The psychology of perpetual motion machine seekers
Disclaimer.This essay is a collection of informal observations based on interactions I've had with folks who believe in the possibility of perpetual motion or over-unity devices. As with any group of people, their motivations and beliefs seem to vary over a wide spectrum. Certain common themes are often seen. Some of these are shared by passionate believers in other eccentric ideas, such as flat earthers, hollow earthers, relativity deniers, addicts of conspriacy theories and those who want to revive the luminiferous aether.
Motivations of perpetual motionists.Quite often people send me designs for perpetual motion machines (PMM) with the question "Why won't this work?" Some of these are people who have designed a clever puzzle to test student understanding of physics principles. They know it won't work, and they know why. They are just challenging others.
Some of them really think it will work, but don't say so up front. When the flaw is found, the inventor may acknowledge the error and say, "I'll have to fix that." It then becomes clear to me that the inventor really thinks he was on to something, but just made a minor goof. These inventors haven't the slightest doubt that PMMs are possible, and nothing will change their minds, not physics, not experiment, nothing. Why?
Two reasons come to mind. (1) They don't trust that well-established physics laws are really completely and universally true. They hope there's a loophole somewhere that will make PMM possible. (2) They think they have stumbled on a new physical phenomena not covered by existing laws.
Of course reason 1 is somewhat justified, because no physics laws or theories claim to be the final, perfect or complete description of nature. And reason 2 isn't totally unreasonable, for we always expect to discover new phenomena, which may require new laws and theory.
Is dialogue useful?But in either case, what can anyone say to the inventor? If someone asks me to find a flaw in a design, I have only two choices: (1) To use existing physics laws to show that the inventor misapplied them, or (2) tell the inventor to build the device, then get back to me.
If I failed to identify a misapplication of existing physics, that could merely be that I'm not knowledgeable enough or clever enough, or the darned device is just too complicated for my small brain. My failure would not lend support the inventor's claim that the machine would work. Only an experimental test could establish that.
When the inventor invites me to analyze his device, he's hoping I will try to find something wrong with it, and fail, giving up in frustration. When I do find the flaw and explain it to him, he may reject the explanation out of hand, declaring it wrong, or inapplicable to the special features of his device, which he's certain I don't understand. He may become defensive or even hostile, complaining that I am trying to stifle independent thought. This can result in endless and futile exchanges.
No one can anticipate new physics discoveries of unknown physical phenomena. But the inventor cannot claim such novelties and use them unless he's done experiments to conclusively demonstrate and verify them. No one can find flaws in existing physics and existing theory except through experiment. But, to the inventor who is convinced that PMM is possible, no experimental failure will serve to dissuade him, for he has a whole litany of excuses he will claim prevented his success, small problems that he's confident he can "fix" with just a bit more tinkering.
Questions to ask.The questions one should put to the inventor are these: Aside from a conviction or suspicion that PMM is possible, and the realization that existing physics isn't perfect, what reason do you have to think your particular approach or your assumption will work? Are you just blindly tinkering, hoping something you desire will happen? Do you have experimental evidence that a particular physics law isn't quite right? Have you really found some prediction of conventional physics that no one before you has noticed? Or are you just acting on a "hunch"? If it's only a "hunch", why are you so passionately convinced that there's something to it? Is your faith in this idea rational, or emotional?
The same questions must be asked of those who think they can make an anti-gravity levitator, a reactionless thruster, or those who have a new ether theory, or a new theory of gravitation. And they should be asked of those who think that the earth is flat, those who think it is hollow, and those who think the whole universe lies within a sphere of a few thousand miles diameter.
Some inventors assume their own physics principles, principles unknown to conventional physics. It's often hard to ferret these out, for they are used without consciously thinking about them. Often these principles, if true, would demolish all or most existing physics theories and laws, including those that have been thoroughly tested experimentally and found to be reliable. One must ask the person if he is willing to throw out all of that and rework physics from the ground up to make it account for all of the phenomena that physics has experimentally studied and verified. The PMM inventors can't, and usually don't, care about any physics beyond that tiny portion that affects their pet idea. They are often totally unaware of the far-reaching consequences of their explicit or implicit assumptions, and unaware of how comprehensive and interdependent are all physical laws.
Usually PMM inventors have no reason or even a clue where conventional physics might be wrong. They just hope that it will be wrong in just such a way as to make their pet invention work. They are like the Hermetic philosophers and alchemists of old, who thought that if the seeker is pure of spirit and purpose, he can achieve power over nature's laws, even the power to bend them to his will.
They are convinced that "Anything is possible" and sometimes say so. By this they may not mean, "Everything is possible" (for that would be absurd), but "Nothing can be declared impossible a-priori".
The importance of testing novel ideas.Some proposals are simple enough to build in the laboratory. Yet their inventors resist suggestions that they build and test them. Some proposals depend on a key assumption that could be easily isolated and tested in the laboratory. Yet they won't and don't. They say, "The test wouldn't be conclusive, for there are too many problems with friction, choice of materials, precision machining, etc."
Then there are those who claim they have actually built a PMM that puts out more power than required at its input. The skeptic suggests that they divert some of the output power to drive the input, with power left over for other things, thereby convincing everyone. They say they can't do that for the output power is in "a different form" from that required by the input, or some other reason. The inventor always has an excuse; always an "out".
Some tell me they actually built a device that clearly violates some law of physics. I offer to test it. Then they tell me it didn't work well enough to meet their high standards, so they already dismantled it in order to make an improved model. Drat!
Others send me elaborate computer simulations, beautiful engineering drawings, or even spreadsheet simulations of performance, dense with numbers. The history of invention is littered with devices that worked wonderfully on paper, but just couldn't be made to work in the laboratory. Today there are fascinating animated computer graphic simulations that only work on the computer screen, not in reality. Why? One reason is that computer simulations are no better than the information fed into them, and if you left out something, or misrepresented something, the results will be wrong. "Garbage in, garbage out," as the computer folks say. Then there's the problem of precision limitations and propagation of computational errors, especially if the system is complex.
For a PMM to work, some fundamental and well-established physics principle would have to be broken or bent by a considerable amount, an amount large enough that it could be experimentally tested. Or some new phenomena would have to be operating to produce an easily observable effect on performance. We are not talking "small effects" here. If the inventor could identify the part of the device that does those remarkable things, that part could be isolated and tested. Yet the inventor usually cannot identify that part, or propose a way to make the test. One might suspect the inventor doesn't want a definitive test.
Common characteristics of the independent thinker.Perpetual motion machine inventors generally exhibit these characteristics:
Seeing "truths" others miss.
PMM inventors, and other "alternative science" proponents, flatter themselves that they are able to see truths that mainstream scientists are too "blind" to see. Often they achieve these great insights with only a superficial or informal education in science or engineering. It's true that some trained scientists are narrow specialists without a broad understanding, and some few are actually not very good at what they do. But science is a collaborative and competitive enterprise these days, with everything being continually and often skeptically tested. Engineering applications put physics and chemistry to the test continually, for any flaw in the science results in an application that doesn't work as expected. Doesn't it seem a bit unlikely that someone outside of the loop of the science establishment, working alone and without benefit of collaborative interaction with others more knowledgable, should stumble on a flaw or loophole in physics that more knowledgeable and experienced scientists had overlooked for many years?
Inventors usually become irritated when a physicist or engineer looks at the drawings and the claims, "sees" the impossibility of it and declares that the thing can't possibly work. The inventor indignantly says "How can you conclude anything if you haven't even looked at my math and calculations, and haven't even understood the operating principle I'm using?" Here's a similar situation that illustrates this scenario:
Suppose someone claimed he could make a flat (plane) triangle with equal sides but unequal angles. He doesn't actually show us the triangle, though. Suppose he supported that conclusion with 15 pages of dense mathematics. Should we believe him? Should we bother to check all of that mathematics? Should we say, "Well you might be correct?" Should we refrain from drawing conclusions? No. We should suspect that he made a mistake somewhere in his math. We would conclude that he didn't understand mathematics very well, or he wouldn't even have done all of that math. If we took the trouble to show him the specific place where he made the math error, and he still insisted his conclusion was correct, we would be justified in concluding that he's a wacko on this subject.
If it can'be be disproven it must be true.PMM inventors often challenge skeptics to "Prove my idea won't work". This ploy takes several forms:
Reinventing physics to support one's beliefs.To discredit a perpetual motionist's idea by logical argument is just as futile. The inventor is already sure that at least one fundamental physics principle is wrong (usually the conservation of energy). The only arguments you can make are based on physical principles, and if he doesn't like your conclusion he will say that you used another defective physics principle.
Yet in his own analysis, the inventor often builds upon certain fundamental principles of physics that he accepts as valid. He doesn't realize that his faulty conclusion, if true, would invalidate the very principles he used in his own logical analysis.
Some inventors declare quite openly that the conservation of energy doesn't apply to their device. I ask them about some similar unworkable device; whether they can find any flaw in it. Without hesitation they dismiss that other device because it violates conservation of energy. Why then, doesn't that same argument apply to their invention? Why does conservation of energy apply to the other device, but not to their own? They cannot answer that, but it doesn't shake their confidence. One inventor answered by saying it was due to "environmental shift". When asked to define that precisely, he spouted some gobbledygook about "things behave differently in different enviroments". These inventors are good at making up principles of nature as required to support their fantasies.
From what I've said, the reader may sense that what's going on here is not a search for answers, but a game of apologetics in support of an entrenched belief. This is not unlike the tactics used in religious apologetics. Any ploy is used to support an unshakable belief. Discrediting skeptics through clever pseudo-logic is an effective tactic for confusing and disorienting someone who is used to more rational discourse. Many a scientist has been "suckered into" such a losing game before realizing that the other person is playing by an entirely different set of rules, and considers all science, mathematics and logic to be irrelevant to the truth of his convictions.
Unshakable confidence in one's beliefs.Such "true believers" are certain that they have a hotline to truthabsolute truth. They are upset and even angered that anyone can fail to see these truths. In fact, they usually consider skeptics to be deliberately denying these truths, for some personal or emotional reasons. They see skeptics as "the enemy", an enemy to be discredited in any way possible. They invent all sorts of fantastic reasons why the "establishment" would attempt to "hide or deny the truth". Perhaps it's a "vast conspiracy" by scientists to preserve their jobs and their status as guardians of their faith in false principles.
I use the pronoun "he" because in all the history of PMM, not one inventor or advocate has been a woman. Not even among the deliberate fakers and con-artists. Curious, isn't that?
The sincere amateur perpetual motion machine inventors display a strange syndrome often seen in believers in other kinds of pseudoscience. They proclaim absolute belief that their idea for producing unlimited energy will work perfectly. Typically they say, proudly, "I have no training or special skills in engineering or physics." They say their idea is simple, and they could build it in a few months in a basement or garage with simple tools. One even told me, "Maybe I'm a nut, but it will take a nut to achieve over-unity, for the scientists won't even try."
If an over-unity device is that simple and easy to build, why are they so certain that they have found the secret that has so far eluded engineers and scientists throughout history? You'd think they'd quit their jobs, cash in their kid's college fund, go to the hardware store to buy the parts needed to build this wonderful machine quickly, for once it's built and shown to work, it would revolutionize everything and we'll all be rich. But they don't. They procrastinate, drag their feet, and make excuses, or say, "I've been too busy to spend much time on that project." Another excuse is "To make it large enough to be useful, it would cost more than I can afford."
Philosophy.Distrust of science and the scientific process is another commonly seen trait. This arises from a misunderstanding of what is called "the philosophy of science" which is the study of what scientists do, how they carry out and interpret their investigations, and how they put all conclusions to rigorous and skeptical testing.
Even a college physics course, or even a college degree does not guarantee an understanding of these matters. Too often students are expected to learn these things by a sort of "osmosis" by doing physics and working with seasoned physicists. Personally I think that more directed instruction ought to be integrated into the curriculum.
It is possible, at some academic institutions, to pass physics courses and even get a B.S. degree without deeper understanding of scientific methods. Some courses allow students to get passing grades using the blind "plug and chug" method of problem solving. This only works if the problems posed in homework and exams are such that a student can simply find a memorized equation, plug given data into it, and grind out a correct answer, without much thought and without really understanding the underlying physics. But this not the skill set required of a scientist. Why should an employer hire someone to do things that could be done by a computer at lower cost?
This superficial understanding of physics is commonly seen in the folks who write to me with their perpetual motion and over-unity proposals. This is expected if a person has had no courses in physics, but inexcusable in those who have. Many claim they have had physics and even have a degree in physics or engineering. I admit that this is sometimes the fault of our educational system and its standards.
Perpetual motionists often fail to understand that classical physics, the body of well-tested and solidly reliable physics, is highly integrated into a logical structure. No physical law exists in isolation of the others. You can't violate one law without affecting others. Laws are required not only to be correct in themseles, but also must correctly and logically connect with other known and successfully tested laws. You never learn to appreciate that doing only plug and chug problems. Only when you explore the mathematical inter-relations of physics laws do you understand the unity of the whole. Courses that "dumb down" the mathematical content do a disservice to students.
Excuses.Many of my correspondents, and those who inhabit web forums, are long on talk, but reluctant to test their ideas by actually building something. They are hoping someone else will do that.
Others go on and on about how their invention will turn the world economy upside down, solve our energy needs. And they haven't yet actually built and tested the idea. But they are unwilling to give details, to protect their "secret". We wait, expectantly, to see news that their idea has been successfully tested and is available on the market. It doesn't happen.
Then some fuss about patents. "Patents cost too much money and take time," they say. "I'll just guard the secret and tell no one." The cost of a patent application is trifling compared to the money they'd make on this thing in the first few weeks of production, since they are so absolutely certain that it will work. But on the other hand, if the idea is so simple, and the materials to build it are readily available and the skills to build it are minimal, then once one is built, anyone can build one, or many. They'll be converting bicycle factories in third world countries to turn out perpetual motion machines within a few weeks. But then we'll all be richer than ever from the money saved on non-renewable energy (except for those who had foolishly stashed all their wealth in oil and gas companies) so what will it matter?
Some PMM inventors say they realize that achieving perpetual motion will turn the world's economy on its head, but it must be done to save humanity from the fate of energy depletion and world-wide starvation. They are confident that their invention will be humanity's salvation. Yet they seem in no great hurry to get the thing built and working. There appears to be a disconnect between their beliefs and their behavior. They spend more time defending their claims against skeptics with words, and less time in the lab building that device that would (if it worked) make all words superfluous.
One claim that I find totally baffling is the "logic" of this justification for the belief that an over-unity machine is possible: "It must be possible, for the human race needs it for survival."
The misunderstood genius.PMM inventors waste time and money playing with schemes for achieving things, which, if they knew more physics, they would realize are very highly unlikely, infinitesimally close to impossible. They may know, deep down, that their chance of achieving their goal, or achieving anything useful, is smaller than their chance of being struck by lightning while riding a white mule. But, like the addicted gambler or lottery player, they rationalize, saying, "You can't win if you don't play the game." Their appreciation of reality is quite different from that of the scientist.
PMM inventors seek personal satisfaction playing the role of the misunderstood genius. In this drama they do not expect or even want a final resolution (a working PMM), for that would bring the drama, and their role in it, to an end. They thrive on, and are encouraged by, rejection. They see the world all around them as imperfect. They don't like the way nature seems to operate, and like the alchemists, they think that appearances are deceptive, and that appearances can be changed if one has purity of purpose and sufficient faith. They fantasize that they might discover a way to change the world, bringing it into line with their emotional desires. They cannot accept that such improvement might be impossible. They behave much like the Biblical prophets, crying in the wilderness, railing against the imperfections they see all around them. They are absolutely certain they see truths all others are blind to. Truth, they think, comes from their own gut feelings, intuition, and spiritual convictions, not from rational analysis and science.
Thoughts to PonderWe have no intention to ridicule sincere perpetual motion seekers. However, their emails often contain gems of wisdom that deserve repeating, for they have implications beyond what the writer may have intended, and are therefore worth pondering. We collect a few here. [I have not altered the writers' spelling, punctuation or grammar.]
These comments are mostly from emails received back when I first began my "Museum of Unworkable devices". More recently, I seldom get emails displaying such naiveté, but plenty displaying misconceptions about science.
© 2003, 2006, 2011, 2014 by Donald E. Simanek.
Cartoon by John C. Holden, © 2001 The Institute of Physics Publishing.