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September 19, 2006

A Plea to Save New Scientist

Posted by John Baez

The SF writer Greg Egan has issued the following public plea to save the magazine New Scientist. Please take a look, and consider sending them an email.

Greg Egan writes:

New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

There are many areas in cosmology, fundamental physics and so on where there are controversies over issues that are hotly contested by various competent, highly educated and respected scientists, and I have no quarrel with New Scientist publishing views on various sides of these debates, even when those from the opposing camp would consider the claims to be nonsense.

However, I really was gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy in the article “Fly by Light” in the 9 September 2006 issue, concerning the supposed “electromagnetic drive” of Roger Shawyer. If Shawyer’s claims have been accurately reported, they violate conservation of momentum. This is not a contested matter; in its modern, relativistic form it is accepted by every educated physicist on the planet. The writer of this article, Justin Mullins, seems aware that conservation of momentum is violated, but then churns out a lot of meaningless double-talk about “reference frames” which he seems to think demonstrates that relativity somehow comes to the rescue:

Hang on a minute, though. If the cavity is to move, it must be pushed by something. A rocket engine, for example, is propelled by hot exhaust gases pushing on the rear of the rocket. How can photons confined inside a cavity make the cavity move? This is where relativity and the strange nature of light come in. Since the microwave photons in the waveguide are travelling close to the speed of light, any attempt to resolve the forces they generate must take account of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This says that the microwaves move in their own frame of reference. In other words they move independently of the cavity - as if they are outside it. As a result, the microwaves themselves exert a push on the cavity.

Each photon that a magnetron fires into the cavity creates an equal and opposite reaction - like the recoil force on a gun as it fires a bullet. With Shawyer’s design, however, this force is minuscule compared with the forces generated in the resonant cavity, because the photons reflect back and forth up to 50,000 times. With each reflection, a reaction occurs between the cavity and the photon, each operating in its own frame of reference. This generates a tiny force, which for a powerful microwave beam confined in the cavity adds up to produce a perceptible thrust on the cavity itself.

Mullins quotes one engineer who says Shawyer’s claims are “a load of bloody rubbish”, but that’s really not good enough, when the rest of the article is full of apparent endorsements from various authorities. If Mullins had tried, I’m sure he could have found someone to explain to him exactly why, however clever Shawyer’s design might be, the only possible source of net thrust for this device would be the release of the microwaves in a unidirectional beam, and that the ceiling on the thrust imposed by relativity is P/c (where P is power), or 3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt. As the article stands, it leaves readers with the impression that while one engineer has raised some unspecified quibbles, it’s quite likely that Shawyer is correct.

I wrote a letter to the magazine politely pointing out the relevant physics, but even in the event that this letter, or similar comments from other physics-literate readers are published, the underlying problem seems to be the editorial culture at the magazine that allows this kind of article to appear in the first place. Maybe it’s unrealistic to demand that every science writer who covers a physics story have a physics degree, but surely there’s some level of quality control that can be introduced, to ensure that claims that flatly contradict established and uncontroversial physical principles are either clearly flagged to the magazine’s readers as such, or (in cases of perpetual motion machines, magic anti-gravity devices, etc.) just not published at all.

So, this message is a plea to everyone who cares about the public understanding of science. New Scientist has a very large readership, and its reports are often quoted in the mainstream press as if they carried the same authority as a peer-reviewed journal. I know that some people think New Scientist is just a tabloid joke that should be written off as beyond redemption, but I don’t share that view; I don’t believe its mistakes come from bad faith or cynicism, but the editor and publisher really need to get the message, both from the physics-literate portion of their readership and the academic physics community, that they need to raise their standards or risk squandering the opportunity that the magazine’s circulation and prestige provides.

If any of these issues matter to you, please read the article and – if it worries you even half as much as it worried me – please write to the magazine and let them know. Unfortunately, only the beginning of the article is freely available online.

Greg Egan

Posted at September 19, 2006 2:51 AM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:   http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/cgi-bin/MT-3.0/dxy-tb.fcgi/938

59 Comments & 7 Trackbacks

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”


The sad decline of New Scientist is part of the growing problem: commercial publishers neglect the needs of the communities (including academic communities) they purportedly serve.

New Scientist appears to be published by Reed Business Information Ltd, a part of the Reed Elsevier Group plc, a FTSE 100-listed company.

Recently the entire editorial staff of the journal Topology has resigned to protest the high prices imposed by the publisher, Elsevier, a subsidiary of Reed Elsevier. Read their resignation letter here. See an online article by John Baez, “What We Can Do About Science Journals” here.

It is worth mentioning that Reed Elsevier is allegedly involved in organising international arms fairs. More information and a petition here.

Posted by: Alexandre Borovik on September 19, 2006 9:56 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

This comes at an oddly opportune time, since I have just seen several debates “behind the scenes” at the good ol’ Wikipedia about whether or not coverage in New Scientist makes a topic “notable”. (See, e.g., the EmDrive debate here.) I’m glad that people have noticed the problem.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 19, 2006 6:06 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I’ve written exactly one article for NEW SCIENTIST (on computer models for arches, not even remotely controversial or fringe-y), with another pending, so my experience with them is limited. But I also subscribe to the magazine, and have admittedly felt the odd twinge of discomfort with how certain topics were presented, played up, or in Egan’s words, “sensationalized.” So I understand why physicists (and no doubt other scientists) are concerned.

However, I’m disturbed by Egan’s comment about wishing one could require every science writer who writes about physics to have a degree in physics. This is absurd – does his publisher require all their novelists to have degrees in English or creative writing? Trust me, there are plenty of respected science writers, covering physics, without bona fide degrees in the subject, who understand quite well the problems with the “electromagnetic drive,” and would have treated the topic quite differently than the piece that was eventually published. (And yes, I am one of them.) Having a physics degree is not a guarantee against foolishness or gullibility.

I think Egan misunderstands the nature of the problem. The sensationalism he talks about arises from a broad editorial policy, not from any single writer, which is ultimately the responsibility of the publisher. It’s not just NEW SCIENTIST that is feeling the pressure to pump up the volume, so to speak, to grab their readers’ attention. Many popular science magazines have also been struggling to find a workable balance between the two.

The editors at the magazine, to the best of my knowledge, DO have degrees in the fields for which they are responsible… usually advanced degrees. So I think the letter-writing campaign is an excellent idea, in that editors are the gatekeepers, the ones who carry out editorial policies. I’d warrant they care about the concerns of the physics community. Hopefully they will take Egan’s suggestions to heart and take steps at better “quality control.”

Posted by: Jennifer Ouellette on September 19, 2006 7:45 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Quoth Jennifer Ouellette, “Having a physics degree is not a guarantee against foolishness or gullibility.” How very true. From my own personal experience, I’d say that a physics degree is a promising indication that one can occasionally solve physics problems; it may even indicate some familiarity with the frustrations of the job and an awareness of how hard it is to get real science done.

One thing a physics degree definitely doesn’t do is train you to deal cogently with complete bollocks. Physics training gives you experience in constructing arguments to solve problems and finding mistakes in other people’s reasoning, but only if that reasoning fits within what one could loosely call a standard framework. College never offered me a course (not even a half-credit elective) on dealing with cranks and crackpots on the lunatic fringe, or people deliberately trying to play the system; that’s something you learn in the trenches of sci.physics.research.

A physicist can catch an honest mistake. To nail a total fraud, sometimes you need the Amazing Randi.

That said, I think an all-around dose of basic knowledge (we’re talking conservation laws here, people!) could do a world of good. Perhaps a better fix would be to require that everyone involved have a solid background in using Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit. A better solution still would be to bring the public into the process and make skepticism about these far-out claims a selling point for the publication. Have a regular feature where the free-energy wizards and the quantum homeopathy specialists get called out and put to the test. If the public rejects these lunacies just because the scientists say so, we haven’t made any progress; we have only conditioned unsuspecting victims to respond, Pavlov-style, to the sight of a white lab coat.

As the son of two journalists, I grew up hearing about the ways in which media inevitably slip into bias. My mother passed along the newspaper’s maxim, “All the news that fits, we print.” It would not be easy to make the rational, insightful, scientific coverage of science “fit” within the pages of a magazine, but imagine the benefits that magazine would accrue should it succeed. Respectability is a solid, financial virtue, particularly in an age when large news organizations devoted to the printed word find themselves under high blogospheric pressure. Wouldn’t it be nice to be known as “the New York Times of science journalism”?

Lifting a phrase from the most recent epoch of United States creationism, New Scientist appears eager to “teach the controversy”, for what I suspect are fairly simple economic reasons. How much better life would be if they and other publishing venues taught the means of resolving controversies instead.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 20, 2006 4:28 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Perhaps a better fix would be to require that everyone involved have a solid background in using Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit.

I seem to remember someone having come up with a “crackpot index”…

Oh wait, that was Baez.

Posted by: John Armstrong on September 20, 2006 4:59 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

But is the crackpot index taught to undergraduates in between thermodynamics and quantum mechanics? No, it’s passed around on the “series of tubes” we call the Internet.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 20, 2006 5:35 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Is Sagan’s “kit” taught either?

I’m just mentioning another resource for detecting fertilizer.

Posted by: John Armstrong on September 20, 2006 5:56 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Again, not in so many words, and not explicitly enough to make anyone notice or care!

I went through MIT as an undergrad, and I just recently moved back to Boston; meeting the slightly younger people studying there now suggests to me that nothing has really changed since “my day”. In fact, I doubt much has changed since 1974, when Richard Feynman said, “But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.”

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 20, 2006 6:09 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I have read most of Greg Egan’s books and his article led me to this site.

I believe one of the main problems is that basic logic is not taught in school, other than a few days in sophomore geometry class when the teacher goes over truth tables. I got a EE degree from Georgia Tech, and even in college I learned more logic in philosophy courses than math or science courses. And I had to take my share of physics too! It is strange in my opinion that basic logic rules are not taught starting with junior high and high school. If people had the ability to think clearly, they would be better equipped to hash out the wild claims from the scientific theories.

Posted by: Sandra Stoenescu on September 22, 2006 5:11 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Jennifer Ouellette wrote:

Having a physics degree is not a guarantee against foolishness or gullibility.

That’s certainly true, and I apologise if my comment sounded snobbish. (I have a lowly 3-year BSc in Maths myself, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learnt in my two years of undergraduate physics; decades later I taught myself SR and GR.) I was just casting about wildly for some kind of tangible policy that might spell out the kind of person who would understand that you don’t have to be an expert in microwave engineering to see why Shawyer’s claims are either radical new physics, or false.

I do think science writers have a professional duty to educate themselves (formally or otherwise) if they want to write on such topics, rather than just do a straw poll of supposed experts and report on the range of opinions they expressed, but what dismayed me most was that neither the magazine’s editor, nor whichever (if any) of their numerous PhD’d consultants who read the article prior to publication, seemed to possess the basic understanding of physics that someone working for a magazine like this ought to have.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 23, 2006 11:40 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I subscribe to New Scientist. I have mixed freelings about this. One one hand, I am a great admirer of John Baez and Greg Egan. I have multiple degrees in sciences, starting at Caltech, as a protege of Feynman, and publish refereed articles on Mathematical Physics, and other subjects.

On the other hand, I’m a poet, playwright, and fiction author, including in Science Fiction – a genre in which Greg Egan is one of the leading practitioners.

On the third hand, I have written for sensationalistic venues, including Omni and Rage.

The issue, to me, goes deeper than the editorial stance of New Scientist, or the New York Times, or Phys. Rev., or the arXives. The issue is precisely whose responsibility it is to detect nonsense, and what is to be done. What is, and what should be, the Errer-Detection-Error-Correction mechanism?

As a First Amendment absolutist, I hold that the best solution to bad information is good information, in an open marketplace if ideas. Outside the existing laws of defamation (imperfect though they are), and copyright (worse), and patents (often absurd), it is often a mistake to overtly attack any nonsense. Well intentioned, I understand, but you are mostly preaching to the converted, or frustrating yourself by trying to teach critical thinking to uncritical readers.

This blog is an ideal compromise. Open discussion, free from a fight with folks who buy ink by the barrel, in the words of Mark Twain.

As a child, I often had my parents dragged into elementary school, and the junior high school, because the school administration took a dim view of my criticizing teachers for saying what I believed (correctly) to be teaching errant nonsense.

Indeed, it took the experiences of having my PhD dissertation being neither accepted nor rejected, but put into decades of limbo, and of losing several jobs (including safety concerns on the Space Shuttle, at Rockwell) before I learned my lesson. Most people say that they want the truth. They don’t. They can’t handle the truth. So tell the truth whenever you can, but be prepared to accept a backlash from the ignorant and the stupid, who are not always the same people.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on September 28, 2006 10:45 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

New Scientist is a threat as much for its support of nonsense as for what it rejects.

Specifically, it makes the claim that by publishing wacky material it is not pro-orthodoxy, but that is untrue.

Heinz Lipshult was the subject of a New Scientist article about his concrete submarine invention - see http://www.newscientist.com/channel/earth/deep-sea/mg1732 - only a year after he died.

He had spent about 20 years sending submissions to New Scientist, and being rejected by the magazine. See for example the articles in newspapers and journals like http://www.electromagnetism.demon.co.uk/11124.htm
.

So they waited until he was safely dead and buried a year, then published his invention! The article they published also claimed that because concrete has little tensile strength when stretched by decompression as the submarine rises, it will explode like an egg in a vacuum. In fact, Lipshult had overcome the problems with suitable innovations.

If they had published it while he was alive, it would have brought a refutation from him. So they waited until he was dead. Diabolical.

Electronics eccentric Catt, who worked out computer crosstalk in 1967 and had one New Scientist article published in 1969, found himself censored out later and writes sarcastically:

“Old Scientist has always been careful to be a decade too late to influence events.” - http://www.electromagnetism.demon.co.uk/x6kncool.htm.

All that New Scientist does is to publish speculative claptrap which is easy to write about and reject stuff which is EXPERIMENTALLY TESTED (Lipshultz fuly tested his model submarine and Catt tested his crosstalk theory by making a 20 million wafer scale chip in 1988 which won two major awards).

New Scientist also has Rob Edwards as a consultant who writes stuff endlessly claiming that radioactive waste with low specific activity is likely to exterminate everyone. They haven’t heard that protein P53 repairs most damage from low level radiation and that the reason there is little evidence of low level radiation risks in humans is that, unlike mice which have less sophisticated DNA repair mechanisms - people are less vulnerable. When the statistical correlation is weak, the danger if any is minimal. Rob Edwards and his editors at New Scientist simply can’t grow up from 1960s low level radiation hysteria.

Finally, the editor of New Scientist - Jeremy Webb (an electronics graduate and former BBC sound engineer) - gave an interview with The Hindu where he got his photo published and claimed:

“Scientists have a duty to tell the public what they are doing… ” - http://www.hindu.com/seta/2004/12/16/stories/2004121600111500.htm.

However, when I emailed him from University of Gloucestershire in 2002 about an article on computer crosstalk, he replied by asking “out of personal interest” what my association with one of the people in the article was. When I replied “scientific” he just didn’t respond. So much for the value of science.

Another time, the previous editor (who is now a consultant or similar to the magazine), Dr Alun M. Anderson, claimed he would consider an article if the material had been published in peer-reviewed journals. It had! He then went pleaded the Fifth Amendment, the right to silence.

If they made more effort to research and check proper articles, I’m sure A-level physics would not have plummeted so much in the UK:

“Physics has declined in popularity among pupils at school and students at university, research suggests.

“A-level entries have fallen from 55,728 in 1982 to 28,119 in 2005, according to researchers at Buckingham University.” - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4782969.stm.

Posted by: nc on September 19, 2006 7:51 PM | Permalink

“New Scientist” is killing Wikipedia with this crap

As one commenter above mentions, New Scientist is greatly inconveniencing the physics editors at Wikipedia. Anything that they publish is automatically verifiable, but if they don’t put in reasonable criticism then even a basically sensible analysis (like “conservation of momentum holds in all modern physics—quantum or not, relativistic or not—so these claims are nonsensical”) runs the risk of being branded original research (in the Wikipedia policy sense). So far, the article on EmDrive is being kept under control, but New Scientist is making our lives hard.

The problem is that Wikipedia policy assumes that reliable sources are, well, reliable. New Scientist, lately, is not.

Posted by: SCZenz on September 20, 2006 12:29 AM | Permalink

Re: “New Scientist” is killing Wikipedia with this crap

The New Scientist has now hit back by including a link to the paper as a PDF file:

http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/av/shawyertheory.pdf

“A Theory of Microwave Propulsion for Spacecraft
Roger Shawyer C.Eng MIEE
SPR Ltd
www.emdrive.com

What is crackpot is that the measured force is extremely low for the electric power, a maximum specific thrust of 214 mN/kW, and in the New Scientist article Shawyer seems to admit that he had difficulties measuring anything at all. What are the ERROR BARS on the 214 mN/kW measurement? No hint given on page 14! This shows it is crackpot.

Anti-gravity machines similarly claim small effects. When you see them, they are usually gyroscopes being rotated as well as spun round in a pattern that the innovator hopes will create lift. The readings of the lift are taken by a balance which indeed often shows a small net thrust, due to the horrendous resonance which is shaking the whole setup as the gyroscopes fly around! It is like trying to measure mass by stamping repeatedly on bathroom scales, so the readings are unreliable if not meaningless (impulses rather than steady forces).

The paper has three references: a contemporary physics textbook (which is cited as source the author needed for the Lorentz vector relationship F = q(E + vB), Maxwell’s treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (which supplies the radiation reaction force from reflection, F = 2P/c), and a 1952 paper in the IEE proceedings on measuring microwave power.

If the New Scientist editorship had any credibility, they would have required ERROR BARS for the alleged experimental confirmation of the alleged theory. Instead, the paper just plots alleged theoretical predictions without experiment measurements plotted, says a series of trials was done but doesn’t supply any set of results or how they were analysed, and gives a final figure with no indication of its accuracy.

This is worse than the Cold Fusion fiasco of 1989. In that case, Pons and Fleischmann fooled themselves into thinking that deuterium nuclei would overcome the coulomb barrier and fuse by sticking paladium electrodes into heavy water and passing a moderate current. They did this by imagining the deuterium atoms being squeezed into the metal electrodes by the current, somehow, and fusing. Although it’s obvious that the massive current needed to make any measurable temperature rise due to fusion would probably first make the heavy water boil off, they picked up a neutron counter (which was sensitive to body temperature, i.e. hand temperature) and got a count as it warmed up in the hand when near the flask.

At least Cold Fusion provided some entertainment. This New Scientist warp drive stuff isn’t even wrong, it is not even high school science. No error bars!

Posted by: nc on September 20, 2006 1:40 AM | Permalink

Re: “New Scientist” is killing Wikipedia with this crap

Wikipedia’s problems are its own, no need to go foisting them on some other bedraggled entity.

Posted by: belg4mit on September 24, 2006 8:03 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

This comes as no surprise. New Scientist’s penchant for sensationalism causes it to publish the results of climate models (and the scarier the scenario the better) as if the results of any of them were equivalent to a scientific fact.

They then censor any reply which points out the ludicrousness of the result.

Posted by: John A on September 20, 2006 3:11 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I don’t know about the “scary climate models” but for some of the other articles…

I have to agree with the jaundiced outlook. Seen positively, the ‘space drive’ article got me thinking about what was wrong with the idea, like won’t the microwaves just reflect off the slanted walls of the tube, resulting in a net 0 force? Doesn’t this need absolute space to work? And don’t forget that the article claims this to be an environmentaly friendly device, too. So how are you going to power it if not with a turbine? And yes, no error bars.

An episode comes to mind where someone claimed that feeding random numbers generated by quantum processes into a computing machine would open up the road to ‘hypercomputation’ (more powerful than a Turing machine). My letter in response to that thing seems to have been discarded mercilessly.

Will ‘New Scientist’ be mentioned in its own ‘Feedback’ section? (For those uninformed, the ‘Feedback’ section may have some sarcastic comments about weirdnesses like ‘blood purification through homeopathic quantum resonance using crystallic forces’)

Let’s get the NS from the 80s baaack!

Posted by: Yatima on September 20, 2006 6:45 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Yes, Yatima, thank you. I grew up in the UK, and the 1980s New Scientist was fantastic. A real education for someone who loved science and was desparate for more. I read their issues over and over.

I remember when my family moved to the United States in 92 and I took a look at Scientific American – wow, I thought, we had something much better back in London.

The astro library at Princeton had copies of the “New” New Scientist (in fact, I seem to remember vaguely a massive layout change in the early 90s, the firing of the “Adriadne” [and replacement by “Feedback”], and other troubling things – all of which were referred to as the NNS.)

In any case, the amount of rubbish and hyperbole I found in it was stunning. One major problem was a focus on really wacky fundamental physics. I have nothing against fundamental physics, and I’m a source of many wacky ideas myself.

But science is not about subject matter, it’s about PROCESS. The old New Scientist understood this and brought you articles on a wide range of subjects. Now it seems NS is focused on “health science” (read: fringe medicine) and “the universe is a parallel quantum computer OMG OMG!!!111one”.

Revolution!

Posted by: Simon DeDeo on September 29, 2006 9:10 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

As someone with a background in biology, I have to say, their coverage in this area, at least, is generally excellent. I also know of no other, more-comprehensive source of Science News that is printed as often (50 times / year). I’d always chalked up the wacko physics in the mag to the need to move issues on newsstands (it is even available on newsstands? certainly not here in the U.S…)

So, I dunno, fire the physics editors or whatever, but the rest of the mag is great. As an editor at a competing publication (Seed) I have to say that in general I admire their work. Of course, we occasionally get things wrong as well… hopefully not *this* wrong, though.

Posted by: Christopher on September 20, 2006 7:30 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

NS is available at some newsstands, e.g. Out of Town News in Cambridge, MA.

Posted by: belg4mit on September 24, 2006 8:08 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I saw Technology Review at a newsstand in a Munich train station.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 29, 2006 5:15 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

“I also know of no other, more-comprehensive source of Science News that is printed as often (50 times / year).”

What about Science News?

Posted by: Petrea Mitchell on September 28, 2006 6:27 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Petrea Mitchell wrote:

(Sorry about the non-nice-looking quote, I consider myself fortunate to have finally come up with *something* the interface will let me post…)

I’ve polished up the format of the quoted text in your post and deleted this apology. Anyone having trouble making quoted text look nice should read the FAQ on why doesn’t it work when I use blockquotes to quote someone, and also Urs Schreiber’s and Jacques Distler’s tips. It’s not hard after you pick a text filter and stick with that.

Posted by: john baez on September 29, 2006 12:10 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Hi, I keep getting fooled into buying New Scientist, thinking there is a great article to read (probably because of the glossy pictures, and the great first few words); only to be disappointed by what is in there.

Am no scientist and have absolutely no idea what you lot talk about on this blog, but I do know one thing for certain, New Scientist would be better of called “The Black Hole” because they only contain half a story as well!

Qubit

Posted by: Qubit on September 20, 2006 9:23 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I bought that issue of New Scientist looking for something quick to read, and after I had glanced at the article on Shawyer and thought I just didn’t understand what it was saying. After reading the article over lunch, I was just appalled, got a copy of the emdrive paper, and it’s such a sloppy, crazy mess! (I’m a bored, barely employed former physics student, and relished getting to play with some of physics:/) It shouldn’t take a physics degree to realize how fishy Shawyer’s claims are, and then perhaps ask someone with the credentials to review his work. And that anyone with some experience could think Shawyer is on to something, and even offer him money, …hmm, maybe I should try to defraud the British Gov’t with some physicsy mumbo-jumbo?

Posted by: peep on September 21, 2006 1:55 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Back when NASA was running their Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program, maybe you could have sold them an antigravity machine!

Posted by: John Baez on September 21, 2006 8:03 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Or perhaps a faster-than-light drive powered by Heim Quantum Theory?

I find it amusing and appropriate that in the discussion to which I just linked, way down the page, people jumped in with an article defending the Heim mish-mash — from New Scientist.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 21, 2006 2:32 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

If I may add a little perspective here:

New Scientist has been publishing occasional crackpot articles as long as I have been reading it (20 years and counting). It has always been thus, and it has nothing to do with declining science literacy or rising demands for sensationalism. The editors there consider publishing such tripe part of their mandate–both to entertain their readers with news of the weird, and to tweak the stuffy, mainstream science boffins.

So let’s be clear about the problem here. It is not a matter of a magazine losing its way; it is a matter of a magazine *finding* its way into more mainstream acceptance because of the connectivity of the Web and the information-aggregation powers of the Wiki world. Consider this an annoying downside of what is, overall, a very good thing.

Posted by: Powell Manx on September 22, 2006 3:38 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Since when has NS ever been about anything other than the purely bogus?

Posted by: Me on September 23, 2006 1:28 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Okay,
If Mullins had tried, I’m sure he could have found someone to explain to him exactly why, however clever Shawyer’s design might be, the only possible source of net thrust for this device would be the release of the microwaves in a unidirectional beam, and that the ceiling on the thrust imposed by relativity is P/c (where P is power), or 3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt.

One thing that throws me off on this entire ‘conservation of momentum’ angle is that Shaywer states that if the ‘engine’ actually moves, the thrust drops off rapidly.

To me this seems rather akin to a magnetic field, except that ferrous material and magnetic forces aren’t directly involved.

You can place the matching poles of two magnets on top of each other, and if properly constrained, they will stay a certain distance apart. If you pull the top one further away, it will drop back down into it’s previous position because the force became insufficient as it moved away.

So what if that’s the case with Shawyer’s device? It creates a repulsive force that dissappears if the engine is moved , akin to magnets.

If the device is actually used as accellerator, it may well conform to the 3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt Egan listed as a limit.

Try to be kind, please, as I hold merely a BS in Mechanical Engineering, not physics.

(This thread was linked to from Slashdot)

Posted by: Mike G on September 23, 2006 1:35 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

When one magnet supports another against gravity, they exert equal and opposite forces on each other, via the magnetic field. Shawyer doesn’t claim that his drive has any kind of interaction with any external object, such as the ground (and if he did, that would kill off its chances to push satellites around in space).

The idea that the thrust will drop if the drive accelerates is incoherent. According to the Equivalence Principle, resisting the pull of the Earth’s gravity is actually indistinguishable from accelerating; in general relativity, you’d say that an object hovering at a constant height above the ground is accelerating. If the drive was supposed to be pushing against the ground, everything would be very different, but Shawyer does not claim that it is.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 23, 2006 11:34 PM | Permalink
Read the post Save New Scientist!
Weblog: Ambient Irony
Excerpt: Back in the 80s, through to the mid-90s, I bought New Scientist every single week, and read it from cover to cover. And then... Well, let's just say that I didn't leave New Scientist, New Scientist left me. The economic...
Tracked: September 23, 2006 1:58 AM

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

In the end, the article that outlines the EMDrive is nothing but a hope for the optimistic outlook on how perceived ideas on the nature of mechanics and physics that have sat around collecting dust are now being used for a perceived benefit. A lot of people here seem to miss the context and the perspective by which this article was written. While the author of this plea, Mr. Baez, is factually correct about the Conservation of Momentum, even he makes the admitted notion that New Scientist is of a benefit of explaining the abstractions of science into laymans or near laymans terms.

Now, I would postulate to a lot of you here that, this really should be the goal of New Scientist overall. Okay, so one article seems to not have the staying power that would be rooted in scientific fact and might be crossing the line into science fiction, but another thing that is neglected here, is that this article was written by someone who is presenting a rather complicated piece of physics to the average person who is trying to understand the nature of what is really happening in this device. Taking the abstract and congealing it into a savory story of something that many people would think that is fantastic in nature.

It is up to the writer, not the interviewee to present, question, and compile this article to us the readers. It is up to us to discuss whether this article based on the science of channeled microwave energy is viable or not. However if the writer has a hard time conveying the message to us the readers, then is it the fault of the person he interviewed?

I have been told that I would see a flying car by the year 2000, that my work day would be reduced to single digit hours due to new technology, that our lifespans would exceed 100 years through new discoveries of medicines. All futuristically optimistic, but woefully underrealized. I still don’t have my flying car and even if I did, it would cost me a fortune and scar the general populace for fear of a regular ‘driver’ like we are now would forget to put gas in it and have it crash in someones neighborhood. I still work 40 hours or more in a week and thanks to new technology, my work day is crammed with more do because of it rather then being eliminated because of it. With more computing power means that I can now do more within an 8 hour day than ever before, leveraging my manangements position to keep me at my desk or on my assignment for longer periods of time.

How about medicine? The average american lifespan for a male is 76 - 78 years old and the average american women has a lifespan of 80 or so, last I recall. Cancer still isn’t cured, most diseases have better treatments, but no cure. I’m inundated with drug commercials for erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, restless leg syndrome, dry eye syndrome. So far the only thing I know that has a cure is vaginal yeast infections and athlete’s foot fungus. Yeah, that’s progress.

So please stop worrying about one guys possible crack-pot idea of generating thrust via the EM spectrum. If he succeeds, then buy him a beer for making your life better, if he fails, he most likely will be laughed out of town as a mad magician of photonic fraudulency.

Posted by: Michael Radford on September 23, 2006 1:59 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I would like to make a small correction. I cited Mr. Baez as the author of the plea to save NS. That was an error. I should have said Mr. Egan. Apologies to anyone who read that.

Posted by: Michael Radford on September 23, 2006 2:14 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Michael Radford wrote:

[…] even he makes the admitted notion that New Scientist is of a benefit of explaining the abstractions of science into layman’s or near layman’s terms.

Explaining science in layman’s terms is great. But stuff like this is not:

Each photon that a magnetron fires into the cavity creates an equal and opposite reaction - like the recoil force on a gun as it fires a bullet. With Shawyer’s design, however, this force is minuscule compared with the forces generated in the resonant cavity, because the photons reflect back and forth up to 50,000 times. With each reflection, a reaction occurs between the cavity and the photon, each operating in its own frame of reference. This generates a tiny force, which for a powerful microwave beam confined in the cavity adds up to produce a perceptible thrust on the cavity itself.

This was written by the author of the New Scientist article to explain how Shawyer’s machine can violate conservation of momentum. It amounts to saying that if you bounce a ball back and forth between the front and back of your car 50,000 times, it’ll push the car forwards!

I have been told that I would see a flying car by the year 2000, that my work day would be reduced to single digit hours due to new technology, that our lifespans would exceed 100 years through new discoveries of medicines.

Sorry for the delay, but I promise: eventually you’ll have a flying SUV powered by bouncing little photons back and forth inside. And that’s not all - here’s what the New Scientist says:

The device that has sparked their interest is an engine that generates thrust purely from electromagnetic radiation - microwaves to be precise - by exploiting the strange properties of relativity. It has no moving parts, and releases no exhaust or noxious emissions. Potentially, it could pack the punch of a rocket in a box the size of a suitcase. It could one day replace the engines on almost any spacecraft. More advanced versions might allow cars to lift from the ground and hover.

I’ll be glad to sell you one today - you can pick it up when it’s ready.

So please stop worrying about one guy’s possible crack-pot idea of generating thrust via the EM spectrum.

I’m not worrying much about Shawyer’s idea. I get at least 3 emails each week suggesting equally silly ideas - probably because I’m a well-known connossieur of crackpot theories.

I worry a bit more when a widely read popular science magazine is willing to advocate Shawyer’s idea, to the extent of making up a bogus “explanation” for it.

Posted by: John Baez on September 23, 2006 5:03 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

John Baez wrote as follows:

It amounts to saying that if you bounce a ball back and forth between the front and back of your car 50,000 times, it’ll push the car forwards!

This is absolutely hilarious! Of course, to be proper about it, we should really bounce a bigon back and forth.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on September 24, 2006 5:21 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Motives have nothing to do with it. Journalists should report things because they are true, or at least likely to be true, without any regard to whether it’s presenting a “hopeful” message or not.

Conservation of Momentum is not a difficult thing. I’d even argue it’s the generally most well-known and understood physical law. It’s a very intuitive concept (far more than conservation of energy, which is more abstract).

It’s entirely reasonable to expect a science writer to know about it. A physics writer should be expected to have some idea of how well-understood the idea is. They should know what it is, and that it applies universally: To relativity, to quantum mechanics. Nothing violates it.

A physics journalist who is uncertain of conservation of momentum is as unsuitable as an astronomy journalist who is uncertain of the heliocentric theory. (I do not feel that’s an overstatement.)

Furthermore, the article is a textbook example how “balance” can lead to bias. The superficially “fair” approach of providing one view “for” and one “against” the topic fails utterly if the viewpoint in question is extreme. It lends an undue amount of credence to the view.

A good journalist within any subject should be both aquainted with what the extreme views within their subject are, how to recognize them, and common strategies they use to pass off those ideas as uncontroversial when trying to get media attention. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about White Power groups or mere physics crackpots.

The extreme views of the latter are fairly homogenous. Either it’s Einstein or Quantum Mech that’s been proved wrong, or it’s some violation of the laws of thermodynamics.

In the latter case (which is what we have here) the most common tactic is invariably “While it may _seem_ to be a violation, it’s not.” Which is also the case here. (It’s an almost stereotypical example)

Nobody is worried about the guy’s crackpot idea. I feel no great concern Newton’s laws of motion are in danger. The shared concern is for the state of science journalism, which allows such views to be presented in such a way.

Or to extend the previous analogy: If a political journalist gets a press release from the Aryan Nation, claiming their new study ‘proves’ that Black people are stupid. Which course of action do you think would be preferable?

A) Identify it as a fringe group promoting an untrustworthy idea, and consider it unnewsworthy.

B) Present their ideas in detail, together with short quotes from an opponent and proponent to provide ‘balance’?

C) Present their ideas uncritically.

Personally, I think B is even worse than C. At least the latter gives no illusion of objectivity.

Posted by: Sven on September 23, 2006 5:15 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I have reviewed around ten papers for Science and Nature and I have to say that those supposedly reputable journals have issues as well.

On several occasions I have recommended rejection as the manuscripts were simply superficial sensationalism with paper-thin scientific support.

Unfortunately the editors chose to ignore my recommendation. Why? I have puzzled over this and believe it is because

1) The authors have a large reputation based on earlier (much better) papers.

2) The topic of the papers was “saleable” to the broad science community.

Due to this I will never submit to these journals as I no longer regard them as serious or properly peer reviewed.

Posted by: Anonymous Reviewer on September 23, 2006 3:09 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I think Science and Nature publish some pretty important stuff in biology and biochemistry, but occasionally some rather flaky “flashy” stuff on physics. I’ve been asked to referee some papers like that, but refused.

My theory was that serious biologists often try to publish there, but most serious physicists don’t, unless they’re over the hill and want to make a sensation.

But what do I know? I’m not a biologist. That stuff could be flaky too, without me knowing it.

I’m curious about your field.

Posted by: John Baez on September 23, 2006 5:33 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Nearly all astronomers I know consider Nature to publish poor astronomy papers at best, and most professionals wait for the ‘real’ paper to appear in Astrophysical Journal before taking the research seriously.

The size constraint of Nature articles allow certain keen-to-publish scientists to say (apologies to Fermat) “I have done truly wonderful research, but this article is simply too small to contain it in detail”.

I personally know of two astronomy papers that were published by Nature, despite the rejection of the astronomers asked to critique them. In both cases, Nature seemed to want the prestige of publishing ‘controversial and groundbreaking’ results, and so they didn’t take the advice of the referees. In both cases, the referees were shown to be right and the Nature papers were wrong.

Because of this attitude, Nature’s name as a journal is pretty much mud in the astronomy community.

On a separate note, I read NS every week when I was at school in Britain, but when I pick up a copy now, it just makes me cringe as their coverage of the crank physics theories is so consistently uncritical. It’s definitely descended into sensationalist journalism over the 20 years I’ve read it.

A.C.

Posted by: Astronomy Coward on September 23, 2006 6:26 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Sorry I should make myself clear - I am not the Anonymous Reviewer who posted the grandparent post at 3.09am on Sept 23. I’m someone else muttering about Nature!

A.C.

Posted by: Astronomy Coward on September 23, 2006 6:33 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I considered “New Scientist” long dead, even before I was an undergrad (more than 20 years ago). I cancelled my subscription when I realised that the articles in the fields I understood something about were complete rubbish, then I postulated that I should consider almost all the other articles similarly. I am not surprised to see my opinion re-enforced. Stick to “Scientific American” and “Nature” - I don’t read them often, but when I do, they seem to maintain good standards.

Posted by: robery on September 23, 2006 7:08 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

New Scientist has always seemed part sci-fi… if everything they’ve asserted over the years had turned out to be true, it’d be a very funny world.

My respect for the magazine dropped considerably when I read a rare article that fell into my area of expertise: computer software. The author seemed to think that Java and Javascript were the same language… a mistake roughly equivalent in the “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” stakes as to brushing aside conservation of momentum.

Since then I’ve been aware that the articles I’m not in a position to judge may be of the same standard. Ho hum. Still, it was on the whole great reading material for a kid interested in science.

Posted by: David Morgan on September 23, 2006 11:38 AM | Permalink

I sent this complaint to the editor

Hi,
I’ve had the same concern at the falling standards of NS. I objected via their website to their editor, see below:

Sir,
I’m concerned about the quality of reporting in your magazine. I’m an MSc physics graduate and have worked as a computer programmer for 20 years.
My expertise is such that, with the exception of articles written by genuine experts, such as Ian Stewart, and Lee Smolin, whenever I encounter an article on subjects of physics or computing, I cringe at the errors and low quality of the reporting.
This is quite exasperating, as it misinforms the public, and, worse, it probably misinforms me on subjects I’m too ignorant about to recognise your errors and bias, such as genetics. I am considering cancelling my subscription after many years. Please hire people to write for you that know what they’re talking about.
Scientific American has much more reliable reporting, imho.

With regards to the above letter, I should remark I have no connection with Scientific American.

Posted by: Jim Eadon on September 23, 2006 1:21 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Hi Mr. Greg Egan,

while I in general agree with your movement I don’t understand in this case why you think: (quote) “If Shawyer’s claims have been accurately reported, they violate conservation of momentum.”

In my eyes it’s no difference whether you:
a) use a solar sail
b) beam a laser beam at the end of a rocket
c) attach a laser beam as thruster at the end of a rocket
d) simply attach a flash light at the end of a rocket
e) use an annihilation reaction to drive a rocket by a “photon drive”
f) use micro waves

All those drives would work, and also would the microwave drive of Roger Shawyer. Only the article is complete crap, like “microwaves moving close to the speed of light”.

I fail to see any violation of a conservation law here.

Regards,
Angelo

Posted by: angel'o'sphere on September 23, 2006 8:46 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Angelo wrote:

I fail to see any violation of a conservation law here.

Shawyer says he gets a thrust without the microwaves leaving the device. Sure, if he wants to beam microwaves backwards out of his engine, that will produce a thrust, namely the 3 microNewtons per kilowatt that relativity ascribes to photons. But that’s not what he’s claiming at all. He thinks he gets a thrust by bouncing them back and forth in a closed box until they’re absorbed by the walls and turn into heat, and he thinks the thrust is thousands of times more than he’d get if he shot the microwaves out as a photonic exhaust. As John Baez pointed out, this is as silly as thinking you can move your car by bouncing a ball around inside it. You should at least try tossing the ball from the back of a truck.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 24, 2006 12:00 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Greg wrote:

He thinks he gets a thrust by bouncing them back and forth in a closed box until they’re absorbed by the walls and turn into heat, and he thinks the thrust is thousands of times more than he’d get if he shot the microwaves out as a photonic exhaust.

Well, there’s your obvious answer. By turning the microwaves into heat, of course he gets thousands of times more thrust than he would by sending them out the back end, just the same as in a Crookes radiometer. Just put some thermal insulation and/or radiative black coating on the sides of the wave guide so you can ignore their thermal exchange just as his analysis ignores their exchange of momentum, and voila! More molecules of the surrounding gas are repelled from the big end than the small end.

Posted by: Glenn Knickerbocker on September 25, 2006 5:29 PM | Permalink

3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt?

“the only possible source of net thrust for this device would be the release of the microwaves in a unidirectional beam, and that the ceiling on the thrust imposed by relativity is P/c (where P is power), or 3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt. “

I recommend against saying things like this. If they produce an experimental apparatus that shows a greater thrust, you’ve just admitted you don’t understand the drive and undermined your position.

There are many possible sources of thrust from a device such as this. There may be a magnetic interaction with nearby objects or the Earth’s field from the electical system. A cooling fan might blow exhaust. Leaked microwaves may resonate between the drive and an exterior object, pushing them apart with a force much greater than the simply emitting the photons once. By conduction or microwave heating, the drive might cause thermal expansion of air resulting in a directional thrust, or part of the container may be vaporized so that the drive becomes a rocket.

Complete microwave leak is only one of the many possible accidental sources of thrust, and doesn’t really deserve special mention.

I think we can all agree that any thrust this drive generates will be from a cause other than that specified by its designer, and will be impractically small and inefficient. But for the sake of anyone who can’t come to that conclusion on their own, I think we should focus on the many possible sources of experimental error, and be careful not to accidentally imply that there is only one.

Posted by: Joe Random on September 23, 2006 9:53 PM | Permalink

Re: 3.33 microNewtons per kilowatt?

You make lots of good points about the sources of experimental error in Shawyer’s tests. I was just talking about the theoretical physics behind such devices when operating in perfect isolation; I was not proposing microwave leakage as a source of the thrust he’d measured in the lab. I agree that it’s valuable for people with relevant backgrounds to point out the likely explanations for what Shawyer actually measured, but I was sticking to the things I knew myself, i.e. the basic constraints imposed by the laws of physics on the operation of the drive as an isolated object in space.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 24, 2006 12:14 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Hello there! I find it interesting that Elsevier owns New Scientist. I have been thinking that a free market model doesn’t work in science because in a free market, PR, networking and existing cash can get you a deal. Whereas in science, one might have good PR, networking and cash but no skills or understanding of fundamental principles.

Despite the prettiness of the package, it is our responsibility as scientists to stop these nasty trends. For that reason, I applaud you for writing this article.

Posted by: Mahndisa on September 24, 2006 6:48 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I was going to send this to Greg but I cannot find an email address at his site, so I will post it here. I am yet to read through the comments, so sorry if there is overlap.

——————————–

I thought the whole basis of this electromagnetic drive was the transfer of energy from one form in the photon to another form in the cavity. As such, most of what you have said is not really to do with this. Firing microwaves out the back just misses the point, microwaves do not need to be released, but it is about shedding their energy and transferring it to force on the chambers wall.

I agree that, in the last 5 years, in particular, New Scientist has been slipping from the standard some of us prefer, and that articles need to be more objective and clearly show credible positions for and against. I think this is important because it reveals flaws and anomalies in logic that come out. This may reveal who is wrong at least, but to prove somebody right might be subject to much experimentation. I even prefer the less sensationalist structure New Scientist had in the late 80’s.

I also agree that writers should be well versed in the subject they write about, i.e, even accredited like you suggest. It needs to be much more than that though, because I have come across so many scientist displaying errant logic, that it is incredible. So, such reporters need to be, very logical, objective, fair, even handed, truthful and talented, not just think they are.

About your objection to the types of articles they publish. It is not about protecting a preferred belief in a certain structure of science, it is about establishing new science, and finding the real boundaries of science. When we come up with a true unified theory, then we can start pretending we might know exactly where the boundary is. I have found far to much politics in science (and everybody being required to conform to a view that has not been entirely proved, is a prime example) to take science, or it laws, credibly on face value because somebody believes in them.

Politicised scientists (speaking in relation to people that treat the support of proffered ideas, in science, like politics) while they may claim to be the most objective, are the bane of objectivity. Though they stagnant science, they are true crackpots, with the pot being science itself. The conduct of science itself needs to be restructured.

This plea can do more harm than good, it might be best to rewrite, or withdraw, it.

Thank you

Wayne Morellini

Posted by: Wayne Morellini on September 27, 2006 1:30 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Wayne Morellini wrote:

I thought the whole basis of this electromagnetic drive was the transfer of energy from one form in the photon to another form in the cavity. As such, most of what you have said is not really to do with this. Firing microwaves out the back just misses the point, microwaves do not need to be released, but it is about shedding their energy and transferring it to force on the chambers wall.

Shawyer’s claim is that the photons bounce against the walls of the cavity, and in so doing exert a force on it. In this he is perfectly correct. He further claims, however, that the net force on the cavity is asymmetrical, without any photons leaving the cavity, and in this he is not correct. The centre of mass of a closed system can not accelerate (or resist gravity either, since that amounts to the same thing) as a result of interactions between the parts of the system. That has been understood theoretically since the time of Newton, and confirmed experimentally in thousands of contexts and probably billions of individual events. Special relativity required some refinements to this principle, but they have been well understood for about a century.

It is not about protecting a preferred belief in a certain structure of science, it is about establishing new science, and finding the real boundaries of science. When we come up with a true unified theory, then we can start pretending we might know exactly where the boundary is.

I am all for establishing new science when there is something new that requires explanation, but though we might not know the boundaries exactly it is neither practical nor logical to pretend that we have no idea whatsoever. Shawyer has no compelling experimental evidence that his claims are correct, and his theoretical derivation of his supposed effect (which he thinks is based on established electromagnetic theory, not any kind of new science) is an incoherent mess. In this context, it would be ridiculous to say that we can’t assert that Shawyer is mistaken until there is a unified theory of all of physics.

Scientists should be willing to question everything, but only when there is a very good reason. In this case, there is no reason.

Posted by: Greg Egan on September 27, 2006 11:50 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Is it too late to support the criticism of NS about the Shawyer article? I have been reading NS for a long time, but this was the whackiest article I can remember. It does suggest a worrying slide in editiorial standards (if not a total absence of these).

Nobody seems to have commented on this, but in that same issue there was even yet another dodgy item, which in its way I suggest is more damaging.

It was an article by a political scientist about how we should stop worrying about the extinction of species, because the “weed” species would expand and fill the gaps.

He had the nerve to refer to species endangered by human recklessness as “relics” and “ghosts”, for all the world like some gauleiter of the new Aryan biological order determining which races are worth saving.

The article was in its way, more damaging than Shawyer’s, because some people will now accept that a “scientist” has shown that saving the Red List is pointless.

And what dozy editor accepted an article by a political “scientist” without checking with a real one whether or not it was nonsense?

Posted by: Rory Allen on October 3, 2006 12:27 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Rory Allen wrote:

Is it too late to support the criticism of NS about the Shawyer article?

I’m sure it’s never too late to write to NS and let them know your views, either via their web page or via email. To date they’ve yet to publish any letters concerning the Shawyer article, but even if our letters aren’t published I think it’s always worth adding one’s views to the feedback coming into the magazine.

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 3, 2006 11:51 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

Hi folks,

I’ve put up my two cents on Shawyer’s fraudulent drive ‘Theory paper’ at http://www.assassinationscience.com/johncostella/shawyerfraud.pdf.

Very disappointed in New Scientist.

John Costella

Posted by: John Costella on October 4, 2006 4:11 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

That’s a wonderfully clear and simple analysis! Congratulations for having the stamina to wade through Shawyer’s bad-physics-homework-from-hell and really get to the heart of it.

I wonder if you’ve considered submitting a version of this to New Scientist for publication? It might be judicious to write a version that’s more diplomatic towards them and towards Shawyer, and cuts straight to the chase. I can’t claim that there’s a huge chance that they’d publish it, but since you’ve done all the hard work already and would basically just need to cut a few things out, I can’t see what you’ve got to lose. The appropriate slot in the magazine might be the “Comment and Analysis” section, so if you got the word length right and offered it to their opinion editor, who knows, it might stand a chance.

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 5, 2006 12:25 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

I have one small query about your refutation of Shawyer’s paper. On page 3, you write:

Start with Shawyer’s Figure 2.4. He shows his truncated conical contraption, with a particle bouncing around inside it. It must have a constant energy, because it’s being reflected elastically at every wall. That means that the magnitude of its momentum, p, is constant.

Isn’t that true only in the limit that there is no recoil by the wall? I realise that it ought to be an excellent approximation, but a solar sail would never accelerate under the same approximation, so might it be better not to assume that the photon energy is unchanged?

I don’t think this changes your central point about the direction of the force on the side walls.

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 5, 2006 6:54 AM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

The current issue of New Scientist (cover date 7 October, but now online) has a few letters on the Shawyer “emdrive” (including one from me which is a bit too charitable, because I had not yet read his “theory paper”), along with a response from Shawyer, who asserts that his work has been subject to

a long and detailed review process by industry and government experts

and does obey all conservation laws … among other reasons, because:

The equations used to calculate the guide wavelengths in the static thrust equation are very non-linear.

As responses to controversy go, this all seems reasonably fair; having opened up the can of worms in the first place, they could hardly deny Shawyer a right to reply. But I remain of the view that the magazine has still been irresponsible in elevating obvious nonsense to a level where it seems like a genuine dispute among scientists.

It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect them to make a public admission to that effect, but it’s never too late to let them know your views (via email or their website).

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 4, 2006 11:41 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

New Scientist now have a blog thread on the Shawyer article, which begins with a statement by the editor defending the article:

Editor’s note

It is a fair criticism that New Scientist did not make clear enough how controversial Roger Shawyer’s engine is. We should have made more explicit where it apparently contravenes the laws of nature and reported that several physicists declined to comment on the device because they thought it too contentious.

But should New Scientist should have covered this story at all? The answer is a resounding yes: it is, after all, an ideas magazine. That means writing about hypotheses as well as theories.

And let’s not forget that Shawyer has experimental data that has convinced peer reviewers that he is onto something. He believes he can explain his machine’s behaviour in terms of existing physical laws, which is what the theorists contest.

The great thing is that Shawyer’s ideas are testable. If he succeeds in getting his machine flown in space, we will know soon enough if it is ground-breaking device or a mere flight of fancy.

Jeremy Webb, Editor, New Scientist

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 5, 2006 3:26 PM | Permalink

Re: A Plea to Save “New Scientist”

This is interesting enough that I’m going to turn off comments here and move discussion to a new entry, where it will attract more attention.

Posted by: John Baez on October 5, 2006 4:59 PM | Permalink
Read the post New Scientist Reacts!
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: New Scientist now has a blog entry defending their article on Shawyer's electromagnetic drive.
Tracked: October 5, 2006 4:40 PM
Read the post Topos Theory in the New Scientist
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: Robert Matthews on Chris Isham's work on topos theory and physics.
Tracked: April 14, 2007 3:13 AM
Read the post The Virtues of American Scientist
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: While some science magazines have declined, the American Scientist is still great.
Tracked: September 24, 2007 8:22 PM
Read the post When the first three things you read are wrong...
Weblog: Technogypsy
Excerpt: it's not a good thing. It's like reading "New Scientist"* except someone is trying to save them.Anyway, I read " The Golden Compass" when it first came out, and it is decent adventure story. I haven't seen the movie although I want to for the fighting...
Tracked: December 23, 2007 5:18 PM
Read the post New Scientist - EmDrive article controversy
Weblog: Confluence: New
Excerpt: New Scientist EmDrive article controversy In September 2006, ''New Scientist'' was criticised by science fiction writer Greg Egan Greg:Greg Egan,...
Tracked: October 27, 2008 12:57 AM
Read the post New Scientist - EmDrive article controversy
Weblog: Confluence: New
Excerpt: New Scientist EmDrive article controversy In September 2006, ''New Scientist'' was criticised by science fiction Science:Science fiction writer Greg Egan,...
Tracked: October 28, 2008 9:57 PM