The Irish company Steorn claims to have developed a revolutionary technology for generating free energy: Orbo. Check out the latest updates, or get the story from the beginning here.

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Choose your delusion

Prior to their recent failed demo, Steorn made a number of preparations that would seem to indicate complete confidence on their part that the demo would be a spectacular success. They readied a stunning and provocative demonstration space, called in the media, and were set to stream the event live over the web. They also paid to fly in a knowledgeable physicist and skeptical forum member known as DrMike, offering him a chance to inspect the Orbo up close and report his findings.

Steorn's demo fell apart before it began. DrMike had the opportunity to talk with Sean, hear his apologies and explanations, fiddle with magnets in the small workshop Steorn had set up at the demo site, hear Steorn's story about how Orbo defies conservation of energy, and chat physics with other scientists who had shown up for the demo.

His opinion after seeing all of this? Orbo is nothing more than a delusion inside the mind of Sean McCarthy.

Sean lives in a world of delusion. His greatest strength is the ability [to] convince people of things, and it is also his greatest weakness. I am certain that Sean has seen a "start - stop" device operating. That it never existed outside his mind doesn't matter.

-DrMike

DrMike's full report states the case a bit more tactfully, but no less damningly:

I am certain Steorn really believed I would see something that resembled their claim... Watching Sean and listening to him talk (and boy can he talk!!) I am convinced he has seen everything he describes. Unfortunately, the rest of us have not... My conclusion after going through all this is that Steorn is neither hoax nor scam. It is delusion. The reason it seems surreal is because it is surreal - we are the real part of someone else's imagination.

What's more, after reviewing Steorn's technical documents describing how magnetic viscosity is employed to violate the laws of thermodynamics, DrMike is convinced he sees the flaw in their logic; unfortunately he can't share his idea with us due to Steorn's NDA, so we have little to go by but his confidence.

If it was a hoax, the whole upstairs [workshop] would not exist, nor would Sean have taken the time to go through all the details of how he thinks it all works. I can not describe any of those details without breaking the NDA, so it puts me in a fairly strange position. The flaws in the thought process are clear to me, but Steorn considers these details proprietary information.

There were only ever three classes of possible explanations for Steorn's claim; either it was a purposeful deception, an honest mistake, or a genuine method for generating free energy. Given the actions taken by Sean McCarthy and Steorn over the past year, as well as what we've found out about Steorn's history and finances, I'm willing to bet against the first option, purposeful deception (this would include all forms of deception such as scam, hoax, fraud, marketing tactic, alternate reality game, social experiment, film subject, etc.). DrMike, after having met and spoken at length with Sean and other Steorn employees, is also ready to discard that possibility.

Of the two remaining options, DrMike is convinced that Orbo is an honest mistake on the part of Steorn. But how can a company with dozens of employees, including a number of engineers and PhDs, maintain such a blatantly erroneous belief over the course of several years? DrMike explains this as the result of the force of will and the charismatic persuasion of one deeply delusional man, Sean McCarthy.

This story sounds terribly unlikely at first glance. What about all of Steorn's other engineers, who build and test Orbo devices? Wouldn't they have realized along the way that they had never actually witnessed proof of the basic assumption underlying their work? What about all of Steorn's other employees, hanging on for years as their company abandons "serious" work and devotes itself full-bore to the quixotic quest of defying the most basic laws of science? How could a single man be so delusional as to believe without a speck of evidence that he's accomplished the impossible, and yet preserve a veneer of coherence that allows him to maintain the confidence of his company and investors, and gather an international group of optimistic followers?

As unlikely as this may sound, a combination of delusion and charisma has been used to create mass movements in politics and religion throughout history. And the unlikeliness of this possibility must be weighed against the unlikeliness of its alternative: that despite the conservation of energy being among the most solidly proven and repeatedly demonstrated theories in all of science, and despite hundreds of years of failed empirical effort toward violating that theory, a simple arrangement of permanent magnets has accidentally been shown to create energy from nothing. And recall that no one who has made the pilgrimage to Steorn and is capable of reporting back to the public has yet seen a working Orbo. Not Crank, not Dr. David Timoney, not DrMike.

What does Sean McCarthy have to say these days, in the aftermath of his failed demo and as his mental health is increasingly being questioned? His confidence is unshaken. Recently he answered a series of questions on the Steorn forum, presenting the failed demo as a disappointment, but no more than a temporary obstacle:

Clearly no one involved in the company is happy about the failed demo, but despite this we also need to keep perspective - it's a failed demo[.] It has shaken to the core any confidence that people not involved with the company have, and this is understandable. But we know what we have so things are not as dire as people would like to make them. We will do the demo, and then move on.

About DrMike's allegations against Sean's grasp of reality, he replies:

I guess that in a way I understand his comments, its not true but in the circumstances I doubt that you will believe me.

Sean also gave a post-demo interview on Irish radio recently. (Click to listen; interview begins 20 minutes in.) He continues to seek media attention and his confidence appears to be intact. In the interview he states that a new public demonstration of Orbo "will not be too far away."

We now have Sean McCarthy, convinced he can pull energy from nowhere, and DrMike, confidant that Sean's claim is impossible and that he knows just where Sean's logic went wrong. Neither of these people are able to produce an ounce of solid evidence. Once again we are left with little information, weighing the odds between the impossible and the impossibler.

Sean asserts that a new and successful demo will occur, unannounced beforehand, in the near future. He also states that the previous failure will lead to more openness on Steorn's part, to public evidence of the reality of Orbo. If DrMike is right, then none of this will happen -- we'll never see a working Orbo, because Steorn can't make one and they won't fake one. As for this author, I'll keep an open mind to Steorn's claim until the end of the summer. If by then we haven't seen a working Orbo, I'll agree with DrMike that, for the good of his family and his employees, Sean McCarthy had best retire and spend some quality time in the care of a doctor.

Continue to "It's not the end of the Steorn story." »

Comments (1)

Maybe energy companies showed them live video feeds of their families held hostage at gun point somewhere, and they had to say that orbos didn't work.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 16, 2007 3:01 AM.

The previous post in this blog was First glimpse of an Orbo.

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