A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:16 am

A guy with whom I’ve been chatting about physics – who has a few issues of his own – posted this link with approbation:


The guy talks a reasonably good game, and even brings in E = mc2, but his entire argument is wrong from the very first step. Here’s my short explanation of why:

Hydrogen balloons rise in air due to buoyancy: the air is more dense than the hydrogen, so the air sinks and forces the hydrogen upward. Same happens to individual hydrogen molecules, we just can’t see it happening. Hydrogen does not have anti-gravity, so if we just had a hydrogen balloon, or a hydrogen molecule, in a chamber that was otherwise a complete vacuum, it would fall (toward the centre of the planet or the nearest massive object).

I’m currently reading, and enjoying very much, Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Solar’. He talks about some similar theories and theorists: his protagonist, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist and head of an alternative energy centre, and is required to sift through and respond to suggestions from members of the public for alternative energy ideas. McEwan has a typically open-hearted interpretation of the phenomenon:

He was drawn by the whiff of obsession, paranoia, insomnia and, above all, pathos, that rose from the piles. Was he finding, he wondered, a version of himself in some of these letters, of a parallel Michael Beard who, through drink, sex, drugs or plain misfortune, might have missed out on the disciplines of a formal education in physics and maths? Missed out, and still craved to think, tinker, contribute. Some of these men were truly clever, but required by their extravagant ambition to reinvent the wheel, and then, 120 years after Nikola Tesla, the induction motor, and then read inexpertly and far too hopefully into quantum field theory to find their esoteric fuel right under their noses, in the voids of the empty air of their sheds or spare bedrooms – zero point energy.

There are plenty of amateur physicists out there in the world with extravagant theories that they claim will save it, from new creationist cosmologies that magically deliver a 6000 year age for the universe to an unending series of perpetual motion machines. Most of them have read ‘inexpertly and far too hopefully’, and can use the language of physics in ways that sound convincing… but are tripped up by some crucial piece that they’ve overlooked or never heard about.

In these days of the amateur, when people talk about things like blogging replacing professional journalism, it’s somewhat deflating, but true: if you want to do serious physics, it’s very hard to be a successful autodidact. There may be a few geniuses who can do it, but for most people a good solid undergraduate degree will save them from a world of potential blind corridors…