A tutorial by Alex Pucher

Perpetual Motion 101

What people believe prevails over the truth. –-Sophocles

Today I am going to teach you how to build a machine. To be more specific, you will be constructing a perpetual motion machine. You know, one of those mythical creations that seemingly defy the laws of thermodynamics? After years of research and more than a handful of arguments, I discovered the truth of the matter, but it took overcoming a good bit of perspective to get there. They do exist, and you, dear reader, will have your very own, bona fide perpetual motion machine in short order. First, you need the ground rules for the purposes of this discussion. Here they are:

    It must function independently once in motion, without continuous input of additional energy.
    It must produce more energy than it consumes.
    It must appear to be unceasing, or even accelerating in nature.

Got it? Good. Get out your note pad and a No. 2 pencil. The lesson begins… now.

Years ago I learned about the problems that the world faces: water shortages, food production difficulties, resource depletion, and of course, climate change. It all scared the hell out of me. I even sent a few “the sky is falling” emails to my friends hoping I could get them to see the light. I needed to do something, anything, to help the cause of saving the planet, but what? Most of the mechanisms that support our society are the root causes of our current conundrum. You know the suspects: oil, coal, deforestation, etc. Since those were the prime culprits, they would be my point of attack, and in my research I found this marvelous magical device called the perpetual motion machine that would surely solve the world’s energy and pollution crisis. Logically, I went to work but for some reason couldn’t make the machine operate, well, perpetually.

Discouraged, I stopped sharing my thoughts, believing that the universe surely trumped my hope. But deep down I wanted, no, needed more. My truth was that such a thing should exist, somewhere in the universe, and that the only reason we are missing it is because we are looking with the wrong eyes.  So I researched, and I read, and I ran directly into the fact that I was not the first to have such grand plans as perpetual motion. The idea dates back to farmers wishing for endless power to turn their mills without the aid of water from a stream that is only as reliable as the seasons. The idea, I found, had a long and unsuccessful tradition, of which I had unwittingly become a part.

It turns out that such machines are also considered to be impossible by the scientific and engineering communities. That, though, did not deter me from the fantasy that there must be a way. So I kept looking for the truth. I knew that the heart of the matter would prove me right. I restarted my talks with everyone and anyone who would listen and even got into a dispute with a highly regarded scientist who told me, yet again, that “It’s impossible.”

“But why?” I asked. “Nothing in the universe is perpetual; it’s only a matter of perspective that makes something appear to be perpetual, like a galaxy or a star or a thousand-year-old tree.”

Bingo! Not until that moment did I realize that the truth was there. I had only been looking with the wrong eyes, just as wrong as the scientist who told me that I was attempting the absurd. Both of us had been circling the truth, both on the opposite side of the argument and both of us equally wrong, and the truth, as I soon learned, was far more essential than either of us ever could have imagined. What stood in the way of perpetual motion was perspective.

At the core of these perspectives, and all perspectives for that matter, is the truth. For me, I knew that there was a definitive answer to whether a perpetual motion machine could be built, regardless of the ideas of knowing historians, scientists, or engineers. Once I adjusted my perspective, I found that there have been several successful perpetual motions machines built in the last several hundred years. James Cox built a clock perpetually powered by shifts in atmospheric pressure in the 1760s, though this has been dismissed as perpetual because it relies on atmospheric pressure. I say that’s rubbish because what in the universe acts independently of all other things? But fine, I suppose that’s just my perspective. Let’s move on. Around 1806, a man named Jean–André Deluc built a voltaic pile, which rang a tiny bell for 12 years before he dismantled it, believing he had proven his point. But what kind of work does a ringing bell perform? And based on what perspective is 12 years perpetual? A mallard duck with a life span of about decade, perhaps? Fine, once again we are down to debatable perspectives, since we are viewing this with human eyes. What, then, did I find?  What is the truth at the center of perspective? The answer came straight from the universe in which human perspective said it was utterly impossible. My friends, I give you the atom.

That highly regarded scientist, the one who said with utmost certainty that I was wrong, is made up of trillions upon trillions upon trillions of tiny perpetual motion machines, spinning away endlessly and doing the work that makes up every single thing that we know, including the laws of thermodynamics. Beneath the surface of perspective, created by a narrative of debate among learned professionals and enthusiastic inventors, a miniscule but profound truth does its work – out of sight and out of mind.

Now that you know the history, you may now begin your work. You may be thinking that I haven’t shown you anything yet, that none of this is useful at all. Not so, dear friend. Actually, I have given you everything you need to start your perpetual motion journey, and unlike my journey which was fueled by fear and longing for a different future than was clearly written in harsh truths on the wall, your journey is limited only by your imagination. With your tools in hand, are you ready to embark?

Before you depart, remember those three rules:

    It must function independently once in motion, without continuous input of additional energy.
    It must produce more energy than it consumes.
    It must appear to be unceasing, or even accelerating in nature.

Your tools? Truth, and perspective.

For just a moment, think of your absolute favorite book. Ruminate on it a moment, and tell me what the truth of the story was. Got it? Good. Now, did the author ever explicitly state the truth in the story? Probably not. The truth is buried by perspective, some right, and some wrong, and all of that perspective is in the way of discovery. What likely makes that book your favorite is the perspective speaking directly to you, and the truth has been cleverly hidden so that you may find it for yourself. Because of those perspectives and that ultimate truth, the story lives on in you with no additional input and even grows within you over time. The book is a journey to the truth, not entirely unlike my quest for perpetual motion.

Write your stories. Fill them with perspectives so colorful and vibrant that readers will remember the characters for the rest of their lives. Keep in mind, though, that those perspectives are only a piece of the puzzle, and can be and often should be wrong. Remember that the truth, whether it’s in the world around us or in the universes that you create, is an unspoken truth that works relentlessly as a function of that universe, with all perspectives revolving around it. If you apply your collection of perspectives properly, your story will accomplish a feat reserved for a mass of properly aligned atoms. Your story will become more than the sum of its parts. Your story will become self-sustaining. It will do more work than the work you put into it. It will be a machine in motion in the reader’s mind. Perpetually.

Want to know more about the mechanisms behind perpetuality?

Read Perpetual Motion by Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume