Former on-campus researcher creates a media motion machine
THANE HEINS, SUPPOSED inventor of a perpetual motion machine, identifies with Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright brothers. Despite his lack of any university education, he compares himself to these heroes of science because, like each of them, he claims to have invented an unbelievable technology. But is there a difference?
Heins, whose company Potential Difference was recently asked to leave the University of Ottawa’s SITE laboratory they were occupying, claims that using his discovery “generators can now accelerate themselves… It’s a cancelling of the work-energy principle.”
The work-energy principle describes the conservation of energy for mechanical work: the work done is exactly equal to the change in energy. Any violation of this would call into question humanity’s entire understanding of the physical world—you can’t get something from nothing.
Heins claims “Our generator can create power from no power. What that means is [that] it’s not a perpetual motion machine, but it is more than 100 per cent efficient. There’s a huge difference.”
Not everyone sees the difference. Brian Dunning, the host and producer of Skeptoid, a popular weekly pro-science, anti-pseudoscience podcast, says in an email to the Fulcrum that “Heins has built another in a very long line of variations on electric motors, claimed by the inventors to be ‘over unity’ or ‘free energy’ machines, where more energy is produced than is put in. Think of pouring a litre of water into a measuring cup, and expecting to get two litres out. That’s not the way the universe works. It would be nice, but it just isn’t so. The basic laws of thermodynamics state that over unity machines are impossible, and all known experimentation supports that.”
Dunning, who has never seen Heins’ machine, sees problems even with his fundamental concept of full energy efficiency.
MIT-educated electrical engineer Seanna Watson also sees problems with the details of Heins’ experiments. Watson and a group of engineers from Ottawa Skeptics visited Heins’ lab in 2008.
“From what I could tell at the time, he was taking measurements and he was, for example, measuring volt-amps instead of watts, not taking into account phase differentials, and he was doing some rather odd math,” explains Watson about her doubts regarding Heins’ invention.
Watson made the results of the group’s investigation public through the Ottawa Skeptics website. She summarizes the skeptics’ disquietude saying “there seems to be people who do not have enough of a background to be able to look at what he is doing and see a problem with it … It’s a concern that he’s trying to dupe people. And when I say ‘dupe’ I have to be a little bit careful because I don’t believe that he is deliberately trying to deceive anybody. I think he really does believe in what he is doing, but I think that he is very badly mistaken.”
Despite the validity of the skeptics’ claims, not everybody has always been so apprehensive. According to the Dean of Engineering, Claude Laguë, the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering opened its doors to Heins in order that he might get Potential Difference on its feet at the request of Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI). However, on March 1, after two years of facilitating Heins with lab space and access to the expertise of campus professors, the faculty asked Heins to vacate SITE due to his claims of external funding and a lack of return from his lengthy residency.
“After two years, our assessment was that we had moved beyond what we consider the normal start-up period. The company had also indicated that they were expecting financing from external sources. Due to that change to the situation, we felt that it was no longer appropriate for the faculty to continue to provide resource to that company free of charge,” Laguë explains of the faculty’s decision.
Heins has claimed financial support from various individuals over the years. In a 2008 Ottawa Citizen article by Tim Shufelt, Heins claimed that a $15-million investment was offered by influential Oregon private investor Jacques Nichols. The Fulcrum contacted Nichols by email about his investment.
“I met Mr. Heins during the summer of 2008 and we discussed his company and its capital requirements. No offer to invest was made, and I heard nothing more,” says Nichols in response to Heins’ claim.
Currently, Heins is financed by a number of personal investors including Robert Clark, founder of VesCells, a company that treats heart disease by stem cell therapy, who optimistically expects to “be able to clearly see the returns,” and Kevin Thistle, president of Coppingwood Golf Club, who has already invested nearly $250,000 in capital.
Heins can attribute some of his investors’ attention to the notoriety given to him by the media. When energy and green technologies columnist Tyler Hamilton wrote about Heins, his article became the Toronto Star’s second most read online story of 2008.
“I think Heins used it to his advantage to try to get in the door because it gave him a bit of [a] profile… He benefited from that and he rode that exposure,” asserts Hamilton. Although Hamilton says his intention was never to create debate, the Star’s article gave a level of credence to Heins—and started its own chain reaction of perpetual media attention. Canadian Business wrote an article. Heins garnered a mention on Gizmodo, Slashdot, BoingBoing, Wired.com, and innumerable private blogs. The Internet was abuzz, and both the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star each devoted an article to all the attention he was getting.
Just this month, on the very heels of Heins’ exodus from campus, EV World published an article entitled “The Heins Effect,” in which tech editor Micheal Brace’s admitted purpose was to laud Heins with tenability. Brace writes that “[Heins] asked me to write this article because he’s hoping to change the public perception of his discovery.”
Dr. Riadh Habash, the U of O engineering professor who opened his lab to Heins, is not interested in discussing supposed controversy.
“We worked with him and we couldn’t prove his claims and, in science, to prove your claim you should be able to demonstrate that experimentally. In addition, you might write that in terms of a paper reviewed by others … When you do research in science you shouldn’t contact journalists.”
The role of journalism in scientific debate is an important one in modern society, and the degradation of that debate is a main concern of each of the skeptics approached by the Fulcrum.
Robert Park knows all about public debate regarding scientific issues. Park, who spent 25 years in Washington representing the American Physical Society to politicians and the press, sees a critical problem with the media.
“Many people in the media who write science stories do not themselves have a real appreciation for the basic laws of science, so they are perfectly willing to violate the second law of thermodynamics. That doesn’t trouble them at all.”
Park says about five new perpetual motion machines are brought to his attention each year and he finds that astounding.
“Five perpetual motion machines a year? And you know, every one of those is a drag on the economy, but, worse than that, it encourages people to believe in this kind of mythology.” Dunning agrees with Park.
“The media is not engaged in the charitable act of educating people; they are engaged in the business of drawing attention … The problem is that the media is the main source of science information for most people, and viewers are offered little reason to suspect the information that’s reported might not be complete or correct. Such reporting erodes the already low level of public understanding of science, technology, and medicine.”
Béla Joós is not only the head of the Physics Department at the University of Ottawa, but also the editor of Physics in Canada, a monthly periodical published by the Canadian Association of Physicists. Physics in Canada reports on research findings, but also keeps physicists informed about important issues relevant to the scientific community.
“A newspapers’ true purpose is just announcing things, but their purpose is not in that sense critical analysis,” Joós says.
Joós does not necessarily see this as a fault, but does note the need for caution.
“Journalists do have a responsibility to not take as fact what is being proclaimed by one solitary voice.”
Joós points to the benefits of the peer review system in which fellow researchers in the same field are asked to evaluate scientific work before it can be published in reputable journals.
“Nobody can be a specialist in everything, so peer review is essential to make sure that the proposed new results have followed the scientific method of reproducibility, quality of data or error calculation, and spurious effects which may explain the data which are not being accounted for … Peer review manages also to identify questionable steps which have been taken or questionable assumptions that are not based on reality.”
Heins has had more success with the media than with scientific journals. According to Heins, “People were more critical than they should have been,” and so he has chosen to focus on the mass media rather than the scientific community.
“My initial approach was the scientific approach. Have it evaluated, have it legitimized, go through the scientific route, but we hit a wall—we hit a wall that you couldn’t get over.”
And so with no discernible support from the academics on campus, Heins continues his “letter writing campaign” to Macleans, National Geographic, the CBC and whomever will listen—even the Fulcrum.