Update (Nov. 21): Mack in the comments has pointed out that Blacklight Power has an mp3 of the radio story I’m talking about on their web site. Thanks for letting me know. I just took a second listen. It’s just as bad as I remembered.
Our local public radio station ran a piece today on the claims by Blacklight Power to have found a way to extract huge amounts of energy from ordinary hydrogen. I’m sorry to say this, because I’m a big fan of public radio (yes, I’m a member, and you should be too) but this was a really lousy piece of journalism.
It’s one of the only things I’ve heard on the station that’s even worse than the Virginia Stock Report: that’s just ludicrously pointless, whereas this report was actually harmful.
The people at Blacklight Power claim that there is another energy level of hydrogen, far below the usual ones, and they have a way of causing hydrogen atoms to drop into this lower state, releasing large amounts of energy. There is an essentially complete consensus among physicists that this is impossible. For one thing, the existence of this energy state would violate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, one of the best-tested laws in modern physics.
The radio report adopts the usual pseudo-balanced tone, noting that “some scientists” are skeptical, but it completely fails to make clear that this is a fringe theory and that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Blacklight people are wrong. As anyone who pays attention to science and the media knows all too well, this sort of pseudo-balance is exactly the sort of thing that gives aid and comfort to creationists. If you’re a science journalist, and you actually believe in science, don’t do this.
A couple of notes:
1. The Blacklight people say that an independent lab at Rowan University has replicated their results. But the lab uses samples prepared by Blacklight with unknown properties, and all they see is bursts of energy that they don’t know the cause of. I’m quite prepared to believe there are bursts of energy, but it’s just some chemical reaction having to do with the way the sample was prepared.
2. I’m definitely not accusing Blacklight of deliberate fraud. On the contrary, as a New York Times article points out, the company’s adopting a very poor strategy if that’s their goal. I think they genuinely believe they’re onto something, and they’re just wrong.
Of course, if they’re right and I’m wrong, then (a) they’ll get rich, (b) I won’t, (c) they’ll solve the world’s energy problems, and (d) we’ll have a major revolution in physics. I’ll be thrilled by (c) and (d) and perfectly content with (a), which will be well-deserved. And I can live with (b), which will happen regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.
But anyway, it’s all irrelevant, because they’re not right. A century of incredibly rigorously tested science says so.
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