[extropy-chat] Relativity drive: the end of wings and wheels?

scerir scerir at libero.it
Sun Sep 17 18:24:23 UTC 2006

[Greg Egan writes, in sci.phys.research,
' A plea to save "New Scientist" ']

> 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.
> 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.
> Greg Egan

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