Hark to heavenly laughter

21 January 1999

Almost a cliché nowadays is the witticism – it was chortleworthy when it was new – that predictions are hard to make, especially when they are about the future. When I first encountered that revelation it was, rightly or wrongly, attributed to Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist. I have since seen and heard it quoted as if it were the original observation of successively later luminaries. Perhaps it has now earned the right to be called an ancient proverb.

Clearly identifiable, however, as a quotable expert on both prediction and risibility, is the entertainer, Woody Allen. He it was who once asked, 'How do you make God laugh?', and who answered, 'Tell him your plans for the future'.

I would not dream of offering myself for divine jesting but I will go so far as to venture a prediction. Here it is. For as long as inventors invent, some of them will invent perpetual motion machines and other devices to cheat the energy conservation law.

A correspondent, whose dispatches on this and comparable subjects I have for years enjoyed reading and retailing here in MPS, is Mr M.C. Rao, now an engineering consultant in Karnataka, India. Rao's latest letter has brought two more gems for your delectation. They are cuttings from leading national newspapers.

One is taken from The Indian Express Madras. It bears the headline, Low cost, high power, atop a diagram contrasting proposed non-polluting power-generating plant with contemporary stuff. The latter is typified as a coal-fired boiler and turbine-generator set. Readers are told that companies stand to benefit by dispensing with the coal feed and fixing 'electric fabricated heater coil inside of all fire tubes'. A feedback loop from the generator will supply the coil with electricity. Steam pressure will be regulated by an on/off controller on the electrical supply to the coil. The generator output will be adequate to supply external load as well as the coil, it is asserted, and an electrical input to the plant 'is required only at the initial stage, to start the boiler'.

Marvelling that 'a great newspaper like Indian Express' could publish such 'trash', Rao wrote a reasoned refutation and sent it to the editor, who ignored it.

The editor of The Hindu, another Madras organ, proved no better when Rao pointed out the flaws in an article titled Generating electricity from moving vehicles. The article, complete with a photograph of the student inventor fitting one of his generators into a trench, describes traffic-actuated induction coils which, embedded one after another at intervals along a road, claimedly could produce enough power to supply street lamps and traffic signals. Each largely buried device 'would look like a speed breaker', the newspaper comments appreciatively, and adds that government funding is being sought for a research and development programme.

“How could a great paper publish such trash?”

We are left to wonder whether the planners in government offices could possibly have taken up this idea. Rao might have wept if they had, but God would have had a good laugh.

Catch fish led by solar power

A Trans Asia News Service dispatch brings intelligence of fishermen's bait developed by Mitsubishi in Japan. According to the dispatch (which cites a report in Nikkei Weekly) the Mitsubishi lures are in the forms of small fishes and have heads studded with light-emitting diodes (leds) that can glow green or red. Apparently, nocturnal aquatic predators are attracted by the lights and can thus be caught.

The leds are powered by 10 cm2 solar panels on the dummy fishes' bellies, we are told. Each dummy is equipped with a 'small button-shaped titanium-lithium accumulator', which I suppose is charged when the artificial creature floats belly-up in daylight, or when it is exposed to lamplight in the dry.

I doubt that it will be long before the fishermen's quarry learn that illuminated prey are equally dangerous whether they signal red or green. Mitsubishi's sales may hardly be dented, however: I predict a continuing market for these novelties among all who decorate their living space with tropical fish tanks.

Also needed will be lamps and control systems for periodically lighting the swimming dummies' bellies, so there is yet another opening for entrepreneurs.


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