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Steorn: free ponies for everyone

steorn.jpg

Speaking of science illiteracy, I admit to being fascinated by Steorn, the Ireland-based hoax web site touting the mysterious Orbo, a magnetic perpetual motion machine.

Mind you, Steorn doesn’t bill itself as a hoax web site. On the contrary, they’re playing it straight — insofar as delicious gibberish like “time variant magneto-mechanical interactions” can be considered playing it straight.

I have always loved a good hoax, whether intentional (Piltdown Man) or accidental (Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast). Good hoaxes are often simple to the point of being crude — crop circles basically boiled down to two dudes with some sticks in a cornfield — but nevertheless manage to tap into veins of collective fear, desire, or ignorance in just the right way to briefly catch fire.

The premise behind Steorn is hardly original. Cranks have been tinkering with perpetual motion machines for centuries now, and magnetic motors are one of their richest areas of study. But now is a particularly ripe time to revive the ruse. A source of limitless free energy would be a techno-utopian savior, a quick fix for many of the ills of our age: poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, and resource wars, to name a few. Plus, it would make some people very, very rich.

In the 21st century, all good hoaxes have a web site. In fact, the false credibility that a well-designed web site conveys is the perfect amplifier for the huckster’s message. Steorn launched in dramatic fashion, taking out a full-page ad in the Economist touting their technology. Since then, they’ve pushed a steady stream of press releases, slickly produced videos, and jargon-laced diagrams onto their web site and user forums.

This, more than anything else, is what so fascinates me about Steorn: the very public and even confrontational nature of their hoax. For a long time onlookers speculated the the site was actually a viral advertising campaign (for the Xbox, among other things), but Steorn’s longevity seems to have worn those rumors down. Money is an obvious motivator, but if Steorn is fleecing investors, it’s hard to imagine they won’t do jail time. Could the site just be the pet project of some well-financed pranksters?

Steorn’s moment in the spotlight may be drawing to an end. They recently promised to showcase their Orbo technology in a London art gallery. They invited guests and even set up a web cam. Yesterday they cancelled the demonstration due to vaguely specified technical difficulties. They’ll probably be able to gull a contingent of diehards for a few more months, but most spectators will move on.

There are numerous lessons here for how the public perceives the scientific debates over climate change, but I’m not going to hit you over the head with them. Instead, I’ll leave off with some highly relevant and well-considered wisdom from noted physicist Homer J. Simpson:

Update: One funny thing is all the gloating and recrimination in the wake of Steorn’s failed London demo, as though the failure told us something we didn’t already know. This embarrassing post from Engadget is typical. Mostly what this post suggests is Engadget’s own gullibility. It’s like going to see the movie Die Hard and being genuinely shocked when Bruce Willis prevails at the end.

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