Make it so

Thursday, January 05, 2006
NASA investigates possible "hyperspace" or "subspace" drive.

EVERY year, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics awards prizes for the best papers presented at its annual conference. Last year's winner in the nuclear and future flight category went to a paper calling for experimental tests of an astonishing new type of engine. According to the paper, this hyperdrive motor would propel a craft through another dimension at enormous speeds. It could leave Earth at lunchtime and get to the moon in time for dinner. There's just one catch: the idea relies on an obscure and largely unrecognised kind of physics. Can they possibly be serious?

The AIAA is certainly not embarrassed. What's more, the US military has begun to cast its eyes over the hyperdrive concept, and a space propulsion researcher at the US Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has said he would be interested in putting the idea to the test. And despite the bafflement of most physicists at the theory that supposedly underpins it, Pavlos Mikellides, an aerospace engineer at the Arizona State University in Tempe who reviewed the winning paper, stands by the committee's choice. "Even though such features have been explored before, this particular approach is quite unique," he says.

Unique it certainly is. If the experiment gets the go-ahead and works, it could reveal new interactions between the fundamental forces of nature that would change the future of space travel. Forget spending six months or more holed up in a rocket on the way to Mars, a round trip on the hyperdrive could take as little as 5 hours. All our worries about astronauts' muscles wasting away or their DNA being irreparably damaged by cosmic radiation would disappear overnight. What's more the device would put travel to the stars within reach for the first time. But can the hyperdrive really get off the ground?

New Scientist 2006/1/5 (Sub'n required, sorry.)

See also here and here. (Und wenn du Deutsch liest, hier.)

(Update: Morgan points out a link to the actual paper. Which is in English.)


truepeers said...

So the way off this mortal coil is to build a really big magnetic coil?

If it's feasible, I guess it means we're either all alone, or near the top of universal intelligence, or there's a prime directive, or earth really sucks and we can't build this thing fast enough.

Seneca the Younger said...

Ah, Fermi's paradox.

But ... you know, this thing is a fair bit like the Carr Flying Saucer as well as the thing described by the UFO folks (eg, Frank Scully) in the 50's.

Maybe they are here,

Morgan said...

Heim Quantum Theory for Space Propulsion Physics

chuck said...

speculated that a rotating magnetic field could reduce the influence of gravity on a spacecraft enough for it to take off.

What about magnetars? Measurement "...provides a clear demonstration of the existence of magnetic fields substantially higher than the quantum critical value (4.4 billion tesla)." Seems to me those magnetic fields substantially exceed the ballpark figure of 25 tesla quoted in the article. Magnestars also spin rapidly. I would think the effects of Heim's theory would show up. Why aren't these stars hopping all over the galaxy?

chuck said...

See more on magnetars here. I like this bit:

The magnetic field of a magnetar would be lethal at a distance of up to 1000 km, tearing tissues due to the diamagnetism of water.

Just a small reminder of the titanic forces at large in the universe.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Knowing nothing about this, I'm skeptical. The basic problem we face with all these technologies is that any technology powerful enough to achieve the effects required is potentially destructive to large swaths of the planet. It might destroy the would-be pilot; or in the wrong hands, such as the Iranian goverment, it might destroy continents.

I think a fundamental problem I have with visionaries such as Robert Heinlein or Glenn Reynolds is that they assume the benignity of mankind. They assume that powerful technologies would only be used for good purposes. It just ain't so, and it may represent a fundamental limit to the ability of any intelligent life to develop substantial space flight.

We're already seeing this problem with the comparatively primitive technology of nuclear weapons.

truepeers said...

MHA, if an alien civilization had landed on earth in earlier times, and given the inhabitants nuclear weapons, even with full warning labels and lectures I'm sure the earthlings would have very quickly destroyed themselves. The temptation to play god would have been irresistable for someone, since humanity orginally models itself on its conception of the gods, not vice versa.

But so far, we have survived since 1945. Over time we are becoming less warlike, which is precisely the problem when the west has to come to terms with Johnny Apple Mad and the Motley Mullahs who are somewhat more reticent to throw their manhoods to the widns of progress. Many of us westerners are now so unlike our forebears that we can't even see the danger of Johnny's type, or know what to do about it.

But we could learn. And we just don't know yet if in a world of freely-trading democracies, war would become rare or marginal. On the other hand, the near civil war, aka the culture war, in America today may be a sign of what happens when the leading nations can no longer duke it out militarily to solve irremediable problems and maintain relative domestic social solidarity
around military necessity.

There may be some reason for hope if we can survive the current cultural disparities and get the whole world into the modern global economy. COnsider that conflict and resentment doesn't go away in the rich west. It only seems to grow - we see much despair, mental illness, and utter ideological madness of the `Rove is a purple alien' variety. But this mental illness does not translate into much domestic violence - why aren't there more homegrown terrorists? Easy targets abound. It seems people, with the exception of alienated youth gangs, are able to mediate fierce resentments in relatively non-violent ways because they have relatively comfortable lives and can become spiritually more sophisticated, appeal to courts of justice, or just eat away the tension, watch tv, porn, shop, or some such thing.

So it may be that we can slowly adapt to human control of yet greater powers. BUt it's a risky proposition for sure.

terrye said...

Sounds like a flying saucer.

Only scarier.

I think MHA is right on this. The idea that science is something always used for the sake of good is just not realistic.

What would the world be like if Hitler or Stalin had gotten the Atomic bomb before the US?

terrye said...


I think the reason we do not see more violence to go with the rhetoric in the socalled cultural war is that most people are not that passionate about these things.

And even the ones who are have a sense that this too shall pass.

They bide their time, ranting, waiting for their turn. They lack the physical courage to do more than that. They have too much to lose.

Love it or leave it? Puhleaze, where would they go?

David Thomson said...

“Many of us westerners are now so unlike our forebears that we can't even see the danger of Johnny's type, or know what to do about it.”

I have often remarked about how the low risk of being a victim of violent crime distorts the thinking of many affluent left-wingers. These people live very safe lives. They mostly associate with others like themselves. The lessons they learned in Negotiations 101 are deemed sufficient to resolve the vast majority of their day to day conflicts. Mature people are suppose to be able to reason things out. Sadly, this mindset ignores the thugs who also reside on this planet. They intend for us to always lose!

Seneca the Younger said...

Thanks for the link, Morgan; I'll elevate it to the text.

flenser said...


It seems people, with the exception of alienated youth gangs, are able to mediate fierce resentments in relatively non-violent ways because they have relatively comfortable lives and can become spiritually more sophisticated, appeal to courts of justice, or just eat away the tension, watch tv, porn, shop, or some such thing.

Whether or not that constitutes an advance for humanity is an open question. Are people actually "spiritually more sophisticated", or simply jaded and apathetic?

Over time we are becoming less warlike ..

The historical record does not bear this out. It's true that at present the most powerful countries are relatively benign, but there is no reason to assume that will continue. The 20th century was the most violent and destructive in world history.

The liberal assumption that the world can be made peaceful if only people stop thinking in the old ways and start thinking economically strikes me as wishful thinking.

Back to the topic at hand;

Dröscher is hazy about the details, but he suggests that a spacecraft fitted with a coil and ring could be propelled into a multidimensional hyperspace. Here the constants of nature could be different, and even the speed of light could be several times faster than we experience. If this happens, it would be possible to reach Mars in less than 3 hours and a star 11 light years away in only 80 days, Dröscher and Häuser say.

I can't even pretend to understand the physics involved here, but there seem to be an awful lot of "coulds" and "ifs" and maybes. As a long time sci-fi fan I'd love to see FTL happen, but I'm still skeptical.

The New Scientist is an interesting read, even though it's politics skew left. It's one of the few mags I subscribe to.

Seneca the Younger said...

Chuck, I'm waaaaay over my head here --- I took a physics class once --- but if I'm following this, it requires a high current in a coil rotating with respect to the magnetic field. While I can imagine a current in the structure of a magnetar, I think the conductor would necessarily be at rest w.r.t. the magnetar.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

I started trying to read the paper but it set off my crank detector.

Still, the fundamental idea is interesting and plausible. Einstein's great idea in General Relativity is that gravity can be viewed simply as an artifact of the geometry of space, provided we make time part of "space" in the proper way. It's a radical idea, not strictly speaking originating with Einstein, but it's been verified over and over again to immense accuracy. It's the most accurate physical theory known to mankind. We're so imbued with the thought that gravity is a "force" that it's hard to wrap our heads around this concept. But it works.

Yet there are other "forces" out there, the electromagnetic and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The fundamental question is whether these other forces could likewise be viewed as mere artifacts of a geometry, properly considered. But what would the other dimensions be in that case? The paper postulates two dimensions of "information". Looks pretty hoaky, but not to be completely ruled out.

It would seem that many people are now working on a reconciliation between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity based on developing their own personal theory which throws in extra dimensions. Does anybody have any idea who did this first? Was it Heim?

chuck said...


Well, I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the magnetic field of a magnetar is set up in the instant of its creation by convection currents. It might not meet the exact geometry of the proposed space drive, but I do think that such collosal magnetic fields would have some sort of effect if gravity and electro-magnetism were coupled as proposed.

I have some problems with earlier unified theories in any case, as they didn't deal with the weak force or the strong nuclear force. Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of the history of unified theories.

chuck said...

Does anybody have any idea who did this first? Was it Heim?

Goes back to the 1920's and Theodor Kaluza and Oskar Klein. These earlier attempts involved the unification of E&M with General Relativity. More recent versions, aka M theory nee string theory, are not nearly so arbitrary and personal as you imply, but are rather restricted by the fact that they must be self consistent and consistent with known physics. I think one of the most interesting calculations made so far is of the entropy of black holes. John Schwarz's home page at CalTech has some interesting history and explication.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


I must say, I've never been too enamored of String Theory, since I first heard about in a lecture given by I.M. Singer at the U of U lo those many years ago. I asked him what experimental evidence they had for it. The question was viewed with disdain. The situation always struck me as theorists in fervent love with their theories; reality had nothing to do with it.

Since that time, the ardor has cooled and other theorists have come up with similar theories with different tweaking of the parameters/dimensions. For example, there is Lisa Randall who was profiled recently in the NYT. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one of them come up with something useful. On the other hand, I'm no longer of the opinion that somehow one of these theories will represent the "real" reality, as I used to believe about General Relativity.

chuck said...


Well, I.M. Singer was a mathematician, no, and that was a while back? Being a mathematician is not such a good thing for physics, although Witten manages both, getting the Fields Medal among other things. Steven Weinberg was the guy whose reservations I took most seriously and his criticisms have moderated. I think string theory is not in that bad a shape, and activity is still very strong since the second revolution in 1995, I don't think it is tapering off at all. That said, I don't think anyone is claiming that it is *the* theory. And no, there aren't 5 consistent versions, rather five views of a single entity.

truepeers said...

Are people actually "spiritually more sophisticated", or simply jaded and apathetic?

-it goes both ways i think. Doctrine and dogma are in decline but those many who would take religion seriously, or are renewing their interests in matters spiritual, have to become more sophisticated because of this decline in institutional authority. But, yes, no doubt a lot of people make do with banal consumerism and haven't felt the need, yet.

but there is no reason to assume that will continue. The 20th century was the most violent and destructive in world history.

The liberal assumption that the world can be made peaceful if only people stop thinking in the old ways and start thinking economically strikes me as wishful thinking.

-I agree to some extent, but the present situation to my mind is paradoxical, there is nothing obvious or inevitable about it. The leading nations are less warlike than in the twentieth century precisely because of the destructive technology they have come to command. MAD is for real, when you are not like Johnny Apple Mad.

Yes, people cannot be made entirely peaceful; but perhaps they can be made sufficiently sane to focus their violence and anger in ways that avoid total global war. It is not so much a question of salvation by economics, as by a culture committed to an ethic of maximal human exchange. There is no guarantee we'll survive, but if we wish to, what is our best hope?

We must be prepared to bomb Iran and at the same time we must also show the world that we are not as much a threat as Johnny & Co. And the show has to be believable. Not impossible.

truepeers said...

"Banal consumerism"... but it is not as banal as some think. It too can become the basis for some cultural and spiritual sophistication.

Seneca the Younger said...

MHA, I can understand, but the theory makes a couple of correct predictions that QCD and GR can't. As I say, I don't understand the physics at all, but it's not like this isn't going to mainstreeam peer-review.

chuck said...


OK, I skimmed through the paper and I'm with MHA. IMHO it's BS, or, said politely, a crank paper. It has all the standard hallmarks: pointless use of standard names (quintessence), making a big point of small details (the signature of the spacetime metric), unnecessary invention of new jargon unique to the theory (hermetry forms), so on and so forth. Life is too short.

What are those mysterious effects you were talking about that are unpredicted by QCD and GR? QCD (quantum chromodynamics) is the theory of quarks and gluons, I don't see how a theory involving photons and gravity is going to apply.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Singer was a mathematician specializing in the mathematics of physics. Witten was at the same meeting at the same time too. I didn't see a lot of difference between the two of them in terms of their interests or enthusiasm. Singer kept insisting there was something "special" about the number 13, though he couldn't articulate what it was. It all sounded rather Kabbalistic to me.

My impression is that the current state of the theory is that there are a lot of theories which have branched out from String Theory in the last 20 years. None of them having any evidence of course. It all reminds me of Hindus speculating about the nature of the unseen universes. Passing itself off as science of course.

chuck said...

My impression is that the current state of the theory is that there are a lot of theories which have branched out from String Theory in the last 20 years.

Hmm... My impression is the opposite. The number 13 was once considered the proper number of dimensions, but it was soon discarded as consistent theories could only be derived in 10 and 11 dimension. But as it seems that the 10 dimensional theories can be derived from something in 11 dimensions, it seems that 11 is the magic number these days. My understanding is that *all* the string theories are thought to derive from one. Dimension seems to become a bit fuzzy when quantum mechanics is added to the mix.

I think the computation of the entropy of black holes is a significant occomplishment. After it was accepted that they had a temperature and emitted Hawking radiation, then the question was what was the source of the entropy as 1/T = &part S/ &part E, where S = k*log(#states). That is, the black hole must contain something that could have states, whereas classically, all information in infalling objects was destroyed and basically only charge and mass remained. Strings (branes) supplied the things that accounted for the different states. I think that is a triumph. True, the loop quantum gravity people have done this also, and I admit that in my naive way, as I have studied none of these theories, that the loop version appeals to me more than the string version, not least because it seems somewhat comprehensible. It also makes predictions, such as the speed of light depending on the photon energy, that can can hope to measure by making astronomical observations. Shades of Romer. But anyway, I think it unfair to say none of the theories have produced anything other than PhDs. Of course, I don't know that anyone has actually *seen* black hole radiation, but its existence is pretty well accepted.

Seneca the Younger said...

Chuck, check out the New Scienist thing ...

While Heim waited for more money to come in, the company's director, Ludwig Bölkow, encouraged him to develop his theory further. Heim took his advice, and one of the results was a theorem that led to a series of formulae for calculating the masses of the fundamental particles - something conventional theories have conspicuously failed to achieve. He outlined this work in 1977 in the Max Planck Institute's journal Zeitschrift für Naturforschung, his only peer-reviewed paper. In an abstruse way that few physicists even claim to understand, the formulae work out a particle's mass starting from physical characteristics, such as its charge and angular momentum.

Yet the theorem has proved surprisingly powerful. The standard model of physics, which is generally accepted as the best available theory of elementary particles, is incapable of predicting a particle's mass. Even the accepted means of estimating mass theoretically, known as lattice quantum chromodynamics, only gets to between 1 and 10 per cent of the experimental values.
Gravity reduction

But in 1982, when researchers at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg implemented Heim's mass theorem in a computer program, it predicted masses of fundamental particles that matched the measured values to within the accuracy of experimental error. If they are let down by anything, it is the precision to which we know the values of the fundamental constants. Two years after Heim's death in 2001, his long-term collaborator Illobrand von Ludwiger calculated the mass formula using a more accurate gravitational constant. "The masses came out even more precise," he says.

chuck said...

Chuck, check out the New Scienist thing ...

It wasn't very convincing. Nor does a google search on DESY + Heim + particle + masses turn up anything interesting. Predicting particle masses would be a major achievement, and even a decent heuristic would make waves. For that matter, particle physics has progressed nicely over the last fifty years. Any computation of the mass of the top quark would be interesting, especially as it would pin down the mass of the postulated Higgs particle.

Seneca the Younger said...

Okay, so then the AIAA committee has been sucked in by a crank?

Morgan said...

Here are two more links:

Heim's Mass Formula (1982)


Heim's Mass Formula (1989)

I don't pretend to have the capability (or stamina) to wade through these equations. I don't even have a guess how many of these quantities are "tunable" and how many are strictly determined with reference to invariant quantities.

But with equations that big, it's got to be good stuff.

Morgan said...

Okay, so Heim uses something called "selector calculus", which he developed and which doesn't seem ever to have been used by anyone else in any other context.

The neutrality of wiki's article on selector calculus is disputed, with this note:

"I added the pov-stub based on the rather disputed nature of the claims made here. Its not clear to me that this is legit physics/math. See Heim theory and specifically Talk:Heim theory for details. linas 02:28, 8 May 2005 (UTC) "

chuck said...

Okay, so then the AIAA committee has been sucked in by a crank?

Looks like it to me. Hey, I don't mind experiments, if they actually get tons of tons of lift and we can fly to the stars, the outcome will be hard to ignore. If it is in fractions of a dyne, well, then it comes down to arguing about errors. analysis.

Experiments need to be done: remember folks looking for monopoles and proton decay? But I don't think this one is going to pan out.


But with equations that big, it's got to be good stuff.

8) Yeah, and it was very thoughtful of him to include the values of pi and e. His definition of the fine stucture constant was interesting, but I couldn't convince myself it was dimensionless. For another derivation of the fine structure constant made in the same spirit, go here.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


Did you read further down in the Gilson website you linked? It begins:

Within a few days from now George Bush and Tony Blair intend to launch an act of mass murder and social destruction against Iraq in the names of Christianity and Democracy in spite of Christian church leaders telling them that their proposed action is immoral and with the majority of the people, Christians and others, being vehemently opposed. These war oriented world leaders completely ignore the likely out come of deaths and maiming of many thousands of innocent civilians and the possible deadly consequences to their own armed forces. Those US and UK service men and women will recklessly and unnecessarily be put at extreme risk when the fighting starts. The objective of eliminating any threat that might originate from Saddam Hussein could be attained by civilised alternatives to war.

This deserves a post of its own.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


The Wikipedia says that experimental evidence doesn't agree with Gilson's numerology.

Along similar lines, mathematician James Gilson has suggested that the fine-structure constant alpha can be mathematically determined to be...
to a very large degree of accuracy. 29 and 137 are respectively the 10th and 33rd prime numbers. While this was, before 2002 CODATA, within the standard uncertainty of measurement for alpha , now it is 1.7 standard uncertainties from the experimental data, which is possible, but a bit improbable.

Another equation which the fine structure constant obeys with high precision is:

- ln cos {1 / alpha} approx 1

However, this equation is also inexact:

- ln cos {1 / \alpha} approx 1.000042(11)

Reality is so messy.

chuck said...


Yeah, I linked to Gilson because he is obviously nuts. So was Heim, IMHO.