Exploring the Myths of New Energy
Exactly one decade ago, in May 1994, about fifty new energy researchers gathered at the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado in the hope of forming a team to pursue our common interests in new energy development. We had hoped that this think tank would give us a chance to get smart about a new energy policy, to found a skunkworks to bring energy research into the 21st Century. But we have little to show for it ever since.
We expected a lot from the software almost-billionaire who flew us in from all over the world, the second such conference he had convened in two years. He had promised support for the best and brightest of inventors, leading to commercial new energy. But when his marketing people admonished him from funding an effort "not yet dipping into the river of optimized profits", he backed out. We were still in the toe of the profit curve, they reasoned. "We don't want to throw good money after dead-ends. Let's wait until we have a winning horse. " And I later learned this was the law of venture capitalism. It was strategically too early to invest in new energy. The underfunded researchers went home disappointed and empty-handed.
The photo of our group includes an anomaly: Jim Carrey. While we were trying to be smart and smarter, Carrey was filming Dumb and Dumber. Perhaps this improbable confluence of minds meant something beyond our own intention to organize ourselves. In the ten years since this historic meeting, we have made very little progress in supporting the suppressed research or in educating the mainstream towards the enormous potential of new energy. Ten years later, we are curiously dumbed down in a conundrum of censorship from which we have still not emerged. And we continue to worship some myths that rival those in Orwell's 1984 or the twisted pronouncements of the Bush administration. Here are some of the most outrageous myths:
Myth #1. New energy is not scientifically valid.
This is perhaps the biggest obstacle. Throughout history, mainstream scientists have opposed and ridiculed new ideas. They (we) are the guardians to the gates of truth. The more important the idea, the greater the resistance. New energy research is no exception, leading the renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to conclude that the debunking of cold fusion research is "one of the greatest scandals in the history of science."
I have talked with fellow physicists still in the mainstream who are open enough to discuss the matter with me. To them, it would be the professional kiss of death to advocate new energy research because that implies the acceptance of revolutionary concepts frowned upon by colleagues. "Any failure would be embarrassing and the funding would stop. It's not worth the risk for me to stick my neck out until I'm 100 % convinced the experiments would work." This is a classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.
And so, the typical physicist awaits silently and skeptically until somebody somewhere might produce a convincing (to them) experiment. Then change can begin, but not one moment sooner. Meanwhile, one government-funded physicist sits in his laboratory awaiting the arrival of research devices, one at a time, for testing. Is this any way to run a crash program for planetary survival? Certainly not: the results so far have been (understandably) disappointing and slow when looked at by physicists.
Meanwhile several successful experiments in low energy nuclear reactions (aka. cold fusion) have been reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, for example methods of producing energy through acoustic cavitation or sonoluminescence, by multiple authors from prestigious institutions worldwide reported in Science Magazine in March 2002. Many other approaches appear in the literature as well, in spite of the denials of some mainstream physicists, and in spite of little or no funding available to do the work.
Some physicists simply hide behind the "laws" of thermodynamics and deny the existence of "perpetual motion" as their rationale to naysay new energy at the outset. What they don't seem to understand is that these theories or concepts apply only to closed systems in equilibrium and for which energy conservation is understood in a limited context. Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for pointing out these limitations in his chaos theory. Sad to say, it is difficult to convince many embedded physics professors about these violations. It's like talking with them about the paradoxes of quantum theory and nonlocality: they don't want to talk about it. As a result, the U.S. Patent Office still denies applications that relate to free energy.
Myth #2. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
This scientific double standard is a corollary to the first myth. Popularized by the late Carl Sagan, this is the credo of skeptics enforcing scientific orthodoxy in this era of the (feared) deconstruction of mainstream physics. It is simply a defense mechanism to deter new ideas, in which the Occam's Razor goalpost is arbitrarily and politically moved ever more towards the skeptical view: "In the absence of countervailing evidence, the simplest explanation shall suffice." The countervailing evidence is more often ignored by many physicists, setting up lack of support for the research.
Such reasoning flies in the face of the search for the truth, sliding the scale of credibility to suit the political agendas of those in charge. It is absurd to demand more or less experimental evidence according to whether the question to be asked happens to be important. Mr. Sagan is wrong. We must take us where the evidence leads us regardless of our biases as to how ordinary or extraordinary the question might be.
Myth #3. If it were real, we'd have it by now.
This is the classic conundrum of invention, recalling the early days of aviation, when Scientific American pontificated that heavier-than-air flight couldn't be real because otherwise it would have been reported. But it wasn't reported because editors didn't believe it could be real, even though there had been thousands of eyewitness sightings. The myth basically posits, "Because it isn't on the news it cannot be real." But the news itself is censored. You can begin to see the contradictions. This is sheer dumbness.
A related myth is that the research is so exotic, any commercial application must be further off in time, a science fiction scenario for the 22nd Century and beyond: therefore, it's best to continue doing what we're doing, to wring out all the oil and build massive renewable energy infrastructures, particularly the hydrogen economy and the use of biofuels, both of which have their challenges. But focused research in innovative directions could actually bring on the new in shorter times than any vested interest would want to conceive.
Myth #4. We must await the magic bullet.
Some of us who tend to be complacent have grown to believe that one savior-savant-inventor will come forward to save the world with his device. Until then, it's business as usual. This myth basically says, "We may some day have a Bill Gates to come forth competitively. The magic of the free market will make all this happen in its own wise timing, and may the best man win. But when all this happens, I want to be the first on my block to have it." This simplistic belief also ignores the decades of suppression of promising directions by those in charge.
This all-or-nothing thinking plays right into the hands of powerful corporations who can pick and choose energy systems that best fit their own profit projections. This has nothing to do with planning sensible energy policies that would be in the public interest. This is just plain dumb.
Myth #5. We can trust the government to support clean energy R&D.
This might be true in a more rational world. But the current leadership of Western governments has, in concert with powerful industrial and media lobbies, blocked development of these technologies. Even solar and wind power have not received the public attention they deserve. Is this any way to run an energy policy? Certainly not: the public will need to reassert its will.
Brian O'Leary, Ph.D.