Perpetuum Mobile

When I lived in London, I rented a room at the East End Mission in Commercial Road. I could get to the London College of Furniture at the other end of that very long street in London’s East End on foot or a single short bus ride. When I was there, I met a young man with whom I shared two passions: the Christian faith and machines. Hugh, as he is called, fancied himself as an inventor. Among his ideas was a motorcycle that couldn’t fall over. I can’t remember the principle of its operation, though it was probably some kind of gyroscope to reinforce the stability a running two-wheel vehicle already has. Another was an infinitely variable gearbox without the use of drive belts. He spent hours explaining it to me, showing me crude drawings and calculations. As always, I noticed a lack of rigour in his work and the fact that he had not produced any accurate technical drawings or attempted to produce some kind of prototype to prove the theory through experiments.

Then, he moved onto a perpetual motion machine, claiming that such had been successfully invented in the eighteenth century. This is the legend of the Orffyreus Wheel. The inventor of this device was an odd character, probably a fraud. Whatever, his “invention” died with him. My friend Hugh, who persuaded me to convert to Roman Catholicism from about 1980, thought he could retro-engineer the secret machine in its round wooden box. I am myself fascinated by machines, but I have a more realistic notion of them based on the laws of physics I learned at school, especially those of Isaac Newton. Namely, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Quantum mechanics show a new slant on these questions, but Newton is nearer the mark with machines of human invention. A machine can be incredibly efficient by reducing the friction, for example in its bearings, but the energy put into it from fuel or other external power source is dissipated into heat by friction. If you reduce the friction, and run the machine in a vacuum, it will continue to run for much longer under its inertia (think of a flywheel), but it will eventually exhaust its energy and come to a stop. Foucault’s Pendulum is probably the nearest thing we have to perpetual motion, but it too will stop as energy is dissipated as heat by friction. The device in the illustration above is no more than a very efficient flywheel. It will work and the effect of the weights will prolong the inertia of the wheel, but the energy will still be dissipated at the main bearing and atmospheric air friction.

Hugh has often telephoned me about his belief of having solved the mystery, but each time, I asked him about his working drawings, engineering calculations and whether he has successfully built a prototype of the machine. All these possibilities were impeded by his lack of finance. I had to explain that though I am fascinated by machines, I am not an engineer or a physicist, and cannot be of any help. He would have to do his own work and bring it to a conclusion or move on to other things in life. Sometimes, we have to be humble (truthful) and know our limits. Hugh sent me a fascinating book about the Orffyreus wheel and other weird ideas and phenomena, but I was never satisfied with an explanation of why an idea could ever become a working machine doing what it was claimed to do. Perpetual motion is impossible, but there are devices that are incredibly efficient in terms of energy conservation. This is where an inventor can truly excel.

Why this subject? I hit me on the head as I read the blog article This is what a politics based on lies looks like. Its author, like Hugh, attempted to build a perpetual motion machine. He was confronted by the impossibility of such a device, and the explanation of his father who was a mechanic in the army. We now move out of the world of physics and mechanics into the notion of truth. Whilst researching Romanticism and German Idealism, I have had to consider different notions of reality and truth between the physical and the metaphysical. To understand something of the complexity of epistemology (theory of knowledge and truth) we can try to read Foundationalism. In our experience of life, truth seems to be self-evident, but there are quirks and inconsistencies that our traditional logical reasoning cannot solve. I have experienced the paradox, the clash of two or more truths that seem to be self-evident to the believer. According to anti-foundationalism, truth is not something we can possess, but something beyond our own experience towards which we aspire by Sehnsucht. You might care to read this pdf article on some of the ideas of Hölderlin and Novalis from the Jena school, which you might find as tiresome as the perpetual motion machine! The foundation is the basis on which we believe an idea or phenomenon to be self-evident.

This is also the impression I have had of the political situation in the UK. Brexit is based on a contradiction between hard Brexit and the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Ireland. The backstop is a proposed solution, but the whole thing is based on lies, smoke and mirrors. There is not even an aspiration to truth. Brexit is like the perpetual motion machine. It is impossible without the UK giving Northern Ireland to Ireland or invading and occupying Ireland, something the EU will not allow. It would be an act of war by the UK, like Germany invading Poland, France and other countries in the late 1930’s and 1940.

One thing that will help us with the conundrum of Brexit will be Aristotle’s Principle of Non-Contradiction. This principle is not universally applicable, but will do nicely in this situation of earthly life and Britain’s political shenanigans.

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6 Responses to Perpetuum Mobile

  1. warwickensis says:

    What is quite fascinating is that the principle of conservation of energy cannot really be verified by experiment. We would need to be able to determine how much energy truly is present in the Universe at any time. The principle is only a by-product of certain mathematical assumptions rather than empirical evidence. If we are wrong, perpetual motion may be a possibility. If I am honest, I rather doubt it.

    • Can it be verified that energy is converted into heat and dissipated? Perhaps that would inform the researcher about energy not being conserved. I’m no expert in the matter. I could imagine that perpetual motion, simply a pendulum or a flywheel, would be possible if there is absolutely no friction in the bearing or air friction. Planets orbiting the sun are in a kind of “perpetual motion” mechanism, but there must be friction somewhere and an infinitesimal slowing of the body orbiting in space and a decay of the orbit (the balance between centrifugal force and centripetal force). If that energy dissipation cannot be reduced to its absolute zero, perpetual motion is impossible. Foucault’s Pendulum is reset in motion by hand or by electro-magnetic impulses.

      • warwickensis says:

        Heat is a form of kinetic energy, which is why we can use heat to power vehicles such as the combustion engine. Heat dissipation would not, in theory, violate any law of conservation of energy. The problem with heat is that it become dispersed. If current physics is correct, the universe will continue to expand so that energy will no longer be able to be concentrated sufficiently to be regarded as heat. All will become cold and still.

      • Yes, everything stops at absolute zero. The closest recorded temperature to absolute zero is 0.0001K, for helium gas.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of the ‘heat-death of the universe’, or, rather, singing…:

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for the interesting-looking linked article! Hölderlin is one of the few German poets I’ve somehow read some of in German (without it being a text set to music)…

    While I’m not making enough progress with the Romantics and the Grail, I have been reading a very enjoyable novel on the train – up to a third of the way through, with Grail matter in a contemporary setting, Catherine Fisher’s Corbenic (2007). Without it being too much of a ‘spoiler’, I can note that this part of a sentence leapt out at me: “had anyone else seen the strange cup or the bleeding lance, or felt that terrible, devastating longing, that pure joy?”

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