Alert Reader Jason strikes again! About a week ago, the L.A. Times covered the following story.
Simple elixir called a ‘miracle liquid’
It turns out to be less miraculous than it might seem. What you have here is the electrochemical generation of dilute bleach and dilute hydrochloric acid. This is a process that has been done industrially for a century, and now you can do it at home. Or you could just buy a bottle of bleach and a bottle of vinegar.
This little snippet of a book review is 100 years old. It was written about Thomas Edison while he was still alive.
Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life. By Francis Arthur Jones. From Nature 11 June 1908: This biography should do much to disillusion the impressions which are so commonly formed about successful men, that they only have to invent something to make a fortune. It shows clearly that the only road to success is through failure. His career as a telegraph operator was most precarious, and one of his first inventions—a vote-recording machine for election purposes—was refused, really because it was too ingenious and perfect; in fact, it could not be tampered with.
Common wisdom holds Edison above Tesla in terms of fame and historical import. Edison certainly made a great deal more money. Scientifically, it is probably a fair statement that Tesla was the more gifted. The underground conspiracy culture holds Tesla in high regard and supposes that his inventions were so good that they were suppressed so that Edison (and his like) could make more money. Of course, they are not called the conspiracy culture for nothing. I think that the comparison between the two inventors illustrates this: that the balance between science and what we would now call marketing is as fine as a razor’s edge.
Tesla lacked the marketing savvy to get credit for his science. Edison had talent, but also a shrewdness that allowed him to capitalize on it. Ironically, the conspiracy culture that idolizes Tesla is the embodiment of his opposite: they are all savvy and no science. The market for free energy devices is as active as it was 800 years ago, and its success is as imminent now as it was then. It’s too bad that Tesla’s name is caught up with those memes.
P.S. TANSTAAFL is the universal principle that There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. So don’t you forget it.
I am perpetually amused by conspiracy theories and pseudoscience for several reasons. Most of it is good for a laugh. A tiny minority of it highlights some legitimate gap in scientific understanding. Also, I think it’s good mental exercise to try to understand a strange world view. Most institutions (scientific, religious) see a lot of danger in allowing yourself to sink into a false mode of thinking. But I take the view of Thomas Jefferson:
“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
There was an interesting narrative in the popular understanding of science: “the myth of the oppressed underdog.”
The notion is that scientists are dogmatic and refuse to tolerate new ideas. The article above does a great job of discussing this narrative and why it is false in most cases, but I would like to highlight one argument: most of the alternative, new ideas postulated by “oppressed underdog” scientists contradict each other. The implication is that ‘establishment’ science is justified in ignoring at least the vast majority of alternative scientists. But just because a theory is disprovable on evidence doesn’t mean it is worthless. It can be an interesting exercise. It can be a teaching tool. But I suppose it may be dangerous for the gullible.
Here’s my favorite example. Take water and electricity. Split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Burn the hydrogen and oxygen. Make water and generate electricity! It’s like an infinite circle. But like Escher’s infinite waterfall, it only works in the imagination. Philip Ball did a great explanation of why this myth keeps popping up.