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February 9, 2008 8:54 PM   Subscribe

Perepiteia. Thane Heins, who named his invention after a Greek word meaning an action that "has the opposite effect to that intended," has perhaps created a...perpetual motion machine. His 20-year obsession has broken up his marriage and lost him custody of his two young daughters. Contraption stumps MIT professor. Is it a hysteresis brake? Or a scam. YOU decide.
posted by wallstreet1929 (76 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, I don't know what it is, but it's not a perpetual motion machine.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:00 PM on February 9, 2008


Yep if they are saying perpetual motion machine, I'll vote for scam, without even clicking a link.
posted by The Deej at 9:03 PM on February 9, 2008


Actually, it seems they're careful not to call it that, now that I've read the link, so maybe there's something to it. It seems they think it might be a way to make electric motors more efficient by the application of static magnets.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:13 PM on February 9, 2008


It's not a perpetual motion machine, but it might be a machine tapping a) forces we don't know about or b) forces we already know about in a non-obvious manner.

As an example of b), it might be tapping into the Earth's orbital momentum - it's always been a huge concern of mine that somebody would figure this out someday. "Here you go. Free limitless energy for the taking - oh but don't use it too much or you'll crash your planet into the sun."

Can you honestly think of anything more certain to result in the extinction of the human race?


At any rate, this is 99.9% likely to be c) yet another stupid attempt to circumvent conservation of energy with magnets but in a new, not-quite-as-obvious form.
posted by Ryvar at 9:16 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Dan wrote about this.

What this guy has "discovered" is a way to make electric motors run faster. But it also makes them less efficient. And it isn't anything new.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:22 PM on February 9, 2008


Joakim Ziegler: Actually, it seems they're careful not to call it that, now that I've read the link, so maybe there's something to it.

The name they do give it, the "PERPETEIA GENERATOR," is of course a much more accurate description.
posted by koeselitz at 9:28 PM on February 9, 2008


Nothing new. Also, "Perpetual motion contraption stumps MIT professor" is a shitty, misleading headline. It should be "MIT professor has yet to understand new contraption because he hasn't really looked at it that much yet," but that doesn't sound as interesting I guess.
posted by tepidmonkey at 9:30 PM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I feel certain that a few years from now, the only guy who's going to be notable for this is the poor MIT professor who managed to get quoted saying he was "stumped" by someone who claimed to have built an impossible machine.
posted by Nelson at 9:30 PM on February 9, 2008


Oh Jesus, what the fuck was I saying... guys, this broke up his marriage, let's be a little more sensitive, eh?

Ahem. Urm, Thane? Yes, well, um. Just wanted to say that we all love your perpetual moti-- ah yes, your perpeteia generator, and we think it's a fantastic invention. Good for you.

See, guys? That made him happy. He deserves that at least...
posted by koeselitz at 9:34 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


No stones fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:41 PM on February 9, 2008


HCM, you have heard of the Laws of Thermodynamics, have you not?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:56 PM on February 9, 2008


Strawman detected.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:01 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Previous exciting free energy discoveries on MetaFilter:

Magnets!

Magnets also!

Quantum excitation!

Cold Fusion!

The inevitable result.
posted by ormondsacker at 10:07 PM on February 9, 2008


wallstreet1929: "Thane Heins , who named his invention after a Greek word meaning an action that "has the opposite effect to that intended," has perhaps created a...perpetual motion machine. His 20-year obsession has broken up his marriage and lost him custody of his two young daughters."

I see your pitiable, divorced, minor-celebrity theorist with a 20-year obsession and raise you a pitiable, divorced, minor-celebrity theorist with a 50-year obsession. Beat THAT.

(Hear his story here, at about 0:37:30)
posted by Rhaomi at 10:17 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know who else was a pitiable, minor-celebrity theorist, but with a 1000-year obsession?
posted by maxwelton at 10:39 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Come on, Henry C. Don't compare perpetual motion machines to anomalous phenomena like meteors before they were accepted by science!

There's almost a thousand-year history of perpetual motion machines. None of them have ever panned out. Not one.

There are a lot of phenomena that aren't well-understood by science. Motors, dynamics of magnets, that sort of thing, these aren't they.

In fact, it turns out that springs and magnets are things that are well-understood by science, but counter-intuitive -- and most of the PMM's "on the market" take advantage of one or the other of these phenomena to fool people. There's always some reason you can't just unplug it from the grid....

I remember about five years ago I had correspondence with a journalist at a Japanese English-language periodical -- she was touting someone's PMM that made motors more than 100% efficient. She conceded all my arguments, yet was convinced that it was true and that people had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in it. I told her that the real story was that this guy was going to end up having bilked all these investors...

I lost the emails so I wonder what specifically happened. Certainly his motor never made it...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:43 PM on February 9, 2008


It's a scam. I don't have to examine the machine or read his documents to know this - they're always scams. Hasn't anyone learned this through the hundreds of thousands of failures that have occurred already? The conservation of energy is a fundamental principle of the universe - you just aren't going to violate it. Not ever, not through any method. And if anyone ever discovers a way to siphon energy from the sub-etha or whatever, it'll be in a billion-dollar particle accelerator, not some guy in his garage. Also, the first manifestation of this will not be a perpetual motion machine, it'll be a tiny blip on a graph or something. It'll make the front page of Nature long before someone figures out how to exploit it. Newly-discovered laws of physics don't make it to the application stage for a long, long time - usually decades at least.

Seriously people, don't be daft. Use your common sense. Perpetual motion machines don't exist, won't ever exist, and believing in them as an adult is as pathetic as sincere belief in the existence of the tooth fairy.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:45 PM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


On this community weblog, we obey the laws of thermodynamics.
posted by Kronoss at 10:46 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Look, Rhaomi, what Professor Mallett is doing is in fact real science. His stuff's on the edge, and no one denies he should be able to get some sort of temporal effects out of his rig due to the theory of relativity -- it's just that the math apparently seems to show that the effects would be very small with the amount of energy he can put in.

He is in fact a professor at a real university and publishes in peer-reviewed journals. This does actually mean quite a lot.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:48 PM on February 9, 2008


I'm impressed that an MIT audience extended an invitation knowing what the claims were, yet remains confounded.
posted by Brian B. at 10:51 PM on February 9, 2008


Yes, Brian, I was wondering about that too.

I mean, I'm hardly an expert on this, but at the very least you'd expect them to have a dumb Radio Shack multimeter over the unit so you could see that, in this case, the current spiked up when the magnet got close to the motor, so the input power increased proportionately to the output power....
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:56 PM on February 9, 2008


I don't know about Mallett. On one hand, publishing in journals and teaching at a university help his credibility. On the other hand, did you read the wikipedia article?

At one point Mallett agreed that in a vacuum the energy requirements would be impractical, but noted that the energy required goes down as the speed of light goes down, so he argued that if the light is slowed down significantly by passing it through a medium (as in the experiments of Lene Hau where light was passed through a superfluid and slowed to about 17 metres per second) the needed energy would be attainable.

Expecting to change c as it pertains to relativity by introducing a transmission medium is the kind of mistake a freshman in college would make. I mean, hasn't this guy even heard of Cerenkov Radiation? Things can exceed the speed of light in a medium. That would break relativity right there.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:56 PM on February 9, 2008


you have heard of the Laws of Thermodynamics, have you not?

Yes, I have heard that humans have declared results from their pitiably small sample of the universe to be "laws".

Not to knock Thermodynamics in particular, but the concept that we as a species know jack shit about universal laws is about as overreaching as you can get.
posted by tkolar at 11:11 PM on February 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's a scam, I think there's just something we're missing here. I strongly doubt there are any laws of physics being broken, and at this point there is no proof in either direction. They'll do some thorough analysis and testing, and chances are, it's just an unexpected application of a known phenomenon.
posted by spiderskull at 11:17 PM on February 9, 2008


Not to knock Thermodynamics in particular, but the concept that we as a species know jack shit about universal laws is about as overreaching as you can get.

I don't agree with you on this at all. We know a tremendous amount about the universe we live in, and we can observe quite a bit from where we are. On one end of the spectrum is the LHC, and on the other the various wide spectrum telescopes we use to observe the skies.

At this point in time, theory has caught up with experiment and physicists more or less hazard educated guesses that work out mathematically because we just don't have the technology (or have reached the limit of perceivability in the case of quantum phenomenon). See string theory.

This story is good because we have an experiment without the theory. This means there's some small caveat we haven't discovered, and we get to learn even more about electrodynamics (rather, QED).
posted by spiderskull at 11:25 PM on February 9, 2008


Aha, after a little scribbling, I think I have a solution to why it's fooling people -- or at least what I'd do.

I'd set it up so that there were two electrical inputs -- the "visible one", that you can hook a multimeter over, and a hidden one, which provides extra power whenever the motor gets above a certain level.

Then I'd crank hook a multimeter up to it, show that the motor "worked" as expected -- then put the magnet near the motor, forcing it to spin faster and take energy from the hidden power source. The multimeter still shows more or less the same current and impedance, it's like the motor speeds up for free.

Best part is that the victims can do a lot of experiments and the motor will look like a standard one all the way, because the hidden power supply doesn't kick in until the very top of the motor's standard operating range. Bringing the magnet closer will push the motor out of its standard operating ranging and switch in the hidden power.

Of course, this would require Heins to be a conscious fake -- it'd be pretty hard to rationalize away the hidden power source to yourself.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:45 PM on February 9, 2008


er, remove the word "crank" above in your minds. ty ty.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:45 PM on February 9, 2008


A magnet motor.
posted by hortense at 12:07 AM on February 10, 2008


spiderskull: This story is good because we have an experiment without the theory. This means there's some small caveat we haven't discovered, and we get to learn even more about electrodynamics (rather, QED).

I doubt it. Perpetual motion machines with magnets and wheels almost always mean one of two things has occurred:

A. The 'inventor' unintentionally made a machine too complicated for him to calculate the energetics of it, and thus failed to realize it doesn't break thermodynamics. A well-known phenomenon is responsible for any effects, acting in a sneaky way so it is not immediately obvious. These cases are very much like solving riddles - they are very difficult to figure out, but don't necessarily teach you anything.

B. The 'inventor' intentionally made a machine too complicated for his viewers/audience to calculate the energetics of, and is relying on this to gain money/attention. If it is ever pried away from the investor and dissected in a lab, the secret battery/power cable that makes it work will be discovered. Conventional physics is at work again.

There is almost never anything to learn from perpetual motion machine attempts. In the few cases when there is, it's generally the advanced quantum-mechanic machines that can show unexpected/unknown aspects of the quantum. On the other hand, large-scale electromagnetics is extremely well understood - we're not going to get anything useful out of this.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:13 AM on February 10, 2008


Hi. I'm Thane Heins. And you suck at Perpetual Motion Machines.
posted by hal9k at 3:18 AM on February 10, 2008


*sigh*

Two things:

a) It's "Peripeteia"^. It's a Greek word (peri- = "around", piptein = "to fall"), and since this story broke I've had to endure almost all possible permutations of the letters without once finding it spelled correctly. Nothing to do with the Latin "perpetuus, -a, -um".

b) Perpetual motion machines are impossible. No, they're not "statistically highly unlikely", no, they're not "impossible at the current state of scientific progress", no, they're not "impossible under most conditions" - they CANNOT EXIST.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:47 AM on February 10, 2008


Perpetual motion machines are impossible. No, they're not "statistically highly unlikely", no, they're not "impossible at the current state of scientific progress", no, they're not "impossible under most conditions" - they CANNOT EXIST.

Actually the second law of thermodynamic does not hold at a nano scale level, so I would be hesitant to say that it is impossible for a perpetual motion machine to exist. But yes, of course, this machine is not a perpetual motion machine.
posted by afu at 4:09 AM on February 10, 2008


Huh? Afu, your article confirms that 2nd law violations can't happen at the scale of inches and feet, minutes and hours. So, no perpetual motion machines are possible. (How you get perpetual anything from an effect this paper says can't last longer than two seconds is another good question.)

As to the rest of this discussion: Someday Sci-Fi authors are going to be held accountable for the damage they've done to the public understanding of science. There will be a sweet, sweet reckoning. I'm looking at you, Roddenberry.
posted by sdodd at 7:03 AM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


And if anyone ever discovers a way to siphon energy from the sub-etha or whatever, it'll be in a billion-dollar particle accelerator, not some guy in his garage. Also, the first manifestation of this will not be a perpetual motion machine, it'll be a tiny blip on a graph or something. It'll make the front page of Nature long before someone figures out how to exploit it. Newly-discovered laws of physics don't make it to the application stage for a long, long time - usually decades at least.

That sounds like Big Science to me. Always pushing your labs and institutes while the salt of the earth pioneers labor away in garages.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 7:04 AM on February 10, 2008


It would be nice to impose some kind of standard for people with over the top religious and scientific claims. For example, if one pronounces the end of the world at a certain date, to the public (and presumably to one's other cult members), should the world not end upon that day, the authorities just make sure your world ends by summary execution. We'd have to go through some definition of what the world ending would look like - Rapture, giant space comet, etc. Adherents to the world ending idea are flogged as the world fails to end. Video posted on YouTube, with their names, for all time.

Similarly, anyone claiming to break the speed of light in a vacuum, making a perpetual motion machine, and so forth, should bring the instrument forth to be disassembled and reassembled, then put into operation for three to five years (usually about the amount of time world-ending claims are off in the future). Should the device fail to work, produce over-unity results, the inventor is also destroyed. One's venture capitalists are similarly flogged as the device fails to work. Video posted on YouTube, with their names, for all time.
posted by adipocere at 7:10 AM on February 10, 2008


Huh? Afu, your article confirms that 2nd law violations can't happen at the scale of inches and feet, minutes and hours. So, no perpetual motion machines are possible. (How you get perpetual anything from an effect this paper says can't last longer than two seconds is another good question.)

I don't think that any body will ever make a perpetual motion machine, but I think that saying a priori that perpetual motion machines are impossible it wrong. It bugs me when people state the 2nd law of thermodynamics like it is gods truth, when in fact it doesn't apply under all conditions.
posted by afu at 7:17 AM on February 10, 2008


PontifexPrimus...
Perpetual motion machines are impossible. No, they're not "statistically highly unlikely", no, they're not "impossible at the current state of scientific progress", no, they're not "impossible under most conditions" - they CANNOT EXIST.

Religious fundamentalists have nothing on the thermodynamics crowd.
posted by tkolar at 8:27 AM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


TKolar, if you want to believe in perpetual motion, then by all means be my guest. Please also invest all your money in it. Since scientists are such fools, you could make a fortune!
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:29 AM on February 10, 2008


Someday Sci-Fi authors are going to be held accountable for the damage they've done to the public understanding of science. There will be a sweet, sweet reckoning.

That's a little unfair, seeing as so much of what has been written by sci-fi authors has actually become reality...
But seriously, who is John Galt? I for one am still capable of the educated adult equivalent of believing in the infallibility of one's parents, or that there is such a thing as THE perfect romantic match for a person. What harm does it do to give him the benefit of the doubt until someone with a thicker file folder of credentials is able to conclusively prove him wrong? Every thread on every site I've read in connection to this story is filled with people who want to look smarter than this dude, a dude who has spent a large part of his life and happiness attempting to create something new (what can many of his would-be debunkers say they've ever created?). No one's claiming that it's a perpetual motion machine, so what's the big deal? As it stands it certainly appears to be something useful, and warrants further study. Period. If someone proves he's either wrong or lying, then that's that.
But who knows? Maybe when Florida is covered by the Atlantic Ocean and California breaks off and floats away as an isle of rubble, death and fallen idols, Thane Heins will be secreting away all the forward-thinking genius optimist industrious supermen (and women) to live in his own special Rivendell where no one pretends that laws are universally applicable and all the children are good-looking, leaving the rest of us in our crumbling dystopia to eat away at our own stomach linings and mumble about all the reasons Heins's machine shouldn't work.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But when Baltimore Gas & Electric is allowed to hike my rates by 75% and then try to claim they're still not making enough profit, I'm willing to hope. Here's to you, Gene Roddenberry.
posted by SixteenTons at 8:55 AM on February 10, 2008


See string theory.

See also: aether.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:01 AM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


tkolar: "Religious fundamentalists have nothing on the thermodynamics crowd."

I'm sorry, I have very few convictions that I defend strongly; but one of them is that nothing can go against the way the world is put together. You can't transform energy of one kind with 100% efficiency into another kind. If you take the time to think about this fact (which has been shown to hold true again and again) then it is necessary to conclude from this that perpetual motion is impossible. And that's just the self-sustaining kind, not to mention the "free energy from nothing" kind.

This is just the way the universe works - and there is no evidence that it could be otherwise. I'm not trying to sound dogmatic about this, but it is just the way things are; not the way we currently model things to be, but a real, underlying truth of existence. We have found few things to be universally true, but the laws of thermodynamics are the closest thing to Ultimate Truths we found (Afu, thanks for the very interesting article, but I'm not talking about this scale - if we go to quantum levels everything takes on a certain quirkyness).
I love the ideas behind perpetuum mobiles - many bright thinkers have spent years of trying to trick nature into giving them something for nothing, and if one had been successful it would have been a breakthrough of literally world-changing proportions; but no one came even close, and as we discover more and more about the world we live in it seems abundantly clear that it is just that: impossible.

You can't win.
You can't break even.
You can't quit.

Bleak, but there you go.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 9:03 AM on February 10, 2008


So, if I understand this right: we could make a perpetual motion machine that is very small and only works for a few tenths of a second. Right on! Come on scientist dudes, Alpha Centauri or bust!
posted by wobh at 9:25 AM on February 10, 2008


All science is based on the inductive fallacy. It is limited to producing models for phenomena that have been observed. A large-scale violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics has never been observed, and therefore our current scientific models do not allow for such violations. This has little bearing on whether such a thing is actually possible.

Here is a proof:
p1) For a universe of any size there could be another universe which is large enough to contain a machine to simulate the former.
p2) Within a universe, there is no way to distinguish between an untampered but simulated universe and an unsimulated universe.
p3) In an unsimulated universe, the 2nd law cannot be violated
p4) A machine simulating a universe could create phenomena in that universe that break the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
i1) We do not know whether our universe is simulated. (from p1+p2)
C) Since we do not know whether our universe is simulated, we do not know whether violations of the 2nd law of thermodynamics are possible. (from i1+p3+p4)
posted by Pyry at 9:51 AM on February 10, 2008


I have very few convictions that I defend strongly; but one of them is that nothing can go against the way the world is put together.

A much more dangerous conviction you have is that humans have a solid understanding of the way the world is put together.

If you wanted to say "No one has ever observed the second law of thermodynamics being broken, and in fact it's been highly useful in predicting new observations" I would agree with you. If you wanted to say "There's so little chance of this device being free energy that it's not worth anyone's time to look at it" I would definitely agree with you.

But when you cross the line into claiming that physical phenomena are impossible you have left science behind and are operating on faith. The only thing close to certainty that is provided in science is math -- and the history of science is full of people who believed their mathematical models long after the physical world contradicted them.

Doubt is one of the basic foundations of science, and it extends both to extraordinary claims like free energy and to basic assumptions like "What appears to have been true for millions of years will still be true tomorrow." You don't need to spend your life revisiting those assumptions, but have a little humility -- leave the certainty for the Gods and zealots who can claim it with a clean conscience.
posted by tkolar at 10:37 AM on February 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


Pyry: All science is based on the inductive fallacy. It is limited to producing models for phenomena that have been observed. A large-scale violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics has never been observed, and therefore our current scientific models do not allow for such violations. This has little bearing on whether such a thing is actually possible.

This is true, but it is also true of every observational belief you have. As such, I either invite you to assume it along with the rest of us, or stop - and if you stop, I trust you won't do anything hypocritical that relies on observational belief, like breathing, eating, or opening doors before you attempt to walk through them.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:47 AM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


SCDB: HCM, you have heard of the Laws of Thermodynamics, have you not?

I would like to point that since the second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy generated by a process must be greater than or equal to 0. This means that technically speaking, a perpetual motion machine (one which generates no heat, and does no work) violates neither the first, nor second laws.

Doubt is one of the basic foundations of science, and it extends both to extraordinary claims like free energy and to basic assumptions like "What appears to have been true for millions of years will still be true tomorrow."

I agree with this. This is why people at MIT often look at the crackpots theories, because real scientists are well aware that science has been wrong before. Scientsists also know that historically speaking, the chance of a perpetual motion machine working is actually 0. Of course, the other thing is that scientists would love for a perpetual motion machine to work, because that would be really cool.


As to this invention, isn't it just diverting some of the power being generated back into the motor?
posted by !Jim at 11:05 AM on February 10, 2008


Uh, we've veered away from conservation of mass-energy into second law of thermodynamics here. The second law is kind of interesting in science in that it's actually not based on observation. You can derive it, out of math. It's not experimental, it's not something that we happened to notice, like gravity dropping off as the reciprocal of the square of the distance - it comes out of math. If I could find it again, I actually read through the derivation in an Eight Lectures book, probably a Dover printing. Hence, that part of science is not inductive fallacy.

When you mess with the second law of thermodynamics, you aren't just saying that science is wrong, you're also saying statistics, and, well, mathematics, is wrong, and that's a much bigger hill to climb.

"The law that entropy always increases, holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation." — Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)
posted by adipocere at 11:09 AM on February 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Uh, we've veered away from conservation of mass-energy into second law of thermodynamics here. The second law is kind of interesting in science in that it's actually not based on observation.

I disagree here. The second law itself is based on the observation that things tend to move in certain directions, and that certain processes are never observed. This is my classical understanding of the second law, anyway. I don't have the background in stat-mech, so I couldn't say whether there is another way that the second law comes about using those methods, but originally, historically, the second law is based on observation.

Mathematically, the second law is a bit of a weird one, because except for special cases, it is an inequality, rather than an equation. It's true that it can be expressed (proven? shown?) statistically (and again, I don't have the background to talk much about that), but certainly the key facet of the law is based on observation.
posted by !Jim at 11:30 AM on February 10, 2008


This is true, but it is also true of every observational belief you have. As such, I either invite you to assume it along with the rest of us, or stop - and if you stop, I trust you won't do anything hypocritical that relies on observational belief, like breathing, eating, or opening doors before you attempt to walk through them.

Oh, come on, that's a bit unfair. First, I don't think breathing is something that requires any observation of the natural world, cus if you stop (and are alive), you eventually will start again, conscious or no.

But more to the point, assuming something doesn't mean you don't question the assumption or recognize that you could be wrong. I used to assume my car was outside my apartment, waiting for me. I based plans on it. Until the one day I went outside and it wasn't there (it was stolen). The assumption was wrong but assuming wasn't. I have to make my way in the world somehow, ya know. However, if I said there was no earthly (or heavenly) way that my car could not be there, that it was a truth that was enshrined in time and space, and when I saw my car not there, continue to insist that it must be there somehow. Well, then, I'm kinda a fool. It's okay to think something is extremely (or even partially) improbable and base your observations on that, but you always have to recognize your assumptions could be wrong.

Plus, science is humble. It checks these theories out even if there is little chance that they could be true. Because every so often, something comes and overturns everything we thought about the Universe. A lot more often, things support it, but it does happen.

And if humanity really has figured out most of the rules of the Universe already, it's a sad, poor World after all.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:31 AM on February 10, 2008


The second law of thermodynamics applies to so many different phenomena across a broad range of scales that if it was wrong, it would have to be wrong in a pretty wacky way for us to not realize it by now.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:45 AM on February 10, 2008


I assume just as much as everyone else; does merely stating the limits of these assumptions make me a hypocrite?

There is a difference between saying "a violation of the conservation of energy has never been observed, so I estimate the probability of some guy discovering a perpetual motion machine in his garage to be so low as to be worth no consideration" and "a violation of conservation of energy is Capital-I IMPOSSIBLE and will never ever happen". The first is reasonable, the second is philosophically untenable.
posted by Pyry at 11:59 AM on February 10, 2008


Irrespective of whether scientists might have noticed any problems with the laws of thermodynamics, engineers would have. Tens of thousands of engineers have designed tens of thousands of widgets and gadgets over the last 150 years based on the assumption that the laws of thermodynamics are correct -- and the widgets and gadgets (and engines and power plants and ships and planes...) have all worked as expected.

Engineering is applied science. And every engineer is a science fact checker. Not all science can be used by engineers, but physical science can be, and is, and if the science was wrong, engineers would have noticed it long since. (Engineers noticing anomalies has happened.)

Chemists would notice, too. Modern chemistry is built on foundations of quantum theory and thermodynamics. Chemists make precise calculations of anticipated reaction yields based on thermodynamics, and if the laws of thermodynamics were wrong, the chemists would have been screaming bloody murder about it for the last fifty years.

As to the quantum exception, it isn't an exception. It's possible to violate the laws of thermodynamics at the quantum level, essentially creating energy out of nothing, but only temporarily. The amount of excess energy, multiplied by the length of time it exists, will always be less than Planck's Constant -- and that's an extremely small number. In the long run, the books balance even at the quantum level.

Postmodern cynicism is stylish and all, but doubting the laws of thermodynamics is simple stupidity. There is nothing in science more well founded and certain.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:02 PM on February 10, 2008


Lord Chancelor: And if humanity really has figured out most of the rules of the Universe already, it's a sad, poor World after all.

Well, here you are making the same mistake that caused Copernicus and Kepler so much trouble, trying to insist that the universe match some aesthetic sensibility leads to such nonsense as thinking the solar system is related to geometric solids, or everything must have nice circular orbits around a more worthy sun god.

If thermodynamics is wrong, then practically nothing checks out. Your car wouldn't work, much less the electronic system you are using to read this, the shuttle missions or just about all of astronomy. Our chemical understanding of animal physiology goes out the window as well. When you have millions upon millions of practical data points which support that a given theory is an accurate view of how the universe works, apparent exceptions should be treated as exceptional and considered with a high level of scrutiny.

This happened in the early days of nuclear physics when the decay modes of some elements appeared to give off far more energy than could be accounted for using earlier decay modes, and didn't produce the right decay products. Rather than chuck the laws of thermodynamics out the window, the researchers used principles derived from those laws to discover nuclear fission as a decay mode of some heavy nuclei.

The laws of thermodynamics are not a ball and chain, they are a useful framework that allows us to construct hypotheses about how the world works: gravity waves, nuclear fission, the Krebbs Cycle, antimater, and the nuclear life of stars are all wonderful discoveries that were made possible by the premise that the energy in = energy out.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:06 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Pyry: The first is reasonable, the second is philosophically untenable.

Well yes. The first is a tradition of scientific scepticism. The second is so naive as to be almost a straw man. Not a total straw-man because no matter how silly the philosophical position, someone will seriously argue it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:12 PM on February 10, 2008


Pyry: I assume just as much as everyone else; does merely stating the limits of these assumptions make me a hypocrite?

It is if you apply or contest the assumption inconsistently; sure, science is based on lots of unprovable assumptions, but opening the door before you attempt to walk through a doorway is based on many of the same assumptions. You don't get to say 'omg! science assumes X, and X is unprovable, so science is wrong!' without asserting that all of the people not smacking themselves on closed doors are also wrong, for the same reason.

My point here is that questioning these assumptions outside of a philosophy classroom is fairly absurd - they're the same assumptions used to form any kind of observational belief system. If the universe is based on solipsism, or a brain-in-a-vat world, or a simulation, then yes, science is wrong. However, in those universes, there is no reasonable basis on which to form any belief system, and no rational way to act. There is really very little excuse for doing anything but rocking back and forth in the fetal position if you sincerely disbelieve these assumptions.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:14 PM on February 10, 2008


Or to put it another way, many of our most wonderful discoveries in physics and chemistry have come when a scientist finds that energy-in=/=energy-out for their pet process. The first question is, usually, "where is that missing energy?" Many times it's just due to measurement error, but sometimes the scientist discovers some previously unidentified kink in the process that forces a rexamination of the theories involved.

Thermodynamics gives us a map. Any time those equations don't balance, we have a terra incognito filled with wonders.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:27 PM on February 10, 2008


Um, guys... last time I looked (about two days ago) the expansion of the universe is almost by consensus among astronomers and astrophysicists considered to be accelerating. Dark energy is said to be driving this acceleration, but dark energy is right now only a statement of faith in the law of conservation of energy, because no one has observed any manifestation of its existence other than the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, as far as I know. There don't seem to be even any candidates for phenomena which could show the existence of dark energy if you look at them just the right way other than the accelerating expansion.

If the entire universe was a motor, we would see it sitting there with no visible inputs not just running perpetually, but speeding up perpetually.
posted by jamjam at 12:39 PM on February 10, 2008


Let's do some math:

Suppose that N_T is the number of observations where thermodynamics has not been violated, and N_V is the number of observations where thermodynamics has been violated.

We want to know P(V), the probability that thermodynamics will be violated in an observation.

We do not have access to the underlying distribution parameters, so we must estimate P(V) from our sampled observations. In this case the unbiased estimator for P(V) is given by:

P_hat(V) = N_V / (N_T+N_V).

If we have never observed a violation, then P_hat(V) = 0. Yay! Thermodynamics violations are impossible!

But wait, does P_hat(V) = 0 really answer our question about whether such violations are possible? No.

What we really want to know is P( P(V) > 0 | {O_1,O_2,...,O_n} ), that is, the probability that thermodynamics can be violated given all the observations we have made. Let's denote this term with the simpler P(TV | O).

By Bayes law,
P(TV | O) = (P(O | TV) * P(TV)) / P(O)
where
P(O) = P(O|TV)P(TV) + P(O|-TV)P(-TV)

The terms P(TV) and P(-TV) are called the prior probabilities; in this case, P(TV) might be seen as the ratio of universes where thermodynamics violations are possible to the total number of universes. We have no way of estimating these, so we will use a uniform prior which reflects our lack of knowledge:

P(TV) = P(-TV) = 0.5

Now, if thermodynamics cannot be violated (-TV) then we will get zero observed violations, so P(O|-TV) = 1.0.

If thermodynamics can be violated, there is still some non-zero probability of just not observing any violations, so
P(O | TV) = p, for some constant p > 0

Putting this all together, we get
P(TV | O) = (p * 0.5)/(p*0.5 + 1.0*0.5) = p / (p + 1.0)

Assuming p <> 0

In short, the fact that no thermodynamics violations have been observed does not reduce the likelihood of thermodynamics violations being possible to zero, which is all that I'm saying.
posted by Pyry at 12:44 PM on February 10, 2008


That assuming p<>0 should be assuming p is much less than 1; it changed my 'much less than' to '<>' for some reason.
posted by Pyry at 12:47 PM on February 10, 2008


Wait... it cut out more than because it considered it all one big html tag. The final part should be:

P(TV | O) = p / (p + 1.0)

If p is much less than one, then

P(TV | O) ~= p, which is greater than zero.
posted by Pyry at 12:49 PM on February 10, 2008


Well, here you are making the same mistake that caused Copernicus and Kepler so much trouble, trying to insist that the universe match some aesthetic sensibility leads to such nonsense as thinking the solar system is related to geometric solids, or everything must have nice circular orbits around a more worthy sun god.

Ah! I'm not explaining scientific philosophy with that last comment; I was merely giving my desire. Not that the Universe cares about my desire, but I certainly hope the Universe hasn't been comprehended to the level someone posited. It could or it could not. I was only telling you that it's my wish that it isn't yet.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:49 PM on February 10, 2008


It's true that the laws of thermodynamics are "only" statistical laws, and there is a non-zero probability of violating a statistical law. However, we're dealing with systems that have >1020 particles, and the violation of this statistical law is only a theoretical possibility.

But don't get distracted, perpetual motion machines are forbidden by the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy. (It deserves all the emphasis.) That's a truly fundamental law; not even elementary particles can violate it. Noether's Theorem (one of the most beautiful results of modern physics) proves that it's a consequence of the time-invariance of our universe.

Perpetual Motion Machines are really really forbidden, at the most fundamental level of our understanding of the universe.
posted by phliar at 1:34 PM on February 10, 2008


An addendum to my previous post for the philosophers: if you believe that our universe is comprehensible and can be described by mathematics, conservation of mass-energy is a law and violation means our understanding of the universe is fundamentally wrong.
posted by phliar at 1:39 PM on February 10, 2008


Doesn't that just place a bound on conservation violations that's related to the degree of precision which we can measure the time-variance of the universe?

That is, if the universe is completely time invariant, that's true. But we can't measure completely; there could be some variation below our threshold of measurement, and that maximum possible variation constrains how much the conservation of energy could be violated.

Has anyone done this calculation?
posted by Pyry at 1:47 PM on February 10, 2008


It's not a measurement issue, but a philosophical one: do you believe that the laws of the universe today are the same as the laws tomorrow? Does the value of e -- the fundamental charge -- or h or c or k or... change with time?
posted by phliar at 2:09 PM on February 10, 2008


Pyry, yes, and the threshold is Planck's Constant: 6.6261 * 10^-34 joule-seconds
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2008


scam, no free lunch anywhere
posted by francesca too at 3:02 PM on February 10, 2008


I wonder if MF will let me use the "sup" tag: 6.6261 * 10-34 joule-seconds

Violations of conservation of energy must be tiny and brief, such that the product of the amount of energy and the time it exists is less than that number -- and that is an extremely small number.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:07 PM on February 10, 2008


That sounds like an empirical question to me: we can measure e and c and so on*, and these measurements are finite precision. If the fundamental constants change enough over human time scales that it is above that measurement precision, we could tell.

* there is the slight detail that many of these are defined in terms of each other. The meter, for instance, is defined in terms of the speed of light and the second, which is defined in terms of periods of vibration for cesium or something. So we obviously can't use meters to measure the speed of light, since that's what it's defined in terms of. Rather, we can check to see whether in those 9,192,631,770 vibrations of Cesium light travels the same distance today as tomorrow in terms of some physical yardstick.**

** Of course, our yardstick might be changing in length too. But if, against your average yardstick, light goes twice as far today as yesterday, its safe to say something has changed.
posted by Pyry at 3:17 PM on February 10, 2008


If light went twice as far per second today as yesterday, all the stars would detonate. (Fourfold increase in energy release from mass conversion, remember?)

If the value of e declined significantly, buildings would start to collapse as the structural strength of steel was reduced. And a lot of stars would detonate, because with e lower, the rate of fusion in stellar cores would radically increase.

If e and/or C were changing over time, even if extremely slowly, the universe wouldn't look like it does now.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:11 PM on February 10, 2008


Yes, exactly-- if the laws of physics were changing rapidly, we could detect that. But because of limited measurement precision, we can only upper bound the rate of change.

There is always 'slower'. Is a 1% change over a year detectable? If yes, then how about 0.001%? Or 10^-3000%?

Suppose the devil appears and adds 1 Joule of energy to your room (and hence the universe); that would change the fundamental constants, but not to any level detectable by humans.

Conversely, if we know at most how much the fundamental constants are changing, we could know at most how much energy was being injected / subtracted from the universe.
posted by Pyry at 4:48 PM on February 10, 2008


Pyry, when it comes to questions like yours, or whether fairies exist, the only real answer that makes sense is, "Get back to me when you have some real evidence. Until then, I'm not going to waste my time thinking about it."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:28 PM on February 10, 2008


Asking how much energy could be added to the universe before we noticed is a tiny bit different from asking whether fairies exist.

By the way, astrophysicists have done experiments to see whether the fine structure constant (which relates most of the big fundamental physical constants) has changed over time. The current consensus seems to be 'no' [the linked paper says 'yes', but is older], but they certainly didn't find the question so silly as to not be worth publishing, let alone asking.
posted by Pyry at 8:49 PM on February 10, 2008


So now that Professor Zahn has publicly stated that he was, at least initially, stumped, is he honor bound to follow up and offer an explanation for the observed effect and why it was not immediately apparent to someone of his credentials?

It seems to me that someone of his standing would be cautious about being quoted about anything if he wasn't fairly confident that he wasn't looking at outright deception or obvious measurement error. I'm not an electrical engineer but it seems to me that if it has gotten this far it would at least imply a novel configuration. I'll be very curious to see what Zahn eventually determines.
posted by well_balanced at 10:04 PM on February 10, 2008


Pyry, when it comes to questions like yours, or whether fairies exist, the only real answer that makes sense is, "Get back to me when you have some real evidence.

I'm not sure - fairies and devils adding one joule etc would still be sources of energy. THe point of the law of conservation of energy is just that the energy can be explained, that it comes from somewhere. To break the law of conservation, there would have to be no source or cause of the energy. It would be able to just fluctuate randomly. We use this law as a foundational principle of all other science - it is basically the law of cause & effect, the law of identity, a=a. PHilosophers argue over whether it is actually true, but scientists basically presume it is true before they get started. You couldn't do much science without it.

Kant is often given credit with providing the best solution by saying that reason relies on the presumption of cause & effect, and our experience of the world relies on rational conception, so whether nature 'in-itself' is really following these rules, at least the world -as we experience it- must be. But plenty of people think this just made things worse...
posted by mdn at 10:55 AM on February 11, 2008


Pyry, when it comes to questions like yours, or whether fairies exist, the only real answer that makes sense is, "Get back to me when you have some real evidence.

I haven't noticed Pyry making any assertion at all except OBSERVATION .NE. REALITY (pardon my Fortran). We simply cannot know that the mass which comprises my body will not spontaneously convert itself into energy, leaving a very large crater. The fact that it has never happened before does not make it impossible, that is the language of theology. It is merely so vanishingly improbable that no engineer (there was an aggrieved one earlier in the thread) would be making a worthwhile investment in time to consider it.
There is almost no chance that the device will not be shown to work according to long-established physical laws. The presence of the word almost in the preceding sentence distinguishes science from dogma.
posted by Octaviuz at 8:48 PM on February 11, 2008


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