Rules for unconventional research

(c)1997 xWilliam Beaty

After years of observing and sometimes participating in the "fringe science" arena, I've come up with a set of rules which I try to follow. My first law of unconventional research:

First rule: If I've made a discovery which violates the laws of conventional physics, then I've almost definitely made a mistake somewhere.

Seriously! Even though I'm involved with non-mainstream science, I intentionally maintain this 'skeptic' belief for many reasons. If I let myself start *knowing* that I've found an anomaly, I will stop trying to double-check the results, stop trying to think up conventional explanations, stop trying to look for mistakes, stop looking for subtle ways I've fooled myself. I've seen how easy it is for people to talk themselves into things. I want to avoid these traps. Second, if I keep strongly suspecting an error, I will resist the temptation to let my ego get the better of me. I know the extent and the power of my ego, and that delusions of grandeur are very easy to fall into. Therefor, in my saner moments I set up my beliefs as traps to trip up my future ego trips. Another: if I "know" that the discovery is a mistake, I will force the discovery itself to convince me otherwise. No opinions and self-delusion, just the real world demonstrating its realness. Another: if I present it to others as an earthshaking discovery, they will later tend to defend this viewpoint and not help prove out the discovery. But if I present it in terms of "find my mistake", then they might actually discover a conventional explanation I've overlooked.

Second rule: if it is a real anomaly, I might kill it.

If it's a small piece of a new field of science, then there is a *very* large chance that I won't understand what's causing it. I may accidentally extinguish it and never get it back again. I've heard laments from several inventors that they rebuilt their devices to improve them, and they never worked again. So, DON'T take apart the original invention! Don't move it to another location. Don't turn the power off and back on. Just moving your arm a bit wrong might eliminate the conditions which allowed success! Once you have it working, videotape the heck out of it, call in eyewitnesses, perform experiments, maybe even build several copies and get them working. Stay paranoid that the phenomena might vanish at any time, never to return.

Third rule: publicize it and let others help me find my mistake. Avoid SECRECY, that destroyer of new science.

This rule is a natural consequence of rule one: if I intentionally maintain a conviction that there is a mistake somewhere, wide publicity is the fastest way to get help in finding it. If instead I hide my discovery from all the greedy people who want to steal it, then I also subvert the whole process of testing by fellow researchers. If my discovery is a mistake or delusion, others may help me discover this, but if I keep it secret, I may remain deluded for decades.

I realize that this isn't quite so attractive an option outside the US. If I publicize a discovery here in the US, I have a year to decide to patent it or not. If in another country, first I'd have to decide to put my invention into the public domain, since the patent laws elsewhere do not provide the 1-year grace period. Myself, I might break secrecy anyway, because of Rule Four below. Here is an alternative, from Jerry Decker

Also, I've come to see that there is one big thing that ruins these fields of amateur research. That thing is SECRECY. Every time amateurs think they've stumbled across something important, they go silent and treat their discovery as a Big Important Secret which must be preserved at all costs from the many enemies who want to steal it. This is garbage! It is a trap which leads to paranoid megalomania. At the same time, it wrecks their discovery by burying it. True, there are often business reasons to keep back proprietary info, but the majority of "weird science" discoveries are not kept secret for this reason. They are kept secret because of shameful human psychology: because of inventors' desire for attention, because of our need to control, and because of our need to be important, to gain fame and accolades, etc. I can say such things because I too have suffered from this kind of "inventor's disease." I solved the problem by posting my inventions on internet! If a single inventor discovers something wonderful, it does no good at all for mankind, and is not really a discovery at all, it is an ego trip. Only if an inventor discovers something wonderful and then STARTS SELLING PRODUCTS, or better yet, TELLS EVERYONE THE SECRET, then does it make the world a better place.

Also see George Wiseman's NO PATENT page.

"We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert." - J. Robert Oppenheimer

Fourth rule: figure out what other o/u inventors did, then do the opposite!

Inventors over and over have announced o/u discoveries, yet where are they now? What did Pons and Fleichman do wrong? Hendershot? Hubbard? There seem to be a particular set of guaranteed routes to failure. Secrecy is the biggest one. Another one is to assume that everyone wants to steal your valuable discovery. Another one is the attempt to sell the discovery to governments or giant corporations. Another is the loss of humility and pursuit of fame. Another is the assumption that scientists will automatically hail your discovery, and that businesses will vie for rights to manufacture it.

Therefore, in order to succeed, we must do some historical research, discover the guaranteed routes to failure, then avoid them.

Assume that all scientists will ridicule you. Assume that all businesses will reject you as a lunatic. Assume that governments and corporations, if they don't simply ridicule you, will force you into silence (and perhaps pay you to keep silent.) Assume that your suspicion of idea theives will push you into paranoid insanity, and that pursuit of fame will destroy both you and your discovery. Now go forth and bring light to the world. But how? I don't know. Maybe try giving away your discovery for free, then later make your fortune on your autobiography and lecture tours? See prometh.txt for some clues.

Fifth: Keep a journal. If you notice something strange, WRITE IT DOWN. If you don't, you'll invariably forget it.

Human minds are funny about anything which violates our expectations. Our minds want to maintain a coherent world, so we tend to get amnesia about things which don't fit. Amateur scientists should never stop fighting against this tendency in themselves. Avoid too much skepticism. Search for "weird" unexpected phenomena. And if ever you see some, write them down! Here's a story about my own encounter with this issue.

I was using a VandeGraaff generator to power a "Franklin's Wheel" electrostatic motor. I was working in a dusty shop, and little hairs would jump onto the brass knobs of the Franklin motor. I wiped them away, but one of the hairs simply would not leave. It was a thin gray hair about 2mm long, and even though I wiped and wiped, the same hair kept jumping back to the knob. But then I looked more closely and realized that something weird was going on. That hair was a ghost. When I viewed it against a white background, it was completely invisible. When I viewed it against a normal complicated background, it looked like a tiny fiber of transparent glass. "Very weird!" I thought to myself, "I must remember to play with it tomorrow when I have more time." Ten years later I read an article in ESJ about fiber-like air flows created by the polished knobs of a Wimshurst machine. THAT WAS IT! That "ghost hair" thing! But then I realized that it had not just slipped my mind ten years earlier. Instead my brain had edited it out. I had been trying to fit that "fiber" into my prior experience, and having no luck, it was confusing me. It was an interesting phenomena, but it was also deeply unsettling. I was going to look at it more closely, but my subconscious got there first and protected my "reality" by giving me amnesia! When I read Charles Yost's article about it in ESJ, my original memories came back, but I noticed that they had a weird "feel" to them. To me they felt like I was remembering a dream, as if the "ghost hair" event had happened to somebody else. I suspect that my brain had stored the memories in a different way than normal. I had no access to them until something broke through the amnesia, and then the "feel" of the memory was different than the "feel" of a normal conscious recollection which is accessible through usual mental association.

I suspect that this sort of thing is common in science. Somebody announces a great discovery, and many other people remember seeing clear evidence for the same thing. Is the discoverer a great genius, or was he/she simply the only one with the sense to write down an observed anomaly, and then to follow it up?

Sixth: a failed o/u device often makes a great toy.

If my amazing discovery doesn't pan out, it often was because some weird phenomena fooled me into thinking I had found something new. Therefor, the same thing will probably befuddle others and act as entertainment. If Pat Harris of the "TOMI" device had given weight to this concept, his rollercoaster device might now be in all the stores as an "impossible" science toy. And if a real anomaly gets ignored by the mainstream, designing a toy based on new science is a great way to penetrate the barriers of disbelief.

Seventh: spend all your effort making an airtight demo.

A tiny spinner which keeps turning, or better yet, a light bulb which runs for weeks, beats any number of electric cars or huge multi-kilowatt blackboxes hands down. Don't try to build a flying saucer, try instead to build a soup-can which unexplainably loses 1% of its weight, and which anyone can duplicate. If possible, make it so very simple that you could sell it as a kit to school kids. Make it so obvious that your grandmother could follow the instructions and make a successful replica. If the goal is to blow away the objections of the skeptics, then the device should clearly demonstrate the new principle in ways which cannot be explained away. Doing any more than this will just obscure the principle. And doing more than this will almost guarantee that your discovery gets ignored as being just another crackpot claim.

Eighth: beware of the "Inventors' Disease"

OK, you've developed fantastic invention. It is an important discovery. No *REALLY* important. It might change the face of mankind. But at the very least, this thing is seriously valuable, and anyone in their right mind is going to want to steal the idea so they can sell it themselves. Nobody is above suspicion. Your family is looking at you funny. Don't trust them, they probably want to market your fantastic idea, but with THEIR name on it instead of yours. Better start writing in your notebooks in code, so your spouse won't be able to steal the idea. You mention your idea to friends, but then they want to know the details! Theives! Do they think that you are stupid?! Your patent attorney wants to know what you've invented. Beware, because that's just a transparent ploy to get clues about your idea! Only the idea is important, not the marketing, manufacturing, etc. Anyone who even HEARS about the idea can just walk off and start a wildly successful business. Patent the idea? But that's ridiculous, since then everyone would KNOW about it! They could just walk in and take it, and then you'd be spending your whole life battling lawyers! Actually, your idea is so valuable and so important that mankind is not ready for it. Burn all your notes, and bury the working model in the backyard garden where only you know its location. You'll take your idea to the grave with you. That'll show 'em!

The above is the "Inventors' Disease." The full-blown version (like the above) is fairly rare, but milder cases are very common. I fell into it's thrall two times now. I was afraid to take my idea to a patent attorny, since chances are that he would steal it! In hindsight, I see that I was courting a totally monumental bloated self-image , and my whole attitude fairly dripped with egoism and titanic self-importance. Pretty disgusting. Yet pretty attractive too. Like a kind of drug.

If I come up with a really important idea in the future, I know that the whole stupid thing will begin again. What to do? How about this: acknowledge that I am a weak person, and for that reason I will never be an inventor. If I have a seriously cool idea, it will blow my ego all out of normal proportion, and I'll start looking for bugging devices in the kitchen light fixtures. Therefor, any great ideas that I have, I'm putting them onto the internet right quick! I'll still have a year of "grace period" where I can patent them before they go irretrievably into the Public Domain. Besides, ideas are *NOT* worth all that much, and it's the 99% of perspiration, not the 1% of inspiration, that creates a successful company. And even if I never make money off of my great ideas, and if they are promptly stolen by others, at least I won't go strutting around with a hugely bloated ego, and a pitifully obvious case of the Inventor's Disease.

(Hint: I put the Hand-Drawn Holograms and "Visual Electricity" on internet, and after many years, nobody has stolen them! I suspect that it works like this: if it's not secret, and if you give it away for free, then the "predators" will become convinced that it's worthless!)

And finally, a quote for all scientists (weird ones and otherwise) to live by:

"What impressed me most was Einstein's own clear statement that he would regard his theory as untenable if it should fail certain tests... Here was an attitude utterly different from the dogmatism of Marx, Freud, Adler, and even more so that of their followers. Einstein was looking for crucial experiments whose agreement with his predictions would by no means establish his theory: while a disagreement, as he was first to stress, would show his theory to be untenable. This, I felt, was the true scientific attitude."


Created by Bill Beaty. Mail him at: