Professional Responsibility — Do The Right Thing
In Western culture, three professions are recognized. They are medicine, the law, and theology. The practitioners of these professions have long been accorded a special status in society in recognition of their special knowledge. The physician is expected to use his knowledge of healing only for good, and never to murder or maim a person. The lawyer is expected to give correct legal advice to his clients, to keep them free from legal entanglements. The theologian is expected to always correctly guide folk in the right way according to their faith, so that they avoid eternal condemnation. In every one of these professional roles, the professional person is seen as a protector of society at large.
Engineering has much more humble beginnings. In the earliest days, engineers were simply builders of whatever was needed, whether it be a canal, a windmill, a bridge, or a fortification. As such, they were carpenters, stone masons, blacksmiths, etc. Over time, with the application of mathematics, engineering has gradually become recognized as a profession, similar to the classical professions. It is based on a core of specialized knowledge, and it has a responsibility to society at large to protect that society. Thus the man who designs and constructs a bridge assumes responsibility for assuring that the bridge will not fall. The man who designs a complex assembly machine assumes a responsibility that (1) the machine will function and not be a waste of the investor’s money, and (2) that the machine will function safely and not endanger the workers nearby.
Everyone recognizes that professional people are still just people, and thus prone to failure. Doctors sometimes perform surgeries that kill the patient. Lawyers sometimes give unsound advice and their clients suffer as a result. Engineers occasionally design systems that do not function as expected, but in every case, the intent of the professional person must be the protection of the individual client first and also of society at large.
Many readers of ME Forum are either engineering students or new graduates. As you enter into the role of an engineer, you are acquiring a respected status, and you are also taking on professional responsibilities. You have a duty to assure that society is well served, that people are not endangered, either in their physical safety or their finances. This does not mean that you cannot participate in high risk ventures. But it does mean that it is your duty to be sure everyone is fully informed of the risks involved. An example of this is the US moon landing program. This was certainly a high risk program, and there were a few failures along the way. The good part, from a professional perspective, is that everyone was kept fully informed of the risks, so that no one was mislead.
One of the areas where there is much misinformation today is energy sources. This is a “hot area,” in the sense that there is much excitement about “new energy sources.” Solar power, wind power, wave power, in-situ coal combustion, and so forth, are all ideas being explored as people look for cheaper and non-polluting energy sources. All of these are really not new; they have been exploited to a very limited degree for many years. They are “new” only in the sense that there is an expanded interest in them, particularly driven by current economics.
At the beginning of this article, I discussed the characteristics of a profession, both in terms of status of the practitioners and their responsibilities to society. There is another class of people who also claim to possess special knowledge, the Con Man. These are magicians, astrologers, soothsayers, witch doctors, etc. They gain the confidence of their clients by trickery, and deliberately mislead them to the advantage of the con man. (The term Con Man refers to someone who operates by first gaining the confidence of his victim.)
In the 19th century American west, the "snake oil salesman" was a commonly encountered con man. He typically traveled from town to town, peddling his patent medicines which he claimed could cure everything from gout, cancer, tuberculosis, appendicitis, liver failure, blindness, deafness, and failed love affairs. While no such medication has ever existed, this did not stop those suffering these various aliments from seeking his products. They wanted to believe him because of their suffering. The term “snake oil,” implying an oil extracted from some breed of snake, was commonly used to describe these phony medications that were usually nothing more than alcoholic drinks in medicine bottles.
The critical thing about the snake oil salesman is that his customers wanted to believe what he was telling them. They wanted relief from their ailments, and thus they believed the most absurd claims. We have a similar situation today in terms of the energy area. There are all sorts of con men operating, promoting schemes that cannot possibly work but that will make them rich if they can be sold to the public. This is where the engineer’s responsibility comes into the picture.
The energy con men often speak in terms of perpetual motion machines, “over unity” magnetic systems (over unity means with efficiencies greater than 100%), and other similar imaginary concepts. I say “imaginary” in that, while we can imagine them and desire them, the laws of physic preclude their existence. In particular, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of Entropy make such devices impossible. But impossibility has never stopped the con man!
When such confidence schemes are promoted to the public, engineers have a professional responsibility to speak out. We have studied, we have acquired the specialized knowledge required to evaluate such schemes, and we have a duty to protect the public from such con men who only seek to profit from the ignorance of the general public. We have two such confidence schemes in operation here at ME Forums, even though there has been, to the best of my knowledge, no attempt to profit monetarily from these tricks.
The first is presented in an article titled “Gravitation - Energy of the Future,” begun by a poster called Sentally, on 8 October, 2015 (http://mechanical-engg.com/forum/topic/12485-gravitation-energy-of-the-future/#comment-17044 not clickable, but copy and paste will work). If you read his article and the comments that follow, you will see a demonstration of the classic confidence operation. He presents his false information, and when challenged, he simply claims superior knowledge that enables him to dismiss his critics without any real explanation at all.
The second is VEProject1's Blog, ( http://mechanical-engg.com/forum/blogs/blog/179-veproject1s-blog/ ) On this blog, the author has presented a number of interesting devices that appear to contradict known scientific principles. Some of these are described as perpetual motion machines, other simply as curiosities. The title stands for “Visual Education Project,” but if he was interested in true education, he would explain how his devices work.
You may ask how the systems show on the VEProject blog can be denied when they appear to work in video demonstrations. The answer is simply that the video does not show everything that is involved. There is more to these systems than meets the eye in the video. In a previous post at Mechanics Corner, I examined one of these systems in detail, based upon what is visible in the video. I showed there that the system cannot possibly move under gravity because the center of mass is stationary (The VEProject --- Shifted Levers --- A Critical Assessment).
So, how do these devices work? I cannot say for certain, but there are several possibilities:
1. Perhaps the most obvious is computer graphic trickery, where the video has been manipulated to show something that never really happened.
2. Perhaps there is a hidden motor, driving the system through concealed belts and/or gears. This would have to be done with considerable skill, but it is certainly possible.
3. One of the most interesting possibilities is that of manipulation of powerful magnets below the table.
This last is interesting from a technological standpoint. Permanent magnets have been known to man for a very long time, but really powerful permanent magnets are a relatively recent improvement. This has been brought about the application of various rare earth elements such as Samarium-Cobalt. Today, using rare earths, we have permanent magnets far more powerful than the permanent magnets of previous generations, and many people have looked in this direction for a “new” energy source. I think such a search is misguided, but I cannot say that it is impossible. But if it is necessary to move the permanent magnets, that movement constitutes a work input to the system, and must be taken properly into account.
So, where does professional responsibility come into the ME Forum discussion? As engineers, we have the duty, the obligation, to call out false demonstrations wherever they are shown. If we fail to do this, we are tacitly endorsing the false representations. We do not want to be put in the position of having someone invest in ignorance in such schemes, thinking that we approve of them. We have a responsibility to speak out against falsehood wherever it is found.
For this reason, I urge every reader of ME Forums to review the material presented by these two frauds and then to protest to the site owner by an internal e-mail (saurabhjain Administrator). These sites should be urged first to make a correct, honest presentation of their ideas. If that is not done, they should be removed from ME Forums. It is time for all Forum readers to speak up! We have to do the right thing!