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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.

  • Harry R Ray August 5, 2014, 9:36

    I totally agree. This is NOT a quantum vacuum thruster. However, it MAY be something EQUALLY AMAZING, aCPRS(more on this later). I base my conclusion on the fact that this device has yet to be tested IN a vacuum! This means that thert may BE propellent in this system, which, over a period of ime, WILL run out! Here’s my reasoning: This device runs on electrical power. Therefore, some kind of magnetic field must be generated. Because of he containment configuration that “bounces around microwaves” it MAY (VERY SPECULATIVE HERE) Also allow this magnetic field to trap charged particles which THEN release energy (in the form of microwaves) in a slight EXCESS of the predicted value! If so, his would be a CONTAINED version of a Charged Particle Ramscoop, not the OPEN version that Bussard envisioned. The open version now seems impossible, recent theoretical wurk points out, but an enclosed version that runs until there are no longer any charged particles left in the containment field may have some use in space.

  • Anthony Mugan August 5, 2014, 10:52

    Well said

    If I’d understood it correctly (which is a big if) the ideas around what might be behind the apparent anomalous thrust from the RF device are different between Sawyer and Fetta. The former’s proposal would violate conservation of momentum whilst the latter (if I’ve got this right) is leaning towards the device interacting with virtual particles and that this wouldn’t break conservation of momentum…???
    As with all these things the next year or so should give a reasonable indication of if the basic effect is real (and ditto for the debate about the interferometer)

  • Al Jackson August 5, 2014, 11:04

    “Ye canna change the laws of physics, Cap’n!” — Scotty

    Models for ‘fringe drives’ and FTL have been around and sometimes make the news but the dam really broke this time. Usually one does not see many or any comments from the ‘establishment’ physics community but sure did this time. Sean Carroll here:
    John Baez here:
    Some of this does remind me of John W Campbell and The Dean Drive:

    “One takes comfort from the fact there is no Gresham’s laws in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.” –Martin Gardner

  • ljk August 5, 2014, 11:24

    Here are some tempering essays regarding this latest attempt to gain warp and/or hyper drive no matter how slim the possibility:






    If we had a warp drive starship ready to go tomorrow, would we really be ready to explore the galaxy? Or would we just be repeating what the Europeans did when they started crossing Earth’s oceans?

    Then again, as I say regarding METI and SETI, people will often jump the gun irregardless and the Universe at large could do the same as well, not concerned whether humanity can deal with sudden radical changes or not.

  • SEResearch1 August 5, 2014, 11:43

    Very nice writeup on the current news cycle.
    “Making Starships and Stargates”, Woodward’s book is belittled by its flashy title. It contains a trove of experimental details and the care necessary to for them that makes it imho an interesting read along the lines of this post.

  • Gregory Benford August 5, 2014, 12:05

    Agree, well said.

    And…why wasn’t the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer expt done in vacuum?

  • RobFlores August 5, 2014, 12:30

    The only theory that I would like to see tested more rigorously is
    the Mach Effect Thruster conjecture. It would be relatively easy and
    cheap to develop a cubesat (100kg) to try this out in something other
    than LOE. We want to remove all sources of spurious momentum
    variations. (we cant remove the photon forces of the sun but we can account for them) So a probe sent with enough delta-vee to put it at hohmann trajectory to just 98 Mmi would suffice. Then the device could be tested with some confidence. To remove all doubt you dont
    even need on board instruments to confirm Mach-effect thrust. If your
    test Satellite is made with highly reflective material you can confirm the
    any acceleration via telescope and some Newtonian math if you don’t want
    to contaminate the result with EM fields from Earth.
    This EM drive that Shawyer derived has been knocking about for a while,
    can’t believe it has not been thoroughly evaluated and praised/debunked by now.

  • Paul Titze August 5, 2014, 12:54

    Hi Paul,

    I’m somewhat disappointed by this week’s events regarding the microwave thruster headlines and somehow warp drives got thrown in the articles by the journos which made it worse.

    My first thoughts are it was premature to publish a paper and from their abstract it says the experiment was carried out at standard atmospheric pressure. Redo the experiment in a vacuum chamber with vacuum not air. Recheck experimental errors to account for the “thrust” and then academia can look at the results more closely.

    Both this described microwave thruster (and the warp drive concept) cannot work. The microwave photons cannot interact with the quantum vacuum virtual particles to generate thrust simply because in nature actions or changes smaller than hbar are not observed (golden rule in quantum physics) no matter what configuration one employs to generate microwave photons.

    Cheers, Paul.

  • Santa María La Pinta La Niña August 5, 2014, 13:42

    ljk said on August 5, 2014 at 11:24
    “If we had a warp drive starship ready to go tomorrow, would we really be ready to explore the galaxy? Or would we just be repeating what the Europeans did when they started crossing Earth’s oceans?”

    To quote one of those Europeans:

    “For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps.” (Christopher Columbus)

    I’d say we’d have a one-up on them in that regard, at least.

    Whether we can deal with it or not is irrelevant to what will have to happen once we’re in that situation. We can only hope our little planet has adequately equipped us with the necessary defenses. Columbus didn’t seem to care whether he was prepared or not, maybe we can learn something from him.

    Other inspirational quotes:

    “You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore” (Columbus)

    “I will assume the undertaking for my own crown of Castille , and am ready to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses of it, if the funds in the treasury should be found inadequate.” (Queen Isabella I of Castille)

    These two caused a lot of irreversible damage, but I respect their enthusiasm (and wish some of our politicians had the same attitude as Isabella). Considering the quality of life during that period, I’d say if they hadn’t been influenced by generations of indoctrinated prejudice and brazen bigotry it would have turned out a little different… but not by much, considering the Treponemata, Vibrio cholerae and Variola don’t seem to take sides or use risk assessment on their own voyages throughout the universe. Also, we (you and I) would probably have never been born if not for their efforts… have you ever considered the implications of chaos theory, specifically the Butterfly effect?

    Makes me wonder, sometimes.

    There will be lots of death in the very beginning; comes with the territory. But it will get better, eventually (if we survive). :)

  • Andrew Palfreyman August 5, 2014, 15:50

    @Gregory Benford: You beat me to the punchline; I believe the next experimental iteration of the White-Juday interferometer will go for vacuum. I do hope so, since getting any sort of robust result will turn things on their heads.

    There are a lot of things that can go wrong with performing experimental measurements on these microwave cavity devices (over and above their apparent violation of conservation laws). Patch charges induced on the surroundings are probably the worst offenders. Also the fact that the equipment is not fully self-contained means that attention turns to stresses and forces in the attached power cables. Duncan Cumming demonstrated this well with his Coke can Mach-Lorentz thruster experiment, which returned a null result for the Woodward effect. The best test of all is in space, where everything – the device plus its associated power supply and electronics – are all-of-a-piece. We should be thinking CubeSat testing for these devices.

  • Maria Tomkins August 5, 2014, 16:04
  • Mike Jude August 5, 2014, 16:15

    There is another implication here that I am wrestling with. My specialty is innovation in an organizational space (wrote my dissertation on the topic) and I have been wondering about the wildly successful early years of NASA and also many high tech companies. The question is, why were they successful and innovative, and more importantly, why do they become less so over time? The answer I am coming to believe is that the bigger the organization, the less innovative… since an organization tends to average out brilliance, seeking the mean of a Bell curve, rather than the tail end, where creativity and innovation live. Why is this important in the context of quantum vacuum drives, warp drive experiments, et al.? It is because creativity, especially when involving very expensive undertakings, ultimately runs into a the wall of transforming creativity into innovative products. To do this, NASA needs excited tax payers willing to support a high level of funding. In other words, they need the support of the middle of the Bell curve….NASA had its Werner Von Braun to excite the masses; Apple had its Steve Jobs, but people like that are rare. How does a bureaucracy do it? How to do that in a very noisy environment? Why, you come up with something sexy and already very popular with people: say, warp drive? The problem here is that, as I am beginning to suspect, this kind of exciting the masses strategy is not sustainable. Suppose NASA does have a warp drive, but needs $100 billion to develop it? Do you think they would get it? Probably not, but they still dream. That is why they let these idiotic leaks take place and that is why NASA will never go to Mars. But that is why Spacex probably will. They have Elon Musk, who is a creative person, with access to funding and who does not really need the affirmation of the crowd. His brilliance is not being diluted by a bureaucracy and when he makes a press announcement, it is to announce results, not pump up public opinion.

  • ljk August 5, 2014, 16:19

    This cartoon from 1996, when NASA announced it had found “microfossils” in Martian meteorite ALH 84001, sums up the media’s reactions to every hint of NASA working on a method of FTL propulsion perfectly:


    From here:


    Paul, your piece is a much needed article to separate the little bits of scientific wheat from the excessive chaff being produced these days. Now we just have to deal with those who will then say skeptical scientists are being too negative and don’t they know that the airplane and flying to the Moon were once thought impossible, etc., etc.

    What they confuse is that heavier-than-air flight and space flight were and are both possible based on known physics, they just needed the technology to make it happen. Warp drives, hyperdrives, and all other kinds of FTL drives have *big* obstacles to overcome in terms of physics and technology, including the fact that certain aspects of what need to make them happen *may not exist* in reality at all.

    The negative matter issue is one that comes to mind. Some scientists were recently being quoted as saying it may exist in some form after all. However, that is a long way from proving it does exist and even farther from finding it, harvesting it, and somehow getting it to work in a starship that can handle FTL speeds.

    The public still keeps hoping some Einstein type will come along and magically solve all these problems so we can whisk off to Alpha Centauri and the rest of the galaxy in short order. Well, between the way colleges are becoming absurdly expensive to attend these days and the pitiful budgets given to what little real research NASA is conducting on these FTL drives, that day is going to be a very long way off.

  • Brett Bellmore August 5, 2014, 17:07

    “And…why wasn’t the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer expt done in vacuum?”

    If I understand correctly, it wasn’t done in a vacuum, because the theory predicted an effect large enough that it wouldn’t NEED to be done in a vacuum to robustly detect the effect. Another way of putting this, is that the experiment successfully disproved the theory.

    Which IS a valid experimental outcome, even if it’s not the one we hoped for.

  • jamesmessig August 5, 2014, 19:49

    It could be the case that superluminal travel in the local reference frame really is not possible according to the geometry of 4-D space-time as we understand it.

    However, we should not fret such a possibility, because we have in principle the theoretical ability to travel ever closer to light speed in the local reference frame.

    What’s more is that our recessional velocity from the Milky Way Galaxy can become arbitrary greater than unitary multiples of light speed as a result of space-time expansion given enough travel time.

    An even more interesting prospect is the notion of converting our physiology and infrastructure to survive any big rip or other inflationary phase change or symmetry breaking events that may occur in deep future cosmic time. This scenario would enable travel of potentially canonical ensembles of previous light-cone radii from our origin of O’l Sol. Learning to harness such phase change events for displacement of our species may be an eternally ongoing process as we progress into eternity and may in principle be considered far more profound than local superluminal travel.

    So, lets not fret any null-results of Dr. White’s research.

    I provide some analysis and whimsical prosaic anecdotes for enablement of travel closer and closer to light speed in the local frame in my books on relativistic rocket flight.

    These are Call of the Cosmic Wild: Relativistic Rockets for The New Millennium.

    The Galactic Explorer: Advanced Concepts In Relativistic Rocket Flight.

    The Cosmic Wanderer: Unconventional Concepts In Relativistic Rocket Flight (Co-author Steve McCarter).

    Cosmic Horizons: Extreme Concepts In Relativistic Rocket Flight (Co-author Steve McCarter).

    Steve McCarter and I are working on yet another book on relativistic rocket flight and have additional ones planned.

  • Alex Tolley August 5, 2014, 20:21

    I tend be be less sanguine about the idea of scientists distancing themselves from the PR hype. PR hype from institutions is done to help bring in recognition and funding, which then helps the scientists doing the work. Are scientists really going to turn down funding because they think the hype was overdone and premature? I suspect it is a bit of a Faustian bargain that is generally accepted in these times of difficult science funding. As we saw with the Wolfe-Simon arsenic bacteria debacle, scientists can get sucked into whirlwind of publicity, even when red flags are flying.

    Scientists should be wary of premature claims, but they are also human.

  • Eniac August 5, 2014, 22:23

    Let’s not forget that a “propellantless drive” would still need to carry a source of energy, i.e. fuel. It will therefore not really be any better than a system that puts its fuel to dual use: as energy source AND propellant. Like a rocket.

    That aside, Al Jackson’s quote from above bears repeating:

    “Ye canna change the laws of physics, Cap’n!” — Scotty

  • ProjectStudio August 6, 2014, 1:51

    Here we have the classic dichotomy between sales and delivery. Sales pitches what people want to hear and glosses over the details and potential ‘gotchas.’ Delivery is meant to produce the product that is meant to fulfill the expectations that generates in the customer. When it comes to NASA, DARPA, and the 100 Starship organisation we need to understand what side of the equation they represent – Sales or Delivery?

    I think it is pretty clear that as far as interstellar travel is concerned, these organisations are all Sales. And to their credit they have raised public awareness of potential possibilities in a stunning way, but at the same time they have raised customer expectations unrealistically- which is always a concern for Delivery.

    Paul’s post is a good attempt to help manage and lower those expectations. That way we may still be pleasantly surprised at what may come.

    Good on you Paul, clearly placing you on the Delivery team.

  • Anthony Mugan August 6, 2014, 4:26

    I feel we may be getting a little ahead of ourselves in jumping on the sceptical backlash that always accompanies anything new…even when the new idea turns out to be right.
    Let’s just watch this space…to my mind there is enough theory and enough data behind this result to justify further study to explore the concerns raised…we shall see.

  • coacervate August 6, 2014, 5:39

    “..for the line is thinly drawn tween joy and sorrow.”

  • Ron S August 6, 2014, 9:38
  • Craig Watkins August 6, 2014, 13:59

    I’m glad that this had been addressed here, since I’ve seen some really nice discussions around these types of matters in this space. As far as the vacuum, most people have been surprised by the experiment’s conditions. I did find one comment that suggested that the abstract for the paper wasn’t correct and that the experiments were indeed performed in a vacuum. The full paper is available for purchase, http://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/6.2014-4029.

    I haven’t confirmed this by buying the paper, but here is the relevant quote:
    “Two roughing pumps provide the vacuum required to lower the environment to approximately 10 Torr in less than 30 minutes. Then, two high-speed turbo pumps are used to complete the evacuation to 5x10E-6 Torr, which requires a few additional days. During this final evacuation, a large strip heater (mounted around most of the circumference of the cylindrical chamber) is used to heat the chamber interior sufficiently to emancipate volatile substances that typically coat the chamber interior walls whenever the chamber is at ambient pressure with the chamber door open. During test run data takes at vacuum, the turbo pumps continue to run to maintain the hard vacuum environment.”

  • FrankH August 6, 2014, 16:06

    @Craig Watkins – thanks for the link. The paper is has far more details not mentioned in the various PRs and abstracts. I can read the full PDF (http://arc.aiaa.org/doi/pdf/10.2514/6.2014-4029) and the quote in your comment is correct.

    The paper also mentions vibrations from waves and elevators, but they end the paragraph with:
    ” In order to minimize impacts of all vibration sources, the table is floated on its pneumatic vibration isolation piers”

    – which I think implies that external vibrations have been dealt with.

    This section describes the test articles:

    “The Cannae test article is a pillbox/beam pipe design fashioned after an RF resonant cavity design used in high energy particle accelerators. Each Cannae test article is approximately 11 inches in diameter and 4-5 inches between the ends of the
    beam pipes, not counting beam pipe extensions or antenna mounts. Cannae modified the particle accelerator design by engraving radial slots (1.4 inches long by 0.4 inches wide by 0.4 inches deep) along the outside edge of the resonant cavity interior, but on only one side of the pillbox (equatorially asymmetric).

    Prior to testing, Cannae theorized that the asymmetric engraved slots would result in a force imbalance (thrust). As a result, a second (control) test article was fabricated without the internal slotting (a.k.a. the null test article). In addition, both test articles (slotted and unslotted) were tested in both the forward thrust and the reverse thrust ”

    So the “null test article” is actually an active device without the slots. They even attempt to explain why it produces thrust.

    They also used an RF load in place of the two test devices. This seems closer to a “null test article” than the active designs. The RF load, unlike the two test articles, shows no thrust.

    The paper shows a picture of an oscilloscope screen, and while the trace is noisy, the signal looks to be about 2x the noise.

    They also tested a tapered cavity (similar to the em drive) that also provided a small thrust (avg. of 91.2 micronewtons).

    The paper ends with an “Application of Technology to Space Exploration Missions” section and “Summary and Forward Work”.

    I was expecting a somewhat crank-ish paper, but they seem to have made reasonable attempts to find and test possible sources of errors.

  • Michel Lamontagne August 6, 2014, 19:11

    The information we got from the Icarus Interstellar facebook page discussions on the subject is that the installation wasn’t tested in vacuum because some of the instruments contain electrolytic capacitors, that cannot operate in vacuum, since the electrolyte will boil away. But the installation is designed to be tested in vacuum eventually, once they improve their instruments. I guess they judged the results where interesting even if not really conclusive.

  • william August 6, 2014, 21:51

    NASA Approves ‘Impossible’ Space Engine Design


  • ljk August 7, 2014, 11:58


    y Keith Cowing on August 6, 2014 9:07 PM. 9 Comments

    Did NASA Validate an “Impossible” Space Drive? In a Word, No., Discover

    “Worst of all is this statement from the paper: “Thrust was observed on both test articles, even though one of the test articles was designed with the expectation that it would not produce thrust.”

    In other words, the Cannae Drive worked when it was set up correctly–but it worked just as well when it was intentionally disabled set up incorrectly. Somehow the NASA researchers report this as a validation, rather than invalidation, of the device.”

    Don’t Get Too Excited About NASA’s New Miracle Engine, io9

    “Carroll’s final point – that the researchers measured thrust not only when the drive was configured to produce it, but also when set up to do nothing at all – may be the most important takeaway of all.”

    – EMdrive tested by NASA, Reddit

    – JSC’s Strange Thruster Violates The Laws of Physics, earlier post

  • ljk August 7, 2014, 12:03

    Details and diagrams from here, including what kind of space missions would be possible with this drive if it is real:


    A paper from a test conducted in 2011:


  • Joëlle B. August 7, 2014, 16:22

    jamesmessig said on August 5, 2014 at 19:49
    “It could be the case that superluminal travel in the local reference frame really is not possible according to the geometry of 4-D space-time as we understand it.”

    We still haven’t ruled out extra-dimensional unification theories to explain this problem, have we? It only takes one more dimension after the fourth to make space-time travel negligible. If one extends general relativity beyond space and time, then a 5D metric has gravitational and scalar potentials, which also includes waves that can travel superluminally. This would require undeveloped (and highly speculative) technology, but being able to communicate extradimesionally may prove more effective than having to wait six thousand years for one signal travelling at c to go across the Milky Way. If that door gets opened, everything would be manifolds easier… Oh, to dream.

  • Joëlle B. August 7, 2014, 19:59

    Here’s a paper on communications using the 5D model:

    Wesson has a lot of good material on the idea and he and his collegues have a nifty site for further reading, if anyone is interested.


  • Ron S August 7, 2014, 20:29

    Joëlle B.: “It only takes one more dimension after the fourth to make space-time travel negligible.”

    Probably superfluous since a 4D spacetime could have, or made to have, more interesting connections between distant points. Such as worm holes. We just don’t know if our 4D spacetime and related physical laws permit this.

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

  • Anthony Mugan August 8, 2014, 9:33

    @Craig Watkins and Frank H

    Thanks for the quotes from the full paper.

    This reinforces for me two preliminary conclusions:
    a) Many of the self appointed defenders of orthodoxy who have leapt to attack this team evidently haven’t read much more than press articles…many of them seem to think the Brady et al paper is proposing the same mechanism as the group behind the EM drive – a mechanism which breaks conservation of momentum…that is simply incorrect.
    b) Paul’s main point – that we should watch such developments with caution is entirely sound. This result is touching on areas at the outer edges of our current theoretical understanding. I am quite sure this result will be followed up and we will learn more, one way or the other, in due course.

    I can in some ways be more tolerant of journalistic hype – that is to some extent their job. I find myself increasingly intolerant of scientifically trained individuals jumping to simplistic conclusions based on pre-conceived and partially informed understanding. The best conclusion I can reach (with my partial understanding of the issues involved) is the jury is still out.

  • Joëlle B. August 8, 2014, 12:38

    What kind of energy budget do you speak of? I don’t think time dilation would make travel in our own dimensional experience negligible. Maybe you have things on Earth that wouldn’t be there if you decided to come back after your high powered voyage to Messier 31? Wormholes may remedy this, but if you’re moving faster than light in 4D in a spacecraft away from the Earth, the Earth is not moving with you. Or maybe I am misunderstanding something?

  • FrankH August 8, 2014, 15:01

    @Anthony Mugan
    In the defense of the critics, this is a poorly written paper. They describe the vacuum chamber in detail and show pictures of the test article inside the chamber (with the implication that they were tested in a vacuum). It’s not until the very end of the paper that they mention that the tests were not performed in a vacuum. It’s very misleading and makes me wonder what else they’ve misstated in the paper?

    The true test of this device is in a vacuum with the thrust measured in different ways with different devices. All done by outside groups that do not include any of the principal authors.

    As it stands (current paper, two previous tests), this is leaning more towards cold fusion style pathological science or if you want to be charitable, superconductor mediated anti-gravity.

  • Ron S August 8, 2014, 16:36

    Joëlle B.: “Maybe you have things on Earth that wouldn’t be there if you decided to come back after your high powered voyage to Messier 31?”

    You’re making a ‘moving the goal posts’ argument. This is a distinct issue on its own, which does not affect duration of travel.

  • ljk August 8, 2014, 16:48
  • Joëlle B. August 8, 2014, 20:17

    Ron S: “You’re making a ‘moving the goal posts’ argument. This is a distinct issue on its own, which does not affect duration of travel.”

    What was the original goal?

    Sorry if it’s a stupid question; (I don’t know) why is duration of travel not affected? Is it because the same method used to get there would be the same one used to get back, which initially did not involve time dilation at all?

    I understand that an infinite amount of energy would be needed to accelerate a human being to light speed; my question is (besides a wormhole and/or manipulating extra spatial dimensions) what permits one to go beyond that and not have to worry about time? What are the funds of the energy budget?

  • Joëlle B. August 10, 2014, 17:57

    The thought is really tripping me out, actually. If there are no means to hack space-time, eventually, if a species gained light speed travel, it would necessitate the ability to host almost every point in the universe simultaneously at any given point in time to facilitate an existential continuity (with a flexible, yet rigorous, stable communications methodology/tradition); partially due to their own exploratory motives, and mainly due to the universe’s own expansion. And if something were to go fatally wrong and interrupt this exponential process, you might see a very good reason for the Fermi Paradox, or species all having the same genetic/chemical lineage (but not knowing why); the reason being: mommy left for the stars yesterday and ended up leaving a couple billions of years behind her, with children who were too delinquent to keep the house in tact (and the way she had it) before she could come back in time to tell them what she may have discovered. It makes me very reminiscent of pondering “a way of storytelling which above all else plants seeds of potential in the gaps between what we can foresee and what we collectively doubt is possible.” (Heath Rezabek, https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=30919 )

    It would appear that not only an evolving interpretation of physical laws is necessary as our experiences in relativity change over time, but also their application, preservation, and representation over an also evolving scope of mediums (possibly even spanning into a series of multiplying symbolizations). I wouldn’t be hesitant to predict that if humanity transcends (or escapes, even sporadically) its spatial-time limitations, either in suppressed intervals or indefatigably, the differing laws (if more than one set of them exist) and theoretical bodies of information would be as prevalent, sacred and diverse as religions and cultures to each observing group of each ~reality~. This is, of course, assuming it isn’t already happening… happened.

    I believe the oldest written example of this idea is found in ancient Hindu texts, explaining the tale of the King Raivata Kakudmi, who experiences a form of time dilation when traveling to the world of the Creator ( http://vedabase.com/en/sb/9/3/32 ). A more contemporary and visual example that appears to be strongly influenced by Vedic implications is found in ‘Alien’/ ‘Prometheus’ films, touching on this with their species of “Engineers”, who seem to be (speculatively) caught up in a type of creation/destruction cycle. I am hoping the writers, with Ridley Scott’s direction, can do the franchise justice in upcoming installments to further push our imaginations and give rise to new questions for the masses who will go see these films and don’t necessarily possess an initial interest in the importance or implications of 4D interstellar travel. I may be asking too much of the film industry, but one can hope.

    Some throwback CD topics I found myself revisiting:


    “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone, I do not know.” (St. Augustine)
    “Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.” (Stephen Hawking)

  • Ron S August 11, 2014, 11:12

    Joëlle B.,

    I am not trying to be difficult but you are conflating many distinct issues into a very squishy blob. Let’s first stick to travel duration.

    Let’s say I have sufficient energy to travel to AC in 1 day. Similarly let’s say I also have a wormhole that let’s me travel to AC in 1 day (assuming the wormhole mouths are close to departure and arrival points). That is slightly more reasonable than a demand for “negligible” duration.

    To me, the traveller, the trip takes one day. To another observer it can appear to be very different. Well, what do I care? For me the trip took one day.

    Now you say you want to return to Earth. Let’s assume that also takes one day. Because the observer on Earth did not travel the total return trip on the local calendar could be pretty well anything with use of a wormhole (for all reasonable and GR-consistent definitions of a wormhole) or a very long time for conventional (but relativistically fast!) travel.

    So these can be very different. You need to choose what’s important to you: travel fast, or return on the same calendar metric (a la Star Trek fictional travel). Both may be impossible and would in any case bring in the important issue of causality violation. Travel via some speculative (and likely fictional) 5-th dimension doesn’t change any of the above.

    So we can choose fiction (very attractive), known physics (very depressing) or wait for future developments that might (we hope) help matters. But if we want to travel right now the choice is simple: stick with known physics and accessible energy sources.

  • Joëlle B August 11, 2014, 19:49

    So obviously your aim is limiting. That is poor reasoning considering the fact that time puts constraints on information: possibly the most important currency in relativistic space travel.

    You may not care about the amount of time passed, but (not caring) defeats the entire purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish. Alpha Centauri is a good start, but on a cosmological scale its peanuts when there is far more space (and information) to cover among what is/was/will be observable in the universe.

    My comment above yours suggests (to me) that the most important thing is being able to establish a constant, reliable means of information reconnaissance, since that depressing physics is most likely as good as it gets if we never liberate ourselves from it (or at least learn ways to bend the rules).

    Of course, if you’re traveling right now, then yes, practicality supersedes the mathematical/geometric imagination. However, the 5D being worked up in this case wouldn’t necessitate causality violation, since it is modeled as the source or consequence of 4D.

  • Joëlle B. August 11, 2014, 23:28

    And the ideas are in a squishy blob because quoting theoretical jargon or using symbols and numbers would not be any more elaborate. Everything said can be squished even further to one general term: Compactification.

  • Marc Millis August 12, 2014, 21:13

    Regarding the comment:
    “PR hype from institutions is done to help bring in recognition and funding, which then helps the scientists doing the work. ”

    Wrong – case in point: Around 2003-2006, there were some poorly run conference sessions on breakthrough propulsion .

    Potential funding sources, which were considering reviving some of the prior work of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, ceased discussions after that taint.

    And for those who do not already know why the funding for NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project ended after 2002, here is a quote from the 2003 federal budget: “Finally, the Congress earmarked funds for a low priority propulsion lab by cutting the very research the lab it is meant to support” (sic). That redirection of funds, to build a building, zeroed out all propulsion research work, including the small portion for Breakthrough Propulsion Physics.

    That’s how it’s played out before. I hope this most recent hype does not taint the whole topic again.

  • Ronald August 13, 2014, 0:09

    Hi Paul, I am presently in Florida, enjoying a vacation with my two sons (Erik 17, Robert 19).
    We visited Kennedy Space Center today, though very touristically exploited, also a place of vision and future.
    This reminded me that around this time, early August if I am not mistaken, it is 10 years ago that you started your website Centauri-Dreams.
    That means 10 years of vision and awesomeness, the hope and courage to dream of a Big Future.
    Paul, your website has been the pied-a-terre for me and many visionaries and interstellar dreamers for all those years now.
    All the best of success for you for many years and decades to come.
    Keep the dream and the vision alive!

  • Paul Gilster August 13, 2014, 8:53

    Ronald writes:

    This reminded me that around this time, early August if I am not mistaken, it is 10 years ago that you started your website Centauri-Dreams.

    Ten years indeed, as of August 4. You have a great memory, my friend! Thanks very much for your kind words above, the kind of thing that keeps me going. It’s been a wonderful pleasure writing for this audience, and I thank you for your many comments over the years. Enjoy Florida!

  • ljk August 13, 2014, 10:49

    Marc Millis said on August 12, 2014 at 21:13:

    “That’s how it’s played out before. I hope this most recent hype does not taint the whole topic again.”

    This is why I have warned in multiple places here and elsewhere about not getting all hyped up about warp drive. This is not what those sessions and the various starship groups should be focusing on other than perhaps a token nod to, so long as it remains very hypothetical – which it is.

    Shrinking the amount of negative energy needed for a warp drive and saying that *maybe* it exists in theory does NOT translate into the material existing in reality let alone somehow being manipulated into a starship and then it’s off to Alpha Centauri!

    The often science ignorant media does the lion’s share of hyping up warp drive – especially when someone provides them some CGI starship whether it has anything actually related to do with NASA’s white paper on the subject or not. The media just spews back out what it is fed, so perhaps if the various starship groups would start doing their level best to steer journalists away from the USS Enterprise – perhaps there should be a ban on papers and talks about warp drives and anything else that smacks of the much too hypothetical or badly researched science fiction story – would be a start. If someone wants to talk about hyperdrives and warp drives, let them form their own organization and conferences.

    Yes, that is right, I am saying ban any topic that does not have a serious science foundation and often lives in the clouds of speculation. I think it is safe to say that the interstellar organizations now get more than enough papers and publicity that they can rest easy from fear of not having enough discussions and papers if they turn anyone away even if their topic is barely legit science.

    When those hypothetical starship types bring something real (aka actual science and evidence) to the table, then they can come back in. We need to cut some ballast or these groups will look like a Star Trek convention and will never get any serious funding, leading to their demise. We can be more inclusive when we are on stronger footing.

    The other culprit are the chorus of well-meaning types who always counter a negative claim about exotic FTL drives with two replies: Oh some day someone in the future will figure this all out and the classic one about how humans used to think flying in the air was impossible, but then the Wright Brothers came along and walla!

    As for the wishing on the future, one should not place a ton of faith in undetermined time and especially on people who are not even born yet and make no guarantee that FTL drives will ever be a serious focus to them. Anyone who was around during the Apollo days and early can tell you all about the marvelous plans for exploring and colonizing the Sol system, usually by the Year 2000. Well the interest and funding dried up and 45 years later there is nary a space colony to be found, unless you count the ISS, which I do not.

    The other one, where we should never say never ’cause look what happens when you do (Wright Brothers): The key difference is that heavier than air flight was always possible and accessible, humanity just needed the knowledge and technology to catch up with the concept.

    Warp drives, on the other hand, are relying on some key elements which – please note now – may not exist in physical reality AT ALL. Worse, even if they did, no one has a serious clue how or where to find them, how to harvest them, and especially how to get it working in a starship. Big difference between flying in Earth’s atmosphere and trying to get to Alpha Centauri in a few days or weeks.

    So, in summation: Interstellar groups need to keep the focus on realistic and scientifically plausible concepts and let the Trekkers handle the esoteric stuff unless and until science says it is real. Otherwise the people with the purse strings – who tend to be a conservative and not very scientifically minded bunch – will continue to be skeptical and keep their wallets closed when it comes to starships.

    And do NOT be deluded by the fact that DARPA gave 100-Year Starship $500K or that a real astronaut is in charge or that NASA gave Dr. White $50K to study warp drives. It is all window dressing to keep the space nerds happy, folks. Demand better by sticking to scientific principles and methods.

  • Joëlle B. August 13, 2014, 19:06

    Calm down, there’s no need to go berserk. I think you know better than to say a lot of the things you just said, ljk. Let people do and say what they want. If we want to go to the stars, we just may have to privatize our endeavors. The world’s end is not yet.

    Let’s not forget that voters put those “conservative and not very scientifically minded bunch” into their positions of power. They represent the country they are governing (and most, if not all, are a product of it). NASA isn’t operating out of Cuba or North Korea; the media will not change over night for a few thirsty space geeks whining over the internet and they surely don’t give a damn about any “demands”, unless those “demands” are backed up by a serious threat to that system which produces and enables them to perpetuate their status quo. Unfortunately, the public is not yet in full realization of its place in the cosmos and the grave seriousness it implies.

    There would be no DARPA or NASA if not for Sputnik and American fear. I know you are just being theatrical, but welcome to no more Centauri Dreams or ljk comments if we ban what you suggested. Is contradicting yourself a part of some type of moksha experiment for your ego? Your behavior in that comment is no different than a skeptical politician’s.

    The ideas need to continue flowing and everyone’s view is equally important. Remember, we learn and discover truths from both successes and mistakes. :)

  • Joëlle B. August 13, 2014, 21:05

    (cont.) Nonetheless, science can initially appear intimidating and unattractive to those with little exposure. Science fiction and media hype, especially in films, television and games serve as a useful bait to lure in the public. There seems to be an exclusionary tendency in the human brain, whereby the deeper one goes to conceptualize information not immediately visible or apparent, the harder it becomes for the uninitiated (those at the surface of the said information) to penetrate and reach the depths to aid in solving any of the issues.

    I mean, architecturally what does warping spacetime mean to a 4th grader who barely knows how to divide fractions? The problem is just as important for them, but their access is disproportionately handicapped. Most access will be attained through virtual media provided by those who care enough to beneficially influence/program their minds in as many ways as possible–planting the seeds, so that when they re-encounter a concept like warp drive they saw on tv or in a game it won’t appear as intimidating–but as a spark of familiarity, however great or small.

    It is counterproductive for a rat to ask a trap to feed it. Unfortunately, and confusingly, this is the situation between space travelers and governments. Fortunately, this is easy to change–or modestly challenging to fix.

  • ljk August 14, 2014, 10:53

    “Luring in” people with science fiction elements is one thing; having it be the focus of what is supposed to be a serious scientific conference where the goal is to get funding for real interstellar projects is another.

    Warp drives are very hypothetical. Having people hope and wish that some day a “savior” will come along and solve all our problems undercuts all the hard and important work already done on interstellar travel that needs to be recognized for a number of reasons. The general public and media focus way too much on warp drives without having much of a clue about basic science. This smacks of superstition and cult behavior. No one benefits from that and this is why I am trying to set up boundaries, not curtail anyone’s freedom. I am not here to engage in a political/social debate, at least not with this. I am offering a suggestion to keep the real interstellar groups from going under.

    This is why science has set boundaries – not to defy anyone’s freedom but to keep things from going literally out into the Twilight Zone where everything falls apart and no one learns anything.

    I am guessing you have never been to a conference on UFOs. The anarchy and general cultlike nonsense by so-called “experts” is exactly what I want the real interstellar groups to avoid. I have known from long experience that discussions on starships and aliens, no matter how much the practitioners try to keep things scientific and level headed, get bogged down into the UFO cult and general ignorance. Look at the recent meeting by members of The SETI Institute with some of our politicians in Washington, D.C.. Even they could not keep things from turning into diatribes on alien abductions and other topics that wouldn’t even make bad science fiction any more.

    So to repeat, I am not trying to curtail anyone’s freedom, I just don’t want to see everything and the kitchen sink thrown into the mix when it comes to future starship conferences because it only muddies the waters and hurts all involved. You want to get to the stars, incorporate real science and hard technical work into those flights of imagination, otherwise it will be more bad science fiction and UFO cultism.

  • ljk August 14, 2014, 12:42


    JSC Does Whatever Warp Drive Stuff It Wants to Because Why Not

    By Keith Cowing on August 12, 2014 8:31 PM. 61 Comments

    NASA Watch @NASAWatch


    Just heard Harold White talk @NASAAmes about his warp drive research. None of what he does @NASA JSC has any oversight or real “peer” review
    7:22 PM – 12 Aug 2014

    Keith’s note: If Harold White’s warp drive research is so exciting why won’t NASA openly talk about it? Why aren’t REAL experts in the field raving about it? It would be entertaining (and no doubt embarrassing) to watch Harold White explain his warp drive technobabble to actual experts in the field.

    But we won’t see White and his warp drive research in a regular scientific forum any time soon. NASA JSC is afraid to let this happen – and NASA HQ is afraid to push JSC on this issue.

    When the movie “Interstellar” comes out NASA is going to have to say *something* about the warp drive research they have been funding with everyone’s tax dollars. If they don’t say something then people are going to ask why.

    White spoke at NASA Ames today. A video of this presentation is supposed to be posted on YouTube “in a month” according to ARC. The sooner that White’s warp drive presentation is posted for all to hear, the sooner NASA can either endorse White’s research – or not endorse it.

  • Ron S August 14, 2014, 13:40

    Joëlle B.: “However, the 5D being worked up in this case wouldn’t necessitate causality violation, since it is modeled as the source or consequence of 4D.”

    If you leave Earth August 14, 2014, spend one year at Alpha Centauri (or anywhere else at great remove), and return to Earth on August 14, 2015 you have violated causality. It does not matter how you accomplished the feat, be it a wormhole, a speculative 5D path or something else. Causality violation is equivalent to time travel which may or may not be possible in our universe.

  • Joëlle B August 14, 2014, 22:35

    Thanks for your comments, Ron S. This discussion has led me down a path of useful questioning and analysis.

    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. &@ ljk Just because we don’t have the answer to the problem doesn’t mean we should stop looking for it or stop the flow of information; the idea of warp drive was born out of “all the hard and important work already done on interstellar travel that needs to be recognized for a number of reasons.” Open your mind to connect the dots, sometime. Also, Dr. Wesson is not a “so-called expert”, I would recommend digging deeper into the proposed issues. Maybe even send him an email, you may get a surprise. Who knows when the light-bulb will come on and to whom? My entire point (which originated from a question directed to jamesmessig) is that the theory of relativity is not complete. I was very interested in hearing his opinion, but I guess one cannot predict the future all the time.


    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.

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