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Kemalist Science and Its Perpetual Motion Machine

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] Cautionary note: The country, events and characters in this piece are all real. I am not kidding at all. Is it possible to build a machine that will work forever without having any energy input? Many mechanics were fascinated by that idea during the Middle Ages, well into the 19th century. But at last, thanks to the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, the zeal for such a "perpetual motion machine" died out. The scientific community decided that it was impossible to build such a marvelous device — at least in the universe we live in. But wait a minute... Perhaps the scientists got it wrong. Maybe they did not employ the correct principles that would allow for the creation of a perpetual motion machine. They, particularly, did not take into account the most important guiding light that the Turkish nation has ever seen. No, I haven't gone nuts. I am only reporting about the wonder machine that a group of faithful Kemalist Turks claim to have built. They, in all seriousness, herald a perpetual motion machine that works "“according to the revolutions and principles of Atatürk.”" A Machine With an Ideology The story goes back to a year ago, when Turkish newspapers ran sizable advertisements of a device called "Erke Dönergeci."A company called Erke Research and Engineering Inc. was announcing the promotion event of its new discovery, which was defined as a "motor that continuously produces energy." This "100 percent Turkish" product would, the ads added, "serve all of mankind." A native Turkish speaker could smell some Kemalist tone in this endeavor simply by looking its name. "Erke Dönergeci" means "Power Motor," but none of these words are used in daily Turkish. They are among the many other generic words produced during the Turkish Cultural Revolution (1924 -...). When Kemalists decided to cleanse the Turkish language of all "foreign" influences, they started to make up such artificial words in order to replace Arabic, Persian or Western ones. This "language by design" still lives on, as an alternative to language by society. Instead of using the term "fax," for example, the Kemalist ideologues say "belgegeçer," which literally means "document transmitter." Trying to invent things such as the fax would probably be a better idea, but the masters of our regime have been preoccupied with renaming phenomena, not making them. Apparently, the "Erke Dönergeci" was a bold step to break with this dreary tradition. On Nov. 22, 2006, the wonder machine was introduced to the public in a fancy ceremony at Istanbul's Swisshotel. What made the event headline news was the celebrities who joined it: A little less than a dozen top generals of the Turkish military were present at Erke's launch, along with the retired Chief Prosecutor Vural Savaş, a self-defined "militant" secularist. The majority of the Turkish media greeted Erke with suspicion. The announced device, which was "still in progress," was a violation of the laws of physics. But the presence of our top generals in the promotion of this eccentric motor – to which daily Yeni Şafak referred by its witty headline, "General Motor" – was persuasive enough for some. "If our generals are behind this," proclaimed Chief Prosecutor Savaş, "this cannot be a fiasco." Yet, to date, Erke's creators have done nothing to prove that their ambitious enterprise is not a fiasco. The device was promised to be completed and marketed by the end of this year, but the wait goes on. Last week, it was announced that Erke had been “delayed,” and the Turkish media has taken on the issue once again. No one with a faintest knowledge of physics takes the “general motor” seriously, and quite many people are questioning the breathtaking logic behind this “Kemalist” machine. The Web site of Erke's producers,, make sure that you don't miss the ideological secret behind this miracle. The biggest thing on the site, after its name, is a quote from Atatürk: “The nation itself is the source of inspiration and power.” Under the equally huge signature of the Eternal Leader, “the principles of Erke” are listed, which include “independence,” “universalism” and “peace.” These are political concepts, to be sure, and it is not clear how they will make any motor work, let alone a marvelous perpetual motion machine. Just Like ‘Proletarian Science What we see in this case is a belief in an all-encompassing ideology, which enlightens not just politics but also all aspects of existence, including the scientific realm. And although the devoted Kemalists might be thinking that they are unique in this total devotion, they actually fall into a well-known modern category called “political religion.” A more globally acclaimed political religion was communism. Its devotees believed that the principles of their ideology would redefine the rules of science. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union officially accepted “proletarian science,” which was supposed to work on unique principles that the followers of “capitalist science” had failed to grasp. Accordingly, Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's favorite agronomist, tried to restructure Russian agriculture. After many disastrous trials, which all ended with loss of productivity and thus tragic famines, “Lysenkoism” was finally abolished in early ‘60s. In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov smashed Lysenko for being “responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology.” Of course “Kemalist science” is not a totalitarian and violent project as “proletarian science” was. Turkey is no Soviet Union. But the dogmatisms behind these eccentric experiments are similar. And, for their countries, they are similarly shameful.
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