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October 5, 2006

New Scientist Reacts!

Posted by John Baez

You may recall Greg Egan’s plea to save the magazine New Scientist from a rising tide of crackpottery after it published a glowing article about a propulsion system called the EmDrive. According to its inventor, Roger Shawyer, this drive can push a rocket forwards by bouncing microwaves back and forth in a box. The article didn’t mention that this violates conservation of momentum.

A bunch of us wrote emails to the magazine, with no apparent reaction.

Now they’ve reacted! New Scientist now has a blog thread on the Shawyer article. It starts with a statement by the editor defending the article - see below.

I urge folks who sent email to New Scientist or comments on this blog to post them on the New Scientist blog. That way, your opinions will be publicly visible. But please: be polite, rational, and crystal-clear. There’s nothing to be gained by rudeness.

The New Scientist’s blog thread on the Shawyer article starts with this statement by the editor:

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 at October 5, 2006 4:15 PM UTC

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Re: New Scientist Reacts!

I am shooting this off before hitting bed, at nearly 5am. Doing a single writing pass, so forgive it’s briefness and tardiness:

Greg Egan wrote on September 27, 2006 11:50 PM:

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.

Let’s take that this principle is an approximation (in reference to range of circumstances) of the effect across all circumstances, as a possibility. Now, what does that tell you, that their might exist an engineered circumstance where this is no longer true. Free floating photons, even in a close system, does not require this principle to be true. You seem to be treating the photon as a solid that is responsible for the effect. If you logically thought about it, the only way in our physics understanding it could work would be the energy the photon itself is carrying that produced the effect. In the end you would lend up with a relatively dead photon that could not move, relatively, very much at all. Under these circumstances your closed system principle would like not hold up, because it is no longer about the set force going into and being distributed around, the chamber, but the energy being converted to force that can produce a net imbalance. His chamber design would explain why it is so inefficient (think about it). This conversion would allow for an imbalance, and demonstrated proof of such would be the only way I would give it proper finale credence. There is a problem in our society with text book readers, rather then text book makers (or science makers).

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.

One, I never said we could not have an approximate idea. But for all we do know, at approximately where we think there the boundary is, it might open up into a whole new sub batch, so to speak. If you are conservative that is a sobering thought. For all we effectively know, we might actually be as ignorant of the true reaches of science as the ancient philosopher that thought molecules might be dog bone shaped (forget his name) would be compared to us today. I doubt it though, I think we are narrowing down on the boundaries fast, but there might be a big new field yet to be discovered on the smallest scales etc.

I prefer to reserve my judgement for the proof, either way, or at least exhaustion of possibilities.

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

Can we be sure?

Exhaustion of possibilities, rather than assuming and quiting, is how you get hard one results.

About the silliness, I got to agree, the front page promotion of the article was a bit too much, but it may not be the most far fetched article I have ever seen in New Scientist, even without including some unified and quantum theories.

Posted by: Wayne Morellini on October 5, 2006 8:52 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Wayne Morellini wrote:

But for all we do know, at approximately where we think there the boundary is, it might open up into a whole new sub batch, so to speak. If you are conservative that is a sobering thought. For all we effectively know, we might actually be as ignorant of the true reaches of science as the ancient philosopher that thought molecules might be dog bone shaped (forget his name) would be compared to us today. I doubt it though, I think we are narrowing down on the boundaries fast, but there might be a big new field yet to be discovered on the smallest scales etc.

Your argument boils down to this: anything might be true, so why not Shawyer’s claims?

Why not? Well, firstly Shawyer doesn’t actually share your belief that there is “a big new field yet to be discovered”, because he thinks his claims are a consequence of two old, established and respected theories: Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Einstein’s theory of special relativity. He didn’t build his gizmo, measure this mysterious thrust, and then ask “What new science can explain this?” Rather, he invented the “drive” first on (he says) purely theoretical grounds, based on established theory.

This is why I (and a few million other people) know with mathematical certainty that his theoretical claims are wrong. Maxwell and Einstein’s theories can be expressed mathematically, and it can be proven that they will always without exception respect the relativistic law of conservation of momentum. In other words, whatever Shawyer has measured in the lab, if he thinks he has deduced theoretically from Maxwell and Einstein some consequence that violates that law, he is making a statement about mathematics, and it is trivially easy to prove that it is wrong.

Shawyer in fact insists that the claimed operation of his drive would not violate the law of conservation of momentum. Unfortunately for him, it’s even clearer that this is false. Before the drive is switched on, the momentum of the spacecraft in its rest frame is zero. If the drive is used for some time and then switched off, the momentum of the spacecraft in that same frame is now non-zero. The only way to make the “before” and “after” momenta equal is if there’s something else hanging around in the “after” scenario, such as photons emitted as exhaust. But Shawyer himself denies that there is any such exhaust (and even if there was, it would actually carry thousands of times too little momentum to balance his claimed effect). So he is claiming that zero equals something other than zero. I’m all for healthy scepticism against scientific orthodoxy, but that’s just farcical.

Then we come to his experiments, which conveniently support an effect that Shawyer “predicted” with this garbled non-theory. Can you really think of no other explanations for small forces appearing in a machine with a big power supply and a cooling system, other than your suggestion of exotic new physics (which is not Shawyer’s own claim at all), or Shawyer’s suggestion that zero equals not zero?

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 6, 2006 3:59 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Although Roger Shawyer’s claims are extravagant and unlikely, there are facts that at least suggest that a more measured reaction might be ‘hmmm, really bizarre, but tell us more …’

Firstly, it would appear from his biographical details (as published in New Scientist 9 sep 2006) that he is at least an individual who has a respectable career history, in hands-on engineering, in companies that are mainstream players within the military-aerospace industry. In short, the man appears reputable, with no prior history of silliness.

Secondly, Shawyer’s work is funded by a UK government grant. This in itself does not either rule out fraud or prove the basic principle of his device is scientific or mumbo-jumbo, but it does suggest that at some level the organisation that approved the funding was at least convinced the idea had enough merit for further examination. In addition, the UK is not exactly noted for it’s funding of blue-sky science, and the money given to Shawyer was significant - about $500,000.

Thirdly, the conditions of the grant included independent confirmation of results. It’s interesting to note that Shawyer’s device claims thrust of 88 milli Newtons. That’s a force that a high school student could observe on a lab scale. Recalling the Pons and Fleischman debacle, much of the arguement in subsequent tests went to the issue of statistical significance. Shawyer’s claim allows no such defence. It is so easily testable.

My feeling is that much of the hostility to the claim arises because Shawyer is an empiricist. New Scientist regularly publishes stories on physics and astrophysics that a layman struggles to understand, even conceptually. A mathemetician can advanced the next iteration of theory concerned with events that happened in the first femto-second of the universe’s creation and we nod sagely. An engineer makes a claim of something he has actually observed in the lab and because it seems improbable we throw up our hands in disgust.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if the claim had arisen from something observed fleetingly at CERN or Culham, inside an a multi-year multi-million dollar experiment, the peer reaction would be quite different.

In short, wait till the result is resoundingly disproved or otherwise.

Posted by: Simon Halliday on October 6, 2006 1:27 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Simon Halliday wrote:

My feeling is that much of the hostility to the claim arises because Shawyer is an empiricist. New Scientist regularly publishes stories on physics and astrophysics that a layman struggles to understand, even conceptually. A mathemetician can advanced the next iteration of theory concerned with events that happened in the first femto-second of the universe’s creation and we nod sagely. An engineer makes a claim of something he has actually observed in the lab and because it seems improbable we throw up our hands in disgust.

While I agree that New Scientist publishes a lot of arcane, half-baked speculative bollocks, 99% of which will turn out to be false (and some of which I have complained about, to no avail), the one excuse they have in those cases is that we don’t yet know which 99%. In this case, I am 100% certain that Shawyer’s theoretical claims are wrong.

You say Shawyer is an empiricist, but he designed this gizmo on theoretical grounds, and it’s those theoretical grounds that are blatantly false. (See my reply to Wayne Morellini above.) If he had been working away on some magnetron or waveguide and found a strange force that he couldn’t explain with conventional theory, then by all means that would be worth investigating. But he started with a naive idea - that making one end of a cavity bigger than the other would result in a net force on it - and then mangled electromagnetism and relativity into gibberish stew in an attempt to make it all seem to work out the way he wanted.

By now, New Scientist’s puff piece has elevated public interest in this to the point where I almost wish that someone would waste the money on trying to replicate his work. On theoretical grounds, that is a proposal without merit, but if it saves the taxpayers of some poor country the cost of putting this thing into orbit it will be money well spent.

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 6, 2006 4:25 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Simon Halliday wrote:

My feeling is that much of the hostility to the claim arises because Shawyer is an empiricist.

First of all, this business is not really about Shawyer - it’s about New Scientist. It’s quite common for people to claim they’ve invented devices that violate the accepted laws of physics. Sometimes - very rarely, but sometimes - they’re right. But, if a science magazine wants to keep its credibility when reporting on these inventions, it should at least give the accepted laws of physics an equal hearing! It should not merely shrug them off.

The editor of New Scientist, Jeremy Webb, now admits this. He says:

We should have made more explicit where it apparently contravenes the laws of nature…

Second, the problem is not mainly with Shawyer’s empirical work. It’s with his theoretical work. He claims to do a calculation using Maxwell’s equations - the usual laws of electromagnetism - which proves that his device can propel itself using radiation bouncing around in a box. This is what’s surprising about his work (since it’s impossible).

If he had instead said “I’ve built a machine that creates a thrust of 214 millinewtons per kilowatt”, people would have just said “Wow, that’s incredibly inefficient!” and left it at that. 214 millinewtons is the force it takes to float a mass of about 20 grams. Building a machine that takes a kilowatt to do this would not make the news.

What made the news at New Scientist was Shawyer’s theoretical work. So, they had a responsibility to report on this clearly, getting some physicists to explain why it violates the usual laws of physics. Instead, they just quoted someone as saying it’s “a load of bloody rubbish”, without an explanation. Then the article’s author concocted a hand-wavy argument for how you can violate conservation of momentum using special relativity - which is just wrong.

Posted by: John Baez on October 6, 2006 5:07 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Two things are notable:

1. The passion with which Shawyer has been attacked.

2. The alacrity with which your commentors (many of them apparently with PhDs) turn to classical Newtonian mechanics to explain how photons behave.

I was rather under the impression that a wave function (describing one of Mr Shawyer’s microwave photons) would be utterly unconcerned with the physical shape of his asymmetric wave cavity. Yet at the same time we know from decades of empirical experience that such waves ARE contained in a resonant cavity, without any loss in the case of an infinitely high Q value.

This is a paradox: The photon is contained, yet at the same time the wave function extends beyond the cavity.

A solution to internal energy loss (ignoring Q effects, heating of the wave guide etc) is that the photon downshifts in frequency, and externally, above the narrow and wide ends of the waveguide, the wave function compensates asymmetrically.

In short, resonance inside an asymmetrical cavity causes the unitary wave function to decouple into two functions, its composite function describing an energy state exactly equal to the original function (of the photon immediately prior to injection into the cavity) LESS the energy loss in generating the measured force on the apparatus.

A force is generated, conservation is maintained, and classical photon guys and quantum mechanists are happy.

Posted by: Simon H on October 6, 2006 2:42 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

As I said on the New Scientist blog itself:

One of the remarkable things about the conservation of momentum is that it was first deduced within the framework of Newtonian physics, but remains true when you move on to Einstein’s relativity and even quantum mechanics. True, the mathematics involved becomes more subtle — momentum gets tied up with energy as a 4-tensor, and so forth — but the core principle stays valid. The physicists who have commented about this debacle are not “turning to classical Newtonian” anything. They are pointing out that the Emdrive violates a principle which has been a constant guiding light since Newton’s time, whose mathematical foundation has become ever more solid, and which has been confirmed by countless experiments over the centuries.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 6, 2006 4:19 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Simon H write:

Two things are notable:

1. The passion with which Shawyer has been attacked.

Let’s not psychologize this business overmuch. It’s pretty simple: when you tell physicists you can float objects by bouncing microwaves around in a box, they get excited! If it’s true, it’s the biggest thing since relativity. But if a science magazine explaining it doesn’t even seem to understand that it violates conservation of momentum, they’ll get annoyed.

2. The alacrity with which your commentors (many of them apparently with PhDs) turn to classical Newtonian mechanics to explain how photons behave.

We’re really using conservation of momentum together with the formula relating the energy of electromagnetic radiation to its momentum. If we talk about photons as “particles” in a suspiciously Newtonian way, that’s just to keep ordinary people’s eyes from glazing over.

But again, the point here is not really Shawyer. It’s how the New Scientist saw fit to ignore standard physics when reporting on Shawyer.

Posted by: John Baez on October 6, 2006 5:21 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Photons, schmotons! (-;

I posted links to this thread and the one before to PZ Myers’s Pharyngula blog, in an effort to get biology-oriented people’s comments about the magazine. The “open thread” containing this discussion is here.

A commentor there, “Lab Cat”, points out that last April, the magazine ran an article about New Age attitudes on water including Masaru Emoto’s notion that thoughts affect the shape of ice crystals.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 6, 2006 6:57 PM | Permalink

A simple physical analogy…

Suppose you have near you the opening to a large cave complex. You’ve only been through a few of the rooms yourself, but people have been exploring those caves for the last century, and huge sections of them have been mapped, even photographed.

One day, you’re walking by the cave, and somebody comes out, shouting excitedly. The following conversation ensues:

Somebody: Diamonds! there are diamonds in the cave!

You: Really, where?

S: Well, I’ve been looking around, and right past Microwave Cavity, there’s this stretch of rock that looks just right to contain diamonds! And when I shine my flashlight on it, I can see sparkly stuff! It must be diamonds!

U: Um, so you don’t actually have any of those diamonds in hand, right?

S: well, no, but I saw the sparkles myself, and that geology just looks so right….

U: You know, an awful lot of people have explored the Microwave Cavity area over the past few decades, and they’ve been pretty sure there aren’t any diamonds in there. Heck, I’ve been near there myself, and I don’t know where there would be room for a kimberlite vein. It’s certainly not on the maps.

S: Hey, those caves are huge, anything could be in there, why not diamonds near Microwave Cavity?

U: Because of all those people who’ve looked at it before? How about you come back when you actually have diamonds to show. Even one little one will do, if you can show where you dug it out.

S: Oh, you’re just a wet blanket – people like you never believe anything new, so you’ll never make a big score like this! (dances off singing) I’m gonna be RICH, rich rich!

U: Riiight….

Posted by: David Harmon on October 6, 2006 8:55 PM | Permalink

Re: A simple physical analogy…

There are two separate claims being confused here. John Baez has already pointed this out to some extent but I’m repeating it because some of the replies have missed the point.

(1) The machine works (with no microwave leaks etc.)

(2) Shawyer’s has derived an explanation of the machine’s claimed behaviour in terms of standard textbook physics.

If this story had been presented as just (1), ie. as an empirical discovery that this machine works, I don’t think there’d have been much fuss over it and I’m sure Greg would have ignored it.

But (2) is provably false. This is a much more serious issue. I think (2) is the reason that Greg is so fired up about this and I can’t help but sympathise.

The reason I raise this point again is David Harmon’s comment. It’s a pretty story to explain why we should be sceptical of claim (1), but it does nothing to address claim (2), the real matter at hand.

Posted by: Dan Piponi on October 7, 2006 12:29 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

It is utterly absurd for New Scientist to say that it should cover hypotheses. Theories, yes. New and interesting findings, yes - presuming that those findings can be broadly replicated with appropriately controls. But any damn idea can be a hypothesis, and New Scientist didn’t bother to try even the most minimal analysis that should have caused any scientifically educated individual to reject this magic drive out of hand.

There’s a whole world of distinction between insightful imagination and flights of fancy. A pity New Scientist can’t tell the difference.

Posted by: Matthew George on October 7, 2006 12:52 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

There’s a certain danger that this conversation will get mired in the details of Shawyer’s invention and lose sight of the original point: the problems with New Scientist’s reporting.

Their blog entry seems designed to encourage this shift. For example, it’s called Emdrive on Trial. A better title would be New Scientist on Trial.

To help keep the focus on what really matters, I posted this little comment on their blog:

Jeremy Webb wrote:

We should have made more explicit where it apparently contravenes the laws of nature…

Good, I’m glad we agree on that. But I hope it’s clear: this article is not an isolated problem. It seems that New Scientist is moving to embrace flaky science, by reporting on it without letting ordinary scientists explain why it’s baloney.

For example: your article on a faster-than-light drive designed using Heim theory, a run-of-the-mill crackpot theory that has never passed peer review in any reputable journal.

For example: your article about the chemical properties of water, which brings in homeopathy and “Masaru Emoto, who is said to have proved that water responds to the emotions of those around it”. It mentions that most scientists regard this as ridiculous. But, it doesn’t explain why. Maybe they’re just old-fashioned?

For example: an article about how “Researchers around the world are opening their minds to the possibility that the phenomenon of anti-gravity is not just science fiction”. It mentions that “Most respected physicists still scoff at the idea” - but it doesn’t explain why. Maybe they’re just too conservative?

The Shawyer article is just the latest in this pattern. You quote an engineer as saying the Emdrive is “a load of bloody rubbish”, but you don’t clearly explain why: it violates conservation of momentum! Instead, we get a cock-and-bull story about “changing reference frames”, as if somehow relativity and “the strange nature of light” provided exceptions to this well-established law:

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.

It’s great fun to report on crackpots - done right, it can be highly educational. In fact, I can even recommend some more to you - I know a lot of them!

But surely you can afford some writers who don’t make up their own wild new theories. And, surely you can get some reputable scientists to explain why the theories you’re reporting on are generally considered nutty. No?

On a sillier note: I’m having trouble posting to the New Scientist blog from home, so someone else gets the pleasure of informing Simon H. that he racked up some points on item 20 of the crackpot index. He posted a comment noting that I misspelled “Einstein” on item 8. I hope everyone here understands why I misspelled “Einstein” on item 8.

Posted by: John Baez on October 7, 2006 3:02 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

An anonymous comment has appeared on the New Scientist blog, notifying Simon H. of his winning score. So that’s that.

I just noticed this part of the paragraph which Egan and Baez have quoted:

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.

[emphasis added]

Yes indeedie, those photons had darn sure better be travelling close to light speed. Real close, as a matter of fact.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 7, 2006 2:04 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Eh, today isn’t the Sixties. The market’s evolved and not necessarily in a progressive sense. Back in the day, there were more science graduates and fewer popular science magazines. Nowadays, every broadsheet and berliner reports science news semi-regularly (with colour photos, yet) and there are pop-sci magazines filling every niche.

I’m quite prepared for New Scientist to print rubbish occasionally; it’s almost inevitable that is going to happen in a weekly news magazine. Deadline pressure, pages to fill, competitors to trample into the ground in the rush to publish, all that. Some of the mistakes they make are going to be appallingly naive, because that’s the nature of mistakes sometimes.

Beating NS with a stick, shouting, “Get it right!”, isn’t good enough. For this to be a constructive debate and not a dogpile, there has to be a dialogue, and there has to be room for the NS editors to be able to admit they let a bad one through and room for them to institute some changes in policy. That’s realistic changes, not a soul-crushing quest for 100% reliability.

So, imagine for a moment that you’re not disappointed with NS for publishing an article that got your hopes up in the first paragraph then brutally crushed them in the rest of the piece. What organizational changes would you institute in a commercial popular science news magazine that will keep it popular and reasonably accurate?

Posted by: NelC on October 7, 2006 5:56 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

NelC writes:

What organizational changes would you institute in a commercial popular science news magazine that will keep it popular and reasonably accurate?

Having never run a magazine, my concrete suggestions would probably be naive. I suspect New Scientist is doing a pretty good job of what it’s aiming to do. And I suspect that Jennifer Ouellette is right: their dalliance with crackpots is not a matter of some occasional mistakes, but a deliberate editorial policy - an attempt to broaden their readership.

So, I’ll be satisfied if the editors get the idea that this policy has reached the point of diminishing returns: their magazine is becoming less respected, and this may even lose them some readers. Can a science magazine prosper if lots of scientists start publicly laughing at it?

I bet they can turn things around pretty easily if they feel like it.

Posted by: John Baez on October 8, 2006 7:49 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

I am not very optimistic that an outcry from concerned scientists can change editorial policy. This whole business reminds me of an aphorism Isaac Asimov quoted in his memoirs: “Publicity is good. Good publicity is even better.” (Don’t know who first said that — PT Barnum, perhaps?) The surest way I can see to change their behavior is to lead by example: show them somebody who is making a lot of money (or at least attracting a whole lot of readers) by doing what New Scientist should be doing.

MythBusters is a going enterprise; so is Penn and Teller’s show entitled, ahem, Bulls hit. Critical thought can sell, particularly if you aim at a market segment which cares about truth and likes seeing charlatans exposed. Does anyone have the latest ratings figures for The Daily Show or The Colbert Report?

Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 8, 2006 7:54 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

MythBusters is great! In Australia, not only is it screened on one of our public networks, SBS, but the glossy commercial science program Beyond Tomorrow (which is far more populist than New Scientist) carries excerpts from it.

It would be great if New Scientist found room for something similar, but it would need to be done properly. Michael Shermer’s column in Scientific American is usually pretty pointless, because of a lack of space; he gets to state a position against Intelligent Design, or whatever, but with no room to really make the argument or canvass the relevant facts.

Posted by: Greg Egan on October 9, 2006 3:29 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

MythBusters is great!

Best Science show on television. By far.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on October 9, 2006 6:37 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Blake Stacey wrote:

I am not very optimistic that an outcry from concerned scientists can change editorial policy.

We’ll see. For me it will actually be enough if a few people, reading of this incident, realize that New Scientist articles need to be taken with a grain of salt.

I also think we’re seeing the emergence of a science blogosphere somewhat analogous to the political blogosphere, which among other things can catch some of the mistakes of the “mainstream media”.

(Among other things - alas, including a bunch of really silly, annoying things.)

Posted by: John Baez on October 9, 2006 3:43 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

When I read the article on the so-called “EM Drive” it was immediately obvious that it was nonsense and I guessed at an elaborate hoax. The surprising thing was that the date was not April 1st. I wrote a letter to New Scientist, and had no response whatsoever, not even a automatic acknowledgement. And in the period since the publication they have not mentioned the affair once (Revenge against Sokal?).

I have had a subscription to New Scientist since a child in the 60s, but may not now renew it. As a physicist, silly articles on “reactionless drives” and cables to hoist craft into space I can diagnose myself. However, if the magazine publishes rubbish about biology, I have insufficient knowledge to evaluate their reliability. If I can no longer rely on the contents of New Scientist to be sensible or, as a minimum, to be warned if things are controversial, then what is the point of reading it? The last straw has been to let the article stand and suppress any adverse comment. This is gutless, as well as reactionless.

Posted by: David Myers on October 9, 2006 7:35 AM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

The starting post of the blog is also incorporated in the printed version of the magazine (note I say “magazine”, not “journal”), in the letters section.

My guess is that at the end it is just a try to optimise a radiator (thus a photonic thruster) to get all the photons radiated in a specific direction.

The theory is overhyped. It reminders me of Naudin’s “lifters”, a kind of continuum current (thus different from this microwave trick) device which gets to move the air around it and then some thrust. It works, but the theories about why does it work, that is a different history.

Posted by: Alejandro Rivero on October 9, 2006 12:34 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

Greg Egan:

Your argument boils down to this: anything might be true, so why not Shawyer’s claims?

No, not quite. It is whereever his claims or experiment has a possibility of being true, and there is a strong case for a possibility. That we should reserve final judgment until it is proven one way or the other.

Please consider the arguments. Does it matter what Shawyer’s belief about the nature of the observed effect is? It doesn’t make the effect true or untrue, just his explanation of it. In other words, whatever he says is not going to stop the effect from happening. You can argue about his explanation, which I also am, in part, but the real science is the effect itself. Can we really lump it together? We have to say, if his explanation is wrong, what is happening here. This is a common problem in debate.

Mathematics is used to model the real world, not the other way about (which too many people forget). If people have this the wrong way about, they tend to view anything that does not fit the model, as wrong. This is another common problem, and causes other people to get drawn into it. So, mathematics can be a approximation of the real world, so we get the problem that it might not be as complete as 99% of conditions might make it appear. So, mathematics can be a poor argument, unless we are talking about the operations of mathematics itself. The only way to establish and refine a model, with certainty, is to test new evidence possibilities rigorously and thoroughly, to prove or disprove credibility, as they come up. I think their is a history in science of getting behind principles that stops debates from seeing around them to see what is really happening.

If you think I am wrong in saying that we should test things rigorously and thoroughly, to prove or disprove credibility, please let me know, but I think we can agree on this point?

So, if I suggest that we can’t be certain until we test it, because of the possibility of gaps in our knowledge, or previously unknown engineered technique, isn’t that a possibility?

I can not go into your other argument too much, it would take us into much more debating, and I am wishing to wind down already, but think about it. Where does momentum come from, look at the inputs and the outputs, and more importantly the changes, and is he actually claiming what we might think he is claiming, or something else?

I imagine that somebody like Shawyer is much more aware of interactions that could produce that level of thrust than ourselves, and would/should have eliminated them, and probably understands our arguments better than we do. He is said to have sufficient experimental evidence to prove it to himself, and garner interest from others. Assuming he is what he appears to be, from reputation, and not some crack pot, their needs to be rigorous and comprehensive testing to prove the effect, then, which theory might explain it. I don’t even see any need for new science here (consider it) and I wonder if his answers deliberately lack a few extra details that might relate to patentable technique.

But can we really resolve this by debating logic? Sure somebody can win, but doesn’t proving that some sort of effect is happening, and the source, nature and definition of that said effect, require experimentation? And I hope you can agree, we should leave it there and see what happens. If it proves to be some mistaken influence on the experiment, which when taken away, removes the effect totally, I will be happy enough.

By now, New Scientist’s puff piece has elevated public interest in this to the point where I almost wish that someone would waste the money on trying to replicate his work. On theoretical grounds, that is a proposal without merit, but if it saves the taxpayers of some poor country the cost of putting this thing into orbit it will be money well spent.

Doesn’t science require that we spend the money to prove, or disprove, the effect? Nobody has to put it in orbit, or spend anywhere near the amount, to prove if it works.

I however, should say, that I think New Scientist should publish periodical updates to their articles, to show which way things went. Obviously, a lot of things have been disproven, it is the nature of research, but we may not hear about that, but we should. Maybe there should be an ethical responsibility to tell the readers. New Scientist needs to keep a score card. Obviously most of the theoretical stuff is not going to get proven either way anytime soon, but I hope people can understand that it is only theoretical anyway.

I also agree with what John says, both sides of the debate needs to be published, this contrast has been one of the good things about newscientist in times past. I also take things said in NS articles, and therefore most articles with a grain of salt, I hope everybody does.

To say that New Scientist should not publish theoretical articles, is like saying that there should be no theoretical science at all (like String theory). If something has the possibility of being true, and is not just whacked out, then fair enough. There has to be avenues for this level of publication, so that people can see what “maybe” out there, and test it’s claims. I don’t even care how whacked out they are personally, if they do something new, isn’t it more important to find out how they did it?

Science debates have been plagued with the inability to see past chosen views, which does not help disprove things. This is such an abysmal state in science, and I hope I do not offend, that I find it hard to trust most people to objectively test claims and ferret out the truth. This is human nature, but we can break this mold.

New Scientist is a different level of science periodical, can we expect the same level as Nature, or one of the others. Would that not be missing the point of it’s purpose? There are a few levels, and we would not expect the same standard from New Scientist, as we would from American Scientist, for example.

Simon Halliday:

I agree, your post illustrates some of the things I have been saying about science problems. That is why I just suggest we lay down the argument until the true results come in (the rigorous and comprehensive results, not just forms of conveniently non comprehensive/minimised testing to prove a point).

To be able to change we must be willing to change what we believe, I think is the saying.

Also, on government grants I agree with your well thought out points, and that grants in themselves don’t prove much. In the last year I saw an news article, and the details slip me, but it was something about British Rail (railways) in the 60’s funding something like flying saucer like research. So, government institutions seem willing to fund all sorts of things ;).

Simon H. (a different Simon?):

A solution to internal energy loss (ignoring Q effects, heating of the wave guide etc) is that the photon downshifts in frequency, and externally, above the narrow and wide ends of the waveguide, the wave function compensates asymmetrically.

This is basically what I have been saying, I am not certain if I have been saying it here. There is a couple of more things there I am not talking about. Maybe I will post those latter.

One thing we must note, is that he claims to have diamonds, in hand, it is up to us to prove that these stones are not.

Blake:

MythBusters is a going enterprise; so is Penn and Teller’s show entitled, ahem, Bulls hit. Critical thought can sell, particularly if you aim at a market segment which cares about truth and likes seeing charlatans exposed.

Interesting, I find too many holes and inaccuracies when I watch these types of shows. It is good when the proof is done well, but less so otherwise.

Posted by: Wayne Morellini on October 9, 2006 7:40 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

I’m going to turn off comments on this thread, since some people were starting to pick fights with the other customers. Perhaps all the truly interesting things have been said.

Fistfights in this café could damage the china. So, quarrelsome customers will be escorted out. Here are some examples of phrases you shouldn’t use here:

…the same fool who…

And by the way, nice tactic in starting out on this foot and avoiding my other arguments, but null and void.

You lost the argument there.

As a result of deleting comments containing such remarks, I’ve had to delete some perfectly polite replies. Sorry. The most useful of these was a remark by John Armstrong on how to quote people on this blog. This is explained in the TeXnical FAQ. That’s also the place to ask questions about how to do stuff.

Posted by: John Baez on October 9, 2006 7:47 PM | Permalink

Re: New Scientist Reacts!

The EM drive is still with us:

Sample quote:

The Emdrive is an electromagnetic drive that would generate thrust from a closed system — “impossible” say some experts.

To critics, it’s flat-out junk science, not even worth thinking about. But its inventor, Roger Shawyer, has doggedly continued his work. As Danger Room reported last year, Chinese scientists claimed to validate his math and were building their own version.

Shawyer gave a presentation earlier this week on the Emdrive’s progress at the CEAS 2009 European Air & Space Conference. It answered few questions, but hinted at how the Emdrive might transform spaceflight — and warfare. If the technology works, that is.

The heart of the Emdrive is a resonant, tapered cavity filled with microwaves. According to Shawyer, a relativistic effect generates a net thrust, an effect confirmed by various Emdrives he has built as demonstrations.

To their credit, Wired has this story filed under ‘Bizarro’.

Posted by: John Baez on November 26, 2009 8:27 PM | Permalink