Atlas Shrugged: Motor City

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter IX

Up till now, Atlas has positioned itself as a novel set in the real world. Whatever you may think about its author’s opinions on politics, economics or human nature, however implausible you find some of her plot developments, it tells a story that could at least conceivably happen. But that’s about to change in a big way, as our heroes are poised to discover the MacGuffin that’s going to shape the rest of the book.

“Hank,” she said suddenly, “could we go to a place I’d like to see?”

“Sure. Anywhere. Which place?”

“It’s in Wisconsin. There used to be a great motor company there, in my father’s time. We had a branch line serving it, but we closed the line – about seven years ago – when they closed the factory…”

“I’ll find it. What was the name of the factory?”

“The Twentieth Century Motor Company.” [p.264]

After three days of driving through back country, Hank and Dagny find the shell of the factory. It rises like a castle on the crown of a hill in the middle of a derelict, half-wild village. Once, that town was where the factory workers lived; now most of it is abandoned, reverting to forest. The few people who are still there live like medieval peasants among the rusting remains of modern technology, getting around in horse-drawn carts and drawing water by hand from wells.

The inhabited houses were scattered at random among the ruins; the smoke of their chimneys was the only movement visible in town. A shell of concrete, which had been a schoolhouse, stood on its outskirts; it looked like a skull, with the empty sockets of glassless windows, with a few strands of hair still clinging to it, in the shape of broken wires. [p.265]

The road leading to the factory is ruined and impassable, and the people of the town are all dull and incurious and can’t suggest any alternate directions. But after much trial and error, “two miles and two hours later”, they make it to the front door of the factory:

A rusted padlock hung on the door in the main entrance, but the huge windows were shattered and the place was open to anyone, to the woodchucks, the rabbits and the dried leaves that lay in drifts inside…

They stopped in the great hall where a ray of light fell diagonally from a gap in the ceiling, and the echoes of their steps rang around them, dying far away in rows of empty rooms. A bird darted from among the steel rafters and went in a hissing streak of wings out into the sky. [p.268]

If I’m lingering longer than usual on the plot in this post, it’s because I have to admit this section is pretty effective. I’m fascinated by the idea of what would happen to society without human beings to maintain it – how the artifacts of civilization would rust, decay and disappear. (I read The World Without Us and loved it.)

I’ve always thought that pictures of urban decay and ruin have a kind of desolate gorgeousness of their own, and in fairness to Ayn Rand, her description of the abandoned factory and its environs is quite evocative and hauntingly beautiful. Although, also in fairness to Rand, that may not have been the effect she was aiming for – she compares Dagny walking through the factory to “having to perform an autopsy on the body of one’s love”.

It was in a room of what had been the laboratory that she stopped. It was a coil of wire that made her stop. The coil protuded from a pile of junk. She had never seen that particular arrangement of wires, yet it seemed familiar, as if it touched the hint of some memory, faint and very distant…

It was the broken remnant of the model of a motor. Most of its parts were missing, but enough was left to convey some idea of its former shape and purpose. [p.269]

Dagny finds a sheaf of yellowed paper describing the motor, reads it, and screams for Hank. He comes in a hurry, thinking she’s hurt, but it’s a different emotion that’s gotten her so agitated:

“It was the coil that I noticed first – because I had seen drawings like it, not quite, but something like it, years ago, when I was in school – it was in an old book, it was given up as impossible long ago…

“Those men, long ago, tried to invent a motor that would draw static electricity from the atmosphere, convert it and create its own power as it went along. They couldn’t do it. They gave it up.” She pointed at the broken shape. “But there it is.”

Just so we’re clear on this, this motor as Rand describes it is impossible. Notice that Dagny says it can “create its own power”, and calls it “a self-generator… with no limits to its energy” [p.270]. In other words, it’s a perpetual motion machine.

Human beings have been trying for centuries to invent machines that run forever with no external power source, or that produce more energy than they consume. The quest for free energy has produced all kinds of gadgets: unevenly balanced wheels, contraptions with magnets, self-turning waterwheels, cars that run on water, and so on. (Rand’s vague gesture toward “static electricity” makes her motor sound more like another perennial perpetual-motion candidate, the Brownian ratchet.)

But as clever and ingenious as their inventors were, all of these designs failed; every one of them has some ineliminable, fatal flaw. The consensus opinion of physicists is that this isn’t just because we’re not clever enough: it’s because a perpetual motion machine would have to violate one or more fundamental laws that are built into the fabric of the universe. Try as we might, the laws of thermodynamics can’t be cheated. But Ayn Rand seems to disagree. Her belief, apparently, is that the only thing that impeded all those past inventors is that they didn’t love capitalism enough.

Now, I’m not saying that perpetual motion can’t exist in fiction. It’s certainly possible to write a novel where someone invents a machine that produces free energy, and to explore the ramifications of that discovery. But that’s where the purpose of this book starts to blur strangely. Is Atlas Shrugged a political treatise, using allegory to advance the real-world principles that its author advocated, or is it a science fiction story describing how an imaginary innovation would transform human society?

Most of this book leads us to believe the former, but the impossible motor suggests the latter. And that’s cheating.

If a Marxist author wrote a novel about an imaginary communist utopia with no economic competition and no private property, and depicted that society as possessing a perpetual-motion machine that could power all its industry for free, capitalists would say (and rightly) that this was unfair; that the author was pulling magic out of his back pocket to mask the inevitable problems such a society would inevitably have in reality. But later in this book, when we meet the inventor of this motor and his secret capitalist society in the mountains, we’re going to find out that Rand relies on exactly the same sleight of hand to make her imaginary utopia function.

Image: Industrial ruins, via Shutterstock

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • busterggi

    I know Rand needed her mcguffin but did she really think, especially after living through the Great Depression, that abandoned factories were THAT uncommon?

  • Alex SL

    > Try as we might, the laws of thermodynamics can’t be cheated. But Ayn
    Rand seems to disagree. Her belief, apparently, is that the only thing
    that impeded all those past inventors is that they didn’t love
    capitalism enough.

    Haven’t read the book myself but from what you have shown in other posts this sounds exactly right. It is the same cornucopianism that is found in so many other libertarians: We never need any regulations or planning and can waste all the resources we want because when we blindly run into a problem we could have proactively avoided human ingenuity, the free market and or a technological singularity will solve it. Physical limitations don’t enter, mind over matter!

    Basically it is magical thinking; human inventiveness, free enterprise and technology are treated as a kind of magic pixie dust. Sadly that is not how the world works. All resources are strictly limited, and just because it would be nice to have a certain technology does not mean that it is feasible.

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    But is it really a perpetual motion machine? She says it draws static electricity out of the atmosphere, which suggests that Rand knows that it can’t create energy as in a classic perpetual motion machine. Sure, saying that it is drawing energy out of the air is hand waving, smoke and mirrors, but at least there is no fundamental principle preventing it.

  • Donalbain

    LAWS of thermodynamics? Well there is the problem and the solution. Do away with the unnecessary regulation and have the Free Market of Thermodynamics instead. Then you can have unlimited energy!

  • unbound55

    Can kind of summarize this issue as “because we are humans and smart, we will win.” Sounds an awful lot like L. Ron Hubbard’s books…

  • Nancy McClernan

    This isn’t exactly what Rand is getting at:

    I’m fascinated by the idea of what would happen to society without human beings to maintain it – how the artifacts of civilization would rust, decay and disappear.

    The ruins of the Twentieth Century Motor Company represent (what else?) what would happen to society without Ubermensch to maintain it.

    It becomes clear in the last page of the chapter, when Rand describes Dagny imagining the quotidian activities of ordinary human beings desecrating – and she uses that word – the remains of the Motor:

    …(Dagny) felt the anger trembling within her, the hurting, helpless anger that answers the signs of desecration. She wondered whether someone’s diapers hung on a clothesline made of the motor’s missing wires – whether its wheels had become a rope pulley over a communal well – whether its cylinder was now a pot containing geraniums on the window sill of the sweetheart of the man with the whiskey bottle.

    The horror – a motor’s wheels being repurposed for a communal well!

    And it’s likely that Rand never changed a single diaper in her entire life, so little she had to do with children. This section of Part 1 chapter IX also includes one of the very few descriptions of children – they vandalize Rearden’s car.

  • Nancy McClernan
  • fuguewriter

    And here we go again.

    The first thing Dagny (not Rand – Dagny) says – “draw static electricity from the atmosphere” – excludes perpetual motion. You don’t have perpetual/free motion from a non-infinite-in-time, non-infinite-in-horsepower external energy source like terrestrial static electricity. As was discussed in prior threads, Rand came up with the Motor in consultation with an electrical engineer – she knew the issues involved.

    > Notice that Dagny says it can “create its own power”, and calls it “a self-generator… with no limits to its energy”

    Notice that Dagny’s exclaiming, and in a moment of discovery. Based on the Motor as described, she’s not wrong. She’s also not delivering a treatise.

    > Human beings have been trying for centuries to invent machines that run forever with no external power source, or that produce more energy than they consume.

    It’s striking that you do not see that the text already takes care of these objections. You won’t catch Rand so easily. She was a careful (though not flawless) constructor.

    > the only thing that impeded all those past inventors is that they didn’t love capitalism enough.

    The unfortunate snark line that was sure to come.

    > a political treatise, using allegory to advance the real-world principles that its author advocated, or is it a science fiction story describing how an imaginary innovation would transform human society?
    > Most of this book leads us to believe the former, but the impossible motor suggests the latter. And that’s cheating.

    The better world that Rand postulates would come from following reason, etc. doesn’t depend upon a perpetual motion machine. Neither does it *depend* upon Galt’s Motor – and you haven’t shown that it does – you’ve merely asserted it. You’re looking for a single smoking gun, a lynchpin, and since one isn’t there you invent one.

    > power all its industry for free

    The desire to find fault with Rand leads one to miss the indications it isn’t a free energy/perpetual motion machine – such as Dagny’s saying that in a railroad engine it would require a converter running on a few cents’ worth of fuel.

  • Boudica

    For the lit nerds….is the motor a macguffin or a deus ex machina? I lean towards the latter.

  • http://www.calgarysecularchurch.org/ Korey Peters

    I hate it when you link to TV Tropes. That site just sucks you in and 2 hours later I remember I was supposed to get some things done today… :)

  • Nancy McClernan

    I don’t see how it’s a deus ex machina, but maybe I’m missing something. Please provide details.

  • Zaphiel

    When I read the book I didn’t see the motor as a perpetual motion machine, rather something akin to cold fusion.

  • decathelite

    True, it never explicitly says it is perpetual. But the hand waving part is important, because it glosses over potential drawbacks: does the removal of static energy from the air inhibit cell phone reception? Does the motor make a lot of noise, or generate a lot of excess heat? Does it emit harmful radiation? How reliable is the source of static energy (what if a whole economy runs on the motor and the static energy isn’t replaced fast enough?)?. Does the motor work in humid environments where static energy is less likely to accumulate?

    This is a problem with libertarian solutions – they don’t often consider peripheral consequences and trade offs that affect other people/industries.

  • decathelite

    I think it’s a macguffin, because it doesn’t need to be a motor – it could be any other machine, widget or gadget. In a deus ex machina, a problem is defined that the device overcomes – often when the characters are in a dire situation and have no options left.

  • Lagerbaer

    It’s not really a MacGuffin because it is important for the plot beyond its inherent desirability. You couldn’t replace it for, say, a Cure for Cancer(TM) or a microfilm with secret information. It’s the culmination of the Randyan heros’ ability to take anything and make it both better and cheaper.

  • R Vogel

    I’m fascinated by the idea of what would happen to society without human beings to maintain it – how the artifacts of civilization would rust, decay and disappear.
    If you ever make it down to Philadelphia, check out Easter State Penitentiary.

  • David Cortesi

    This chapter resonates of course with present-day Detroit, and put me in mind of a recent article (http://www.buzzfeed.com/drewphilp/why-i-bought-a-house-in-detroit-for-500) about someone homesteading in the Detroit wastelands and the other people who live around him. Turns out, the people in those houses “scattered at random among the ruins” aren’t peasants at all (although they do have goats).

  • Sven2547

    Can it be both?

  • Jim Baerg

    ‘Rand’s vague gesture toward “static electricity” makes her motor sound more like another perennial perpetual-motion candidate’

    I think it suggests a slightly different & even more common error.
    Ignoring the difficulty of collecting energy from low power density sources.

    There is a voltage gradient in the atmosphere & it is possible to make a motor that runs off the high voltage & minute current that you get from a wire extended high above the ground. However, to get kilowatts, much less Megawatts requires an enormous installation that makes it totally uneconomic no matter how fervently you believe in Capitalism (or communism or technocracy or…).

    Most renewable energy sources suffer from this problem to a lesser but still substantial extent and many also have the problem of the ‘fuel’ being available only part time, & nobody has invented a way to store large amounts of energy cheaply.

    For a detailed analysis of the merits & lack thereof for various energy sources see:

    http://www.withouthotair.com/

    For a shorter analysis
    http://www.templar.co.uk/downloads/Renewable%20Energy%20Limitations.pdf

    This essay by the author of the 2nd link is an interesting followup
    http://www.templar.co.uk/downloads/Beyond_Fossil_Fuels.pdf

    /endrant (or /endrand ? ;-) step off soapbox.

  • Nancy McClernan

    If you accept the TV Tropes definition then it is a MacGuffin:

    a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

    The Ubermensch being able to do anything doesn’t invalidate the MacGuffin status of the Galt Motor.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    OK, I was going to discuss this at greater length in the post, but I thought it was long enough already. But the comments are a good place for a digression. Let’s bring in the science!

    Historically, ideas for building perpetual motion machines fall into two categories. A perpetual motion machine of the first kind creates energy out of nothingness, which obviously violates conservation laws in a blatant way.

    But there’s another, subtler variety, called a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. These are harder to describe, but what they all have in common is that they attempt to reverse the direction of entropy: for example, by causing heat to spontaneously flow from a cold reservoir to a hotter one. (You can make heat flow that way, of course – your refrigerator does it all the time – but only by putting energy into the system, counterbalancing the decrease in entropy with a greater increase in entropy somewhere else, which is the point.)

    The Brownian ratchet, which I mentioned briefly in my post, is a perpetual motion machine of the second kind: it attempts to extract usable energy from ambient heat. (Or rather, it would be a perpetual motion machine of the second kind if it worked, which it doesn’t.) Based on the description she gives, Rand’s magic motor would also be a perpetual motion machine of the second kind. She claims that it can generate electric power, usable to do work, from ambient static electricity, without an external source of fuel.

    This is fundamentally the same idea as claiming you have a machine which can take a quantity of air, with all the gas molecules at the same average temperature, and “transfer” all the heat from half of the molecules to the other half, resulting in separate cold and hot reservoirs, with no expenditure of energy. If you could do that, you could let the heat flow back from the hot reservoir to the cold one and use it to do work. But that doesn’t work with air molecules, and it doesn’t work with electrons either.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    The Holy Grail.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Considering how cold fusion turned out, it’s hardly a clear distinction.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    There is a voltage gradient in the atmosphere & it is possible…

    to intercept that gradient and amplify it. The device to accomplish that is called a “radio.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Even cold fusion requires an input of fuel, though. This contraption explicitly doesn’t.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    “If a Marxist author wrote a novel about an imaginary communist utopia with no economic competition and no private property, and depicted that society as possessing a perpetual-motion machine that could power all its industry for free, capitalists would say (and rightly) that this was unfair; that the author was pulling magic out of his back pocket to mask the inevitable problems such a society would inevitably have in reality. ”

    On a side note, this is what really bugs me about the Zeitgeist movement — not the Jesus Myth / 9/11 conspiracists, but the guys who have come up with this “Resource Based Economy” stuff. While discussing how great it would be if we could all switch over to a totally money-free economy, they also mention, just in passing, that they expect to accomplish this by making infallibly intelligent computers manage all aspects of the economy, thereby eliminating the possibility of corruption, and also there won’t be any more scarcity once we discover a scientific way to produce unlimited power.

    So, you know, genius A.I. and perpetual motion. Minor details.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes – and since we are referencing TV Tropes, here’s the definition for deus ex machina. The entry also has a Billy Dare adventure (of Tom the Dancing Bug Comics) that illustrates the device.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeusExMachina

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    I think your point is more valid than Adam’s. We don’t have enough information to say either that the motor is impossible or impractical. It’s kind of like the transporter in Star Trek, you can’t refute it existence because you don’t have enough information about how it works. Since the cold-fusion argument someone else proposed was shot down, what about plutonium batteries? Could’t we substitute: The motor runs on the energy released from the ambient radiation in plutonium?

  • Nancy McClernan

    The Twentieth Century Motor Company didn’t fail due to depression, it failed because the owners tricked their employees into collectivizing the factory, because owner Ivy Starnes is a sadist who gets off on seeing people suffer.

    The premise of the bourgeoisie tricking their employees into collectivizing their own factory out of sheer malice is almost as implausible as Galt’s Motor. And unlike the Motor, it is the foundation of the entire plot.

  • Nancy McClernan

    A just machine to make big decisions
    Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
    We’ll be clean when their work is done
    We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

    - I.G.Y by Donald Fagen

    http://steelydan.com/lyrnightfly.html#track1

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    Nikola Tesla reputedly had experimented with a device that could draw static electricity from the air and store it in a capacitor. Overall power production was minuscule. Is it possible that Rand had heard of Tesla’s theories?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Oh, I don’t know about that. I think we can probably come to some conclusions about the feasibility of a device that requires a part called a “Heisenberg compensator”.

    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Heisenberg_compensator

  • Donalbain

    It isn’t a Macguffin, because it can’t be replaced with any other object. It has to have the exact attributes that it does, or else the story would not work. A Macguffin can be replaced with pretty much anything else and the story continues.

  • skyblue

    This made me wonder why “Atlas Shrugged” seems so awful to me. I love science fiction, and I have no problem with “alternate universe” stories, or impossible technology (time-travel stories are a favorite of mine). I can’t say I’d have a problem with a story dealing with the ramifications of an actual perpetual motion device.

    I think the difference is, in the sci-fi stories I like, basic human nature is not messed with all that much. Characters might find themselves in an amazing situation, deal with new technology, etc, but they still act like us. There might be different cultures or alien civilizations encountered, but nothing as foreign as the way that people act in “Atlas Shrugged”. I don’t have much of a problem with Rand’s amazing motor, but I can’t suspend disbelief enough for her characters and interpersonal relations.

  • Donalbain

    It HAS to be a device that produces unlimited energy.
    A Macguffin is an object defined by the protagonists’ desire for it, not by its’ actual properties.

    The Maltese Falcon is a Macguffin because it the plot ONLY depends on the fact that the protagonists want it. It could be a Maltese Typewriter and the story would still make as much sense IF the protagonists wanted it. Similarly with the 49 steps, they are a classic Macguffin because the actual nature of them changes from version to version, and nothing else changes.

    But, if the nature of the Magic Galt Machine changes, the story doesn’t work, If you replace it with a typewriter, then the Galt’s Gulch society no longer works. It HAS TO BE a perpetual motion device or the story simply falls apart.

  • Donalbain

    It serves the further purpose of making Galt’s Gulch possible.

  • Donalbain

    Yay! You read my comment from before! :)

  • David Simon

    I’m not sure why you’re bringing this up, nobody (except possibly Rand) is suggesting that a radio is a useful power source.

  • Donalbain

    Yes, because no radios use batteries or any other power supply…

  • decathelite

    I think of macguffins as the horcruxes in Harry Potter – they can be anything and the story would be exactly the same. The philosopher’s stone, on the other hand, is a deus ex machina – it is the only thing that can save Harry at the end.

    For the John Galt motor to be a deus ex machina, it would need to have some element to it that rescues Hank or Dagny at some point…For example if a guy was going to shoot Hank or Dagny with a laser gun and the motor whirred into action, zapping the static electricity needed to power the gun.

  • decathelite

    Maybe it’s a magic typewriter? I’m kidding, you’re probably right.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I’m bringing it up to trivialize the amount of power you could hope to receive in this way. All modern radios require power to amplify the signal enough to make it audible.

    Back in the Old Tyme days however, there was something called a cat’s whisker radio. No battery required. Not very loud though.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I don’t remember anywhere in the book where the Motor is mentioned being used to create or maintain Galt’s Gulch. But I could have missed it – do you have a reference to that section?

  • Azkyroth

    No, is the short answer. Thermopiles are a thing, but they’re horribly inefficient.

  • Elizabeth

    It’s one of my favorites.

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    No fair. Remember this is fiction. The motor doesn’t have to be real. All I am saying is that I don’t think there is any broad principle in physics that precludes the possibility of the motor as described. If it created energy out of nothing, or was 100% efficient, okay. But extracting useful energy in general from an open system, you would need more info to eliminate the possibility. Probably there is no way to do this, I grant that. But again, this is fiction. Perhaps a materials scientist might have just as much problem with the description of Reardon metal and that is okay within the context of the story same as with the motor.

    Really, I think we can all agree that the motor is is one of the least of the problems with Atlas Shrugged.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I’m still not seeing it. I don’t remember anything in the story that indicates that the Galt’s Gulch society hinges on having the Galt Motor. But maybe it’s briefly mentioned and I missed it. If anybody has a reference to where in the novel this is discussed, please share.

  • Donalbain

    They are an isolated society, their only possible source of energy is the Magical Galt Machine.

  • Nancy McClernan

    OK, I found the reference on my own thanks to this Russian web site that posted the entire novel:

    then here it was before her, reached and done, the power of an incomparable mind given shape in a net of wires sparkling peacefully under a summer sky, drawing an incalculable power out of space into the secret interior of a small stone hovel.

    She thought of this structure, half the size of a boxcar, replacing the power plants of the country, the enormous conglomerations of steel, fuel and effort-she thought of the current flowing from this structure, lifting ounces, pounds, tons of strain from the shoulders of those who would make it or use it, adding hours, days and years of liberated time to their lives, be it an extra moment to lift one’s head from one’s task and glance at the sunlight, or an extra pack of cigarettes bought with the money saved from one’s electric bill, or an hour cut from the workday of every factory using power, or a month’s journey through the whole, open width of the world, on a ticket paid for by one day of one’s labor, on a train pulled by the power of this motor-with all the energy of that weight, that strain, that time replaced and paid for by the energy of a single mind who had known how to make connections of wire follow the connections of his thought. But she knew that there was no meaning in motors or factories or trains, that their only meaning was in man’s enjoyment of his life, which they served-and that her swelling admiration at the sight of an achievement was for the man from whom it came, for the power and the radiant vision within him which had seen the earth as a place of enjoyment and had known that the work of achieving one’s happiness was the purpose, the sanction and the meaning of life.

    http://www.rulit.net/books/atlas-shrugged-read-65241-239.html

    However, this is not their only possible source of energy. For one thing they’re surrounded by unspoiled countryside full of wood.

    I guess I missed this reference because Rand doesn’t explain how the power station got built and how soon into Mulligan’s residency it was built.

    But the fact that the motor is providing electricity for the Gulch does bring into question whether it could properly be considered a Macguffin.

  • Scott F

    Wouldn’t the very act of producing such a current result in a flow of electrons that would eventually dissipate the voltage gradient?

  • Scott F

    What strikes me is the idea that a MERE SEVEN YEARS after the factory shut down, the town’s population has lost every last civilizing impulse and, apparently, electricity and gasoline. This kind of implausibility is far harder to swallow than perpetual energy. Then again, it is Wisconsin… :)

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    This is why you get lightning when the air is turbulent, like during a storm, and not when it’s a nice calm day. It takes energy from the sun to churn the air, which separates the negative and positive ions, until the difference in potential finally exceeds the threshold allowing the electrons to flow between the source and the sink.

    This engine reminds me of the character from Misfits of Science who could somehow draw electricity into himself, both ambient static electricity from the air and mains electricity from nearby wires, with absolutely no effort. In fact, he couldn’t not do it.

  • Alex SL

    Haha, this made my day. Thank you so much!

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    This is a problem I run into whenever I re-read Asimov’s work. I love some of his ideas and his exploration of the ramifications of technology, but his human characters often come across as stiff and pointlessly angry. And they lecture. A lot. But at least he lampshaded his irritating protagonists rather than presenting them as role models.

  • Nancy McClernan

    See this is why it’s good to do this slow, careful analysis of “Atlas Shrugged” – here I had this idea that Galt’s Gulch was fairly rustic (fish is caught on the line and d’Anconia hauls copper from his nearby mine using mules) and some mix of wood, coal and petroleum was used for energy. All this time I never realized that all of Galt’s Gulch is powered by the magic motor.

    Now the thing is that technically there’s no reason why the Gulch could not be powered by actual real-world power sources – I mean the residents of the Gulch are all super-competent super-genii, so why would that be a problem for them?

    Of course there’s the issue of super-secrecy for the Gulch. Other energy sources might give them away thanks to the emissions etc.

    Which brings up another issue about the magic motor – not only does it suck energy out of the air, but it produces no emissions, waste, etc. either.

    Lucky for Galt he developed this motor while working for a company owned by sadistic collectivists who killed the business and then became eastern mystics. If he had worked for a company in the real United States and they knew he developed the motor while in their employ (presumably on company time and as part of some R&D project run by the company) they’d be suing Galt big time.

  • Nancy McClernan

    LOL – good catch. I didn’t notice that! Wow, there are just so many layers of absurdities to this book, it’s hard for any one individual to catch them all. Good thing we’re working on this project together – like a bunch of collectivists.

    But the “Atlas Shrugged” parasites are the polar opposites of the Ubermensch in this book. Just as it takes the residents of Galt’s Gulch no time at all to learn new skills off the grid (with a little help from the magic motor) so too, it takes no time at all for the parasites to devolve into proto-hominids.

  • fuguewriter

    Not correct. Consider what two of the strikers – Ellis Wyatt and Calvin Atwood – were expert at and how much oil the former was able to tap in Galt’s Gulch. There’s Rand’s careful construction at work: Galt’s Motor was not *necessary* to the existence of Galt’s Gulch (which in turn was not *necessary* to the Strike) – just very helpful.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Where in the book is the oil in Galt’s Gulch mentioned?

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I’ll admit, the description of the town had me humming “We Don’t Need Another Hero”.

  • X. Randroid

    Adam asks: “Is Atlas Shrugged a political treatise, using allegory to advance the real-world principles that its author advocated, or is it a science fiction story describing how an imaginary innovation would transform human society?”

    I’d go with the former and count the motor as part of the allegory. It’s not depicted as actually transforming any society; in fact, Rand shows little interest in thinking through what such a motor would really do if it existed.

    My take is that the whole saga of the Twentieth Century Motor Company is just there to dramatize/symbolize a battle of ideas that Rand believed had to be fought and won in order to avert the collapse of civilization into Starnesville. That’s why it’s the only significant company in the entire novel that does not bear the name of either its heroic founder or some evil collective. (As I recall, the only other exceptions are the geographically-named railroads Phoenix-Durango, Atlantic Southern, and Kansas Western … which are neither heroic nor villainous; they’re just victims.)

    Galt’s Magic Motor, with its (untapped) transformative potential, fits right in We’ll be told later that in order to create it, Galt had to develop “some new concept of energy” under which this seemingly-impossible motor becomes eminently possible. In the real world, Rand thought she had developed some new concept of morality that could transform the real world. She believed that she had done what centuries of philosophers believed to be impossible — namely, establishing an ethical system based on irrefutable, objective, logical, provable arguments. She believed that if only enough people would reject their old ideas and adopt hers, the world could be transformed into Galt’s Gulch.

    Of course, the parallel is better than Rand knew. Her “new concept of morality is about as plausible as pulling enough static electricity out of the atmosphere to propel a train down a track. Maybe even less.

  • Azkyroth

    As was discussed in prior threads, Rand came up with the Motor in consultation with an electrical engineer – she knew the issues involved.

    And yet you’ve ignored the criticism from engineers, physics, and other experts in these threads.

  • Nancy McClernan

    The “consultation with an electrical engineer” was a fan of hers who told her that she couldn’t use lighting to power her motor. You sure have low standards for what constitutes a “consultation.”

    And we’ve already been through this – Dagny claims the motor provides unlimited energy. Case closed.

    Your assertions about how careful Rand was are not supported by Rand’s actions. In fact she was very careless about explaining the technological underpinnings of Atlas Shrugged world, which is obvious to anybody who reads the book. But Rand fans don’t worry if Rand doesn’t explain something – they’ll just fill in the gaps for her.

    And speaking of finding fault with Rand, I believe you still haven’t provided any proof of your claims that you have criticisms of Rand. Let’s have a criticism of Rand.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Well that just shows you how many problems Atlas Shrugged has, if even a magic motor is the least of its problems.

    And as Adam mentioned the “anything goes because it’s fiction” doesn’t work for “Atlas Shrugged” since the book is supposed to be some kind of critique of real-world socio-economic systems. The existence of the kind of motor Rand describes would completely change all earthly socio-economic systems – a motor that sucks energy from air and has no apparent emissions or waste.

    Of course the failure of Atlas Shrugged to be a coherent critique of real-world systems is evident throughout the book. This is just one more. Some others are:

    ~ Ivy Starnes tricking workers into collectivizing her family’s factory because she enjoys treating workers mean.

    ~ Ragnar Danneskjold sailing the Atlantic seaboard robbiing government vessels without ever failing to capture his booty, much less ever getting caught.

    ~ The limitless supply of oil shale discovered by Wyatt Ellis.

    ~ The claim that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.

    ~ Including the utter lack of jealousy on the part of Rearden or d’Anconia when Dagny ditches them for Galt immediately upon meeting him. After they had a slap-fest earlier in part 2.

    ~ A train’s worth of rotten produce from California being dumped into the East River (New Yorkers will understand why this is so wrong.)

    ~ Rand’s re-telling of the Prometheus myth to make it completely bizarre, and possibly kinky.

    ~ Dagny, Galt and d’Anconia all being celibate for many years in the prime of youth

    ~ John Galt getting enough time off from his job working for Taggart Transcontinental to go around convincing all producers in the United States to go Galt.

    That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure others can come up with their own favorite implausibilities.

  • fuguewriter

    It was not a pass, it was a wall of laminated rock with a complex chain of pipes, pumps and valves climbing like a vine up its narrow ledges, but it bore, on its crest, a huge wooden sign—and the proud violence of the letters announcing their message to an impassable tangle of ferns and pine branches, was more characteristic, more familiar than the words: Wyatt Oil. / It was oil that ran in a glittering curve from the mouth of a pipe into a tank at the foot of the wall, as the only confession of the tremendous secret struggle inside the stone, as the unobtrusive purpose of all the intricate machinery—but the machinery did not resemble the installations of an oil derrick, and she knew that she was looking at the unborn secret of the Buena Esperanza Pass, she knew that this was oil drawn out of shale by some method men had considered impossible. [ snip ] “That’s the process which you were working to develop while you were on earth?” She said it involuntarily and she gasped a little at her own words. / He laughed. “While I was in hell—yes. I’m on earth now.” / “How much do you produce?” / “Two hundred barrels a day.” / A note of sadness came back into her voice: “It’s the process by which you once intended to fill five tank-trains a day.”

    - Pt 3, Chapt. 1, “Atlas Shrugged”

    * * *

    Again we see Rand’s care in construction: in the Gulch we have an oil producer (Wyatt), an electrical-generation/transmission company builder (Atwood), a copper baron (d’Anconia), and a practical motor/generator builder as well physics genius (Galt). Between the four of them – or the first three – you’d have an oil -fired power plant either in the valley or somewhere near on Mulligan’s vast contiguous holdings with transmission lines running into the valley and the refracting screen shielding it.

    The energy content of two hundred barrels a day is more than enough to provide all the power needed for all houses and industry, and doubtless the refraction screen too.

  • fuguewriter

    As previously mentioned, the consultation with an electrical engineer was with a friend – http://books.google.com/books?id=G7VEd_3b0WUC&pg=PT123&lpg=PT123&dq=evan+wright+ayn+rand&source=bl&ots=ctwjChb4tk&sig=G5P04BFUlZUsueKHs1VV6NGXJAQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=DdrZUp7sGIuksQTD44DABg&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=evan%20wright%20ayn%20rand&f=false – and is nowhere said to have been only on the matter of lightning. Cherry-picking without regard for accuracy is unimpressive.

    We’ve been through this: Dagny’s speaking at a discovery-moment of high emotion, and in terms of Aristotelian philosophy her statement’s quite accurate enough. The case was never re-opened.

    > she was very careless about explaining the technological underpinnings of Atlas Shrugged world

    Random assertion. Not one comment on this blog has shown this. All that’s shown has been obsessive negative bias.

    > your claims that you have criticisms of Rand. Let’s have a criticism of Rand.

    They’re throughout prior threads. Read them. (Besides, I don’t contribute to the negativity-fest here. Wait until my book comes out.)

  • Nancy McClernan

    Why would you need all that oil to power houses and industry if the motor can produce limitless energy out of thin air? Not to mention the advantage of the motor producing zero emissions, compared to all that carbon monoxide caused by burning oil.

    All you’d really need the oil for is cars, unless Galt decided to create electric cars.

    And how much “care” does it take to say: “let’s see – in my earthly paradise I’ll have one of each guy needed to do each job – and he’ll be the best at that particular job”?

    It’s like creating a team of superheroes that each has a special power. Not exactly the most sophisticated of novelistic approaches.

    Out of curiosity – after Ayn Rand whom do you consider the greatest novelist ever?

  • Jason Wexler

    When I was both an undergrad and grad student, I was well known in my physics departments as “the Trekkie”, and so the secretaries always made a point to clip the papers from the “journal” Physics, which were discussing the fairly frequent and to my mind “Onion-esque” attempts at proving that disassembling and reassembling matter was possible. Briefly let me say I don’t know exactly why the secretaries were reading the academic journals themselves, especially one which most of the professors and students dismissed as rubbish and a-scientific, pop-science pablum. Never-the-less after many decades of trying it was announced last year that yes in fact disassembling and reassembling matter does not violate any laws of physics and could potentially be done. Almost immediately the respectable scientific “Journal of Physics” published a paper, which they had to have been sitting on for a while, which pointed out that the problem with transporters wasn’t the disassembling and reassembling issue, it was the transmission. Macro matter is composed of so many atoms, which have so many relational and positional data associated with them, that transmission packet would be huge, at current best bandwidth technology it would take millions of years to transmit the disassembled matter to it’s destination, and increasing the bandwidth to a level that would accommodate “instantaneous” transmission, would increase the power output of the transmission to be greater than that of the local group of galaxies.

    So while Adam’s point is good, and well taken regarding the absurdity of a Heisenberg compensator, we actually do know enough about how a transporter would have to work in the real world, to adequately discredit the idea.

    Let me see if I can’t be a complete buzz kill for you regarding the impossibility of the motor that Rand imagined or anything remotely like it. It is understood in the scientific community that science is predicated on the idea that it’s laws are universal that they are unchanging everywhere in the universe or at the very least the universe we are capable of describing. While it is true that there is developing, a discussion among some cosmologists and high-energy physicists about abandoning that assumption, it would remain true that all laws are universal within a horizon or envelope that includes the Earth and moon, and likely the entire solar system. The reason that’s important is we have discovered one of those immutable laws which must always be conserved is that matter and energy are different phases of the same thing, and that neither can be created nor destroyed, but only transformed, either from matter to energy, or from one type of matter or energy to another type of matter or energy. Also the process of transforming matter to energy or transitioning between types of energy, requires an initial investment of energy. We have also discovered that there must be in any of those transitions at least some waste heat-energy whose use is lost to us. That means that any energy producing process must always include a certain amount of “lost (meaning unusable)” energy. Taken together what this means is that there is an efficiency cycle for energy use, the ratio of how much energy was used, divided by the energy applied and that it must be less than 1. Any motor which operates in the way that is being described would have either energy efficiency greater than 1 which is impossible, or would be getting usable energy without having applied energy, which involves a very ugly infinity (division by zero). The next best thing is passive energy collector/transformers which would only have heat-loss from the transition, we are getting close to that with photo-voltaic cells. Other than light there is no other known ambient energy source, which has a transition interaction which produces usable energy at only a cost of waste heat.

  • J-D

    Did Cracked get this idea from Goblinbooks — http://paulbibeau.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/i-was-shitting-you-people-message-from.html#.UtocTRxXe_s

    – or did Goblinbooks get it from Cracked?

    Or is it just one of those coincidences?

  • Nancy McClernan

    My take is that the whole saga of the Twentieth Century Motor Company is just there to dramatize/symbolize a battle of ideas that Rand believed had to be fought and won in order to avert the collapse of civilization into Starnesville.

    It may be an allegory but the symbolism of the bourgeoisie tricking the workers into collectivizing their own property for the purpose of sadism has nothing to do with how Communism/Socialism functions – either theoretically or in practice.

    Either Rand just didn’t get allegory, or she is symbolizing something very different from Communism/Socialism, in spite of her throwing the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” into the text.

  • Heartfout

    It’s a perpetual motion machine of the second kind; it breaks down due to the second law of thermodynamics rather than the first. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_motion#Classification

  • Guest

    (Except in The Gods Themselves, where much of the conflict came from the stiff and pointlessly angry protagonist’s inability to convince anyone that the free-energy machine *wasn’t* free, partly because he was so stiff and angry. But then, that’s Asimov’s best work by far, IMHO.)

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    Okay, let me give you a real world example. I have a clock, it happens to be the clock my grandmother was given when she retired and now I have inherited it. It is not electric, it has no batteries. There is no stored chemical energy that it uses. There is no winding mechanism. It has a pendulum which swings back and forth when it is running. When I got the clock two years ago, I set it, gave the pendulum a small tap to start it running and it has been running ever since. Except for maintenance when the clock’s oil breaks down and/or gets gummy, the clock will run indefinitely. It has been running since I got it, and the only times it stopped while my father had it were the two times he sent it away for maintenance. The clock is now 46 years old. I have to say, I love that clock.

    Now, what part of all the above arguments about the impossibility of the magic motor would not also apply to this clock? Of course, the magic motor is electric and the clock is mechanical, but I don’t think the generic principles given would not apply equally to both. The clock exists, does it really require that much of a willing suspension of disbelief to accept the existence of the magic motor in a novel?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Do you have a memory problem? A couple of weeks ago I quoted the only section in the link you provided that could be considered “consultation” on the motor – but here it is again:

    Do you remember any specific questions you discussed with her?

    She was looking for some new power source. It would be something new and important that was to appear in Atlas Shrugged. I had become an electrical engineer in 1952, and she asked me about lightning. I knew about lightning, but I also asked various other engineers about it, and we came to the conclusion that although it was a tremendous amount of power, it was of too short duration. There’d be no way of harnessing it, so she would have to give that up as her fictional power source.

    You either have a serious memory problem or you’re just a shameless liar, claiming that this is “cherry-picking.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    (me) she was very careless about explaining the technological underpinnings of Atlas Shrugged world

    (fuguewriter) Random assertion. Not one comment on this blog has shown this. All that’s shown has been obsessive negative bias.

    You were the one who made the initial assertion that Rand was careful. But you have yet to demonstrate her “care” – you claiming that Rand was careful doesn’t demonstrate it. It’s merely an assertion. You made a reference to the text but you don’t actually quote the text to demonstrate the “care.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    They’re throughout prior threads.

    So typical – no evidence provided for your assertions. Just one example would have sufficed and you can’t even come up with it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    “Cornucopianism” is an excellent term. I’ll have to remember that.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I have to say, this is the most accurate, succinct summation of Rand and her “philosophy” I’ve yet seen:

    In the real world, Rand thought she had developed some new concept of morality that could transform the real world. She believed that she had done what centuries of philosophers believed to be impossible — namely, establishing an ethical system based on irrefutable, objective, logical, provable arguments. She believed that if only enough people would reject their old ideas and adopt hers, the world could be transformed into Galt’s Gulch.

    Kudos.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I see you have no response other than to down-vote my comment. If I really was cherry-picking you would be able to find evidence in the quote you linked to that demonstrated I had cherry-picked. But you can’t because nowhere else in the source is there anything else about Rand’s “consultation” on the motor. My “cherry-picking” is all there is.

    Your shamelessness is truly breath-taking at times.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    It’s certainly possible to extract energy from the radioactive decay of plutonium. That’s what powers the Voyagers and the Curiosity rover. But just like all real-world power sources that aren’t perpetual motion machines, radioactive decay is a thermodynamically irreversible process. The plutonium breaks down into stable elements, and we capture a bit of the energy that’s liberated.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Who manufactured your grandmother’s clock?

  • X. Randroid

    Thank you, Nancy.

    The sad part is that, as my handle may suggest, I actually believed she had … for almost twenty years.

    The good news is that I figured it out, eventually. Most of her long-time admirers never do.

  • X. Randroid

    The list of things Rand “just didn’t get” is a mile long. She didn’t get capitalism either.

    For instance, shortly before the motor factory, Dagny and Hank check out an abandoned mine. Hank says if he could find the right man, he’d set him up to work the mine. Then immediately he changes his mind and says no, the right man wouldn’t need his help.

    Which is silly, given how rich Hank is. Why is it not possible that there’s somebody with the smarts to run the mine but not the money to buy it, repair the equipment, pay workers for the months it would take to get the mine up and running again, etc.?

  • Nancy McClernan

    That’s a good question, since it looks like Goblinbooks got there first.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Oh for fuck’s sake. Why are you still trying to defend an obviously impossible power source as somehow legitimate?

    Let’s concede for the sake or argument that there are not enough details to know whether it’s an impossible perpetual motion machine or merely an impossible non-perpetual motion machine. What difference could it possibly make? You’re like one of those people arguing over the dilithium crystals used in Star Trek.

  • Izkata

    Alongside “it’s just a theory”, this really does seem to be what some people believe…

  • Paul Bibeau

    I wrote it for Goblinbooks, which is my site. Then David Wong(!) saw it and asked me to write the script for Cracked. And the rest is… well, not history. I mean, history would involve me sitting next to Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. But the closest thing to history that I am ever going to manage.

  • fuguewriter

    Well, uykhvasdrvtjyku, it helps when you get what the opponent’s actions right. I haven’t defended Galt’s Motor as “legitimate,” because that very broad word means about nothing.

    I’ve mainly zeroed in on erroneous (“infinite energy production!” “Rand dispenses with natural law!”) criticisms, which however fancily-dressed all spin on an axis of negative bias.

    If the Motor’s so unimportant, take it up with our esteemed blogperson here who writes about it several times and the various commenters who hold forth. I know Rand’s writing and thought well and have some experience in electrical engineering – dynamo design, specifically. When I see mistakes or the constant dull throb of nothing but negativity, I question it.

    > What difference could it possibly make?

    Ask it of those who begin speaking of it. Over and over and over.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wow. Do you remember what it was that got you to start questioning your beliefs?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wow – thanks – mystery solved. And nice work – your Rand/Hubbard bit is truly a classic.

  • JJR

    Because the right man does not need start up money he would walk into the mine, pee on it to claim it as his own, and begin extracting the ore with his bare hands; obviously.

  • Paul Bibeau

    Thanks so much!

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, as Rand explicitly rejected realism in literature, favoring romanticism instead.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    The clock you are describing is not possible. All clocks require energy to run. You are either bullshitting or you are very confused as to how it works.

  • Nancy McClernan

    The issue is that Rand couldn’t just offer an allegory or a critique of socio-economic systems – she had to rig the story completely in favor of her heroes. She already gave her heroes wealth, beauty, brains, intelligence, talent, virtue, etc. etc. Giving them a fantastical motor that effortlessly creates energy and doesn’t pollute is just one more absurdity that right-wingers are happy to accept.

    Because right-wingers don’t care if the game is rigged in their favor. If Rand has to give the right-wing heroes magical gifts and hobble their opponents with stupidity and ugliness, well, that’s fine, because that’s #winning.

    And the best part is that Rand actually claimed that “Atlas Shrugged” was prophetic. In the real world.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yep. It’s just like how Nat Taggart killed him a bar when he was only 3.

  • Nancy McClernan

    LOL – “romanticism” means that Ayn Rand can posit any incoherent, nonsensical, absurd scenario she wants and we are to simply accept it. Including suggesting that a train shipment coming from California in the west, which would normally terminate on the west side of Manhattan, would inexplicably dump its rotting vegetation into the East River.

    The best part of that scenario is that Rand was living about 6 blocks away from the East River when she wrote it.

    Sorry, not everybody is satisfied to simply accept absurdities without question. Especially when Rand’s “romanticism” claims to be making some kind of argument against the social safety net.

    And Rand herself claimed “Atlas Shrugged” was prophetic – in the sense of predicting events in the real world. So Rand knew when she was writing realistically, even if she claims to be writing strictly romantically.

  • Azkyroth

    With literally zero friction in the clock, it could probably run indefinitely. I have a hard time seeing how it could keep consistent time with literally zero friction, though, since the mass of the hands would oppose motion in part of the cycle and assist it in the other part.

    Also, good luck achieving literally zero friction – not even the cardboard IKEA makes furniture boxes out of quite manages.

    If Brian’s clock does indeed run at length without electrical inputs (including from a battery) then it almost certainly contains a low-friction mechanism and a fairly powerful spring, restrained by the mechanism so that it is relaxed at an extremely slow rate, and thus requires occasional but infrequent resetting, which would presumably be done during the aforementioned maintenance. I suppose a spring that could power a well-designed, well-machined clock for a lifetime isn’t inconceivable, though I’ll have to get back to you on calculations.

    [EDIT](Although I should it’d be obvious, perhaps I should note that this, assuming it would work at all, A) works only because of the low energy requirements of the clock mechanism and B) requires an input of energy, in periodically recompressing the spring – rather a lot of energy, in fact, if the spring is designed to power it for that long without resetting).

  • Jason Wexler

    My initial idea is to go read up on clockwork to see if there is some phenomenon I am not familiar with, and then I would want to examine the clock, assuming I couldn’t find a standard explanation for how your clock works without violating thermodynamics, or what piece of data you either don’t know or left out of your description. Rather than immediately dismissing your claims, I’d want to be sure you haven’t in fact stumbled upon such a magic motor, which would require the scientific community to reevaluate their understanding of the world.

  • Nancy McClernan

    John Hodgman’s performance as Ayn Rand. You’re welcome. Although I think his accent is more German than Russian. I do enjoy “Ayn Rand”‘s joke about Fresca cans being made of Rearden metal.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4PshgFFWIc

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Oh, I agree-I’m not saying her justifications hold up, or that I’d accept most of the plot points in Atlas Shrugged. I’ve read a lot of “romantic” novels from the heyday in the 1800s, and it seems romanticism is perfect for author tracts which don’t want facts or common sense to get in the way of making ideological points.

  • arensb

    A friend of mine pointed me at this quotation:

    There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

  • Nancy McClernan

    As much as I love that quotation, I think it’s arguable that Rand so dehumanizes the bad guys in Atlas Shrugged (the “parasites”) that in fact both novels involve orcs.

  • Joe

    That sounds like the Beverly Clock. It uses temperature variations throughout the day to expand and contract a box, which lifts a weight that then drives the clock. The problem with applying this to a motor is that the amount of energy you get out of is is minuscule. It only works because the clock requires so little energy to run.
    The problem with applying this to the motor is mainly one of scale.

  • unbound55

    I had not seen that one. I can see that having happened…

    And it is reassuring to know that I’m not the only one seeing a connection. Maybe I’m not as messed up as I thought I was… :-)

  • X. Randroid

    Nancy – It’s a long story with a lot of moving parts. But one conversation that sticks out as key was when I was asked whether, given the magical ability to flip a switch and institute Rand’s idea of a proper political system, I would do it … and I found myself saying no, I wouldn’t — because people as they currently are aren’t “ready for it” yet.

    Eventually, I figured out that they never would be, because Rand’s ideas about human nature are just plain wrong. Took months and months of cognitive dissonance — and rereading Atlas Shrugged one last, horrifying time — to get there. But I did.

  • J_Enigma32

    Reading Rand’s description made me look out my window. I has a sad now, because nothing changed between me looking from my screen to out my window.

    (I don’t live in Detroit, I live in the next best thing- Flint).

    That desolate gorgeousness you describe is only if you’re a tourist, or from the outside looking in. People that live in this have another word for it: depressing. There’s nothing beautiful about a run down, half-burned down house with a lawn that consists of nothing but weeds and garbage.

    i know better than Rand does what a society without a tax-base looks like; a society that vested itself in something very similar to 20th century motors and got burned when the bottom fell out. I know a society where there very little government services, where there isn’t much in the way of any sort of infrastructure (Michigan as a whole is bad – the pot holes are legendary here – but Genesee County and Flint in particular seem to have the worst; in the South – Tennessee, Kentucky, or the part’s I’ve been in – they put up signs that say: warning bump. There’s no bump. Here we say, “Warning: Hole” – that means get the hell over in the next lane or lose your front end, because you can’t see the bottom). When I was writing the Blue Pimpernel, I was definitely channeling my home town, since I know precisely what a Libertarian/Objectivist wasteland would look like. There are no jobs; all the work is in the surrounding counties or on the other side of the state, where there’s actual infrastructure. What this means is that it’s impossible for people like me to get reliable employment, because we don’t have reliable transportation. Add to that we don’t really plow during the winter, because we don’t have the money, and driving in 4 inches of snow on a highway with other people who haven’t noticed and are still doing 40 and 50mph becomes an adventure worthy of its own novel.

    Oh, and I know there are places you simply do not go. Not during the day, not during the night, not during the spring, summer, winter, or fall.

    Libertarians will say that my city is an outlier. They’ll point to other areas that are more successful, and I’ll agree. My city is an outlier.

    Flint is one of the few cities in the country where the black population is larger than the white. So the take away from this is that Flint is what black people have to look forward to if Libertarians ever get their way.

  • J_Enigma32

    It’s not a deus ex machina; a deus ex machina is something that shows up at the very end and resolves all of the tension without having to actually solve the problems. for instance, in Alcestis, the heroine offers to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband. As Death escorts her to the afterlife, Hercules shows up, wrestles with death, and saves the heroine.

    That’s a deus ex machina.

    I’m inclined to say that’s a macguffin, but I haven’t read the story. It seems to me like that the other commentators disagree, though; whatever it is, it’s a piece of Applied Phlebotinium.

  • J_Enigma32

    Static electricity? Where’s the science fiction in that?

    She might as well have made it a zero-point motor, or be powered by a the Hawking radiation of a black hole.

    But guess what?

    Both of those are more plausible than Rand’s perpetual motion device. It’s sad that she couldn’t just write a straight up allegory without rigging the game in the favor of her protagonists – I notice she tends to do this a lot. I wonder why you don’t.

  • Nancy McClernan

    After looking up Applied Phlebotinium I’d make the case that it is in fact a case of Misapplied Phlebotinium.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MisappliedPhlebotinum

    The case of a writer not quite getting their own head around his invention. An invention which is capable of great and astounding things (and often, of literally anything) is used exclusively for much lesser tasks. If you find that after a trip to the fridge you see that the Phlebotinum in question could be used to obsolete entire industries if not render the entire plot trivial then you’re dealing with this trope.

    The fact that Rand has a limitless supply of shale oil on top of the Galt Motor indicates to me that this is a definite case. What is the point of all that oil if the Galt Motor can suck electricity out of air without any emissions?

    Furthermore, if the Galt Motor was capable of saving incredible amounts of labor – as Rand explicitly states during Dagny’s visit to Oz Galt’s Gulch, it renders all socio-economic systems completely obsolete.

    The fact that we are even considering whether this amazing impossible innovation in technology dropped into the middle of what was originally a political allegory is nothing more than a Macguffin is another clue that this is Misapplied Phlebotinum.

    If Rand had been an innovative, imaginative writer who didn’t have a constant Objectivist ax to grind, she might have turned Atlas Shrugged into a worthwhile sci-fi story by examining how the introduction of the Galt motor into the world completely changes the social structure. That would have been far more interesting than the endless reiteration of the Great Dichotomy of supermen vs. orcs.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I wonder too – although I do sometimes suspect that Rand fans don’t experience the cognitive dissonance the rest of us do when reading the book because they actually believe that those who buy into Objectivism – like themselves – are Ubermenschen just like Rand’s heroes – and those who aren’t Objectivists really are ugly stupid and incompetent.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Wow, I’d never heard of the Beverly Clock before. That’s fascinating. Thanks.

    So now the question is how big would the Beverly Clock need to be, or alternately how many Beverly Clocks would you need, to produce enough power to make a decent generator?

    (Obviously we’d need to define “decent generator” more precisely first.)

  • Jim Baerg

    My understanding is that the gradient would dissipate on its own but is maintained by processes that ultimately are powered by the sunlight hitting the earth. IINM these processes involve air circulation & static charge separation cf: lightning.

  • Nancy McClernan

    So a thought experiment was a big factor in your rejecting Objectivism. Interesting. And thank you for sharing.

    While you were still an Objectivist, did you find the portrayal of Rand’s heroes, and especially her opponents to be a reflection of the real world, or did you believe that it was a distortion, possibly due to Rand’s “romanticism”?

  • Antor

    Why are you feeding the troll? fuguewriters formulaic posts seem obvious;
    “You claim x, pathetic, rand did not mean x but y and since I know and am the master of z and once talked to p I know this”
    And then he never ever ever provides any evidence for anything.
    You have been properly trolled. Do not feed.

  • X. Randroid

    Oooh, now we get into the Magic Objectivist Bag of Tricks — for how to deal with the fact that the real world has little in common with Rand’s version of it. There are many; it’s one of the cultish aspects of organized Objectivism.

    In the case of the novels, the magic word is “essentialize,” which is what Rand claimed her “romanticism” was doing. (Like many words, Rand does not mean by “romanticism” what most people mean, so scare quotes are appropriate.) So Rand’s heroes and villains are, Objectivists would say, “essentialized” versions of the real world. Meaning that they embody real-world attributes, but more consistently and without the subterfuge and ambiguity of “normal” people. So, for instance, Hank can just know from a glance that Dagny wants him to grab her and throw her into his room, but in the real world, you do have to talk about it first.

    So, the theory among Objectivists goes that even though Rand’s hereos and villains are quite a bit unlike anyone you or I will ever actually meet, that doesn’t mean they’re unrealistic. Just that they are stripped down to their essence … but done in the “right” way (here’s where the magic comes in, that Rand knows the right way) such that it’s not a distortion but a clarification of what’s going on in the real world.

    If this does not make sense to you … well, that’s because it doesn’t really make sense. Any simplifying assumption we make about reality is a distortion, although Rand would deny that because she loathed the idea that there were things about which certainty was impossible. (But that’s a diatribe for another day.)

  • J-D

    Since Rand did put this fictional motor into the book, it seems only fair to ask why she did that. There must be some reason for putting it into the book. And if that reason is a bad reason, that’s a flaw in the book.

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    Neither. I understand very well that all clocks require energy and I understand how the clock works. Nowhere did I say that the clock doesn’t use energy, I just did not say where the energy came from, which is pretty much how Rand describes the motor, although she does a bit of hand waving and says “static electricity”.

  • http://blu28.wordpress.com/ Brian Utterback

    Very close. My clock is an “Atmos” clock and it uses changes in barometric pressure, not temperature to run it. And sure, it doesn’t scale up. But there is no reason why on some other planet it couldn’t. The point I am making is that if you don’t know how it works you can’t say it won’t work. Changes in temperature, changes in pressure. How about changes due to gravity waves or something entirely unknown? How much energy might possibly be available that we don’t know about? That’s the great thing about fiction, you can speculate without any evidence at all and just pre-suppose things.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Thanks – that was a fuller explanation than I hoped for. I wasn’t aware of the term essentalized before – I did some Googling and sure enough here is Objectivist Answers using it:

    Atlas Shrugged is romanticism (specifically, romantic realism). The characters aren’t meant to be complete portraits of various fictional (or real) people, but highly stylized and essentialized archetypes for fundamental choices and values in man’s existence. Ayn Rand wanted to project the qualities of the ideal man, not to offer a comprehensive psychological analysis of the motivations of non-ideal or anti-ideal characters. In a work like Atlas Shrugged, the non-ideal and anti-ideal characters are merely the contrasting backdrop for the heroes.

    http://objectivistanswers.com/questions/9679/why-wasnt-much-backstory-given-to-more-characters-in-atlas-shrugged

    There’s plenty of evidence that Ayn Rand herself saw reality in black-and-white terms. I guess there’s more cachet to referring to that way of viewing the world as “essentialized.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    OK, let’s get back to the root of this issue. Jason Wexler said:

    Other than light there is no other known ambient energy source, which has a transition interaction which produces usable energy at only a cost of waste heat.

    And Brian Utterback responded:

    Okay, let me give you a real world example. I have a clock..

    So that, it seems to me, is the current issue at hand, not Rand’s failure to describe the motor.

    I guess the answer hinges on what is considered “waste heat.”

  • Nancy McClernan

    But fuguewriter is a real live Objectivist – or an Objectivist sympathizer. It’s helpful to see how an Objectivist/sympathizer behaves when confronted with unpleasant facts about Rand or with irreverent observations about the literary and logical faults of “Atlas Shrugged.”

    See, unlike Ayn Rand, I do not have certainty. While I believe that after six months of fairly intensive analysis of Rand and her work I’ve discovered some strange and interesting things, I want someone to provide an Objectivist point of view against which to test my findings.

    Granted about 95% of fuguewriter’s content is bad-tempered troll droppings, but every now and then he provides something useful, at least from my perspective.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I think the main lessons here are:

    “Atlas Shrugged” fails as a political allegory because technologically advanced items which have no real-world counterparts are introduced – items which should render the world of “Atlas Shrugged” utterly different from the real world.

    “Atlas Shrugged” fails as science fiction because the new inventions are not described in enough detail to satisfy the technological predilections of science fictions fans, and the new inventions have almost no impact on the world of the story. Rather fantastic new inventions are hand-waved into existence for the purpose of helping Rand’s heroes win the struggle between Objectist and non-Objectivist theories.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I apologize for misunderstanding where you were going with this. However, if you said that the clock ran by “static electricity” and that you could run a miniature civilization off of it, I would still call bullshit.

    I still don’t get why anyone thinks it matters whether the fantastical magic motor is a literal impossibility or only a virtual impossibility. It’s obvious that Rand made up something that would never work in the real world in order to give her protagonists limitless free energy, and her lack of detail in this case is a vice, not a virtue. You could argue that the magic motor is a legitimate plot device, and that realism doesn’t matter here, but I think others have convincingly argued that isn’t true. Probably for the same reason that giving Julius Caesar Jedi powers would be a cop out.

  • Antor

    Oh, ok.
    But is fuguewriter representative for objectivists? <<If so, they are more delusional than I would have thought.

  • http://outshine-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Andrew G.

    The limiting factor is energy density – your clock can only extract a certain amount of energy from a given volume.

    We can put upper bounds on the possible energy density of free space by looking at gravitational effects.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Well maybe not, but he’s all we’ve got.

  • Science Avenger

    I always thought that was one of the best Trek inventions. It showed they at least thought about the problem. And isn’t that what good sci-fi is all about – seeing solutions to problems we can’t manage?

  • Sven2547

    Great point.
    I grew up in a former factory town. When it ran, the factory attracted commerce, infrastructure, and new residents (including my great grandfather, in the 1930s).
    By the 1980s, we had supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants, bars, banks, flower shops, doctors, dentists, hardware stores, you name it! By the time the factory closed its doors in 1989, it only employed a tiny fraction of the residents in the area: everyone else worked for another local business, or just commuted elsewhere. In fact, the area is still growing and thriving just fine without the factory, because infrastructure and a healthy service industry are highly attractive to more residents and more businesses.

  • Jeremiah Reagan

    Which makes the radioactive material a fuel. In the case of plutonium specifically, we have to put energy into creating it as it is a synthetic element.

  • Science Avenger

    For me it was the study of science, and the realization that reason doesn’t take us very far before we start making mistakes. 10 minutes of experimentation is worth 10 hours of philosophy.

    In particular, I found the study of emergent properties to be an Objectivism killer. Implicit in Objectivist thinking is the notion that what is true at one scale will be true at all others. It’s no mystery why quantum mechanics made them so nervous.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Did quantum mechanics make them nervous? I hadn’t heard that but I wouldn’t really be surprised. Do you have any citations for that? It sounds fascinating.

  • Science Avenger

    I don’t have a reference handy, but it shouldn’t be hard to find one. They rejected it on philosophical grounds (of course), it violated the law of non-contradiction and such.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Objectivist Answers seems to indicate there is disagreements on the issue among Objectivists.

    Of course to be a true Objectivist you have to agree with Ayn Rand, at least according to Ayn Rand.

  • eyelessgame

    I haven’t read AS. Do they also have cheap labor in Galt’s Gulch? Presumably, in addition to all the supergeniuses, they also have an army of skilled and unskilled laborers, otherwise you don’t have oil production or copper mines or power plants – you just have blueprints. (But of course they have an army of workers. Even geniuses can’t eat electricity. They’ll have tons of bracero farmers there, of course. And Rand thought of this, since she was such an awesome genius that she could figure out all on her own that to use electricity you not only had to generate but also transmit it.)

  • Josh

    Most likely you’re right. Wasn’t Tesla a former Russian as well? I see he was Serbian. I don’t think he had Objectivist ideas or anything, but the fact that he escaped from the Russian Communists, she likely idealized him in some way, though not enough to name him. Obviously he wasn’t god enough if he couldn’t get it to generate enough. I do know if you leave a capacitor in regular air without being grounded, it will develop a charge over time.

  • Loren Petrich

    Nikola Tesla was a Serbian born in 1856 in what was then Austria-Hungary. He relocated to the US in 1884, and he became a US citizen in 1891. This was about 30 years before the Russian Revolution. He died in 1943 in New York City, two years before the Communists took over what was then Yugoslavia.

    So Nikola Tesla was not a refugee from Communism, as Ayn Rand arguably was.

  • Jacques

    About that,”If a Marxist author wrote a novel about an imaginary communist utopia with no economic competition and no private property, and depicted that society as possessing a perpetual-motion machine that could power all its industry for free, …” she wasn’t a Marxist, as far as I know, but there was “Voyage from Yesteryear” by James P. Hogan. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_from_Yesteryear

  • arensb

    BTW, in this chapter Dagny and Hank break into someone’s factory, root around it, and leave with stuff they found there.
    I’m sure there are people out there who would call this “looting”. But of course ha ha ha no, because Hank and Dagny are capitalist protagonists.


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