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Editorial Science

News Media Scammed by 'Free Energy' Hoax 928

Dozens of submitters, some of them quite credulous, have written in pointing to this Reuters story about an anonymous inventor who claims to have solved the universe's energy woes. It's amazing that Reuters ran this story. It's even more amazing that news media across the country are running it too. Check your local newspaper, see if they were taken in. Update: 01/24 16:38 GMT by M : Contest is over; see below.

The General Electric corporate empire was scammed - they modified the story with a skeptical headline but otherwise left it alone. The AOL/TimeWarner corporate empire didn't have any problem with the story. The Environmental News Network, which probably should know better, didn't.

Now I know that wire stories are often run with minimal verification - each paper or website assumes that Reuters, or UPI, or AP has checked the story for veracity before it went out. And I know that reporters and editors can't be experts on every field of endeavor that they report on.

But this is Basic Science. The Three Laws (everyone loves the Second Law[1]) are not a new thing, and they're not going away any time soon. This should have been taught in junior high. There's a simple, well-known test that Reuters could have applied to this story: "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof". This claim is the most extraordinary of all - free energy, perpetual motion, whatever you want to call it, and it demands proof beyond question. Reuters is running this story based on an anonymous inventor. Is that extraordinary proof?

But wait, I said perpetual motion. The phrase "perpetual motion" is one which sets off alarm bells in people's heads, so the anonymous inventor was quick to head off that thought process:

"But he is keen to head off the notion that he has tapped into the age-old myth of perpetual motion. ``Perpetual motion is impossible. This is a self-sustaining unit which at the same time provides surplus electrical energy,'' he said."

This quote is simply embarassing. It parses to "Perpetual motion is impossible. This is a perpetual motion unit." The inventor must be snickering in his Guinness right now to have snuck that one past.

The story gets better when you read it several times. Three 100 Watt light bulbs created a drain of 4500 Watts, according to the nameless inventor. That would be an impressive feat all by itself, except that it's total nonsense.

The piece would have made a good humor article. A properly skeptical and properly educated Reuters reporter could have examined these claims, poked holes in them, and published a story that simultaneously reported on the claims and educated the public about why they are a load of hogwash. Too bad that's not what happened.

Maybe you'd like to take a crack at evaluating their claims? You think you can examine their device a little more critically than Reuters? Give them a call.

And I have a second task as well. Slashdot is occasionally criticized for getting a story wrong, even though we diligently correct ourselves when necessary. My theory is that the difference between Slashdot and other media is that they never correct themselves, no matter how inaccurate, so readers are left with a false picture of accuracy. To test this claim, I'll send a Thinkgeek t-shirt to the first person who finds a retraction of this 'free energy' story published by Reuters or any of the newspapers/media outlets that ran the original story. *Any* of them. I don't expect to pay out.

Update: 01/24 16:38 GMT by M : CNN has updated their story with a new headline and several new paragraphs at the end, which qualifies. A couple of people also noted that ZDNet appears to have taken their copy of the wire story down. Lucas Garsha was the first to email, so he gets a t-shirt. I wasn't clear whether the claim should be email or in the comments, so I'll also send a t-shirt to the first commenter noting this, which appears to be skia.

[1] This is a fine world that we live in, where I can find a website devoted to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

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News Media Scammed by 'Free Energy' Hoax

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  • by Synistyr ( 529047 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:04PM (#2891233) Homepage
    I don't know about that assumption that the media/news outlets never do retractions. If you do read an actual physical newspaper, you'll see that usually on the editor's page they do print retractions and corrections.

    It's quite possible that a) they don't even know that the story is wrong, b) no one has read and analyzed some tiny newstory from AP/Reuters/etc.. and c) no one has told them it's wrong.

    Why don't you write your local paper that ran the story, and let them know? How else are they going to know to print a retraction/correction?
  • by Logic Bomb ( 122875 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:11PM (#2891291)
    The CNN article that's linked to here is the one I read. While it seems silly they even bothered to run this story, they at least offered significant skepticism and the words of several expert-types who said it was probably a big load of crap. In other words, they don't need to correct themselves, because they never said "this is true".
  • by bakes ( 87194 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:12PM (#2891302) Journal
    There have been a number of people working on 'free energy' for some time, and some have had a good degree of success. Check out http://www.nexusmagazine.com/freeenergy.html for a summary of some of them, and some links.

    And this 'three laws' thing? How many other laws of science have been revised, updated or completely discarded after new discoveries were made? How about the phlygisten theory? Earth is the center of the universe? The single shooter theory? Perhaps these laws of thermodynamics are only valid within a particular context, and the free energy comes from outside that context?
  • by st. augustine ( 14437 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:18PM (#2891335)
    I'd settle for answering these arguments [xnet.com] from the sci.skeptics FAQ. This sounds like a classic case of item 8.1: "If they can provide so much energy, why do they need the battery to keep going?"
  • by GRH ( 16141 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:22PM (#2891360)
    Maybe we all need to keep such open minds...

    For me, it was grade 4 when I came up with the brilliant idea of coupling a generator to a motor and using the power from the generator to run the motor, and draw off the "excess".

    However, in a true feat of stubborness, I actually built a small prototype. Well, needless to say, it didn't work. But it would spin for a while before stopping (clearly much longer than just coasting).

    Now that I'm all grown up and aware of such scientific limitations, I think I'll built a small, unlicensed, nuclear reactor..... :)
  • by coyote-san ( 38515 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:23PM (#2891362)
    *snicker* According to the CNN report, part of the "evidence" that the 4 12V car batteries were recharged while powering 3 100W light bulbs was the fact that the voltage actually increased from 48.9V to 51.2V.

    Could there be any other reason for the voltage (and voltage alone, not power) to increase?

    Surely it couldn't be something as trivial as the batteries warming up.... or would that only occur to someone who knows of the (really dangerous) way to deal with a dead battery in cold weather - hook up the jumper cables then short them. If you don't succeed in blowing up the battery, you may have warmed it up enough that it will have enough juice to turn the starter.
  • by AtomicBomb ( 173897 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:23PM (#2891365) Homepage
    A multimeter reading of the batteries' voltage before the device started up showed a total of 48.9 volts. When it was switched off, a second reading showed 51.2 volts, indicating that, somehow, they had been reimbursed.
    Just similar to magic show, we all know it is a hoax. How to uncover the ground truth is the interesting part right now.

    This is just my wild guess. The voltage reading looks really dubious to me. I suspect that the system consists of 4 lead-acid battery connected in series and connected to an external power sources.
    48.9/4 => 12.2 (voltage before)
    51.2/4 => 12.8 (voltage after)
    These figures are typical for lead acid for such a charging regime.

    He may hide the external power connection through non-cable charging solution (e.g. IPT: inductive power transfer). Probably the only truth in this article is that cheater is (was) an electrical engineer.
  • by fleener ( 140714 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:39PM (#2891492)
    A retraction by Reuters is not necessary unless the story is not true. I'm pretty sure this hoaxter made the claims, and Reuters merely reported the claims. Corrections are fine, like if Reteurs made a math error or spelled someone's name incorrectly. Wild claims are not a retractable issue because they are just that - claims. Not facts.

    If this hoaxter who got national attention, too bad. But the job of a reporter is to report. Reuters did not make an extraordinary claim. The hoaxter did. Yes, Reuters looks stupid when reporting a hoax. Yes, if Reuters regularly reports hoaxes, people will seriously question whether it's worthwhile to read Reuters reports.

    If you want analysis of the report, read a science publication. This report is no different than other legitimate reporting. Every day we hear about a *real* scientific study that tells us X causes cancer or X is good for you, and it's up to the public to interpret the news. A prudent person doesn't rush out to the grocery store to begin eating lots of X (or stop eating it) until the evidence is so overwhelming that it's accepted as fact.

    A prudent person, when reading this Reuters energy article, would simply say, "OK, come back and tell me again after the invention has undergone peer review and the whole world is excited. Until then, I'll stay connected to the grid."
  • by Chairboy ( 88841 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @08:40PM (#2891498) Homepage
    I suspect that the person is Peter Chambers, and I offer the following evidence:

    1. The administrative contact for jasker.com is Peter Chambers.
    2. A search on Google.com identifies a Peter Chambers as an alumni of Brunel University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, issued 1972. This is 29 years ago. If he got his degree when he was 29, not unlikely, that would make him the 58 year old unnamed inventor.

    Just a thought, and it all hinges on the assumption that the two are the same Peter Chambers and that he got the degree at 29.

    If it's bollox, I'm at my Karma cap anyhow, so I can afford to lose the points. With a cap of 50, there's no real reason to make every comment super insightful, seeing as how there's no reward once you get to 50.
  • by ArnoldYabenson ( 551283 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:04PM (#2891623) Homepage
    Not only did he scam most news agencies, he drinks Guinness.

    But did he scam Reuters? Their website [reuters.com] shows no trace of this story, in any category, even "Oddly Enough" -- which is where I would expect a story like this. Searching for the credited author Kevin Smith [reuters.com] reveals about a dozen stories filed from Ireland, but not this one. Nor is there any indication of a correction or retraction to a filed story.

    So the question becomes, did Reuters even issue this story, or did someone hack the wire?

  • magnet device (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:11PM (#2891655)
    this reminds me of when i was thinking about a magnet device. You would have two vertical cylnders that stood parralel to eachother with strips of powerfull magnets on them, one of the cylnders would be the positive side of the magnet and the other would be negative. give it a little spin and the two cylnders repelling eachother should spin for a long time no? i never tried this out at all and i'm sure there's some explination why it would fail miserably so could someone please explain why this would not work??
  • by Spy4MS ( 324340 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:14PM (#2891663)
    It was supposed to be an electric car that ran for a week without refueling at speeds up to 90 MPH. Tesla reportedly built a generator to demonstrate it that ran off of permanent magnets and vacuum tubes purchased at a nearby electronics store. He said the energy to power the car came from "the ether". The stories I've read have been a little mysterious, much like the man himself. This search [google.com] found this link [keelynet.com] to an article about it.
  • by d.valued ( 150022 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:19PM (#2891685) Journal
    I don't know how many of you know about Mancow [mancow.com], a nationally syndicated broadcaster beaming out of Chicago, but he did a better job of messing with the media.

    He sent out a press release stating that, to publicize his program, a set of billboard ads depicting the Juniors from last years' election (that would be Al Gore, Jr. and George Bush, Jr.) sparking up the large-sized blunts, to steal a line from Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie.

    He watched the media report on this; to his amazement, Fox News Channel, CNN, and all the local network affiliate newscasts all repeated, word-for-word, this news release.

    Problem was, of course, it was untrue.

    Now, before you say 'it's another cold fusion insident', think about fuel cell technology. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if any of the scientists who are currently working on fuel cells at least had a pilot light under their ass because of the concept of cold fusion. After all, fuel cells create energy from hydrogen and run cool, right?
  • I hate it when ... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:22PM (#2891693)
    People correct others on the use of the word ironic. There are several accepted definitions, even if not accepted by pedants like Tattva.

    got this off google, think it's pretty apt:
    Different kinds of irony. The common form of irony (called situation irony) is when what is expected to happen is the opposite of what actually happens. It requires more then just that though for it to be really ironic. I heard a comedian do a skit about the Alanis Moriesette song and he gives a good example of what would actualyl be irony. In the song there is the line about being stuck in a traffic jam when you are already late. This is not ironic, it is unfortunate. But, if you were a city planner on your way to a convention about traffic congestion in order to give a presentation stating that the city traffic is fine and you got stuck in a traffic jam, then it would be ironic.

    Now, dramatic irony is when the audience watching a play or movie knows more then the character(s) speaking the lines on stage. Like in Macbeth when Duncan says to Lady Macbeth "conduct me to mine host" not knowing that she plans to kill him and his host would thus be death.

    Verbal irony is the one that is close to sarcasm. In fact, it is what most people think sarcasm is. Verbal irony is when you say one thing but mean something else (like the opposite). So if I were to say "Smooth move" when you messed up that would be verbal irony. This differs from sarcasm because sarcasm is biting speech intended to hurt (so it does not necessarily have to be ironic). It actually comes from a greek word meaning to "tear flesh".
  • by Captn Pepe ( 139650 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:40PM (#2891751)
    I hate to break it to you, but our universe isn't even symmetric under time translation, much less time reversal. It is expanding after all, and this means that you can tell how much time has passed since the big bang by measuring the ambient photon temperature (the CMB), and can tell what direction you are moving in by noting whether the universe is expanding or contracting.

    In fact, if the cosmological constant is real (probably) and is due to a non-zero vacuum energy (quite possibly), then energy is not conserved globally. But even if this isn't the case, you can get "free energy" out of an expanding universe with relative ease: just tie a string to two masses and wind it around an axle, place the masses many megaparsecs apart, and let the expansion of the universe pull them apart and consequentially spin the axle. Just make sure you can keep extending the string for all eternity, and you're set until the mass of the length of string becomes comparable to that of your masses on the ends. :-)

    Really, though -- our universe is symmetric under time translation to very high accuracy for the distances and timescales that engineers are interested in, so in that regime yes, energy is conserved.
  • Retractions (Score:2, Interesting)

    by HiThere ( 15173 ) <charleshixsn@ea r t h l i n k.net> on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:42PM (#2891758)
    Newspapers often print retractions. They just print them a week later buried on an inside page. (If you look carefully, you can often find them. Sometimes you can even figure out what they are retracting.)
  • by fleener ( 140714 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @09:43PM (#2891761)
    No, not really. Journalists do not have a responsibility to print the truth. They have a responsibility to not knowingly print a falsehood. There is a big difference.

    1. You utter the words, "John Doe robbed a bank when he was a teenager."
    2. I publish your quote.
    3. John Doe sues both of us for libel.
    4. I do some research and determine John Doe is correct. I print a retraction.
    5. I likely get absolved of wrongdoing, while you have to prove in court that you did not lie. Truth is the defense for libel. However, journalists do have special rights above regular citizens and printing a retraction goes a long way toward protecting me from litigation.
    6. Yes, a good reporter does his research beforehand to know you are lying. Bad reporters quickly lose their jobs or their readership. But John Doe would have to prove gross negligence (say, a specific intent) in reporting to get a judgement against me in court.
  • by dasgod ( 114312 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:19PM (#2891934)
    Ok This is not correct Tesla claimed to have been able to harness power from the earth. The earth does carry a charge and does have a magnetic field there the earth does have potential energy.

    Tesla patents claim that by getting the correct receptor the power of earth could be tapped for free. This would make metering electricity impossible.

    Interestingly he was never able to complete his experiment due to J.P. MORGAN. Morgan ended up controlling Tesla's patents and the Tesla Co. Morgan also a huge influence on Tesla during his life time. Morgan was making a lot of cash from inefficient power distribution and lighting. Morgan owned General Electric, US steel and Guegeniun Cooper Mines and some power companies like Niagara. GE made a Mint of Niagara Falls. All of these interested made Morgan huge profits due to inefficient technologies like the hot Edison light bulb. Tesla's cold and efficient flourescent light bulb patent was also controlled by JP Morgan. Thus it was a full 50 years until fluorescent light came out commercially.

    So next time you pay your 'metered' power bill or change those crappy GE built hot light bulb reflect on economics or greed of capitalist like jp and there affect on history and SCIENCE!!!
  • by LichP ( 549726 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:21PM (#2891943) Journal
    I have a standard trick to writing essays, and it involves writing complete b*llocks. And I'm quite good at it, so I can spot it when I see it. Looking at the Brief Description [jasker.com] on the official Jasker website [jasker.com], I spotted rather a lot. I quoth:
    This [electricity genreation] is accomplished, by utilisation of existing and proven state of the art technologies, combining novel features and innovative assembly techniques.
    Which are what?
    The credibility of the system is definitively established and can be interpreted and demonstrated as being "the practical application of accepted techniques".
    By whom, and which apps and techniques?
    There are no stages in the operation of this invention that require any constituent component to perform at anything other than that being, within its capability or in accordance with its specification.
    This is grammatically broken imo. If it holds any meaning, then I think it says "Nothing does anything it shouldn't."
    All the parts for this invention are in practical and productive everyday use. The methodology technique is accomplished by the innovative application in logical sequence of specifically selected constituent components whose performance compliment each other and function in co-operation.
    This has to be one of the single-most badly constructed paragraphs of complete cr*p I have ever seen for quite some time. My translation: "It uses bog-standard components which work together."
    Attainment is determined by the systematic mathematical application in the defined mode, of the accurately selected operational segments.
    Again, broken. First question that springs to mind is 'What is the defined mode?' Try dropping the comma and it makes slightly more sense. My translation: "We use maths to work out how to make this thing gain energy." Being a Maths undergrad, I am a little insulted.
    In reality the achievement of this invention adheres strictly with known, accepted and proven physics principles. It is emphasised there are no new discoveries disproving accepted physics laws. To reiterate there are no physics heresies, no physics contradictions and no ambiguous claims.
    In short, this is a lie, as has been previously pointed out by other /.ers.
    This invention is achieved by the application and utilisation of a capital energy source to create a prolific income energy system, with the consequential composition being a "controlled loop, self-generating module", that produces instant and constant mechanical drive power and or instant and constant electrical power.
    More b*llsh*t, although slightly better crafted than previous paragraphs, imo. My translation: "We put in energy, it uses it, but spits out more. So we get surplus."
    This invention is mankind's first income energy reservoir from a capital energy source.
    To be taken with a handful of salt. My translation: "We think it works, and we think it's the first one to work." In summary, a load of badly-formed b*llshit, about as insubstantial as a pea in the path of a steam-roller. -- From Phil Mod me to death if you like, but I'll die a martyr. At least in my dreams. OK, so I won't but I like to pretend ...
  • by dasgod ( 114312 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:22PM (#2891950)
    Ok This is not correct Tesla claimed to have been able to harness power from the earth. The earth does carry a charge and does have a magnetic field there the earth does have potential energy.

    Tesla patents claim that by getting the correct receptor the power of earth could be tapped for free. This would make metering electricity impossible.

    Interestingly he was never able to complete his experiment due to J.P. MORGAN. Morgan ended up controlling Tesla's patents and the Tesla Co. Morgan also a huge influence on Tesla during his life time. Morgan was making a lot of cash from inefficient power distribution and lighting. Morgan owned General Electric, US steel and Guegeniun Cooper Mines and some power companies like Niagara. GE made a Mint of Niagara Falls. All of these interested made Morgan huge profits due to inefficient technologies like the hot Edison light bulb. Tesla's cold and efficient flourescent light bulb patent was also controlled by JP Morgan. Thus it was a full 50 years until fluorescent light came out commercially.

    So next time you pay your 'metered' power bill or change those crappy GE built hot light bulb reflect on economics or greed of capitalist like jp and there affect on history and SCIENCE!!!
  • Re:Laws (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Raetsel ( 34442 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:44PM (#2892072)

    In Stephen Hawking's Cambridge Lectures [britannica.com], he points out that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a statistical, rather than absolute, law. It applies in most cases that we have observed, yet we can not prove it applies to all cases.

    The relevant part; tape 2, side 2:

    "...The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases with time. Moreover, when two systems are joined together, the entropy of the combined system is greater than the sum of the entropies of the individual systems."

    (He gives an example)

    " The Second Law of Thermodynamics has a rather different status to that of other laws of science. Other laws, such as Newton's Law of Gravity, for example, are absolute laws. That is, they always hold.

    On the other hand, the Second Law is a statistical law. That is, it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases."

    Damn those black holes. Or gravastars. Whatever you want to call them.

    Zero-point energy probably does exist. There certainly is something there, we have managed to prove that much. I just don't believe that a single person, working alone, with a mechanical background, is going to 'suddenly uncover' the secret. I believe we are, unfortunately, beyond that point in our scientific development.

    Almost all of these supposed 'perpetual motion' devices have some mechanical component. Something moving, some clockworks, something. There was even one instance where the reporter noticed the speed of the device was rather random. Upon closer inspection, a small cable was found, leading to the next room. The device was, in fact, powered by an elderly man in a rocking chair!

    "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", huh?

  • Sokal Hoax (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @10:47PM (#2892084)
    Read about the Sokal Hoax at http://skepdic.com/sokal.html
    Funny shit!
  • by linzeal ( 197905 ) on Wednesday January 23, 2002 @11:21PM (#2892213) Homepage Journal
    Well score one for the luddites. It is disheartening that "progressive" people are so anti-science as tp destroy things that they do not understand like taking witches to the stake. The entire ecological movement has spun out of control and is in dire need of guidance. This return to eden mentality is delusional at best.
  • by Phanatic1a ( 413374 ) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @12:12AM (#2892420)
    It is however their position to report the claim.

    How do you figure?

    Over-unity claims are a dime a dozen; you can hardly take a peek into the sci.physics.* hierarchy without having about 3 or 4 fall onto your disk. It's standard crankish crackpottery, and these claims have been being made for many decades now. Nobody can produce something that actually does what it claims, the claims are in direct contravention of the laws of thermodynamics, and they're just simply old hat. *Thousands* of people make these groundless claims.

    So what makes this one so different that Reuters felt compelled to run an article on it? Why are they ignoring all the other over-unity freaks? Did this one give them free beer?

    It's the job of Reuters to only print stories that are actually worth reading. This one doesn't qualify, except that a reporter was taken in by a demonstration in which 3 light bulbs were driven with car batteries.
  • Re:Laws (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 24, 2002 @01:59AM (#2892885)
    You say that Hawking states .... " The Second Law of Thermodynamics has a rather different status to that of other laws of science. Other laws, such as Newton's Law of Gravity, for example, are absolute laws. That is, they always hold. On the other hand, the Second Law is a statistical law. That is, it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases."

    I am curious as to how the second law is any more statistical than gravity. Does Hawking cite any cases where the second law does not hold?
    I would be interested in that as what little I have read of Hawking (Brief read of a Brief History of Time) seemed to me to to show a man who was attempting to mold his observations into his world view rather than the other way around.

    It is going to take more than a glib comment from Hawking to make me think that the law is no longer a law because he deems it not to be.

    Please let me know if there are any instances where the law does not hold.
    Just curious ... what's that quote about remarkable claims require remarkable proof?
  • Re:Laws (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Wakkow ( 52585 ) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @03:34AM (#2893121) Homepage
    (disclaimer: im just a undergrad CE student that had to take this physics class last quarter so i may be off in my terminology)

    It's all about statistical mechanics and entropy.. as a system gets larger and larger, the more possible states it can be in, and the more likely some will and others wont exist.

    For a few atoms, it can look like a bell curve, with possible states occurring everywhere... but move into a larger system and more states can exist and less states (ie. more likely one) really -do- exist. This is how all the air molecules in a room suddenly don't converge into one corner of the room.. It's just Not Likely. It's possible, but very very very very Not Likely.

    Read "Six Ideas that Shaped Phsics" Unit T.. it goes into quite a lot of detail
  • Re:Laws (Score:5, Interesting)

    by alfredw ( 318652 ) <alf@freealf.cFORTRANom minus language> on Thursday January 24, 2002 @03:42AM (#2893152) Homepage
    100 years ago if you would have told me there were going to be atomic bombs, microwave ovens,...

    While you're certainly correct about these things, I believe that this case is different.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics, as pointed out by the the parent's poster, is a statistical law. However, it is not only a statistical law derived from experiment (such as, say, "General Relativity agrees with 100.0% of experiments done to date"), but it is also a mathematical theorem (such as, say, "a + b = b + a"). I can believe that a given law of science could be proven wrong. For a theorem which is as deeply rooted as the 2nd law (which is a result of combinatronics), though... This would require mathematics as we know it to topple.

    To be honest, I think it is beyond possibility. This, incidentally, also means that the First Law (conservation of energy) is true as well. If energy is perfectly conserved in an ideal system, the change in entropy is zero. If the 2nd law were false and the change in entropy could be less than zero, energy conservation would also have failed.

    So, like any theorem, there are conditions that must be met before it is true. What are the 2nd law's conditions?

    Answer: Your system must consist of discrete particles that can be in any one of several states. The states do not have to be equally probable. The more particles you have, the more statistically insignificant any deviations from the mean become. Ergo, when you're looking at something macroscopic (like, say, a "free energy machine"), you'll be looking at ~10^(24 or 25) particles... WHICH IS PLENTY.

    Sure, it is possible for the entropy in such a system to spontaneously decrease, but it unimaginably, overwhelmingly unlikely. It is very likely that the entropy will increase up to a certain maximum. Therefore, even if you got extraordinarily lucky and saw the entropy drop, it would soon bounce back up again.

    That's the 2nd law in a nutshell...

    As far as the Zero Point energy goes, I'm a little more fuzzy. Didn't Guth predict that if the energy in empty space fell to absolute zero it would undergo inflationary expansion? I remember reading that somewhere... Anyone?
  • Re:Laws (Score:5, Interesting)

    by doug363 ( 256267 ) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @05:14AM (#2893346)
    The second law of thermodynamics is statistical (or maybe probabilistic) because, when you look at the microscopic motions particles, it is possible for the second law to be broken, but incredibly unlikely. The classic example is: I have a sealed box of an odorous gas. I take it into a large room and open the box. The gas obviously will disperse and fill the room; this is predicted by the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you look at the random motions of just one of these gas particles, it would look perfectly OK if you watched the movie "in reverse". However, it wouldn't look ok for the entire process to go in reverse. The reason is that it is incredibly unlikely that if a room is full of gas, then all the gas particles will, by chance, all move into the box in the corner. It is possible, but so incredibly unlikely you'd be waiting for many many times the age of the universe before it probably would happen. In more technical terms, there are many more states that the gas can be in if it "evenly" fills the room, but comparitively few if the gas is all in one corner. If each "state" of the particles on a microscopic level is equally likely (i.e. if the gas has been in the room for a long enough time that it has reached equilibrium), then the probability that the gas will fill the room instead of all being in the box is very close to 1.

    So the cases where you'd see the 2nd Law not holding are where the probabilities of observing it are much more favorable than 1 in 10^80 or something. This means that you need to be looking at small numbers of particles (maybe 5 or 10 instead of ~10^23 particles for macroscopic objects) for long times. Certainly you wouldn't see it being violated constantly in a 40 pound lump of metal that some guy put together in his backyard.

    Gravity, in contrast (according to theory anyway) always works. Full stop. It's not like that it's just an incredibly likely that objects will attract each other, it's a "certainty". It's the same with most of the other physical laws out there. Quantum mechanics is "probabilistic", but in another somewhat different sense, and theromodynamics doesn't really apply on the scale of quantum mechanics anyway. (Thermodynamics deals with the study of "macroscopic" systems with large numbers of particles, where general properties of the set of particles can be expressed. Properties like total energy, volume, # of particles, temperature, pressure, etc.)

  • Re:Laws (Score:3, Interesting)

    by inburito ( 89603 ) on Thursday January 24, 2002 @09:23AM (#2893793)
    There is a very simple mathematical example about this.

    Suppose you flip a coin. Everytime you get tails you move an object left, heads moves it right. Question now being. What is the probability that this object ends up at point A given an infinite amount of flips.

    It just so happens that it can be proven mathematically that this probability is 1. So there is a 100% probability that it will occupy every and all possible places in that infinite line. Now think of a combination of objects following same sort of mathematical game but with a little more complex rules that allow for, say, 4 dimensional motion(to account for time too).

    Some people even think that the universe is just a temporary statistical anomaly(that was given infinite amounts of coin flips).

    What the second law of termodynamics states is that statistically in a closed system the amount of entropy, given enough time, always decreases.

    So if put a vase broken into pieces in a closed box chances are that when I open it sometime in the future that I still find the same pieces. However, if I had infinite amounts of time at some point in time there is 100% possibility that those pieces rearranged themselves into a solid vase.

    The probability of this occuring for long periods of time is infinetly small but again given infinite amounts of time the possibility of it occuring for any given amount of time is 100%.

    Then again I'm no quantum physicist..

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"