Aug 25 2006

Scientific breakthrough or monumental PR stunt?

Published by at 3:28 pm under Comms,Tech

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Nearly 40,000 people, of which I am one, are waiting tosee whether Irish technology research company Steorn has effectively discovered the Loch Ness Monster or merely created another Piltdown Man, whether their product is the genuine article or a South Korean clone.

Briefly, Steorn claim to have developed a technology, based on permanent magnets, which creates ‘free energy’ – shattering the First Law of Thermodynamics. It doesn’t sound possible.

The cynics’ fire is being amply stoked by Steorn’s rather peculiar method of publicising and verifying their claims – a full-page advert in the Economist a week ago, kicking off a process of verification by an as yet unnamed panel of twelve scientists.

Behind the scenes (although openly acknowledged by Steorn) you have Citigate Dewe Rogerson, who presumably must take some of the credit for the growing media interest in Steorn’s invention. And a relatively successful PR campaign it’s proving so far, too. Consistent top-ten Technorati search rankings, broadsheet coverage and just enough intrigue and mystique to keep you guessing.

In 1988, shortly before the Turin Shroud was carbon-dated to medieval times, a sceptical but curious group of us collared my school chaplain and asked him to pronounce, with the aid of divine inspiration, on the shroud’s authenticity. His response? “I hope it’s real”.

I feel rather the same about Steorn’s source of free energy. I’ve followed the progress of alternative energy technology for some time and, later this year, hope to trade in my 125cc Aprilia for a Vectrix – partly to ‘do my bit’, but partly because the technology is so exciting.

So I would be delighted if Steorn’s claims are true. But the sensible side of my brain, dredging up the long-forgotten theories of A-level Physics, is already convinced that it’s all smoke and mirrors, a PR stunt, a demonstration of the hysteria that can be whipped up by viral marketing.

We’ll find out soon enough. In five years we’ll either all be zipping around in clean, Steorn-powerd vehicles, or we won’t. In the same way as Copernicus won out over Ptolemy, that the textbooks of my parents’ generation continued to list the atom as the smallest unit of matter a full decade after Hiroshima, or indeed that up until last week our own solar system had nine planets, the first law of thermodynamics might be bunk after all.

But if, in five years time, all that’s changed is that my ancient Volvo costs £100 to fill up instead of £75, hats off to Steorn and Citigate; you had me going.


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