Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rossi's E-cat: the slow death of a meme

Results of a search using Google "Trends." The E-Cat is dead, but it keeps bouncing; a little. 

News about the E-Cat, the (in)famous desktop nuclear fusion reactor: Mr. Andrea Rossi, the inventor, has announced that he finally succeeded in obtaining a patent for his device and that it will be soon commercialized as a home water heater.

After four years of similar claims by Rossi, all regularly unfulfilled, it is not interesting to discuss this new one except, maybe, to note that, in the patent, the famed "nuclear reactor" has now become just a chemical reactor, hence contradicting all of Rossi's previous claims. But, at the same time, in one of Rossi's sites (as described here), it is still claimed that a nuclear reaction takes place, but not anymore the one that once was described, involving nickel and hydrogen. Truly, Rossi seems to aim at the world Guinness record for the number of times a person can contradict his/her own public statements.

So, from a scientific viewpoint, this story is a dead cat, but it is still interesting in terms of describing the trajectory of a meme. For those of you who don't know what a meme is, let me say that it is a self-replicating unit of information existing in the human knowledge space, a subject studied by a science called "memetics". As you can see in the figure at the beginning, the "E-cat" meme has had a typical viral trajectory, literally exploding in 2011. Then, it peaked and started a slow decline, that is still ongoing. It is a very general behavior of Internet memes, for instance the recent story of "Cecil the Lion" is following the same trajectory.

Some of the "bumps" that you see in the curve, above, are the results of Rossi attempting to revitalize his idea by means of new, flamboyant statements, of which the latest one is about the patent. It is likely that this new claim will result in a further, small bump, that then will subside. Apparently, memes have this "natural" trajectory, that resists most attempts of modification.

So, the story of the E-Cat raises an interesting series of questions: why do memes behave in this way? What determines the intensity and the duration of their penetration in cyberspace? How can these parameters be modified? It is a truly fascinating subject which has to do with the way human beings exchange ideas and define common beliefs. And from this story I am starting to understand a basic point that has to do with our current plea: we are doing everything wrong by searching for a technological miracle.

Many people were so eager to follow Rossi's unfounded claims (a few still are) because they genuinely thought that we need a new energy source in order to solve our problems. Well, I think not. We don't need new gadgets, we need something much more fundamental: we need cooperation. That is, we need to work together to manage the planetary commons (that the Pope calls the "Creation", it is the same concept). And management is not the same as exploitation: it means caring for the commons. If we don't get to do that, no technological wonder will ever do more than worsen our problems. Think of climate change: there is no reasonable kind of gadgetry that can reverse the damage we are doing to our own ecosystem, as long as we keep doing it. What we need, first of all, is an agreement to stop destroying the ecosystem. But how can we arrive to such an agreement? Well, it may be largely a question of memetics. So, the E-cat, though mostly a loss of time for everyone, may turn out to be useful, in the end, for learning something new.  

To learn more about memetics and its application in the fight against climate change, you can start from this post by Joe Brewer


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)