From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Impossible Is Still Impossible

I saw this article in Wired referenced on a couple of science pages on FaceBook. 

NASA validates 'impossible' space drive

Let me give you the short version of how this engine is supposed to work. Microwaves are beamed into a cone-shaped cavity. They bounce around the cavity and produce a force on the cavity in a direction perpendicular to the direction they were beamed in. Imagine  turning on the microwave oven and watching it push itself off the kitchen counter.

Why is it impossible? This violates one of the basic laws of physics. 

The Conservation of Momentum

The conservation of momentum isn’t your ordinary law of physics. It is one of the most fundamental principles in science. It is intimately related to spatial symmetry. Roughly speaking, the laws of physics here are the same there. You may know this as Newton’s third law of motion or for every action, there’s an equal but opposite reaction.

To obey the conservation of momentum, propellent is pushed out by the rocket and the rocket is pushed by the propellent. This engine is said to produce thrust without any propellent. 

So I was immediately skeptical. So I dug around a little bit. I found a short description of the experiment. One thing I found interesting is that the authors did not lecture on “”physics of the quantum vacuum plasma thruster.” All right, that’s fine; if the results were groundbreaking, the explanation might come later. Something similar happened in 1986. Researchers at IBM discovered ceramic materials that lost all electrical resistance (superconductivity) at surprisingly high temperatures. There is still no complete explanation for why this happens. What is different about these two cases is that the superconductivity ceramics didn’t violate any basic principles of physics.

What made me laugh however is the authors claim that their device may be “demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.” I have no idea what they mean by a quantum vacuum virtual plasma. 

I also found their paper. This made me giggle, too. They built two devices: one was designed to work, the other was designed not to work. Both versions produced the same amounts of thrust.

Phil Plait in his Bad Astronomy blog at Slate says this episode is reminiscent of the faster than light neutrinos and the mysterious force slowing down the Pioneer spacecrafts.

It reminded me of an article that caught my attention while I was in grad school. I remember getting all excited about this revolutionary paper published in one of the premier physics journals. The authors had data that showed that a gyroscope rotating in one direction weighed less than if it were rotating in the opposite direction. Finally, an anti-gravity device!

My research advisor wasn’t nearly as excited. His comment was something along the lines of “systematic error.” But still I held out hope.

Then four months later, my anti-gravity hope were dashed. Others trying to replicate the results found there is no anti-gravity.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

KCAL 9 And The Supermoon

I was watching the KCAL 9 news at 10 p.m. They had a report on the super moon. (yawn)

But then Serene Branson said this:
And they say that with the full moon like that, that if you’re feeling a little tired, a little sluggish, that it’s because of the pull. Just like how the moon has an effect on the tides, it has an effect on us, because we’re mostly water. And that’s when the crazies come out.

Despite what Bill O’Reilly thinks, the tides have a well-known cause. The tides are due to the difference in the strength of the gravitational force on opposite sides of the earth. 

There is no measurable effect on the moon’s gravitational field on us. UCLA astronomer George Abell calculated that a mosquito on your arm would exert a greater gravitational force on you than the moon.

As to the supposed lunar lunacy, that too was debunked long ago

I thought that maybe KCAL meteorologist Amber Lee might correct her, but no. That got me to thinking about Lee’s credentials. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in journalism. No degree but a certificate in  meteorology through Mississippi State University’s Broadcast Meteorology Program. To earn this certificate, she had to pass an online exam consisting of 100 multiple choice questions.