05 January 2006

I never realized dilithium was that kind of crystal

With so many insignificant things taking our attention -- illegal domestic spying, corruption that would make Boss Tweed wretch with disgust, and the perpetually worsening Charlie Foxtrot that is Iraq -- I'd like to take a few moments to deal with issues that really matter:

Crackpots. New Agers. Quantum mysticism. Sadly, I'm not talking about What the #$*! Do We Know!? No, instead I'm referring to the latest stupid waste of money by the US Air Force and NASA. Put down those drinks, y'all, 'cause this is spit-take-worthy craziness that, ignoring the cost difference, puts Star Wars to shame.

Via /., it looks like the USAF and NASA have teamed up to combine the Air Farce's Project Stargate and antimatter bombs with NASA's perpetual motion machine into one unholy bundle of wastefulness and credulity: a hyperspace engine.

Now, before I get into just why this is so ridiculous, I should note that the idea of a warp drive is theoretically sound based on our current understanding of physics. The Alcubierre warp drive is the most prominent example, and others are mostly variants on the same concept. I should also say that nobody would be more thrilled than me if someone invented an actual working warp drive; I'd probably die of happiness with a big smile on my face and a soiled pair of underpants. The basic principle is simple: bypass the universal speed limit of the speed of light by not moving at all, but instead shrinking space in front of you and expanding it behind. These warp drives have difficulties of their own, such as requiring either more energy than is contained in the known universe or some source of exotic matter, but they aren't just pulled out of someone's ass.

Not so with this one. This warp drive depends on Heim theory, the completely unsupported claims of Burkhard Heim, a Nazi weapons scientist cum reclusive GUT physicist cum New Age icon. Heim actually didn't publish his theory in a scientific journal, but rather published in a book through a notorious New Age clearinghouse, Resch Verlag. Despite this, his theory actually was consistent with experimental results in particle physics for many years. The key word here, however, is "was." As measurements of particle properties have become more precise in recent decades, experimental results have diverged from Heim's predictions (unless you fudge the value and/or behavior of Newton's gravitational constant). Additionally, this leaves out the complete lack of any evidence for new particles his theory predicts, the chimerical "gravito-photon" and an electrically neutral electron, both of which would be well within the energy reach of modern experimental devices if they existed. On top of that, Heim theory is just plain wrong -- wildly wrong -- in light of more recent astrophysical discoveries, especially magnetars, which would have to be completely different if Heim's failed electrogravitics described our universe. Not so coincidentally, as Heim's claims got further from reality, they grew in prominence and support among crackpots of all stripes, especially New Agers and UFO enthusiasts (read the whole perpetual motion link above for a good example).

So then why the hell are we spending money on this nonsense? And why are USAF brass and NASA management actually buying the claim that they can have a working warp drive in five years? Simple: the 'gee-wiz' factor. It just sounds so cool, so why would they want to listen to the naysayers who babble about stuff like experimental evidence? This is doubly true when the people in charge can't tell the difference between science and science fiction, and won't listen to experts who can. After all, these guys sound all science-y and use lots of big words and complicated equations; if some other nerdy types say it's wrong, well, who's to say who's right? Balance and all that.

We now return to your irregularly scheduled programming.

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