Over the years various inventors have proffered devices that in some way allegedly defied all known science. Perpetual motion machines, for example, have been offered and rejected for patents since the early days of the 20th century (and perhaps before). Often these devices were publically demonstrated and casual examination seemed to confirm that somehow they operated as advertised. Further investigation of these complicated contrivances (usually consisting of a complex array of multiple flywheels, pulleys, pendulums, counter weights, hundreds of springs and well concealed power sources) eventually revealed them as frauds although quite a few scientists and engineers were deceived for awhile into accepting the inventor’s claims. (It has been noted that an examining scientist is no better equipped to detect outright fraud than a layman. Indeed, their eagerness to understand a new and intriguing phenomenom may make them particularly susceptible to unscupulous charlatans).
In the 1950s an enigmatic and secretive (even paranoid some said) man named Norman Dean announced a “reactionless space drive.” It was soon dubbed the “Dean Drive” by John Campbell, noted speculative science and science fiction writer, publisher and editor. If valid, it was believed that the Dean Drive would open the solar system to rapid human exploration and colonization. Although Dean applied for and received several patents related to his invention, he always claimed that certain essential elements were not included to prevent intellectual theft.
Several demonstrations of the Dean Drive were given but such demos were always under Dean’s direction and control. Campbell claimed to observe one of Dean’s devices on a scale with its weight substantially reduced as he watched when it was energized. At one point several scientists including Harry Stine also observed his demonstration of the device. Although not entirely convinced, Stine has stated that one of his most vivid memories is that of an unknown and unseen force pushing firmly against his hand when he placed it into the field allegedly created by the Dean Drive. This led to further research by Stine without Dean’s cooperation or consent and without a sample of his Drive. The investigations were hampered by Dean’s resistance as well as his claims they involved patent infringments and amid threats of law suits. Dean died without leaving a working model of his device or a detailed description of the secret aspects of its design. Funding for Stine’s investigations evaporated.
The Dean Drive became the subject of several articles in popular science magazines and was featured in countless science fiction stories but it soon faded from serious attention. Dean’s secretiveness and unwillingness to provide a working model of his invention as well as the fact that it seemed to violate universally accepted scientific laws such as the conservation of momentum and Newton’s Third Law of Motion left virtually all scientists convinced it was a fraud and not worthy of further examination. Various explantions were given for the observed motion of the device that did not violate accepted scientific principles (and which would render it useless as a space drive) but there has been no direct explanation of Stine’s claims of experiencing a strong force on his hand or of Campbell’s claim of observing reduced weight of the device when energized. (Some theorize that they were both bamboozled by a man who was no more than a con artist. Others suggested possible self deception: many of us really want it to be true despite its inherent implausibility.)
There have been numerous claims by other inventors that they have developed a reactionless space drive, much as in a previous era seemingly endless variations of perpetual motion machines were proposed. Until recently, none of these claims of a reactionless device have ever been supported by independent testing. The pendulum test is key to such examinations. Place the alleged reactionless space drive on a pendulum. Turn the device on. If it moves without occilating and maintains the movement distance until it is turned off, then just maybe you have something. Over a period of half a century no such device is known to have passed the pendulum test (perhaps until tests were performed on new versions of “reactionless” drives within the past few years by the Chinese and NASA: see discussion below).
The Dean Drive and all similar devices have been considered by most reputable scientists to be elaborate hoaxes, useless as a space drive. Indeed, if they did work as advertised it would be rather simple to create a perpetual motion machine by attaching the devices to a flywheel. (This may offer one reason most scientists. are skeptical). Despite a half century since its “invention,” without progress or duplication of the claims of its inventor, the Dean Drive to this day has a cult following which insists that if only further tests were performed and development was pursued, a revolution in space exploration would result.
The simularities of the historical experience with perpetual motion machines and the Dean drive (and similar contraptions) to the cold fusion (LENR) controversy are difficult to ignore (see my previous blog for a more detailed discusion of cold fusion). All have or had a considerable cadre of true believers who are or were dismissive of any who express doubts. All have or had inventors with few visible qualifications as the progenator of an allegedly world changing technology.
Particularly the experience with Andreas Rossi’s cold fusion device which he calls the E-Cat (energy catalyzer) seems oddly analogous in its presentation to the early history of the Dean Drive. According to Rossi (an inventor who has been convicted of tax fraud and environmental dumping in his home country), a one megawatt version of the E-Cat is in the process of installation or early operative testing now at an unnamed industrial company site presumably in the United States and household versions will become widely available as soon as they are “certified” although there seems to have been little progress since these claims were first made three years ago. Rossi maintains as a company secret the fuel which energizes his E-Cat thereby preventing true independent testing (Rossi was present and participated in the recently reported “independent” test so it cannot be taken seriously. The absence of proponents or anyone connected to them is critical during independent testing to ensure the absense of fraud or even subtle attempts to influence the test results). Whether the announced commercializtion of the E-Cat has any truth or is merely the product of a clever advertising scheme (perhaps with the intent of obtaining investors?) soon will become evident. Many suspect it is a total scam that is now falling apart. If unexpected problems arise in the commercialization resulting in substantial and unexplained delays or if silence ensues as to the progress in bringing the E-Cat to the public, we will be able to draw the unescapable conclussion. On the other hand, if the details of the industrial application are revealed, truly independent observation is allowed and E-Cats begin appearing in households everywhere, we will be compelled to admit to Rossi’s genius and cheer as he receives the Nobel Prize as we welcome a new Millennium.
Even if Rossi’s E-Cat proves to be less than advertised, this does not mean that LENR research should stop. Reputable researchers apparantly have established that the widely scorned cold fusion, ie. LENR, is a phenonmenom that deserves further examination . Hopefully, the research will continue even if the E-Cat does not prove to be viable.
Another example of new technologies which some claim will change our civilization has significant simularities to the Dean Drive. The Em drive (RF resonate cavity thruster) invented by an areospace engineer named Rodger Shayers, and the Cannae Drive (formerly known as quantum thrusters or “Q Drive”) invented by Guido Fetta seemingly refer to the same phenomena although the observed effects have been given varying explanations. The Em Drive uses microwaves (generated by an external low power source) to create a fuelless drive (i.e. no reaction mass) although whether it is reactionless is in dispute. A Chinese researcher, Juan Yang at the Northwest Ploytechnical Institute reports a higher energy thrust than even the inventor claimed. More recently, Harold White, a physicist at the NASA Advanced Propulsion Physics Laboratory also known as the Eagleworks confirmed a thrust was observed both from an Em Drive tested and the similar Cannae Drive with more tests expected. Dr. White rejects the concept that the device is reactionless in a technical sense (although no reaction mass is required) and postulates that the drive results from certain quantum effects. i.e zero point energy believed to be found even in space devoid of both mass and observable energy. All this is strangely reminincent of the Dean Drive although probably unrelated.
What to make of all of this? A space drive not requiring reaction mass would be an unprecedented development, instantly opening the solar system to both robotic and manned space craft. A journey to Mars might be accomplished in two or three days; a voyage to Jupiter in less than a week, a flight to the nearest stars in less than a lifetime. The possible energy implications for use on earth also would be staggering, rivaling the most optimistic predictions of cold fusion advocates. That there has been independent confirmation from two different sources, one of them NASA, is staggering. Dr. White in a recent statement suggested his lab was moving from the research stage to engineering. China, on the other hand, has been silent on the subject since their initial confirmation of the effect. On the surface, it looks cautiously promising.
Dr. White and his Eagleworks team are also reseaching whether a warp in spacetime can be formed, opening the possibility that “faster than light” travel to the stars may become possible before the end of the century. Based on the initial theories of Miguel Alcubierre, a Mexican Physicist, who, after watching an episode of Star Trek, decided he would investigate whether an artificial space time warp was possiible in the real universe. This possibility was based in part on the currently widely accepted inflation theory that the Big Bang resulted in ( or more correctly was) the rapid expansion of space in the first nano seconds of this universe. While no physical object can exceed the speed of light, space itself can and (at least the inflation theory postulates) has expanded at rates perhaps millions of times the speed of light during the brief period of inflation. Creating a bubble of warped spacetime around a spacecraft in theory would permit a duplication of this effect. The effect might allow a craft to travel to Alpha Centauri in weeks instead of centuries although technically not exceeding light speed, i.e. the warped spacetime bubble surrounding and containing the craft would move, not the spacecraft itself.
The catch: creating such a space warp requires incredible amounts of negative energy, something that has been observed in only miniscule amounts (see Casimir effect). Many physicists believe that negative energy is self constrained since the ability to produce or contain useful amounts might not only permit warp space drives but also the ability to open and maintain wormholes to other space, times, or universes and also permit time travel with all the paradoxes that would imply. Dr. Alcubierre himself doubts that a practical warp drive or perhaps the creation of a warp at all is possible because of the vast amounts of negative enegy that would be required to produce a useful warp. Dr. White, however, through the redesign of the hypothetical spacecraft, asserts that the amount of such negative enegy would be greatly reduced from Alcubierre’s projections, significantly increasing the possibility that a warp drive might be practical (assuming a warp can be created at all).
Using a interferometer designed by White and his team for measuring whether a minute warp has been created, it is hoped that soon the Eagleworks will be able to confirm that a warp is at least possible.
So, is all of this merely a repeat of our experience with perpetual motion machines and the Dean Drive, i.e. fraud, self deception or fantasy? In a few years will we all be embarrased by our infatuation with cold fusion, reactionless drives and warp theory? (Even if all are found to be fantasies, it seems certain that each will continue to have fanatical supporters no matter how convincing the evidence may be that discourages the rest of us). The fact that NASA has confirmed the “Impossible Drive” may give some confidence that there is more to it this time, however, evaluating Dr. White and his team and therefore the validity of their research is difficult without more information. Key question is whether Dr. White is well respected by his collegues outside Eagleworks. Some of his theories and even nomenclature have been criticized by other physicists. It may be that areas of research no one else cares to investigate are relagated to his Eagleworks team with no expectation of results on the mere remote possibility that unexpected discoveries from time to time may result from the exploration of fringe ideas.
Time will tell. If cold fusion experiments or Em Drive or warp research prove to be fruitful, the future may be almost as exciting as the one depicted in Star Trek.