February 20, 2020


Vinci_-_Hammer_2A-PD-Wikimedia.jpgIn our universe everything is temporary except the rebellious nature of humans when you tell them something can't be done. For millennia, humans have sought to master the universe by controlling matter, creating synthetic life forms, conquering death, reading the future, and conjuring energy. As science and technology progressed, the methods changed from alchemy to chemistry, various fantastical ideas to bioengineering, astrology to astronomy, and learning to exploit more energy-dense fuels. "There's no such thing as a free lunch" applies to physical motion, perhaps more than to anything else in life.

Last week, a group of scientists, historians, and archivists convened at the Royal Institution, which organized the event jointly with the Leonardo da Vinci Society, to consider seriously the history of perpetual motion beginning with Leonardo da Vinci, as it's the quincentenary of his death. People tend to giggle when you say you're attending this sort of event. But "This is scientific!" protested one of the organizers.

It turns out perpetual motion provides enduring opportunities to drive you mad and injure your scientific respectability. In 1995, the paranormal debunker James Randi said (in An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural) that perpetual motion "has probably cost more time, money, and mental effort for the crackpots than any other pursuit except for the philosopher's stone".

Last week, in Philip Steadman's gallop through historical devices such as thermoscopes and Cornelis Drebbel's variant, it was notable how often the same approaches reappeared. You can try them yourself.

Even building a fake requires meticulous engineering,Michael T. Wright, explained. For inspiration and technical foundations, many would-be makers turned to clockworks. "And vice-versa." The enemy is friction: itslows your mechanism, creates the need new energy inputs, and generally means your motion isn't perpetual. Clockmakers have options - oil, shrinking and polishing moving parts, aligning gears - but at some point, Wright said, "They leave the perpetual motion maker to be crazy on his own."

As engineering developed in the 19th century, Ben Marsden said, scientists like WJM Rankine, William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin), and Henry Dircks fretted over experimental engines, asking of each new iteration: "Is this perpetual motion?" In 1861, Dircks reviewed many of these efforts in Perpetuum Mobile, commenting, "The history of the search for perpetual motion does not afford a single instance of ascertained success." Its introduction reads as a warning: here lies obsession and madness.

At the Science Museum, Sophie Waring has been investigating that madness by mining the archives of the Board of Longitude, best-known for its competition, launched in 1714, to calculate longitude out at sea. Following John Harrison's successful solution, the Board enlarged its remit. "It led to streams of proposals for perpetual motion" to which the Board was persistently unsympathetic. The archives contain abrupt dismissals, seemingly without an underlying evidence-based principle.

In part, as Rupert Cole suggested, this blanket disapproval reflects a scientific culture that only began loosening up in the 1970s. His worked example was Eric Laithwaite, who in 1974 scandalized our host, the Royal Institution, by agreeing to show his RI lectures) on the BBC and suggesting that gyroscopes violated the laws of motion. They don't, but his showmanship inspired a generation of young inventors.

The history of failed ideas shows how hard it is to codify first principles. In Martin Kemp's guided tour through the 1510 Codex Leicester, we watched Leonardo da Vinci try to understand impetus: why does something keep moving after the thing pushing it is disconnected? Kemp characterized da Vinci's 70,000 crabbed, right-to-left words as working through "negative demonstrations". Much of this "heroic enterprise" was spent examining the movement of water. Maybe it's particulate?

We learn about inertia in grade school; it's so easy when you know. The laws of motion observed to that point followed a mathematical pattern proportionately relating force and distance. Throw a ball half as hard, and it travels only half as far. These observations don't help understand impetus mechanics. As JV Field (Birkbeck College) explained, it took nearly another two centuries of scientists building on each other's work - Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes - before Isaac Newton finally codified the laws of motion.

At that point, both astrology and the idea that a perpetual motion machine was possible really should have died. Unfortunately, humans don't work like that. In 1980, Robert Schadewald recounted a rebirth of interest, and in 1986 The Straight Dope's Cecil Adams roasted a patent application from Joseph Newman.

This sort of thing led New Scientist's "Daedalus", David Jones, to build fake perpetual motion machines. He sold several to museums on the understanding that he would fix them at his own expense if they stopped within five years and share the cost until ten years. He figured 15 years was "perpetual" enough.

"Perpetual" is a matter of perspective. Our lives are too short to perceive the universe slowing down. We can't even directly perceive Jones's admitted fake slowing down, although it is. When Martyn Poliakoff, who was given a coded version of the secret at Jones's death in 2017, agrees that Jones's papers are sealed at the Royal Society for 30 years, I quickly calculate: 2047. Yes, I might be alive to read the explanation. It's certainly worth staying alive for.

Illustrations: Pages from the Codex Leicester (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

2020-02-23:Updated to make clear that the event was organized in collaboration with the Leonardo da Vinci Society.