Apr 03 2008
I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in June 2005.
When I was a child some of my favorite toys were simple magnets. I was fascinated by the way they could push or pull on each other at a distance with an invisible force. It was like magic. Energy itself, all types of energy, seems like magic. Physicists, performing almost like stage magicians (nothing up their sleeves), recently delighted in showing off how they could levitate frogs using superconducting magnets.
It’s no wonder that mysterious energies play a central role in so much of the science of the weird. Many gurus and mystics claim they can heal by simply manipulating “life energy.” There is also no shortage of con artists and the self-deluded who claim they have found the secret of limitless free energy. Simply inserting the word “energy” into any claim, no matter how ridiculous, will give it the appearance of cutting-edge science.
Shortly after the discovery of electromagnetism, while it was still cutting-edge science, Anton Mesmer claimed to have discovered “animal magnetism,” a new force that he could detect and manipulate to “mesmerize” his subjects. Benjamin Franklin, considered an expert of his day in the electrical force, was asked to head a commission to investigate Mesmer, and he definitively showed the claims to be nothing but delusion.
The idea of a “life force” goes back even further than Mesmer, at least thousands of years. Every human culture had some concept of a life energy that animates living things, such as chi, spiritus, animus, etc. Modern science has failed to find this energy, however, and biological models have rendered the concept quaint and unnecessary. But the concept survives in numerous mystical healing modalities, collectively called “energy medicine.” Some chiropractors still believe that by manipulating the spine they are freeing up the flow of the life force called “innate intelligence.” Therapeutic touch practitioners believe they can manipulate the “human energy field” without any actual touching, it turns out. And acupuncturists believe their needles are altering the flow of life force, which they call chi. It is too easy to make vague references to “energy” as the explanation for any unconventional healing method.
But the universe is basically composed of two things, matter and energy. It was Einstein who taught us that matter and energy are actually two sides of the same coin, and are related by the most famous of equations: E=Mc2 (energy = mass times the speed of light squared). Humans have a much more comfortable and intuitive grasp of matter. Matter, after all, is tangible, and (usually) obeys what feel like common-sense rules of behavior. Energy, on the other hand, is not easily grasped by the human mind. It is intangible, often invisible, and spooky.
To scientists, however, real energy is as lawful and comprehensible as matter. Science knows of only three forces, or kinds of energy, in the entire universe: the strong nuclear force, the electroweak force (which includes both the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism), and gravity. Astronomers now think there may also be a new mysterious force in the universe called dark energy, a long-range repulsive force that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate; this is still somewhat speculative. Energy follows strict laws of nature, like the law of conservation of energy (you can’t get something from nothing) and the laws of thermodynamics. The rules that govern energy are so thoroughly established by countless careful and irrefutable observations and experiments that they truly deserve to be treated as iron-clad laws of nature.
Sometimes energy itself is the scam. The promise of free energy, often in the form of perpetual motion machines, or engines that produce more energy than they consume, is almost an obsession with many cranks. Free-energy con artists try to beguile audiences with presentations that have all the dazzle and detail of a ride at
It is best to be skeptical of any claims of mysterious forces, or vague references to “energy” as catch-all explanations for seemingly fantastical phenomena. And it would be a safe bet that any claims to produce energy from nothing are mistaken or fraudulent. Sure, science is a journey and not a destination, and the claims of scientists change all the time. But some things are more certain than others, and the mechanics of energy ranks near the top. Any claim that would seem to topple the existing laws that govern energy would have to meet an enormous burden of proof before it would (or should) be taken seriously.
Now if only I could get my hands on one of those levitating-frog gizmos.
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