second law, F = ma becomes F = -ma.

But acquiring negative mass electrons and negative mass electrons is not quite as simple as it sounds. They are exotic particles that many physicists may even doubt exist. But they do exist. I am convinced of this -- for good reasons.

The Law of Energy Conservation

The law of energy conservation tells us that the total energy of a closed system is constant. Therefore, if such a system has an increase in positive energy, there must be an increase in negative energy. The total energy stays constant.

When you drop an object in the earth's gravitational field, the object gains negative gravitational potential energy as it falls -- with that increase in negative energy being balanced by an increase of positive energy of motion. But the object does not lose or gain total energy as it falls. It gains kinetic energy while it gains an equal amount of negative gravitational energy.

How could we have free energy? If we gain positive energy, we must also generate negative energy in exactly the same amount. That will "conserve energy," as physicists say. In application, in the field of "free energy," that means generating negative energy photons and other negative energy particles while we get the positive energy we are seeking. What is the problem, then? The problem involves generating the negative energy particles.

a

So... there are, supposedly, "negative energy" particles that correspond to electrons and positrons. These particles have never been observed, and under normal circumstances, they have no effect on any observable phenomenon.

But, we're supposed to believe, it really exists. And it means that we can get free energy without violating the conservation of energy - because the creation of an equal amount of invisible, undetectable, effectless negative energy balances out whatever positive energy we create.

So what is negative energy?

That's where the bad math comes in. Here's his explanation:

When Paul Dirac, the Nobel prize-winning physicist was developing the first form of relativistic quantum mechanics he found it necessary to introduce the concept of negative mass electrons. This subsequently led Dirac to develop the idea that a hole in a sea of negative mass electrons corresponded to a positron, otherwise known as an antielectron. Some years later the positron was observed and Dirac won the Nobel prize.

Subsequent to the above, there appears to have been no experimental search for these negative mass particles. Whether or not negative mass electrons and negative mass positrons exist is thus a question to which we do not yet have an answer. However, if these particles do exist, their unusual properties could be exploited to produce unlimited amounts of energy -- as negative mass electrons and negative mass positrons, when employed in a circuit, produce energy rather than consume it. Newton's 2nd law F = ma becomes F = - ma and that explains why negative mass electrons and negative mass positrons produce energy rather than consume it. I believe that any good physicist should be able to see this quite quickly.

The following paragraph is actually wrong. There is such a thing as relativistic quantum mechanics. QM and special relativity are compatible, and the relativistic QM fits is at that intersection. General relativity and QM remains an unsolved problem, as discussed below. I'm leaving the original paragraph, because it seems dishonest to just delete it, like I was pretending that I never screwed up.

There is no such thing as relativistic quantum mechanics. One of the great research areas of modern physics is the attempt to figure out how to unify quantum mechanics and relativity. Many people have tried to find a unifying formulation, but no one has yet succeeded. There is no theory of relativistic QM.

It's actually a fascinating subject. General relativity seems to be true: every test that we can dream up confirms GR. And quantum mechanics also appears to be true: every test that we can dream up confirms the theory of quantum mechanics. And yet, the two are not compatible.

No one has been able to solve this problem - not Dirac, not anyone.

Even within the Dirac bit... there is a clever bit of slight-of-hand. He starts by saying that Dirac proposed that there were "negative mass" electrons. Dirac did propose something like that - but the proposal was within the frame of mathematics. Without knowing about the existence of the positron, he worked through the implications of relativity, and would up with a model which could be interpreted as a sea of "negative mass" electrons with holes in it. The holes are positrons.

To get a sense of what this means, it's useful to pull out a metaphor. In semiconductor physics, when you're trying to describe the behavior of semiconductors, it's often useful to talk about things backwards. Instead of talking about how the electrons move through a semiconductor, you can talk about how electron holes move. An electron hole is a "gap" where an electron could move. Instead of an electron moving from A to B, you can talk about an electron hole moving from B to A.

The Dirac derivation is a similar thing. The real particle is the positron. But for some purposes, it's easier to discuss it backwards: assume that all of space is packed, saturated, with "negative mass" electrons. But there are holes moving through that space. A hole in a "negative mass", negatively charged field is equivalent to a particle with positive mass and positive charge in an empty, uncharged space - a positron.

The catch is that you need to pick your abstraction. If you want to use the space-saturated-with-negative-mass model, then the positron doesn't exist. You're looking at a model in which there is no positron - there is just a gap in the space of negative-mass particles. If you want to use the model with a particle called a positron, then the negative mass particles don't exist.

So why haven't we been searching for negative-mass particles? Because they don't exist. That is, we've chosen the model of reality which says that the positron is a real particle. Or to be slightly more precise: we have a very good mathematical model of many aspects of reality. In that model, we can choose to interpret it as either a model in which the positive-mass particles really exist and the negative-mass particles exist only as an absence of particles; or we can interpret it as saying that the negative-mass particles exist, and the positive mass ones exist only as an absence of negative-mass particles. In either case, that model provides an extremely good description of what we observe about reality. But that model does not predict that both the positive and negative mass particles both really exist in any meaningful sense. By observing and calculating the properties of the positive mass particles, we adopt the interpretation that positive mass particles really exist. Every observation that we make of the properties of positive mass particles is implicitly an observation of the properties of negative-mass particles. The two interpretations are mathematical duals.

Looking at his background and at at other things on his site, I think that Koontz is, probably, a fraud. He's not dumb enough to believe this. But he's smart enough to realize that there are lots of other people who are dumb enough to believe it. Koontz has no problem with pandering to them in the name of his own profit. What finally convinced me of that was his UFO-sighting claim here. Absolutely pathetic.

29 responses so far

I get mail: Brown's Gas and Perpetual Motion

Oct 17 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

In the past, I've written about free-energy cranks like Tom Bearden, and I've made several allusions to the Brown's gas" crankpots. But I've never actually written in any detail about the latter.

Brown's gas is a term used primarily by cranks for oxyhydrogen gas. Oxyhydrogen is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen in a two-to-one molar ratio; in other words, it's exactly the product of electrolysis to break water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. It's used as the fuel for several kinds of torches and welders. It's become a lot less common, because for most applications, it's just not as practical as things like acetylene torches, TIG welders, etc.

But for free-energy cranks, it's a panacea.

You see, the beautiful thing about Brown's gas is that it burns very nicely, it can be compressed well enough to produce a very respectable energy density, and when you use it, its only exhaust gas is water. If you look at it naively, that makes it absolutely wonderful as a fuel.

The problem, of course, is that it costs energy to produce it. You need to pump energy into water to divide it into hydrogen and oxygen; and then you need to use more energy to compress it in order to make it useful. Still, there are serious people who are working hard on things like hydrogen fuel cell power sources for cars - because it is an attractive fuel. It's just not a panacea.

But the cranks... Ah, the cranks. The cranks believe that if you just find the right way to burn it, then you can create a perfect source of free energy. You see, if you can just burn it so that it produces a teeny, tiny bit more energy being burned that it cost to produce, then you've got free energy. You just run an engine - it keeps dividing the water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then you burn it, producing more energy than you spent to divide it; and the only by-product is water vapor!

Of course, this doesn't work. Thermodynamics fights back: you can't get more energy out of recombining atoms of hydrogen and oxygen than you spent splitting molecules of water to get that hydrogen and oxygen. It's very simple: there's a certain amount of latent energy in that chemical bond. You need to pump in a certain amount of energy to break it - if I remember correctly, it's around 142 Joules per gram of water. When you burn hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, you get exactly that amount of energy back. It's a state transition - it's the same distance up as it is back down. It's like lifting a weight up a step on a staircase: it takes a certain amount of energy to move the weight up one step. When you drop it back down, it won't produce more energy falling that you put in to lift it.

But the Brown's gas people won't let that stop them!

Here's an email I recieved yesterday from a Brown's gas fan, who noticed one of my old criticisms of it:

Hi Mark,

My name is Stefan, and I recently came across your analysis regarding split water technology to power vehicle. You are trying to proof that it makes no sense because it is against the physic low of energy conservation?

There is something I would like to ask you, if you could explain to me. What do you think about the sail boat zigzagging against the wind? Is it the classical example of perpetual motion?

If so, I believe that the energy conversion law is not always applicable, and even maybe wrong? Using for example resonance you can destroy each constructions with little force, the same I believe is with membrane HHO technology at molecular level?

Is it possible that we invented the law of impossibility known as the Energy Conservation Law and this way created such limitation? If you have some time please answer me what do you think about it? This World as you know is mostly unexplainable, and maybe we should learn more to better understand how exactly the Universe work?

The ignorance in this is absolutely astonishing. And it's pretty typical of my experience with the Brown's gas fans. They're so woefully ignorant of simple math and physics.

Let's start with his first question, about sailboat tacking. That's got some interesting connections to my biggest botch on this blog, my fouled up debunking of the downwind-faster-than-the-wind vehicle.

The tacking sailboat is a really interesting problem. When you think about it naively, it seems like it shouldn't be possible. If you let a leaf blow in the wind, it can't possibly move faster than the wind. So how can a sailboat do it?

The anwser to that is that the sailboat isn't a free body floating in the wind. It's got a body and keel in the water, and a sail in the air. What it's doing is exploiting that difference in motion between the water and the air, and extracting energy. Mathematically, the water behaves as a source of tension, resisting the pressure of the wind against the sail, and converting it into motion in a different direction. Lift the body of the sailboat out of the water, and it can't do that anymore. Similarly, a boat can't accelerate by "tacking" against the water current unless it has a sail. It needs the two parts in different domains; then it can, effectively, extract energy from the difference between the two. But the most important point about a tacking sailboat - more important than the details of the mechanism that it uses - is that there's no energy being created. The sailboat is extracting kinetic energy from the wind, and converting it into kinetic energy in the boat. There's no energy being created or destroyed - just moved around. Every bit of energy that the boat acquires (plus some extra) was removed from the wind.

So no, a sailboat isn't an example of perpetual motion. It's just a very typical example of moving energy around from one place to another. The sun heats the air/water/land; that creates wind; wind pushes the boat.

Similarly, he botches the resonance example.

Resonance is, similarly, a fascinating phenomenon, but it's one that my correspondant totally fails to comprehend.

Resonance isn't about a small amount of energy producing a large effect. It's about how a small amount of energy applied over time can add up to a large amount of energy.

There is, again, no energy being created. The resonant system is not producing energy. A small amount of energy is not doing anything more than a small amount of energy can always do.

The difference is that in the right conditions, energy can add in interesting ways. Think of a spring with a weight hanging on the end. If you apply a small steady upward force on the weight, the spring will move upward a small distance. When you release the force, the weight will fall to slightly below its apparent start point, and then start to come back up. It will bounce up and down until friction stops it.

But now... at the moment when it hits its highest position, you give it another tiny push, then it will move a bit higher. Now it's bounce distance will be longer. If every time, exactly as it hits its highest point, you give it another tiny push, then each cycle, it will move a little bit higher. And by repeatedly appyling tiny forces at the right time, the forces add up, and you get a lot of motion in the spring.

The key is, how much? And the answer is: take all of the pushes that you gave it, and add them up. The motion that you got from the resonant pattern is exactly the same as the motion you'd get if you applied the summed force all at once. (Or, actually, you'd get slightly more from the summed force; you lost some to friction in the resonant scenario.

Resonance can create absolutely amazing phenomena, where you can get results that are absolutely astonishing; where forces that really seem like they're far to small to produce any result do something amazing. The famous example of this is the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, where the wind happened to blow just right to created a resonant vibration which tore the bridge apart:

But there's no free energy there; no energy being created or destroyed.

So, Stefan... It's always possible that we're wrong about how physics work. It's possible that conservation of energy isn't a real law. It's possible that the world might work in a way where conservation of energy just appears to be a law, and in fact, there are ways around it, and that we can use those ways to produce free energy. But people have been trying to do that for a very, very long time. We've been able to use our understanding of physics to do amazing things. We can accelerate particles up to nearly the speed of light and slam them together. We can shoot rockets into space. We can put machines and even people on other planets. We can produce energy by breaking atoms into pieces. We can build devices that flip switches billions of times per second, and use them to talk to each other! And we can predict, to within a tiny fraction of a fraction of the breadth of a hair how much energy it will take to do these things, and how much heat will be produced by doing them.

All of these things rely on a very precise description of how things work. If our understanding were off by the tiniest bit, none of these things could possibly work. So we have really good reasons to believe that our theories are, to a pretty great degree of certainty, accurate descriptions of how reality works. That doesn't mean that we're right - but it does mean that we've got a whole lot of evidence to support the idea that energy is always conserved.

On the side of the free energy folks: not one person has ever been able to demonstrate a mechanism that produces more energy than was put in to it. No one has ever been able to demonstrate any kind of free energy under controlled experimental conditions. No one has been able to produce a theory that describes how such a system could work that is consistent with observations of the real world.

People have been pushing Brown's gas for decades. But they've never, every, not one single time, been able to actually demonstrate a working generator. No one has ever done it. No one has been able to build a car that actually works using Brown's gas without an separate power source. No one has build a self-sustaining generator. No one has been able to produce any mathematical description of how Brown's gas produces energy that is consistent with real-world observations.

So you've got two sides to the argument about Brown's gas. On one side, you've got modern physics, which has reams and reams of evidence, precise theories that are confirmed by observation, and unbelievable numbers of inventions that rely on the precision of those theories. On the other side, you've got people who've never been able to to do a demonstration, who can't describe how things work, who can't explain why things appear to work the way that they appear, who have never been able to produce a single working invention...

Which side should we believe? Given the current evidence, the answer is obvious.

38 responses so far

What happens if you don't understand math? Just replace it with solipsism, and you can get published!

Jun 21 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

About four years ago, I wrote a post about a crackpot theory by a biologist named Robert Lanza. Lanza is a biologist - a genuine, serious scientist. And his theory got published in a major journal, "The American Scholar". Nevertheless, it's total rubbish.

Anyway, the folks over at the Encyclopedia of American Loons just posted an entry about him, so I thought it was worth bringing back this oldie-but-goodie. The original post was inspired by a comment from one of my most astute commenters, Mr. Blake Stacey, where he gave me a link to Lanza'sarticle.

The article is called "A New Theory of the Universe", by Robert Lanza, and as I said, it was published in the American Scholar. Lanza's article is a rotten piece of new-age gibberish, with all of the usual hallmarks: lots of woo, all sorts of babble about how important consciousness is, random nonsensical babblings about quantum physics, and of course, bad math.

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22 responses so far

Another Crank comes to visit: The Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

When an author of one of the pieces that I mock shows up, I try to bump them up to the top of the queue. No matter how crackpotty they are, I think that if they've gone to the trouble to come and defend their theories, they deserve a modicum of respect, and giving them a fair chance to get people to see their defense is the least I can do.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe. Yesterday, the author of that piece showed up in the comments. It's a two-year-old post, which was originally written back at ScienceBlogs - so a discussion in the comments there isn't going to get noticed by anyone. So I'm reposting it here, with some revisions.

Stripped down to its basics, the CTMU is just yet another postmodern "perception defines the universe" idea. Nothing unusual about it on that level. What makes it interesting is that it tries to take a set-theoretic approach to doing it. (Although, to be a tiny bit fair, he claims that he's not taking a set theoretic approach, but rather demonstrating why a set theoretic approach won't work. Either way, I'd argue that it's more of a word-game than a real theory, but whatever...)

The real universe has always been theoretically treated as an object, and specifically as the composite type of object known as a set. But an object or set exists in space and time, and reality does not. Because the real universe by definition contains all that is real, there is no "external reality" (or space, or time) in which it can exist or have been "created". We can talk about lesser regions of the real universe in such a light, but not about the real universe as a whole. Nor, for identical reasons, can we think of the universe as the sum of its parts, for these parts exist solely within a spacetime manifold identified with the whole and cannot explain the manifold itself. This rules out pluralistic explanations of reality, forcing us to seek an explanation at once monic (because nonpluralistic) and holistic (because the basic conditions for existence are embodied in the manifold, which equals the whole). Obviously, the first step towards such an explanation is to bring monism and holism into coincidence.

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Grandiose Crackpottery Proves Pi=4

Nov 16 2010 Published by under Bad Geometry, Bad Logic, Bad Math, Bad Physics

Someone recently sent me a link to a really terrific crank. This guy really takes the cake. Seriously, no joke, this guy is the most grandiose crank that I've ever seen, and I doubt that it's possible to top him. He claims, among other things, to have:

  1. Demonstrated that every mathematician since (and including) Euclid was wrong;
  2. Corrected the problems with relativity;
  3. Turned relativity into a unification theory by proving that magnetism is part of the relativistic gravitational field;
  4. Shown that all of gravitational/orbital dynamics is completely, utterly wrong; and, last but not least:
  5. proved that the one true correct value of \(pi\) is exactly 4.

I'm going to focus on the last one - because it's the simplest illustration of both his own comical insanity, of of the fundamental error underlying all of his rubbish.

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86 responses so far

Free Energy by Switching Cameras (Classic Repost)

Oct 31 2010 Published by under Bad Physics

This is an edited repost of a classic. Back when I first put up the post about the genius theories of Engineer Borg, a commenter pointed me towards the website of a Dr. Tom Bearden. Dr. Bearden is a veritable renaissance man of crackpottery: he hasinvented a perfect free energy system which has been quashed by a conspiracy of governments and corporations; invented a cure for all major diseases (again hidden by the strenuous efforts of corporations and governments); demonstrated the flaw in relativity... You name it, Tom has done it!

Before I get to the details of that, let me give you a sense of the flavor of his site. Dr. Tom clearly believes that he is a genius of epic proportions, and that the entire world actually knows it. For example, he repeatedly talks about how his work was favorably reviewed by the National Science Foundation! Which means it's brilliant! Only it was quashed by the Evil Government Conspiracy before he could demonstrate it! So I went looking for the supposed favorable review of his free-energy work. And I found it in his list of references, listed as "National Science Foundation letter favorably reviewing Bearden Paper".

This looks interesting, right? A review from the NSF? So, click the link, and... The contents of that link consist of a scanned letter from the NSF replying to an email sent by Dr. Bearden, which consists of a basic standardized form letter inviting him to submit an actual proposal, and warning that he'd better include some proof that his perpetual motion machine really works, and an explanation of how.

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10 responses so far

Return of a Classic: The Electromagnetic Gravity Revolution!

Sep 30 2010 Published by under Bad Math, Bad Physics

Between work, trying to finish my AppEngine book, and doing all of the technical work getting Scientopia running smoothly on the new hosting service, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing new blog posts. So, once again, I'm recycling some old stuff.

It's that time again - yes, we have yet another wacko reinvention of physics that pretends to have math on its side. This time, it's "The Electro-Magnetic Radiation Pressure Gravity Theory", by "Engineer Xavier Borg". (Yes, he signs all of his papers that way - it's always with the title "Engineer".) This one is as wacky as Neal Adams and his PMPs, except that the author seems to be less clueless.

At first I wondered if this were a hoax - I mean, "Engineer Borg"? It seems like a deliberately goofy name for someone with a crackpot theory of physics... But on reading through his web-pages, the quantity and depth of his writing has me leaning towards believing that this stuff is legit. (And as several commenters pointed out the first time I posted this, in Germany, you need a special license to be an engineer, and as a result, "Engineer" is actually really used as a title. Still seems pompous to me - I mean, technically, I'm entitled to go around calling myself Dr. Mark Chu-Carroll, PhD., but I don't generally do that.)

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24 responses so far

The Return of a Classic: Neal Adams' Bad Physics

Sep 21 2010 Published by under Bad Physics

Between work, trying to finish my AppEngine book, and doing all of the technical work getting Scientopia running smoothly on the new hosting service, I haven't had a lot of time for writing new blog posts.

But in the process of doing my technical work around here, I was browsing through some archives, and seeing some of my old posts that I'd forgotten about. And odds are, if I forgot about it, then there are a lot of readers who've never seen it. So I'm going to bring back some of the classic old material.

For example, Neal Adams. Comic book fans will know about Neal: he's a comic book artist who worked on some of the most famous comics in the 1970s: he drew Batman, Superman, Deadman, Green Lantern, the Spectre, the X-men. More recently, he's done a lot of work in general commercial art - for example, he did the animated nasonex bee commercials a few years ago.

Adams' PMP image But he's not just an artist. No, he's so much more than that! He's also a brilliant scientist. He's much smarter than all of those eggheads with college degrees. They're struggling to build giant particle accelerators to help understand things like mass. But Neal - he's got them beat. He's figured out exactly how things work!

According to Neal, there is no such thing as gravity - it's all just pressure. People trying to figure out stuff about how gravity works are just wasting time. The earth (and all other planets) is actually a matter factory - matter is constantly created in the hollow center of the earth, and the pressure of all the new matter forces the earth to constantly expand. The constant expansion creates pressure on the surface as things expand - and that constant expansion is what creates gravity! You're standing on a point on the surface of the earth. And the earth is expanding - the ground is pushing up on you because of that expansion. You're not being pulled down towards the earth: the earth is pushing up on you.

And according to Neal, the best part is the math works!. In the original version of this post, I had a link to Neal's page with his explanation of how the math works - but he has, since then, moved most of his science stuff behind a paywall - you now need to pay Neal $20 to get to see his material, so I can't provide a direct link. But it's in a video <a href="http://www.continuitystudios.net/prime.html"here, and you can see the original using the Wayback Machine.

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