No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Keith Tutt. The Search for Free Energy: A Scientific Tale of Jealousy, Genius and Electricity. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Nick Cook. The Hunt for Zero Point. Century, 2001.

Lynne McTaggart. The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe. HarperCollins, 2001.

There is a piece of ancient Brigantian wisdom which says 'tha can't get owt for nowt', but this never stops people trying. Keith Tutt provides an overview of a whole range of attempts to create free energy machines in the twentieth century. Not being a physicist or an engineer it is difficult for your reviewer to know how seriously to take any of them, but the general picture does not seem very promising. Most of the candidates considered seem to be the usual backyard inventors who have `discovered' ways around the second law of thermodynamics to discover what are, in effect, perpetual motion machines. The suspicion is not assuaged by the extreme secrecy with which many of these people operate(d) and by the copious amounts of pseudoscientific waffle they come up with. There also seems to be clear connection with radical right political views.

Some more respectable candidates are considered, such as cold fusion, which Tutt seems impressed by. Pons and Fleishman, its 'discoverers' were certainly in different class from the backyard inventors. Perhaps they discovered something which needs investigating but was not the cold fusion which they thought they had finally found.

The latest candidate for providing free lunches is the so called zero point energy, the random quantum fluctuations in absolute vacuum at absolute zero, which leads to `virtual' particles being created and destroyed in fractions of nanoseconds. All of this is, almost by definition, a completely random process, and locally is very very weak indeed. This doesn't stop people trying to build perpetual motion machines using it, or for giving it all sorts of weird powers. In all three of these books the name Hal Puthoff appears as a central character in this research, but none of the authors however seem eager to explore how he was taken in by the conjuring tricks of Uri Geller. Despite its title. The Hunt for Zero Point, is not really about this topic at all. Instead it is all based on the fixation that the United States government possess antigravity technology inherited from the Nazis. On the absurd Nazi secret science myth see Kevin McClure's devastating review in Fortean Times 155, and his articles now on the Magonia website.

This whole book reads as though the author thinks he is Fox Mulder, and we get all the clandestine conversations and hidden clues. The fact that at least one of the amazing inventions discussed here resembles something out of recent early evening TV science fiction show is of course a pure coincidence. In addition to the Nazis, we get T. Townsend Brown, America's answer to Leonard Cramp, who was chucked out of NICAP back in 1957 as his antigravity flying saucer propulsion theories were thought to be bringing the organization into disrepute; and the amazing John Hutchison and his even more amazing machine. Readers of Magonia will remember that out editor was distinctly unimpressed by this.

After reading this book three possibilities come to mind. One is that the 'aviation editor and aerospace consultant' of the allegedly authoritative Jane's Defense Weekly really believes this sort of guff, that it is a cynical money grabbing con, or that he is himself a secret agent of some sort, out on a deflection exercise, making something so ridiculous that no other journalist will touch it with a barge pole.

Lynne McTaggart, a journalist and alternative health promoter, is one of those who attribute all sorts of weird powers to the zero point and she charts the claims of people who link zero point energy to everything from ESP to homeopathy. This is presented as the revolutionary New Science, but as one reads through this book the doubts creep in, and we get the same old suspects from years back paraded for our delectation. There is Edgar Mitchell, Targ and Puthoff, Karl Pilbram, David Bohm and so on. All names and studies which date back to the time I was student member of the SPR, thirty years ago, at a time when I actually believed in a lot of this stuff. Then as now all of this 'consciousness research' was being promoted as the New Science which would transform the world in a few years time. A generation on the the same old stuff is still being churned out.

There are some new additions such as Robert Jahn (dating from about 20 years ago), and Dean Radin who claims that strange things happen in random number generators when lots of people watch TV at the same time. Interesting if shown to be true, but certainly not capable of bearing the great weight of metaphysical speculation heaped upon it. However the new star in the firmament is Jacques Benveniste whose experiments with 'the memory of water' date back 15 years or so. Benveniste was subjected to the ministrations of James Randi et al, who acted like rather severe Egon Ronay inspectors. This makes Benveniste a 'martyr' subjected to a 'reign of terror' in the eyes of the paranormalists. Needless to say the nasty old sceptics never actually torched his laboratory, put a bomb under his car or fed his kids sweets filled with rat poison, or even picketed his home. I am sure that Britons doing animal research or Americans working in abortion clinics would gladly swap a bit of ridicule for the real hard stuff!

Benveniste's story illustrates something else, a kind of masochistic victim personality, constantly courting rejection and ridicule. His original article could have been sent to half a dozen scientific journals and it would have appeared with very little fuss. But no, he sends it to Nature, knowing its editor's implacable hostility to anything remotely smacking of the paranormal. After the fuss, Benveniste now shows a sure instinct for self destruction. While the original claim, though extraordinary, was not altogether risible and there were probably quite a few colleagues who thought that John Maddock had gone over the top, he proceeds to escalate his claims to the totally ludicrous: the memory or the field can be transmitted to water after being sent over the Internet and downloaded onto a floppy disk.

When one assistant failed to get the right results it is because "she was emitting electromagnetic fields which were interfering with the communication signalling of his experiment" which sounds like a pseudotechnical way of saying she had the evil eye. One can see what would happen if this sort of thing got into general culture: a new cause of persecution. You could be got at not just because you have the wrong ethnic origin/gender/sexual orientation etc., but because you have the wrong electromagnetic signals. As it was, the female assistant in this case was lucky, because a male researcher in another lab had the same problems. Otherwise no doubt it would have all been blamed on her time of month and we would be back in the days when menstruating women were believed to blacken mirrors and turn milk sour.

And that's the nub of it, there is nothing new, revolutionary or liberatory about this stuff. It is old time magic and superstition wrapped up in a glittery parcel of science, possible science and pseudoscience. All the talk of holism and holistic appeals to a fear of the real, revolutionary, modern and liberatory world. At root it appeals to what Eric Fromm calls the 'fear of freedom', the need to be part of some great whole which will lift the burden of individuality and the need to make personal decisions. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the holistic "we must learn from nature" inventor in Cook's book, was - though Cook clearly doesn't comprehend this - a practitioner of German volkish science, who by his own account was well in with the Nazis, who liked that sort of thing, not your 'cosmopolitan Jewish science'.
What emerges from all three books is that there is nothing so weird and absurd that you can't get some scientifically illiterate military type or business executive to pour huge sums of somebody else's money down the drain in pursuit of a free lunch. This is what happens when monumental credulity meets monumental greed. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 78, June 2002.

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