Thursday, March 09, 2006

The other shoe hasn't dropped yet

The Financial Times has an interesting essay by Robert Matthews on an ongoing story, about quantum mechanics and supposedly incredible new energy sources, that has popped up now and again in recent years, and which I mentioned here. Though nobody seems to know for certain (yet) whether the fantastic claims made by Dr. Randell Mills are credible or not, the author seems to express benign interest in future developments and pokes fun at those who dismiss the claims a priori:
And no wonder: this medical student turned physicist claims to have debunked the textbook account of how atoms are put together – and in the process discovered a new source of clean, cheap energy.
So which is it: is Dr Mills a crank or a genius? Faced with making up their minds, many scientists have shown the classic symptom of cognitive dissonance: spluttering rage (it is a safe bet that some are even now tapping out letters of complaint to this newspaper). They simply refuse point-blank to believe that Dr Mills could have found a form of atomic energy missed by the likes of Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford.
But – again in line with psychological theory – those with rather less investment in the current scientific paradigm tend to have fewer problems countenancing the other possibility: that Dr Mills really is a genius. Some have even gone as far as investing a total of $50m in his New Jersey-based company, Blacklight Power, whose board members include Neil Moskowitz, the chief financial officer of Credit Suisse, and Michael Jordan, chairman of Electronic Data Systems.
Yet most of Dr Mills’ critics have probably never bothered to read any of his research papers. Some have, however, and have gone on to attempt the acid test of any scientific claim: replication by independent researchers. Among those to test Dr Mills’ ideas is a team led by Professor Gerrit Kroesen at the University of Technology in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. So far their results have confirmed that hydrogen atoms do indeed behave strangely in the presence of certain elements, in line with Dr Mills’ theory, and they plan to test the key claim of net energy output later this year.
While many scientists express doubts off the record, the fact remains that no one has published a knock-out argument against Dr Mills’ basic theory (though some claim it is so silly it is not worth a rebuttal).
Whether his theory is right is ultimately irrelevant, however. What really matters is whether hot hydrogen can be persuaded to give out more energy than it takes in, making it a viable power source.
The article goes on to cite several telling instances in which it took the scientific establishment longer than seemly to recognize breakthroughs. I thought the most amusing one was (emphasis mine):
When two American bicycle repairmen claimed to have built the world’s first aircraft in 1903, they were dismissed as cranks. Newspapers refused to send reporters or photographers to witness any of the flights. More than two years later, Scientific American magazine was still insisting that the story was a hoax. By that time, the Wright brothers had completed a half-hour flight covering 24 miles.
Do read the whole thing. The vision of such cheap, clean and efficient energy is certainly tantalizing. Who knows if the coming months will hold exciting news on this front?

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