Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Infinity for free!

"Orbo is a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy", says Sean McCarthy, the CEO of Steorn. In short, this Irish product is a perpetuum mobile, a machine that creates energy out of nothing. It is a relative of the philosopher's stone, snakeoil, so-called "Nigerian scams " and online lottery wins.

Orbo was initially launched with a full-page ad in the Economist, and has since received worldwide press attention from for example Engadget and the BBC. The product was supposed to be demoed in the Kinetica museum in London, but the demo unsurprisingly failed.

Orbo is supposed to be based on magnets and by the looks of it doesn't even look much different from Honnecourt's design from 30's. That is, 1230's.

We know that if this were to work, it would violate the laws of thermodynamics. While it is in the nature of scientific "laws" that this is not strictly speaking impossible, it is infinitely improbable.

As the old saying goes, "if it is too good to be true, it probably is." So, what is this about? Some Finns may remember Bonk Business Inc., the imaginary family company created by the artist Alvar Gullichsen. The foundations of the wealth of the Bonk family lied in harnessing the Baltic anchovies (sic!) for food and energy production and lubrication. etc. The exhibition detailed the history of this company, displayed its products and some family memorabilia etc. What made this so compelling was that it all looked and felt so real that you started believing in it, but at the same time it was so absurd that you knew you were in an artwork. It was a funny, original idea, and well executed. I believe Steorn and Orbo are similar works of imagination and art, only performed live on an international stage, with shareholders' money and at the slow news time of the year.

It is an interesting peek into the human nature - we know that it can't work, but what it if does? It is similar to the classic Pascal's Wager about God - it is better to choose to believe in God, as the costs of doing so are small, compared to the costs of not believing and being proved wrong. McCarthy (if it is his real name) has so far made all the right moves; he got credibility for the project by advertising in the Economist (a full page ad costs so much that this can not be a joke), he has admitted this machine is in conflict with the laws of thermodynamics and claims he doesn't know how it works (but of course keeps claiming it does). He has invited the scientific community to take part in the "validation process", and of course the company has a smooth website. He even said that the failure of the demo proves that this is not a hoax. Nice. The demonstration in London for the public has a nice echo of the Victorian era, as I suppose this could be seen as a hommage to the great scientists and engineers who used to demonstrate their inventions and research to the scientific societies and potential funders in London.

I wonder what is going to happen next? He has got his 15 minutes, but will he just fade out or will there be a climax to end this saga? Will he come clean or maintain the mystery? Hmmm, what would Aristophanes do?


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