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07/25/2000

Voodoo and Weird Science

For almost three decades I have been working, teaching and
consulting on various topics related to the field of energy. So it
was natural that an article in the May 15 issue of Forbes
magazine entitled "The Alchemists of Energy" would catch my
attention. This article and another that followed were based on
excerpts from the book "Voodoo Science" by Robert L. Park, a
professor of physics at the University of Maryland. I agree with
Professor Park, who thinks that too many people these days give
credence to things that have no basis in fact and are scientifically
untenable. He ascribes much of this to the media giving more
time and space to the "crackpots", but relatively little to the
forces of reason.

One example that he cited was the case of an inventor named
Joseph Newman. Correspondent Bruce Hall introduced Newman
to the viewing public on Dan Rather''s CBS Evening News back
in 1984 in an interview. This homespun Newman fellow in a
rural Mississippi town was proclaiming his revolutionary
discovery of an "Energy Machine" that produced ten times the
energy that it took to run it. Newman was being denied a patent
and was suing the Patent and Trademark Office. The reason for
the denial was obvious to any chemist or physicist. Newman''s
Energy Machine was in obvious violation of the First Law of
Thermodynamics, which simply states there''s no such thing as a
free lunch. Ok, it''s more correctly stated in terms of the
conservation of energy but you get the idea.

There was also an element of perpetual motion in Newman''s
Energy Machine. If you take some of the energy produced by
the machine and feed it back to run the machine you could run it
forever with no outside input of energy! Any invention
smacking of perpetual motion is automatically rejected by the
Patent Office. Park put it another way - a ball will never bounce
higher than the point from which it is dropped. Suppose you
came up with a material to make a magic ball that did bounce
higher than from whence it was dropped. The ball would go
higher and higher each time it bounced and would bounce
forever! In fact, you would be able, in principle, to ride that ball
up and down until you were in outer space without all the fuss of
rockets and the like!

Strangely enough, the judge in the Newman case was Thomas
Penfield Jackson, lately of Microsoft fame, who knew something
about this stuff. He ordered the Energy Machine to be tested by
what was then called the National Bureau of Standards. Of
course, they found the output energy was actually less than the
energy required to run it. You would think that would be the end
of it. But Newman persisted in his quest for recognition so
successfully that he even got a congressional hearing and was
back on CBS News again some time later. Voodoo science
doesn''t die quickly. It''s reminiscent of cold fusion, which still
has its believers.

Another item discussed by Park is the matter of a possible
connection between the electromagnetic field (EMF) generated
by high power transmission lines and cancer. The article cites
how certain reportorial and media individuals kept this issue
alive in the public eye during the past decade or so based on
anecdotal evidence. According to Park, as the scientific and
statistical studies have become more extensive and controlled,
any connection between EMF from power lines and cancer has
been washed out. I have read at least one article, in the
January/February 1996 issue of CA, a cancer journal for
clinicians, that concludes that any epidemiological evidence for a
connection between power line EMF and particular kinds of
cancers is "weak, inconsistent and inconclusive". However,
millions of dollars have been spent on litigation, property values
have fallen and even to this day there are those who write about
the dangers. My wife still expresses concern about power lines
being located near the homes of friends or relatives.

I should point out that, currently, there is concern that cell
phones might cause brain tumors because of their obvious
proximity to the brain. In this case, the frequencies and
intensities of the EMF are different from those in the power lines
situation. At this point, I am not aware of any conclusive
scientific studies on this matter one way or the other. Certainly,
and predictably, nobody in the telecommunications industry has
reported any evidence for such an effect. However, it might be
prudent to follow various guidelines about the design and use of
cell phones to direct the radiation away from your head as much
as possible.

After reading Park''s articles, what should I see this past week but
a front-page story headlined "Lab Test Exceeds Speed of Light".
Regular readers of this column will know that my scientific hero
is Einstein and a key part of his theory of relativity is that
nothing can go faster than the speed of light. So, my immediate
reaction was to think that this is another case of Voodoo science.
However, the work was performed at the NEC Research Institute
in Princeton. It so happens that when I retired from Bell Labs I
was deciding what I should do and one possibility was to work at
this facility. A colleague at Bell was tapped to head up the
research effort there and I had a brief interview with him. It
seems, quite understandably, that he preferred to hire people with
other kinds of expertise. A wise decision. I certainly would
never have thought to try to break the speed of light barrier!

Although I still don''t understand the experiment, I would not
classify this speed of light breaking as being Voodoo science, but
rather just another example of weird science. In the past few
years, physicists have demonstrated the highly weird ability of
one particle to affect the state of another particle miles away.
They''ve also managed to slow light down to below the minimum
40-mile speed permitted on many interstate highways! This was
accomplished in a chamber of sodium vapor. Why should I be
surprised that now they''re telling us that they shoot a pulse of
light into a chamber that''s a couple of inches wide and that the
peak of the pulse emerges from the other side before the whole
pulse has entered the chamber? One newspaper article states the
speed of this action is 300 times the speed of light! And the
chamber contains cesium vapor, cesium being in the same
chemical family as the sodium used to slow light down!

To date, I''ve only seen two newspaper articles on the subject and
I don''t understand what''s going on. I''m sure there will be more
details in the journals I peruse and I''ll report back when and if I
think I understand it. At the moment, my impression is that
everything is still hunky dory as far as Einstein''s theories are
concerned. You will note that I said above that "nothing" can
travel at greater than the speed of light. In the spirit of the times,
you have to ask, "What do you mean by ''nothing''?" It seems
that "nothing", in this case, is "something" that has mass. Since
light does not have mass, it might in a sense be termed "nothing".
So, just like we said, "nothing" CAN travel greater than the
speed of light!

This last batch of contorted reasoning is all mine and just goes to
show how convoluted my mind has become after carding far too
many strokes in my last round of golf and then watching what
Tiger did at St. Andrews. Have I mentioned that I myself sank a
60-foot putt on the first hole of St. Andrews some years ago?
We won''t discuss the rest of that round. Needless to say, it did
not resemble Tiger''s in any respect!

Allen F. Bortrum



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-07/25/2000-      
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Dr. Bortrum

07/25/2000

Voodoo and Weird Science

For almost three decades I have been working, teaching and
consulting on various topics related to the field of energy. So it
was natural that an article in the May 15 issue of Forbes
magazine entitled "The Alchemists of Energy" would catch my
attention. This article and another that followed were based on
excerpts from the book "Voodoo Science" by Robert L. Park, a
professor of physics at the University of Maryland. I agree with
Professor Park, who thinks that too many people these days give
credence to things that have no basis in fact and are scientifically
untenable. He ascribes much of this to the media giving more
time and space to the "crackpots", but relatively little to the
forces of reason.

One example that he cited was the case of an inventor named
Joseph Newman. Correspondent Bruce Hall introduced Newman
to the viewing public on Dan Rather''s CBS Evening News back
in 1984 in an interview. This homespun Newman fellow in a
rural Mississippi town was proclaiming his revolutionary
discovery of an "Energy Machine" that produced ten times the
energy that it took to run it. Newman was being denied a patent
and was suing the Patent and Trademark Office. The reason for
the denial was obvious to any chemist or physicist. Newman''s
Energy Machine was in obvious violation of the First Law of
Thermodynamics, which simply states there''s no such thing as a
free lunch. Ok, it''s more correctly stated in terms of the
conservation of energy but you get the idea.

There was also an element of perpetual motion in Newman''s
Energy Machine. If you take some of the energy produced by
the machine and feed it back to run the machine you could run it
forever with no outside input of energy! Any invention
smacking of perpetual motion is automatically rejected by the
Patent Office. Park put it another way - a ball will never bounce
higher than the point from which it is dropped. Suppose you
came up with a material to make a magic ball that did bounce
higher than from whence it was dropped. The ball would go
higher and higher each time it bounced and would bounce
forever! In fact, you would be able, in principle, to ride that ball
up and down until you were in outer space without all the fuss of
rockets and the like!

Strangely enough, the judge in the Newman case was Thomas
Penfield Jackson, lately of Microsoft fame, who knew something
about this stuff. He ordered the Energy Machine to be tested by
what was then called the National Bureau of Standards. Of
course, they found the output energy was actually less than the
energy required to run it. You would think that would be the end
of it. But Newman persisted in his quest for recognition so
successfully that he even got a congressional hearing and was
back on CBS News again some time later. Voodoo science
doesn''t die quickly. It''s reminiscent of cold fusion, which still
has its believers.

Another item discussed by Park is the matter of a possible
connection between the electromagnetic field (EMF) generated
by high power transmission lines and cancer. The article cites
how certain reportorial and media individuals kept this issue
alive in the public eye during the past decade or so based on
anecdotal evidence. According to Park, as the scientific and
statistical studies have become more extensive and controlled,
any connection between EMF from power lines and cancer has
been washed out. I have read at least one article, in the
January/February 1996 issue of CA, a cancer journal for
clinicians, that concludes that any epidemiological evidence for a
connection between power line EMF and particular kinds of
cancers is "weak, inconsistent and inconclusive". However,
millions of dollars have been spent on litigation, property values
have fallen and even to this day there are those who write about
the dangers. My wife still expresses concern about power lines
being located near the homes of friends or relatives.

I should point out that, currently, there is concern that cell
phones might cause brain tumors because of their obvious
proximity to the brain. In this case, the frequencies and
intensities of the EMF are different from those in the power lines
situation. At this point, I am not aware of any conclusive
scientific studies on this matter one way or the other. Certainly,
and predictably, nobody in the telecommunications industry has
reported any evidence for such an effect. However, it might be
prudent to follow various guidelines about the design and use of
cell phones to direct the radiation away from your head as much
as possible.

After reading Park''s articles, what should I see this past week but
a front-page story headlined "Lab Test Exceeds Speed of Light".
Regular readers of this column will know that my scientific hero
is Einstein and a key part of his theory of relativity is that
nothing can go faster than the speed of light. So, my immediate
reaction was to think that this is another case of Voodoo science.
However, the work was performed at the NEC Research Institute
in Princeton. It so happens that when I retired from Bell Labs I
was deciding what I should do and one possibility was to work at
this facility. A colleague at Bell was tapped to head up the
research effort there and I had a brief interview with him. It
seems, quite understandably, that he preferred to hire people with
other kinds of expertise. A wise decision. I certainly would
never have thought to try to break the speed of light barrier!

Although I still don''t understand the experiment, I would not
classify this speed of light breaking as being Voodoo science, but
rather just another example of weird science. In the past few
years, physicists have demonstrated the highly weird ability of
one particle to affect the state of another particle miles away.
They''ve also managed to slow light down to below the minimum
40-mile speed permitted on many interstate highways! This was
accomplished in a chamber of sodium vapor. Why should I be
surprised that now they''re telling us that they shoot a pulse of
light into a chamber that''s a couple of inches wide and that the
peak of the pulse emerges from the other side before the whole
pulse has entered the chamber? One newspaper article states the
speed of this action is 300 times the speed of light! And the
chamber contains cesium vapor, cesium being in the same
chemical family as the sodium used to slow light down!

To date, I''ve only seen two newspaper articles on the subject and
I don''t understand what''s going on. I''m sure there will be more
details in the journals I peruse and I''ll report back when and if I
think I understand it. At the moment, my impression is that
everything is still hunky dory as far as Einstein''s theories are
concerned. You will note that I said above that "nothing" can
travel at greater than the speed of light. In the spirit of the times,
you have to ask, "What do you mean by ''nothing''?" It seems
that "nothing", in this case, is "something" that has mass. Since
light does not have mass, it might in a sense be termed "nothing".
So, just like we said, "nothing" CAN travel greater than the
speed of light!

This last batch of contorted reasoning is all mine and just goes to
show how convoluted my mind has become after carding far too
many strokes in my last round of golf and then watching what
Tiger did at St. Andrews. Have I mentioned that I myself sank a
60-foot putt on the first hole of St. Andrews some years ago?
We won''t discuss the rest of that round. Needless to say, it did
not resemble Tiger''s in any respect!

Allen F. Bortrum