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What We Want to Hear

“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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk August 15, 2014, 11:11

    Joëlle B said on August 14, 2014 at 22:35:

    “We still have a lot of work to do. We tend to point fingers, while failing to realize it isn’t anyone’s fault at all: blame the universe! I certainly would not want you (or anyone else for that matter) to set up any more boundaries than there already may be. Thanks but no thanks for the suggestion. You can try your hand, but don’t be shocked if someone ends up wanting to cut it off.”

    The only boundary I want to set up are the parameters laid out by science and physics. Those are not my rules. Otherwise warp drive will remain in the realm of science fiction and fantasy and receive token funding sums by agencies like NASA for one person to work on in their spare time.

    And it is very amusing to have someone tell me to be more open minded. I am usually accused outside of this group of thinking way too far outside the box, but that is only because most of society cannot see past their reality programs and other mundane business.

    Yet somehow these same folks who barely ever look up at the night sky are all atwitter about warp drives and just know the problem will be solved by a future Albert Einstein and we will be whooshing about the galaxy in short order. I am not the one you need to lecture on about being open minded and learning about/respecting the real science and hard work behind this concept.

    What exactly is your background on this subject, if I may ask?

  • Ron S August 15, 2014, 11:28

    Joëlle B: “If “time travel” is possible (by which, I think we hope to imply is being able to instantaneously transmit mass to the past, present [or “future”], or exceed light speed (at the very least)), then (per its existence) it would cease to be a violation of causality–the law would be changed, the definition would be redefined.”

    No. The problem remains whether or not time travel is possible. You may want to do some reading on this well-understood issue.

  • Ron S August 15, 2014, 11:31

    Sorry, I worded that poorly. It is time travel that is *responsible* (the cause) for causality violation.

  • Joëlle B. August 15, 2014, 19:21

    “The only boundary I want to set up are the parameters laid out by science and physics. Those are not my rules.”

    Those rules already exist absent of ljk’s wants; and they are everyone’s rules until an adequate means of breaking them are found. People should be free to interpret and communicate the rules however they wish. If their interpretation and communication fail to solve any of the issues, they will get what they worked for–if their interpretation and communication succeed in solving any of the issues, they will get what they worked for.

    “[…]receive token funding sums by agencies like NASA for one person to work on in their spare time.”

    How can one expect the trap to keep the rat fed when it wasn’t created for that purpose? The problem you mention is a sociological one with a sociological solution.

    I have no background on any of the information. I’m just a 19 year old lady trying to escape this hell hole of a planet.

    You keep mentioning people wanting a Milky Way Messiah (ex. Albert Einstein) as a vein desire–it is not. The fact that Newton, Michell, Einstein, Bergmann, Planck, Thorne etc. can be produced by our species means we are capable of formulating solutions to problems we cannot immediately understand or experience. This means we have potentiality of prolonged survival in the universe (and beyond).

    @Ron S

    Nothing I have said contradicts any of what you have said. I just wanted to know what funds were in that energy budget. You could have just said you don’t know.

  • Ron S August 16, 2014, 12:55

    Joëlle, re-read and try again. If you won’t listen to me there is ample solid research and information easily available to you on the intertubez.

  • Joëlle B. August 17, 2014, 12:32

    This isn’t a contest to see whose is bigger, friend. I acknowledge everything you have said and am “listening” to where you may be coming from. The contention lies on subjective grounds.

    Points of contention: “And of course negligible travel time is already permitted in the usual way if you’ve got the energy budget. Not easy, but possible.”

    Simply, my comments to you have been based on views of what are negligible and usual as not necessarily being the same as yours. If you would like to direct me to any information you believe particularly helpful in where I may be misunderstanding you, I would be more than glad to digest it, to aid in listening to your POV.

  • Joëlle B. August 17, 2014, 14:29

    Information is what links a cause to its effect in physics. Since information is not expected to travel faster than light speed, we can understand where the problem may come up for us if we are to travel the expanses of the universe and retain superlative relations with one another (or others) across space and time. A way apparent at the moment (other than what James proposed) would be to find a place with different (or more favourable) rules applicable to extant information. That’s all I’m arguing. Are your points valid? Yes. Have we found that place? No. While we have the chance, should we see if there is evidence for it in any of the unsolved physical issues? I think so. What seems superfluous now might not seem as such at a later time. A modest suggestion with transformity in mind.

  • ljk August 17, 2014, 17:42

    Joëlle B. said on August 15, 2014 at 19:21:

    “The only boundary I want to set up are the parameters laid out by science and physics. Those are not my rules.”

    “Those rules already exist absent of ljk’s wants; and they are everyone’s rules until an adequate means of breaking them are found. People should be free to interpret and communicate the rules however they wish. If their interpretation and communication fail to solve any of the issues, they will get what they worked for–if their interpretation and communication succeed in solving any of the issues, they will get what they worked for.”

    People may think and act more or less as they please. Dipping into any moment of the news confirms this. I am simply asking that the more esoteric versions of interstellar travel be left out of future starship conferences, or at least reigned in, especially by the press. It is probably a vain hope, but I can still suggest it. Otherwise we should just have a bunch of Star Trek/UFO conferences where every day can have its say and the ones who can fund such things avoid them like the plague. That too is the other reality.

    Joelle then says…

    “I have no background on any of the information. I’m just a 19 year old lady trying to escape this hell hole of a planet.”

    To go where? And how?

    Joelle finally says…

    “You keep mentioning people wanting a Milky Way Messiah (ex. Albert Einstein) as a vein desire–it is not. The fact that Newton, Michell, Einstein, Bergmann, Planck, Thorne etc. can be produced by our species means we are capable of formulating solutions to problems we cannot immediately understand or experience. This means we have potentiality of prolonged survival in the universe (and beyond).”

    First, I am stealing Milky Way Messiah. :^)

    I am not questioning past efforts by individuals who made major changes to our way of thinking and life. Nor am I saying it is impossible that a future man or woman will come along again and again to keep shifting our paradigms. My concern is that often people rely on and expert things to get fixed/better in the future without putting in any real effort to make this happen, such as supporting better education and funding space exploration. It will be harder and harder for any “savior” to save us if they do not have adequate access to schooling and information.

  • Joëlle B. August 17, 2014, 18:21

    An excerpt from Quanta Magazine, by Natalie Wolchover April 16, 2014

    “The idea that entanglement might explain the arrow of time first occurred to Seth Lloyd about 30 years ago, when he was a 23-year-old philosophy graduate student at Cambridge University with a Harvard physics degree. Lloyd realized that quantum uncertainty, and the way it spreads as particles become increasingly entangled, could replace human uncertainty in the old classical proofs as the true source of the arrow of time.

    Using an obscure approach to quantum mechanics that treated units of information as its basic building blocks, Lloyd spent several years studying the evolution of particles in terms of shuffling 1s and 0s. He found that as the particles became increasingly entangled with one another, the information that originally described them (a “1” for clockwise spin and a “0” for counterclockwise, for example) would shift to describe the system of entangled particles as a whole. It was as though the particles gradually lost their individual autonomy and became pawns of the collective state. Eventually, the correlations contained all the information, and the individual particles contained none. At that point, Lloyd discovered, particles arrived at a state of equilibrium, and their states stopped changing, like coffee that has cooled to room temperature.

    “What’s really going on is things are becoming more correlated with each other,” Lloyd recalls realizing. “The arrow of time is an arrow of increasing correlations.”

    The idea, presented in his 1988 doctoral thesis, fell on deaf ears. When he submitted it to a journal, he was told that there was “no physics in this paper.” Quantum information theory “was profoundly unpopular” at the time, Lloyd said, and questions about time’s arrow “were for crackpots and Nobel laureates who have gone soft in the head.” he remembers one physicist telling him.

    “I was darn close to driving a taxicab,” Lloyd said.”


    Further reading of interest:
    Unconditional quantum teleportation between distant solid-state qubits
    popular description: ‘Scientists Report Finding Reliable Way to Teleport Data’ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/30/science/scientists-report-finding-reliable-way-to-teleport-data.html?_r=0
    Publication: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6196/532.abstract
    Preprint: http://arxiv.org/abs/1404.4369

    ‘Time from quantum entanglement: An experimental illustration
    popular description: ‘Quantum Experiment Shows How Time ‘Emerges’ from Entanglement’ https://medium.com/the-physics-arxiv-blog/quantum-experiment-shows-how-time-emerges-from-entanglement-d5d3dc850933
    preprint: http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.4691

  • Joëlle B. August 17, 2014, 18:34

    A CD topic worth revisiting touching on Lloyd and the idea of time travel: https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=13568

  • ljk August 18, 2014, 16:57

    Alternative propulsion concepts power debate

    by Jeff Foust

    Monday, August 18, 2014

    There are topics in the space field that inflame passionate debate like few others. Bring up SpaceX, for example, and expect to see a phalanx of fans of the space transportation company square off against a cadre of its critics. Discussion of NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift booster, for example, frequently ends up in arguments on whether the vehicle is an essential element of any deep space exploration plans, or a pork barrel project. Middle ground is hard to come by; it is, after all, in the crossfire.

    Another topic that, perhaps more surprisingly, also generates polarized debate is work on alternative propulsion systems. These efforts, done on the fringes of the research community, seek to exploit aspects of physics that may seem counterintuitive or simply incomprehensive to the average person to permit radical advances in space transportation. When a new development in this area is announced, as was the case a few weeks ago, some people embrace it without reservation as a breakthrough that will open up the solar system, if not the galaxy, while others reject it as being clearly infeasible, if not in violation of the laws of physics. Reality, though, can be a little more complex.

    EmDrives and q-thrusters

    The latest example of this arose out of a conference presentation that few, apparently, even saw. Near the end of the AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland on July 30, a team from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) presented a paper titled “Anomalous Thrust Production from an RF Test Device Measured on a Low-Thrust Torsion Pendulum.” The paper was the last in a session on “Advanced Concepts” that was the last listed on the agenda of the three-day conference.

    Although the paper itself is not widely available, the abstract was posted on the NASA Technical Report Server. In it, the JSC researchers discuss tests performed last August of a “quantum vacuum plasma thruster,” designed to generate thrust when excited by microwaves. “Approximately 30-50 micro-Newtons of thrust were recorded from an electric propulsion test article” during those tests, the abstract stated. “Test results indicate that the RF [radio frequency] resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

    The conference presentation itself may have gone unnoticed, but the abstract became the fodder for dozens of articles, starting the day after the conference with a piece in the UK edition of Wired: “Nasa validates ‘impossible’ space drive.” Its coverage—based primarily on the abstract—was that the test demonstrated that a concept developed by British researcher Roger Shawyer, called the EmDrive, actually works. Microwaves could, Shawyer argued, be converted into thrust without the need for propellant.

    Full article here:


  • ljk August 20, 2014, 13:19

    AUGUST 19, 2014

    Harold White spoke at the 17th Mars Society Conference

    Harold’s White talk starts at 22 minutes of this video.

    If you look at the video, be prepared it is low quality video and low quality audio.

    At 39 minutes there is discussion of the warp field interferometer test experiments

    At 55 minutes there is discussion of the Emdrive and Cannae drive experiments. First is discussion of the torsion pendulum which is already used for ion drive tests.

    At 58 minutes the main discussion of the Cannae drive experiments.

    He thinks there might be some Q thruster physics going on in part of the device.


  • ljk September 4, 2014, 13:35

    Interstellar may be the first movie that shows realistic warp travel

    Jesus Diaz

    5/16/14 3:17 pm

    At last we got to see the full trailer for Chris Nolan’s Insterstellar. The drama seems centered around a worldwide food crisis fired by climate change and resource depletion—a quite probable future. The space travel part seems equally plausible, showing what may be the first realistic depiction of a real warp drive.

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 11, 2014, 14:36


    Miguel Alcubierre, Inventor of Warp Drive?

    Air Date: 09/09/2014

    Run Time: 28:50

    Inspired by Star Trek, distinguished physicist Miguel Alcubierre developed the general relativity-based model for warp drive 20 years ago. Hear why he doubts it will ever be a reality, and learn about his current research on gravitational waves.

    See the jets shooting out of Rosetta’s comet with Emily Lakdawalla. Bill Nye previews a Capitol Hill hearing about mining asteroids, and Bruce Betts spends a year on Pluto for What’s Up.

  • ljk September 15, 2014, 10:43

    SEPTEMBER 09, 2014

    NASA Cannae Drive and EMDrive propellantless propulsion were not the result of a thermal error.

    Paul March is one of the NASA researchers who did the work on the EMdrive, Q drive and Woodward Mach effect propulsion. Paul has some comments about how they did not make a simple thermal error in discussion at Talk Polywell.

    Full article here:


  • Zanstel September 17, 2014, 18:00

    It has nonsense use massive space migration from Earth as a way to “scape”. No matter how much damage we made to our planet, the cost of repairing, even if reach the “terraforming” level (for example, to avoid a retrofeeding of heat trap) will be a lot less than a massive migration to another planet.
    A different history is “colonization” where a small fraction of humanity make a new start and grow from this small solony.

    About emdrive, I think that it should be a mistake or they don’t understand well the physics around this. A doubt that reactionless will really possible. No “virtual plasma” really exists, although perhaps cassimir field could be used to transfer momentum .


    So, if the QED vacuum could be used to transfer momentum, it needs, to be compatible with newton law to not “dissapear”. If this momentum is stable and could interact later with other matter, we will known where the “momentum” goes really.
    Then, this will means that we could “move” QED vacuum in the same way that we move matter, and then a fission or fusion reactor could use “vacuum energy” as a propelant, with levels of density similar to a small plasma (so, “virtual plasma” will not so far from reality).
    The result would be a incredible increasing of ISP. Because no propelant would be used, only the density of the energy source should be considered, and ampliflied by the fact that the energy to gain the same force is less because the greater “equivalent mass” of the energy displaced.
    With this technology, it would be “easy” to reach ISP so high as antimatter rockets only with fission or fussion reactors as energy source.

  • Mark Zambelli September 19, 2014, 11:58

    I’ve yet to see the vid but I can’t help asking why the ‘Cannae’ drive. The only thing that comes to me is a Star Trek connection… warp drive – Scotty – “you cannae change the laws of physics”. Any takers?

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