An American fringe scientist sued an innocent astronomer on the suspicion of being part of a Jewish conspiracy. His crime: having a colleague who made fun of a telescope that registered “invisible terrestrial entities.” The lawsuit cost Dutch skeptics almost $300,000 to defend in a Florida court.
Ruggero Maria Santilli was born in 1935 about sixty miles north of Naples, Italy, where he attended university, becoming “Dottore” (Master) in physics on December 10, 1958. Subsequently he taught physics in two Turin high schools. Around 1966, he attended the School of Specialization in Nuclear Physics in Turin. There he supposedly obtained the “equivalent of a PhD”—though Italy had no formal PhD (“Dottore di Ricerca”) before 1980. A recent search of the archives of Turin University found no trace of a specialization thesis by Santilli.
“Dr.” Santilli then moved to the United States and held positions at several universities, lastly as research fellow at several prestigious universities, supported by unemployment benefits or Department of Energy grants under supervision of tenured professors. After 1981, he set up a one-man institute.
Initially, Santilli investigated a generalization of the so-called Lie product AB–BA to AKB–BLA. Supposedly this could describe processes where energy is lost, for example by friction. During his stay at Harvard, he applied this theory to nuclear physics and called it “hadronic physics.” He thought that Einstein’s relativity theory was not valid in dense objects such as atomic nuclei. He didn’t believe in quarks either. Other physicists remarked that the hadronic theory violated basic principles such as conservation of energy and time symmetry of almost all processes of fundamental physics.
‘You Have Zero Knowledge’
Santilli regretted that experimentalists did not want to test his wildly speculative theories. In reviews and referee reports of Santilli’s work, we find phrases such as: “basically confused on physical issues,” “borderline between being a third rate scientist and a crackpot,” “works of Santilli are trivial, wrong, or no more than presentations of frameworks that he wishes to work,” and “it is astounding that such nonsense as this can be promulgated.” Santilli got hundreds of rejections. The fact that he wrote long letters after each rejection cannot have helped him very much; as in his all-caps 1979 message to Robert K. Adair, editor of Physical Review Letters: “YOU HAVE ZERO TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE OF THE STUDIES OF LIE-ADMISSIBILITY, ZERO KNOWLEDGE OF THE STATUS OF FORMULATION OF EXPERIMENTS, AND ZERO KNOWLEDGE ON THEIR TECHNICAL AND HISTORICAL IMPLICATIONS.”
Santilli’s healthy sense of self-esteem made him think all this opposition was caused not by his own utter incompetence but by a conspiracy of fanatical criminal physicists who all happened to be Jewish and who supposedly tried to shield Einstein’s theory from Santilli’s efforts to broaden it. His 1984 book Il Grande Grido (The Big Scream) detailed his sorrows in almost 1,500 pages. In 1985, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
During the 1990s, he extended his theories and even invented a new way of multiplying numbers. One should insert an extra multiplication with a time- and place-dependent factor whenever one multiplies two numbers (not operators such as A and B), so one times one equals four or whatever the inserted factor is. Numerous pages were dedicated to explaining this trick over and over again, rewriting the whole of mathematics.
From HHO to Antimatter
Santilli’s strange theories led him to invent a new magnetic, molecular bond, which supposedly occurred in a new powerful fuel named HHO, which doesn’t need oxygen to burn. He also discovered cold fusion and how to deactivate radioactive nuclear waste, and he obtained neutrons from ionized hydrogen. He furthermore explained red sunsets as the effect of photons getting tired by passing through the atmosphere. The same effect supposedly caused the redshifts of remote galaxies.1 Santilli argued that the expansion of the universe was just a medieval geocentric idea, but he goofed up simple junior high school geometry. General relativity specialist Christian Corda had some sympathy with Santilli’s theories and tried to explain to him why he was wrong. It earned him a sickening “denunciation” of the “outcast never-employed jewish physicist christian corda” and his role in “organized jewish scientific crime.” Santilli claimed also he wasn’t an anti-Semite at all—the familiar argument of the calling-me-an-anti-Semite-is-a dirty-Jewish-trick type.
Santilli’s “isodual theory of antimatter” amounted to putting an extra factor -1 into every multiplication, i.e., just interchange all pluses and minuses. Hence light from antimatter would be focused by negative, hollow lenses. Santilli seemed to be thoroughly confused about negative and positive, giving 0.74 as an example of a “negative” index of refraction.
Santilli had a simple commercial telescope fitted with a concave instead of a convex lens and took amateurish photographs with it. He thought it could detect “antimatter light.” (But there is only one kind of electromagnetic radiation; in modern physics, matter and antimatter produce the same kind of light.) He found “antimatter galaxies” (in 2014) and even claimed to have observed (around the beginning in 2016) vague blotches that he interpreted as invisible terrestrial entities spying on America. He produced a video viewed 750,000 times showing that claims about seeing aliens or UFOs still attract attention.
Enter the Dutch
Pepijn van Erp, a member of the board of the Dutch skeptics group Stichting Skepsis, had already been paying attention to Santilli’s HHO gas claims and to the so-called independent scholar Jerdsey Kadeisvili, who had been defending HHO. Van Erp had convincingly argued that Kadeisvili was in fact just one of Santilli’s pseudonyms. This Kadeisvili, incidentally, also wrote one of about twenty recommendations on Santilli’s website that Santilli should get a Nobel Prize, and he also defended the antimatter telescope.
In 2016, van Erp wrote on his personal blog a 500-word item, captioned with typical Dutch directness, making fun of the Santilli telescope; this blog post scored quite high in Google searches for “Ruggero Santilli.” This irritated Santilli. His plan of selling his telescopes to millions of American amateur astronomers didn’t work out. He sold only three, all abroad. Santilli’s wife, Carla, first asked Skepsis chairman and astronomer Frank Israel—who at that time was not aware of either Santilli or van Erp’s blog post—to make van Erp change his blunt title (which cast aspersions on Santilli’s mental acuity). When that didn’t work, Santilli sued both Israel and van Erp for defamation. Santilli later claimed that he had incurred three million dollars in damages, both personal and as shareholder in his HHO and telescope companies. Curiously, the blog title wasn’t objected to, but the concluding remarks were: “Is Santilli just a mad professor? Or is he a cunning scam artist trying to sell his ‘Santilli-ofocus-scopes’ (or even better: stock in his businesses) to people who fall easily for sciency sounding nonsense? Maybe both … .” Such rhetorical hyperbole, supported by arguments, is of course protected speech under the First Amendment.
Bizarre U.S. Justice
Santilli later asserted that Israel was acting on behalf of an anti-Santilli conspiracy led by Nobel laureate physicist and CSI Fellow Steven Weinberg and that he wanted to use the lawsuit to find out how the conspiracy operated. American friends warned Skepsis that not defending oneself in a U.S. lawsuit could be very risky, so Skepsis decided to pay for Israel’s and van Erp’s defense. Israel is a regular visitor to the United States, and it was deemed unacceptable that he should have any problem just because he was our chairman. Moreover, it was (wrongly) expected that this meritless case, heard in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, by Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington, would be immediately dismissed.
In fact, after two years and at cost of almost $300,000 to defend against the suit, the case against Israel was dismissed August 17, 2018, and a month later the whole case was settled. Van Erp retitled his post to “Florida Genius Now Sees Invisible ‘Entities,’” and Santilli promised that if he would try something like this again, the loser would pay all costs. They both agreed to no more legal actions against each other for anything that happened before the settlement date. (For more information, do an internet search for “settlement+santilli.”) All of Skepsis’s savings of thirty years were wiped out. We appealed to our benefactors, and more than 700 of them generously compensated for about half of the amount spent. Thus ended our adventure with U.S. justice, which is to us, I’m sorry to say, even more bizarre than Santilli’s silly spyglass.
1. The cosmological redshift is basically a frequency shift of spectral lines, and red sunsets are due to scattering of blue light. Santilli claims that he has measured a tiny redshift of spectral lines at the time of sunset and sunrise, something no serious solar astronomer has ever noticed.