Conmen and suckers
WHEN P.T. Barnum, the American showbiz genius, said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, he couldn’t have imagined most of them would be found in Pakistan.
But as the recent ‘water-powered car’ story shows us, it seems that many of these suckers inhabit parliament, the scientific establishment and our television studios. Conmen pick their marks and push the most effective button to relieve them of their cash. For most of us, this is greed.
Older readers will recall that in the ’80s, a slew of ‘investment companies’ established a chain of smart offices across Punjab. They offered punters a fixed income on their investment that was much higher than the interest rate. Unsurprisingly, thousands flocked to them, chequebooks in hand.
For a time, investors duly received their payments. But soon, the whole edifice came tumbling down, with many pensioners deprived of their life savings. It turned out that the whole thing had been a Ponzi scheme in which new deposits are used to pay off those already on the books. This works for as long as new investors continue to sign up. Once this inflow slows, the model is unsustainable as Bernie Madoff’s victims learned when his $64bn scam imploded a few years ago.
When ‘engineer’ Waqar Ahmed made his startling claim about his miraculous invention of a water-powered car a few weeks ago, he pressed a button in all of us. We all hate the constant price hikes at the petrol pump, so many jumped on the free energy bandwagon with no questions asked.
As Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in his clear-headed debunking of the whole idea, Waqar Ahmed’s concept of a water-fuelled economy was a ‘vision of paradise’ to an energy-starved country. So everybody from pundits to politicians to what pass as scientists became excited at the prospect of free energy. But just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there is no free energy either.
However, the good news for true believers is that it is possible to run a car on water. The energy that binds hydrogen and oxygen atoms together in water, if unlocked, can power a car. The catch is that the power needed to break this bond exceeds the energy produced, especially when you factor in the mechanical losses involved.
As Popular Mechanics explained in an article that appeared four years ago:
“Yes, you can run your car on water. All it takes to build a ‘water-burning hybrid’ is the installation of a simple, often home-made electrolysis cell under the hood of your vehicle. The key is to take electricity from the car’s electrical system to electrolyse water into a gaseous mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, often referred to as Brown’s Gas or HHP or oxyhydrogen.…”
The writer goes on to explain why such a system can’t deliver.
“Problem: It takes exactly the same amount of energy to pry those hydrogen and oxygen apart inside the electrolysis cell as you get back when they recombine inside the fuel cell. The laws of thermodynamics haven’t changed.…”
In 1989, I recall being excited by reports that cold fusion had occurred in a US laboratory. This was once the holy grail of physics, and refers to a nuclear reaction at low temperature. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, both respected electrochemists, submitted a paper to Nature magazine claiming that while passing an electric current between two electrodes in heavy water or deuterium, they noted that more heat was produced than the energy that flowed into the experiment.
The implications of such a claim were staggering: if true, this would mean that endless energy could be generated from our oceans and our dependency on oil was over. But no American politician rushed forward to proclaim the scientists as their saviours, and no TV hosts announced that our salvation was at hand. Instead, scientists did what they are supposed to do: check the claim very carefully under tightly controlled conditions. While a few reported brief spikes in temperature, there was little consistency in the results and no proof that a nuclear reaction had occurred. After a few months of speculation, the claim was dismissed and Pons and Fleischmann discredited.
Sadly, in Pakistan, some in the scientific community rushed to bless the ‘breakthrough’. If only they had bothered to do a Google search, they would have learned that claims for water-powered cars have been around for years, with ready-made conversion kits available for a few hundred dollars.
In Iceland, they have been running buses on hydrogen cells for years; the advantage is not one of cost, but of virtually no carbon emissions. Indeed, the country has been producing hydrogen for some fifty years. As the website http://www.nordicway.com informs us, fishing-boat engines will soon be converted to the system Waqar Ahmed ‘invented’.
But those the young engineer has conned can draw solace from the fact that in the 1920s, one Victor Lustig sold the Eifel Tower not just once, but twice. Similarly, the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge have been flogged to the gullible.
One conman sold a machine that supposedly printed genuine US dollars. He even walked into a bank with a mark and had a note from the machine checked. The trick, of course, was that he had loaded it with genuine currency, but the victim who bought it thought he had acquired a gold mine.
So basically, our gullibility is directly linked to greed: we believe in these scams because we want to believe they will transform our lives. Similarly, charlatans who peddle all kinds of miracle cures prey on our wish to shed weight, regain our hair, change our complexion, lose our wrinkles and generally live forever. Billions are spent on alternative medicines and vitamins without any proven benefits in many cases.
The maxim conmen live by is: ‘A fool and his money are soon parted.’ I have no objection if idiots insist on handing over their cash to sharks; they forget that if it looks too good to be true, chances are that it isn’t true.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.