by Wal Thornhill | February 15, 2009 12:04 pm
But scientists, who ought to know
Assure us that it must be so.
Oh, let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about.
Tumultuous times like these encourage questioning of long-held convictions. Our predicament seems the result of complacent reliance on consensus and a failure of commonsense. But for adventurous, practical souls it is a time of opportunity—a time ripe for change.
The American people have voted for change in this time of financial and political turmoil. The world is seeking new answers and renewed confidence in their leaders. It is easy to forget that it is only a few months since there was blind faith in experts who were telling us that our global financial systems were sound. “Trust the economists, they are the experts.” We give Nobel Prizes to such people and now find that their mathematical science doesn’t apply to the real world. They, and we, have suffered a historic reality check.
However, what is not readily accepted in this age of the “cult of the expert” is that the same problem applies to all the sciences. The training of experts is so narrow and specialized that, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No man can be a pure specialist without being in the strict sense an idiot.” Perhaps that is why no university on this planet offers a course that seamlessly sews the specialties together into a broad interdisciplinary canvas. The pieces don’t match up. The idiots cannot even converse!
This disconnect has allowed a surprising depth of ignorance to hide at the heart of our science. We have a gravitational cosmology that trumpets an understanding of the history of the universe back to the first nanosecond. Yet we do not understand gravity!! We have merely a mathematical description of what it does using words that have no real meaning—like “space-time” and an assumption of universality. Meanwhile the dismissal of the fundamental role of the powerful electric force in cosmology borders on pathological.
Entrenched science is constantly bolstered by sensational speculative announcements of “facts.” But wildly imaginative constructs such as “dark matter,” “dark energy” and “black holes” are fictitious, not factual. Notwithstanding, pronouncements about the big bang have become a quasi-religious ideology, or scientism.
“These scientisms, as I shall call them, are clusters of scientific ideas which come together and almost surprise themselves into creeds of belief, scientific mythologies…. And they share with religions many of their most obvious characteristics: a rational splendor that explains everything, a charismatic leader or succession of leaders who are highly visible and beyond criticism, certain gestures of idea and rituals of interpretation, and a requirement of total commitment. In return the adherent receives what the religions had once given him more universally: a world view, a hierarchy of importances, and an auguring place where he may find out what to do and think, in short, a total explanation of man. And this totality is obtained not by actually explaining everything, but by an encasement of its activity, a severe and absolute restriction of attention, such that everything that is not explained is not in view.”
— Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
It is an evident truism that history repeats itself. Why? One of the reasons is that historiography—the processes by which knowledge of the past, recent or distant, is obtained and transmitted—is not required reading in most university courses. Nor is epistemology, a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge. What little historical understanding we are given tends to be distorted by a Darwinian perspective, which presents our present state as the culmination of a long upward struggle from ignorance into the light of understanding. Whereas, as Arthur Koestler characterized it, “The revolutions in the history of science are successful escapes from blind alleys.” The blind alleys have become much longer and the escape more difficult since science became government-funded and institutionalised. Our universities have been tirelessly extending blind alleys for a century since the advent of “modern physics.”
“As these institutions founder in metaphysical emptiness, their words as dead leaves, all the texts and icons are there in their midst, waiting to have life breathed back into them.”
—John Carroll, The Western Dreaming.
As Carroll put it, “A culture is its sacred stories.” Our scientific culture has its sacred icons and stories. Bertrand Russell wrote of the increasing power of scientific experts and their “sacred stories” over the unscientific masses in his 1931 book The Scientific Outlook.
“..to obtain power over any given material, one need only understand the causal laws to which it is subject. This is an essentially abstract matter, and the more irrelevant details we can omit from our purview, the more powerful our thoughts will become. The same sort of thing can be illustrated in the economic sphere. The cultivator, who knows every corner of his farm, has a concrete knowledge of wheat, and makes very little money; the railway which carries his wheat views it in a slightly more abstract way, and makes rather more money; the Stock Exchange manipulator, who knows it only in its purely abstract aspect of something which may go up or down, is, in his way, as remote from concrete reality as the physicist, and he, of all those concerned in the economic sphere, makes the most money and has the most power. So it is with science, though the power which the man of science seeks is more remote and impersonal than that which is sought on the Stock Exchange.”
See Scientific Technique and Power.
The power of scientists may be remote and impersonal but its effect on us all has the potential to be more negative and long lasting than that of specialists on the global market. “The scientific community has changed our life more in this [20th] century than any parliament, and yet it feels obliged to justify nothing,” wrote J R Saul, in Voltaire’s Bastards. A particular case highlights this problem in the important area of alternative energy sources.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) publishes a monthly news magazine, Spectrum. The January 2009 issue has a SPECIAL REPORT: WINNERS & LOSERS 2009, The Year’s Best and Worst of Technology. There is an article by Erico Guizzo about an alternative energy company, BlackLight Power, and its founder Randell Mills, which deems their technology to be a loser. Why? The subtitle of the article says it all: “BLACKLIGHT POWER SAYS IT’S DEVELOPING A REVOLUTIONARY ENERGY SOURCE—AND IT WON’T LET THE LAWS OF PHYSICS STAND IN ITS WAY.”
The belief that the laws of physics are immutable seems quite peculiar to physicists who draw up the laws. It is a mistake that real natural philosophers would not make. All “laws” are man-made and subject to modification on the basis of new evidence. Also the oft-heard statement that something “defies the laws of physics” makes the arrogant assumption that the speaker knows beyond any doubt which laws of physics apply in a given real-life situation and that their realm of applicability is not exceeded. It is no use applying Young’s modulus to a spring after the spring is stretched beyond breaking point.
In the case of BlackLight Power, Randell Mills claims to have been able to extract energy from the hydrogen atom in a catalytic reaction with a heavy metal that drops the electron closer to the nucleus (proton) than the lowest (so-called ground state) Bohr orbit. Such a fractional Bohr orbit change releases one hundred times as much energy (in the ultraviolet—hence the name “black light”) as simply burning hydrogen can achieve. If proven, the process promises a clean, cheap, unlimited power source.
“Last year BlackLight announced that it had a prototype reactor capable of putting out 50 kilowatts of thermal power using a tiny amount of hydrogen. The company said that the device releases energy in one short burst and that it’s working to make the reaction continuous. It also said it planned to scale up for pilot operation sometime this year, estimating that its technology could produce electricity for under 2 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s on a par with nuclear and coal power plants and considerably better than gas and petroleum plants.
Is this real, or just fodder for a science fiction TV show?
Ask experts in atomic physics and you’ll hear that a new form of hydrogen is just fantasy.
“This is scientific nonsense—there is no state of hydrogen lower than the ground state,” says Wolfgang Ketterle, an MIT scientist and a Nobel Prize laureate in physics. “Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and it’s had time enough to find its ground state.”
Anthony Leggett, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and also a Nobel laureate, says that quantum mechanics is “consistent with just about everything we know about atomic physics, so the onus is firmly on anyone who wants to discard it to prove his case.” He adds, “I don’t see that [Blacklight] has got anywhere near doing this.”
As the Russian crystallographer Alexander I. Kitaigorodskii observed, “A first rate theory predicts, a second rate theory forbids and a third rate theory explains after the fact.” Quantum theory doesn’t explain anything; it certainly forbids; and its predictions are trivially successful. Some experimental results are dubbed “spooky.” This does not suggest an immutable “law of physics.”
“I am convinced that quantum mechanics is not a final theory. I believe this because I have never encountered an interpretation of the present formulation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to me. I have studied most of them in depth and thought hard about them, and in the end I still can’t make real sense of quantum theory as it stands.”
Quantum mechanics provides a mathematical recipe for what happens in the hydrogen atom but without any real understanding of cause. To suggest that the recipe forbids a new form of cookery is poppycock. To believe that theory can dictate what is real and what is not is a [logical] fallacy. It matters not one jot whether Randell Mills’ theory is correct or not. He has been able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the US Patent Office and scientific observers that his process works.
From an ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® perspective Mills’ process makes sense. Electron orbits are simply resonant states in which the transfer of energy between each electron and the nucleus sums to zero over each orbit. It seems that Mills has been able to drop the electron to a new stable orbit closer to the nucleus by resonant catalysis using atoms of a heavy metal, which has myriad resonances. Ketterle’s objection that hydrogen has “had time enough to find its ground state” is irrelevant because we are not talking about isolated hydrogen atoms. It is merely an assumption to define a ground state of hydrogen until we have observed the behavior of hydrogen in all possible environments and under all possible conditions. The Nobel Laureates complain too loudly, deflecting attention from the logical and scientific fallacies in their own argument. It is they who are talking “scientific nonsense.”
“…physics is now faced with a crisis in which it is generally admitted that further changes will have to take place, which will probably be as revolutionary compared to relativity and the quantum theory as these theories are compared to classical physics.”
—David Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics.
Not so. This is a Darwinian view. The only revolution required is a half turn and that we back out of these blind alleys and return to classical physics.
Guizzo’s article continues:
“BlackLight’s current prototype reactor consists of a steel cylinder containing 1 kilogram of an industrial chemical called Raney nickel—a powdery, porous nickel aluminum alloy that traps hydrogen gas—coated with a few grams of sodium hydroxide. According to Mills, when you raise the cylinder’s temperature, the reactants form sodium hydride. This material acts as a catalyst, absorbing just the right amount of energy— a multiple of 27.2 electron volts— to produce sodium ions and hydrinos [hydrogen atoms in a fractional Bohr ground state] while generating lots of heat.
The company reports that after an input of 1396 kilojoules, it obtained an output of 2149.1-kJ a 753.1 kJ difference that raised the temperature of the reactor from 85.6 to 5l8˚C in just 35 seconds. Then, according to Mills, comes the best part: if you inject more hydrogen into the reactor, it will combine with the sodium atoms and regenerate the sodium hydride catalyst which then produces more hydrinos and energy. To obtain the additional hydrogen, Mills says, a fraction of the output energy could be diverted to electrolyze water. “A billion watt power plant would consume about 1 liter of water per second,” he says.
Mills also claims that the hydrinos, far from being mere waste products, will themselves constitute a pot of gold. Hydrino compounds, he says, have unique properties and could be used in semiconductor devices, high voltage batteries, synthetic diamonds, anticorrosive coatings, and rocket fuel.
This past October, BlackLight announced the “independent validation” of its solid fuel reactor by a group led by Peter Jansson, a professor of engineering at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J. The Rowan group performed its own experiments and reported that the significant energy release could not be explained by “conventional chemistry” and may support BlackLight’s claim that it has found a novel technology for producing energy.
In a statement after the report was issued, Michael H. Jordan, formerly of Westinghouse Electric and a board member of BlackLight, said that the company’s technology “will go down as one of the most important advances in the field of energy in the last 50 years.”
However, critics have tended to gag at this unpalatable (for them professionally) news and to adopt a pseudoskeptical stance, for example to discredit rather than to investigate, by implying collusion between Mills and Jansson and calling into question the accuracy of the calorimetry measurements of energy output.
“Why is it that experts can sometimes be so entirely wrong, and yet so emphatic in their convictions? My own belief is that some of the reason lies in the success of “principles of impotence,” particularly in modern physics. Somehow it seems part of the scientific approach to postulate impotence.”
—R V Jones, The Scientific Intelligencer
Bohr and those who followed him simply adopted the “principle of impotence” in defining the “ground state” of the hydrogen atom. It is no basis for emphatic denial of Randell Mills’ work.
President Obama has made science a priority issue under his administration. But given the arcane politics of government-funded science, the great danger is that it will be like the cynical rendition of the appellative “PhD”—merely “piled higher and deeper.” As this article highlights, the place to look for real innovation is often outside academia. Some way needs to be found to provide funding for the mavericks of science because they will get no votes from governmental funding agencies. And for real change we need to fundamentally change the way science is taught at all levels, both secondary and tertiary.
In the January 23 issue of Science Bruce Alberts writes, “Rather than learning how to think scientifically, students are generally being told about science and asked to remember facts.” “Their science teachers failed to make it clear that science fundamentally depends on evidence that can be logically and independently verified; instead, they taught science as if it were a form of revealed truth from scientists.” This attitude carries over into the way scientists report their findings and the supine attitude of the media.
Alberts remarks, “Most shocking to me is the finding that many college-educated adults in the United States see no difference between scientific and non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena such as evolution.” But more shocking is the realization that Alberts and most scientists don’t recognize the distinction either. Alberts seems unaware that there is no scientific explanation for the fossil record of speciation. Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” provides no mechanism that generates discrete yet interdependent organisms. Darwinists have no idea what the “spark” is that brings matter to life or what symbiotic resonances are behind organisms’ adaptation to their environments.
Many other “scientific facts” like “black holes” and the “big bang” are merely flawed mathematical constructs. They have not been observed. Teachers and students should be conscious that mathematics operates in a “virtual reality” and is not to be confused with science, which relies on real-world observation, measurement and experiment. Mathematics describes behavior, it doesn’t explain. To make matters worse, mathematicians routinely demonstrate confusion and lack of rigor in their use of language when defining mathematical terms.
“I have no reason to believe that the human intellect is able to weave a system of physics out of its own resources without experimental labor. Whenever the attempt has been made it has resulted in an unnatural and self-contradictory mass of rubbish.”
—Basil Mahon, The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell
So in science curricula the emphasis should not be on “facts” but on clear thinking and skepticism, along with the history of key scientific debates and the philosophy of science. But the most important lesson is that the basic mysteries remain. And it is the many mysteries that can motivate students and the public to take an active interest in science again. As the biologist Rupert Sheldrake has remarked, “by giving up the pretence that the ultimate answers are already known, the sciences will be freer—and more fun.”
I agree. It is time for change and more fun!
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