Free energy. The concept is so tempting that I’m sure every science-curious kid once dreamt of ways to create perpetual motion. I used to imagine rings of magnets magically pushing each other around, powering turbines. It’s an uneducated inventor’s holy grail: getting something for nothing.
Then we take a physics class and our dreams are crushed. The first two laws of thermodynamics are cold and absolute on a chalkboard, leaving no room for childlike wonder.
But it shouldn’t even take a technical degree to realize that perpetual motion machines are a thing of fantasy. Perhaps the most elegant argument I’ve seen comes from cartoonist Randall Munroe, in this comic. If perpetual motion machines could exist, wouldn’t some entrepreneur be using them to make millions? How could modern capitalism, so ruthlessly driven to make good use of our resources, be missing out on that opportunity?
Despite the clear logical fallacies, many intelligent people still get caught up in the quest for free energy. Take, for example, Perepiteia, a machine created by Canadian inventor Thane Heins. Heins worked so obsessively on the project (up to 12 hours every day) that his wife left him and took custody of his kids. When he showed it to an MIT professor, the professor was impressed with his engineering knowledge, but laughed at the notion it could produce free energy, especially after seeing Heins plug it into a wall.
Maybe emerging engineers should try to learn form Heins’ example. Maybe we should strive to keep our wives and kids, stop obsessing over the impossible, and redirect our curiosity towards the real world. After all, we’ve sent people to the moon and created autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners. The world can be pretty exciting if we just use the laws of physics instead of trying to break them.