Monday, August 13, 2012
by Omar Ali
In late July 2012 Pakistan was gripped by water-car fever when an “inventor” named Aga Waqar (a diploma holder from Khairpur Sindh with very limited engineering or scientific knowledge) claimed that he had invented a “waterkit” that could be used to run any car (or other internal combustion engine) on nothing but water. The kit apparently consists of a cylinder that supposedly produces hydrogen from water, a plastic pipe that takes the hydrogen to the engine and a container in which water is stored. The cylinder is connected to the car battery. That’s it. The claim is that a secret process developed by Aga Waqar and his partners (one of whom is a software designer) uses “resonance” and “milliamps” of electricity to generate unlimited amounts of hydrogen to run the engine.
Prominent news-show anchors like Talat and Hamid Mir fell for it and social media was lit up with comments about Allah’s gift to Pakistan in Ramadan and demands to provide security to the inventor, who would undoubtedly face the wrath of “big oil” and imperialist powers as he tried to make Pakistan a water-fuelled superpower. A site generally thought to be affiliated with the security establishment published a detailed “SWOT analysis” that completely missed the point that this device was an impossibility on first principles and managed to hint at international conspiracies in the best Paknationalist fashion. Star postmodern columnist Ejaz Haider later wrote a densely worded op-ed arguing that science is not infallible and secular societies should not regard themselves as uniquely rational (or something like that, Ejaz Sahib’s postmodern columns are not easy to decipher).
But what happened at the official and scientific level in Pakistan was most unexpected (even for Pakistan): the federal cabinet appointed a subcommittee to look into the potential of the watercar. The minister for religious affairs promised that final details were being worked out and by 14th August he would provide the nation with the gift of energy independence. A “director” in the ministry for science and technology appeared on television to announce that he was fully satisfied that the waterkit works. Pakistan's ambassador to UAE invited him to Abu Dhabi to demonstrate this scientific breakthrough.
Pakistan’s top “nuclear scientist” Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan came on TV to report that “I have investigated the matter and I at least am satisfied that this is not a fraud”. Another “scientist” who played a central role in assembling Pakistan’s nuclear bomb appeared on TV and said “of course its feasible” when asked if this was even conceivable in light of the laws of physics. Some senior people at the Pakistan Engineering Council supposedly “evaluated” the waterkit and concluded that it works (to their eternal shame, the HQ of the Pakistan Enginering Council was the venue of its most prominent televised debut). The chairman of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) appeared on TV and tried to take credit for the fact that he had provided Aga Waqar with a rest-house and supported his work from the start. Dr Ata, a respected former minister of science (and an actual scientist, with hundreds of publications to his name) was the lone voice of reason on the first TV shows, but he was literally shouted down by the inventor and Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most popular talk-show host, appeared to agree that Dr Ata was “jealous of Aga Waqar’s achievement” (he tweeted that some scientists were “acting like jealous women” and putting down Aga Waqar without giving him a fair hearing). The chairman of the Pakistan Science Foundation appeared in a press conference alongside Aga Waqar and announced that Dr Ata would be sued for trying to undermine the reputation of the water-car and its inventor.
Most people are not very scientifically educated and it is no surprise that many of them can be temporarily fooled by such claims. But in the age of the internet, even laypersons can use Google and if one does so, one can find an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to claims of water-cars. One look at that article should tell most educated people that this claim is likely to be fraudulent. Then these people have the option of asking an actual scientist and if they do so, anyone with basic science education should immediately figure out that what is being claimed here is a perpetual motion machine and such machines are ruled out by the first and second law of thermodynamics. Simply put, in principle, Aga Waqar can split water to produce Hydrogen and can burn hydrogen to run an engine but he cannot get more energy OUT of the hydrogen than the energy used to break water down TO hydrogen and oxygen. Keep in mind, the end product of the reaction is water. You start with water, break it down to hydrogen and oxygen, and recombine these to get water again. And (per his claim) you are adding no other energy into the system. And yet you can do this, and have enough energy left over to run the car? This is the classic description of a perpetual motion machine and nothing further needs to be investigated because it is simply impossible to build such a machine and violate the laws of thermodynamics (at least on our everyday scale of existence). That was exactly Dr Ata’s point. One does not need to investigate the actual mechanism to know that this is impossible. But multiple engineers, scientists and officials in Pakistan were willing to believe that such a miracle had happened in front of their eyes and did not even seem to understand what principles were being violated and what objections were being raised by Dr Ata.
It is perhaps not shocking that talk-show host Hamid Mir or Talat got carried away. All these anchors are scientifically illiterate and when responsible scientific authorities found the claims credible, what else could they do? That Ejaz Haider used this episode to advance some theory about cultural equivalence or the faillibility of science may reflect poorly on his knowledge of science (being unable to distinguish between the fallibility of secondary scientific claims and a fundamental aspect of reality like the law of thermodynamics) but such misunderstandings are not unheard of in postmodern circles in more scientifically advanced cultures either (in fact, he almost certainly learned his cultural studies from Western books). Nor is it embarrassing that many Pakistanis on the intertubes were willing to believe this claim and started dreaming of “superpower Pakistan” and demanding that the state provide immediate security to Aga Waqar because CIA-RAW-MOSSAD would surely try to kill him.
It is not even shocking that “nuclear scientist” Dr Qadeer had been fooled and managed to expose himself further by appearing on TV and defending Aga Waqar. Qadeer Khan is a national hero in Pakistan, but his status as a “scientist” is greatly exaggerated. He is a metallurgist who stole the plans for a Dutch gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility and then worked (with several other people) to reassemble that facility in Pakistan using smuggled Western technology. That he and his team succeeded is a tribute to their persistence, to the resources the state was willing to commit to this effort, and to the skill with which General Zia was able to use the American-sponsored Afghan Jihad to avoid early US pressure on this project.
Dr Samar Mubarakmand (another “father of the Pakistani bomb”, at least in his own estimate) was not a surprise either. Like Qadeer Khan, his real achievement was persistence and perseverance, no original science was involved in copying a Chinese design to build a warhead. He is also the man who claimed that when he led the team conducting Pakistan's nuclear tests at Chaghi, a pot of chicken was cooked. There was only a little chicken in it, but when they started eating, the chicken just kept refilling. Dozens of people ate and still the same amount of chicken was in the pot. It was like Jesus with his loaves and fishes. Belief in the ability of Allah to suspend the laws of nature for the sake of Pakistan has thus already been demonstrated in his case.
But the chairman of PCSIR, the Pakistan Engineering Council, the Pakistan Science Foundation and the ministry for science and technology all jumped on the bandwagon. And now that the “inventor” seems to have backed off, NONE of them has lost his job (or his engineering or science degree). That, to me, is the truly shocking aspect of this story; that in Pakistan there is no functioning science base in the government sector; no institution that the state can reliably call upon to assess pseudoscientific claims. Many or all of these appointees are hacks appointed on political grounds, and even those trained in science have since spent their life in bureaucratic shenanigans, not science. They also live and breathe in a culture where the mythological foundations of religion are still taken literally by most people (and where those who do differentiate between myth and science are likely to face blasphemy prosecutions if they take their objections too vigorously to the public). Scientists may know that Jinns will not be able to power generators, but who will bell the cat when the president of the country decides to hold a conference on Islamic science and a nuclear scientist presents his paper on the use of Jinns to produce electricity?
Many of us genuinely expected that even in these circumstances, reality will intrude and at least the scientific institutions will retain some credibility. Unfortunately, water car fever may have shown otherwise.
For moment by moment comments, links and background, see http://www.brownpundits.com/2012/07/31/water-car-fever/ and http://www.brownpundits.com/2012/08/04/water-car-fever-begins-to-break-when-will-heads-roll/
A thorough review of the science and why this car is impossible: http://dawn.com/2012/08/03/bad-science/
At 21-30 onwards, Agha Waqar starts teaching Hoodbhoy about Planck and Black body radiation. You cannot make this stuff up. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Posted by omar at 12:05 AM | Permalink