Friday, March 19, 2010

Perpetual Motion

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At some point in my teenage years, there was a time when I wanted to be a scientist. That was the time I was reading biographies of scientists and some books on science. I was besotted with the idea of perpetual motion. Wouldn’t it be possible to evolve a device or a system that perpetually produces more energy than it consumes, resulting in a net output of energy for indefinite time? It would be the answer to half the problems the world faced. What a great invention it would be!

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Our Physics Professor Devassy was a friendly person and one could approach him with any doubt. He would hear you out patiently and tell you how to proceed. One afternoon I went to him with my hopes about the possibility of developing a perpetual motion machine. Professor Devassy was not impressed. Such a machine just cannot exist, he said, since the law of conservation of postulates that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

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He nearly dashed my hopes, but I was not convinced and decided I would pursue the matter. My efforts were intensified when I read that in 1618, a ‘water screw perpetual motion machine’ was developed by a person called Robert Fludd. This was the first recorded device that produced useful work, that of driving millstones, but for some reason, it did not go on working endlessly. Several others had made similar attempts to develop such devices.

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I was fascinated by the possibility of magnets. I imagined a simple device: a wooden ramp at the top end of which a magnet would be placed. It would attract and pull a metal ball up the ramp. Near the magnet would be a small hole that would allow the ball to drop under the ramp and return to the bottom, where a flap allowed it to return to the top again.

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Prof Devassy dismissed it: the device simply could not work because any magnet strong enough to pull the ball up the ramp would necessarily be too powerful to allow it to drop through the hole. Faced with this problem, I tried several tacks. Like, if it were an electromagnet which loses its magnetism the moment the ball reached the top? This could easily be achieved through a relay that would get activated when the ball reached or crossed a critical point on the ramp.

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Any perseverant scientist knows that his ‘Aha!’ moment will come, sooner or later. Mine did, one night. I had an early dinner. The book I had taken to my bed was a collection of proverbs. I must have read for fifteen minutes before I dropped off to sleep. ‘Eureka!’ I cried.

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The next thing I knew was that I was in the Stockholm Konserthus on the 10th Dec in the company of Prof Devassy who had recommended me for the Nobel prize in Physics for inventing the perpetual motion machine. King Carl XV Gustaf of Sweden pinned the Nobel Prize Medal on my lapel, ceremoniously handed over the Nobel Prize Diploma and the document confirming the Nobel Prize amount. As the resounding applause died down, I was requested to make my acceptance speech and explain the principle behind the invention in simple terms for the benefit of the august audience.

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I made no secret of my elation at being made a Nobel laureate and dedicated the distinction to Professor Devassy who, I said, was the inspiration. Adding the appropriate things about the honour conferred on me, I explained that my machine was based on two simple proverbs: ‘a toast always lands the buttered side down’ and ‘a cat always falls on its paws’. ‘The procedure is simple, ladies and gentlemen,’ I expounded.

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Apply butter to one side of a toast. Strap the toast onto the back of a cat with the buttered side facing outwards. Take the toast-cat assembly to the first floor. Drop it through the window. Force of gravity will let the assembly fall towards the ground, but as it approaches the ground, the whole assembly will rotate through 180° so that it can land on the buttered side of the toast. As the buttered side of the toast approaches the ground, the whole assembly will rotate again through 180° so that the cat can land on its paws. This will keep happening regularly so that the toast-cat assembly will spin midair. Now, it is easy to convert this rotary movement into mechanical or electrical energy by connecting the cat-toast assembly to suitable gadgets!

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4 comments:

Ashok Menath said...

Was your trip to Stockholm via Copenhagen?
I could smell Copenhagen Interpretation and in that case, the cat must be Schrodinger’s!!!

anilkurup said...

qRead the piece with a bit of fascination. But in the end "abracadabra' for me.I'm quite bad in physics.

Ashok Menath said...

went back to your Koo Da Li (flight..danger) post and put a question there.

Please try the riddle.. I know you love to build and solve puzzles.

Savant's sallies said...

The cat-toast experiment is amusing, scary and thought provoking.
I like the contents of this blog. They can be useful to youngsters.