This forum is about wrong numbers in science, politics and the media. It respects good science and good English.
I don't think I've previously mentioned Eric Laithwaite in the forum. A quick check using the forum's search facility suggests that I haven't. I am generally sympathetic to maverick scientists and engineers who have a go at 'modern physics' (post-1900), but less so towards people who find fault with classical physics like Laithwaite. You might be mixing Laithwaite up with something I wrote about Fred Hoyle.
I haven't seen the Horizon 'Project Greenglow' documentary, but I would imagine what you're talking about relates to Laithwaite's dramatic Royal Institution Christmas Lecture of 1974 where he announced something like an anti-gravity effect being observed with gyroscopes, and then the whole thing went pear-shaped with the UK scientific community.
This blog post gives an idea what happened to people unfamiliar with the story:
The consequences of the controversy were not good for Laithwaite's career - he left his position at the Royal Institution, he didn't make it to being an FRS, and he was snubbed by the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
As I remember it, Laithwaite claimed that Newton's Laws of Motion didn't apply to gyroscopes rather than as the blog post states, that he disputed conservation of energy. The blog post also links to videos of the series of lectures - the most controversial one is the fourth one, "The Jabberwock", for anybody who wants to watch it.
Laithwaite was the leader of a small group of charlatans who exercised undue influence in London Electrical Engineering in the seventies. They managed to get one of their number installed as a permanent head of my old department at City University. He systematically destroyed it. All the resources were being diverted to facilities such as a “Psychic Research” Laboratory. I am now extremely pained even to think of the waste. By what should have been a happy accident a number of young pioneers of digital electronics had come together from different directions to form what should have been a world class team. Promotions were blocked, much to the distress of some external experts who became involved. At one point we could get nothing made in the departmental workshop, as it was totally occupied with building a “secret” anti-gravity machine. We still had the left-overs from the polytechnic, when the permanent head was an absolute monarch. The central administration in desperation created a whole new funding mechanism to feed funding directly into research groups. It was all too late, however, and we all left. The waste!
It sounds like your department head at City University in the 1970s was the engineering professor and paranormal investigator Arthur Ellison:
I don't think Laithwaite was involved in paranormal research though.
Trouble is, Dave, that what is on record is a tiny fraction of what actually went on. That antigravity machine, for example, was entirely “designed” by Laithwaite and was based on those gyroscopes. He was prevented from using the facilities of Imperial to develop it, but he was given carte blanche at City. It had been inspired by someone who had a dream that Eric was giving a lecture/demonstration when the box he was showing left the bench and floated away to a corner of the room. Somewhere in the archives of the IEE is an account of an alleged incident at another of his demonstrations when the power was switched off but a motor carried on rotating. This was presented as a “paranormal” scientific mystery, but the account is so vague as to be worthless.
We all felt so sorry for the highly skilled technicians who knew that they were wasting their time on what was just a bad joke. Of course, it never worked and it effectively destroyed a fine department. Exactly who did what remains unknown, but they were closely involved in a folie à deux in which they encouraged each other’s fantasies. There were other London figures involved too, including, I believe, a professor at Kings.
We never talk about it.
Never talk about it?! You should be writing a book about it - just the sort of thing to inform the public how charlatanism can easily affect scientific endeavour!
Write a book? I wrote one called Sorry wrong number! and made a point of including in the first chapter an anecdote about my only direct experience of the happenings. There is no one more cunning than the self-deluding charlatan. What was going on in the basement below my feet, in what was officially a store room, had been unknown to me, though it was apparently well known to little old ladies in long black dresses on the psychic circuit.
As for Laithwaite, doing what he did in front of trusting children was unforgivable. It was more Tommy Cooper than Michael Faraday. He added gyros and piled in the pivots, adding further degrees of freedom and creating quasi-stable patterns of motion that were virtually non-analysable. Instead of shining a light, he sowed confusion.
Trivial demonstrations of magnetic levitation were at that time common open-day attractions. I remember remarking that the lack of sideways restraint represented a dangerous aspect of transport applications. I believe that the levitation lobby was grossly unfairly treated when its test track was explosively demolished on the orders of opposing bureaucrats, but the hostility had been exacerbated by Laithwaite’s intransigent insouciance. I am also not sure that a case can be made for the originality of his own scientific contribution.
'There were other London figures involved too, including, I believe, a professor at Kings.'
Would that be Prof John Taylor by any chance?
Taylor? Rings a bell.
Thank you for the links.They were very interesting.I have n't anything to add except to say that I remember attending a lecture that Eric gave on MagLev.He was a strikingly charismatic lecturer as I remembet, but strangely this was n't so apparent in those RI Christmas Lectures?
MagLev seemed to be an energy efficient development with a promising future.
I wonder why it has been so little used?
In reply to Edward, as I remember it the last time anybody suggested we should build maglev high-speed trains in the UK was George Osborne about ten years ago. But Osborne would only be making such suggestions as part of David Cameron's "Vote Blue Go Green" campaign, where the Conservative opposition tried to appear to be even more Green-leaning than the Labour government of the time.
The main reason maglev is so little used is that its costs are prohibitive, about five times the cost of a conventional railway system according to this 2006 BBC news article:
Wiki has good article on maglev.
However I had thought the French had investigated this. I seemed to remember seeing a section of abandoned track in a documentary - probably by Jonathan Meades - but it was perhaps instead the Aerotrain.