Breakthroughs defy common experience
In the past year several scientific claims that apparently contradict “known” physical laws have been making headline news. Some are so contradictory to personal experience that their application would seem like “magic” if we were not already in an age of remarkable discoveries.
In 1907 Lord Haldane, Britain’s Minister of War, stated that “The aeroplane will never fly.” Of course what he didn’t know was that Orville Wright had already proven him wrong on Dec. 17, 1903 by becoming the first man to fly (the Wright Brothers didn’t hold official public demonstrations until 1908). We hold Lord Haldane’s comment up to ridicule now because we know how wrong he was. But even Wilbur Wright said, “I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years… Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions.”
Scientific history is full of such botched predictions, though when a scientist of rank and experience says, “it will never work”, they are frequently right. When new scientific claims seem to contradict “known” physical laws objectivity is difficult to maintain, even for the best trained scientists.
In 2007 three of these breakthrough discoveries and claims could either make it into demonstrable prototypes or be confirmed by other research labs. Some of the claims are already experimentally confirmed, some are unconfirmed but from credible sources, and some are scientifically unsubstantiated but just too bold to ignore. If confirmed they would be a “hat trick” of remarkable advances that seemingly contradict everyday physical laws. In colloquial terms they are: invisibility, anti-gravity and perpetual motion.
In nature, all materials appear to obey the “right-hand rule.” But oddly, a new category of materials called metamaterials exhibit an unusual “left-hand rule” and by doing so seem to turn everything on its head. If such a “left-hand rule” were the norm then the whistle of an approaching train would decrease in pitch and, as it passes by, increase — the opposite of what normally happens due to the Doppler Effect.
Fill a glass of water with the stuff and instead of seeing a pencil bend downward slightly when partially submerged in a glass of water, the pencil would seem to bend back on itself at almost a right angle. This is odd physics.
But metamaterials aren’t just for creating parlor tricks. Theorized in the 1960s, metamaterials are composed of repeating structures of tiny metal nanorods and rings. They have the ability to capture elusive “evanescent” light waves lost to traditional optical material. Capturing these waves would create for the first time a perfect image without loss of resolution.
In 2000 British physicist John Pendry theorized that sheets of such metamaterials with a negative index of refraction could refocus light waves into a nearly perfect image. But it was not until 2003 that Xiang Zhang of UC Berkeley demonstrated improved optical imaging with such a “superlens”. Eventually, superlenses could lead to DVDs capable of storing the entire contents of the Library of Congress.
Due to the odd nature of metamaterials they can also be employed to create “invisibility” shields. David Smith (a former colleague of Pendry’s) and David Schurig of Duke University have now shown in experimental settings that a 2D array of metamaterials are capable of guiding microwave photons around a hole in it and recombine as if the hole was not there. And that hole could contain an object — or a person — that would become invisible to outside observers.
You could use the shield to hide yourself, a vehicle, even a building. Hide a garage or shed when it blocks the view from your house. That is something that even Harry Potter, the young wizard with the “cloak of invisibility” could not top. No one knows for certain what someone within such a shield would see, but it is likely that no light would get to them. If so, it could make the world’s best sleeping mask!
Technology demonstrations employing a wrap-around 3D shield refracting microwaves is expected as early as 2007. As for visible wavelengths of light, the research team from Duke says that they are not yet feasible.
In March of this year the European Space Agency announced that Dr. Tajmar, ARC Seibersdorf Research GmbH, Austria and colleagues, and Dr. Clovis de Matos, ESA-HQ, Paris had succeeded in creating artificial gravity in their laboratory. This new chapter on gravity could “form the basis for a new technological domain” according to its discoverers. The discovery was guaranteed to create controversy in physics circles… and it has not disappointed.
Just as a moving electrical charge creates a magnetic field, a rotating superconductor generates a gravitomagnetic field as predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (GR). However, GR predicts that the gravitomagnetic effect is virtually negligible, less than one part in a trillion.
The effects measured by Tajmar were a million trillion trillion times (30 orders of magnitude) stronger than predicted by GR. “We ran more than 250 experiments, improved the facility over 3 years and discussed the validity of the results for 8 months before making this announcement. Now we are confident about the measurement,” says Tajmar, who summarizes and refines their results in a recent article.
Tajmar and de Matos believe that further experimentation could “produce even larger gravitational fields in laboratories”. If validated, it would provide the first such peer-reviewed confirmation of a relationship between electromagnetic and gravitational forces 17 orders of magnitude greater than that produced by normal matter. Their findings would certainly seem on the edge of “crank” science were it not for the fact that it was funded jointly by ESA and the U.S Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Demonstrating a gravity-modifying generator today would be the equivalent of unveiling
an electric dynamo in the era of steam power. It changes the rules. What will the everyday
applications of this technology be? A cover story in New Scientist magazine (Nov. 11-17, 2006) suggested as outcomes for this technology, “Levitating cars, zero-g playgrounds, tractor beams to pull objects towards you, glassless windows that use repulsive fields to prevent things passing through. Let your imagination run riot…”
At least two other (unidentified) physics labs are currently attempting to replicate the work of Tajmar and de Matos. Results are expected some time in 2007.
This past summer a small Dublin-based firm challenged the scientific community. In an advertisement in The Economist the technology management firm Steorn challenged scientists and engineers to test the firm’s free-energy technology and then publish their findings. The challenge appears real, but is the technology?
Steorn claims to have built a self-powered constantly spinning permanent magnet motor. They claim no new exotic materials nor previously undiscovered subatomic particle in play, just a smart design by talented engineers. Mostly, the scientific community has been saying, “impossible!”.
The phases of Steorn’s proposed testing are:
Phase I –
Confirm that the Steorn technology has a coefficient of performance greater than 100%.
Phase II –
Confirm that the operation of the Steorn technology does not affect the component parts of the technology.
Phase III –
Carry out a full thermodynamic analysis of the technology.
Steorn has now selected their review panel and reports that they will soon finalize arrangements with the registered scientists/engineers and announce a timeline for implementation of Phase I. They will complete the signing of contracts with the chosen scientists by Friday December 1st and they anticipate that testing will begin early in the New Year.
Will their rotating permanent magnet motor spin on its own without the benefit of an external power source? Coupled to a generator the device would create free-energy (also known as over-unity). Others say this would amount to a perpetual motion machine, which is impossible according to the conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics). But if not perpetual motion, what source of energy is being tapped?
Sean McCarthy, the CEO of Steorn, has said that their technology is scalable — from a size small enough to power cell phones to a size suitable to power an all-electric automobile; but Steorn won’t be manufacturing cars. They intend to license their technology to organizations within the energy sector. They will also allow use of the technology royalty-free for certain purposes including water and rural electrification projects in third world countries. On their Web site forum they have mentioned that a prototype of the device is already in use as a powerless water pump in Africa.
Results of the trials and a final report from researchers are due on April 1, 2007 which unfortunately for Steorn’s credibility falls on April Fool’s Day — a day reserved in some Western countries for practical jokes and pranks.
©2006 Gregory Daigle
Gregory Daigle is a consultant in social technologies and e-learning and has been a professor of industrial design. His articles and blog are at The Unlit Pipe.
Originally published November 30, 2006