“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

So sang Simon & Garfunkel in their 1968 ballad “The Boxer.” Human nature seems to drive us to look for what we most want to happen. It’s a tendency, though, that people who write about science have to avoid because it can lead to seriously mistaken conclusions. In science itself there is a robust system of peer review to evaluate ideas. It’s not perfect but it’s a serious attempt to filter out our preconceptions. As with the flap about ‘faster than light’ neutrinos at CERN, we want as many qualified eyes as possible on the problem.

Journalists come in all stripes, but of late there has been a disheartening tendency to prove Paul Simon’s axiom. Not long ago we went through a spate of news stories to the effect that NASA was investigating warp drive. True enough — the Eagleworks team at Johnson Space Center, under the direction of Harold “Sonny” White, has been looking at warp drive possibilities for some time, though it could hardly be said to be a well-funded priority of the space agency. The budget for the Eagleworks effort has been small, and Eagleworks is only a small part of Dr. White’s job description, which focuses mostly on his acknowledged expertise in ion thrusters and related technologies.


But many of the recent stories went well beyond the facts, implying that warp drive is a major project at NASA. Numerous sites featured images of what the purported ship would look like, and the implication was that NASA had already produced designs for the vessel, meaning that breakthroughs that would allow faster than light propulsion were in the works. Anyone involved with the breakthrough propulsion community can tell you that this is not the case despite the exultant nature of some of the Internet postings. Dr. White himself has always criticized media hype and has done everything he can to distance himself from it.

Science proceeds through careful experimentation and theorizing. We also need to see well-developed analysis of any experimental apparatus that is producing anomalous results, to see if we can verify what’s going on. If the apparatus has a flaw, those operating it may not realize that effects apparently being generated by their theory are actually artifacts of the equipment being used. Such a result may be developing with regard to the White/Juday Interferometer, the key tool involved in the JSC studies of warp drive physics.

It’s not making any headlines, but a new study from Jeff Lee and Gerald Cleaver (both affiliated with the Early Universe Cosmology & Strings Group, Baylor University) has appeared, bearing a title that makes the paper’s case: “The Inability of the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer to Spectrally Resolve Spacetime Distortions.” You can find it here. The tool in question is the one being used at Eagleworks to study possible space-time distortions of the sort that might lead one day to a warp drive. About it, the paper has this to say:

The White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer has been demonstrated to be incapable of resolving the minute distortions of spacetime created by both 106 V·m-1 electric fields and a 1 kg mass.

And this:

Variations in temperature were shown to produce potentially detectable changes in the refractive index of air, which could result in occasional spurious interference fringes. Although a more rigorous model, which considers a time-changing index of refraction gradient along the interferometer arm, would result in a smaller lateral beam deviation, the purpose for which the WJWFI is intended has been shown to be unachievable.

And this:

…were any signals to appear in the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer, they would most often be attributable to either electronic noise or the classical electrodynamics interaction between the ionized air between the plates and the electromagnetic radiation of the laser.

Note that last point: Noise within the experimental equipment may be what is being observed.

What to make of this? Two things. First, we are trying to learn whether a particular experimental setup can do what its builders hope. Examining the apparatus is key to science, and it’s something that both the experiments and those reviewing the work take as a solemn responsibility. If the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer doesn’t work as originally expected, this now gives the experimenters the opportunity to use this knowledge to add to their database, and possibly use it in refining future experimental efforts in this area.

Secondly, this entirely natural development of studying the apparatus and working out the implications doesn’t fare well when journalists jump to conclusions. It is entirely normal for ideas to be advanced in the give and take of conferences and scientific papers as researchers proceed with the dogged task of finding the truth. Journalism likes a good story, however, and the temptation to take tentative conclusions and make them sound permanent is irresistible. Thus we get headlines like The Washington Post’s This is the amazing design for NASA’s Star Trek-style space ship, the IXS Enterprise.

Sonny White, who is the kindest of men, is a friend, and every time I’ve talked to him about these matters he has pointed out to me how much he deplores the hype that accompanies work in these areas. Sonny would like there to be a way to get to a warp drive and so would I, and he may well want to rebut the paper above with a new analysis of his own. So the work proceeds, but it should always do so with the understanding that ideas can be blown far out of proportion in the era of a global Internet and a willingness to go for the big story rather than the considered truth. The truth here is that we are in a process of learning what works and what does not.

Enter the Quantum Vacuum Thruster

So we need to calm down. Over the past few days there has been a flare-up about so-called quantum vacuum thrusters, following a story in Wired that made several bold statements, such as the title: NASA Validates ‘Impossible’ Space Drive. It is true that Eagleworks tested a quantum vacuum thruster device, a ‘propellant-less microwave thruster’ which was developed by Guido Fetta. The work on what Fetta calls the ‘Cannae Drive’ was presented in late July at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland. Independent of this effort, British scientist Roger Shawyer has been working on a similar thruster for years, one recently tested by a team in China.

I always appreciate it when people send me interesting links, and a number of readers passed the Wired story along. I can certainly understand their interest! For the propellantless thruster seems to violate the principle of conservation of momentum, a very big thing if true, and it’s also true that a drive that could do these things could lead to entirely new designs in propulsion. There is no sense, however, in which NASA could be said to have ‘validated’ this device.

Gizmodo popped up with a headline of its own, making the bald statement: NASA: New “impossible” engine works, could change space travel forever. The article also tells us: “the fact is that the quantum vacuum plasma thruster works and scientists can’t explain why.”

But does it work? To know, we would need to study the experimental apparatus carefully to make sure there were no effects happening within it that could replicate the minute perceived signal. In other words, we may be looking at equipment noise. My sources, which I consider highly reliable, tell me that a review of the equipment used in the JSC quantum vacuum thruster tests has been completed but because it has not yet been released, I cannot make a comment on it beyond saying that it will likewise upgrade our understanding of the kind of experiment that was run, and how valid the results might be.

I would love to see the emergence of a genuine ‘impulse’ engine of the sort that the media have written about and would rejoice in its implications. But we are part way into a complicated story that has reached no conclusion. Fortunately, several media stories have also appeared that have begun to take a more probing look at these matters, such as A New Thruster Pushes Against Virtual Particles!…or is a Lab Error in io9. Mika McKinnon noted that the testing of the Cannae drive was reported in a conference paper and presentation, a setting where preliminary results are often announced on work that is ongoing. Quoting McKinnon:

As someone who has done my fair share of novel research that didn’t go exactly as expected, this conference abstract reads like the researchers were looking for extra eyeballs to figure out what about their testing rig might be flawed — not a grand announcement of a spectacular breakthrough. This has the potential to be cool, but at the moment, about the strongest thing that it’s scientifically responsible to say about these test results is that the researchers need to revise their testing setup.

We also have sound advice in an article called Don’t buy stock in impossible space drives just yet from Ars Technica, and an essay in Popular Science quoting Michael Baine, chief of engineering at Intuitive Machines:

“Whenever you get results that have extraordinary implications, you have to be cautious and somewhat skeptical that they can be repeated before you can accept them as a new theory,” Baine says. “Really, it’s got to come down to peer review and getting that done before you can get any kind of acceptance that something exotic is going on here.”

The Chinese team in Xian claims results that back the quantum vacuum thruster idea. Let’s put their analysis under the same level of scrutiny. We have no choice in this, because finding a hole in conservation of momentum would be a result so unexpected that we can expect any laboratory producing such results to undergo examination about its methodology. We can also expect papers undergoing peer review that defend the findings. All of that would jibe with scientific method aimed at ferreting out the truth. But getting ahead of ourselves when we’re only part way into the story can only lead to confusion. As I said above, other shoes are about to drop on the quantum vacuum thruster story, and when they do, we’ll look at them with equal interest.

I love “The Boxer.” And when I think about how some in the media react to advanced propulsion stories, its lyrics keep coming to mind. Here’s the complete first verse:

I am just a poor boy.
Though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

I’m a writer and journalist, not a scientist. But the researchers I talk to are taken aback by the wave of hype that has accompanied many recent advanced propulsion stories. Let’s hope a bit of caution seeps in, for scientific breakthroughs do not come easily. If we are on the edge of one, which I seriously doubt, the matter will resolve itself because more and more data will be accumulated, subjected to review, and put through rigorous testing. What we want to hear is not what’s important. The universe parcels out its answers according to what is true.