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Anti Gravity (updated news)

March 25 2002 at 7:09 PM
Jim  (no login)

Los Angeles Times, 24 March 2002



Up, Up and Away

Defying the shackles of gravity is a
dream enshrined in myth and the human
psyche. Now NASA will test a machine to
determine if it is also real science.

By MARGARET WERTHEIM Margaret Wertheim
is curating a show on the work of
"outsider physicist" James Carter, at
the Santa Monica Museum of Art, opening
April 20. In Carter's theory of physics,
gravity does not exist at all

Laws are made to be broken. Or so the
National Aeronautics and Space
Administration seems to think. After an
almost two-year wait, the agency's
Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, Ala., is poised to take
delivery of a machine that proponents
hope will counteract the laws of

At the heart of the device is a
purported effect so radical it could
change the way we interact with one of
nature's most fundamental forces. We're
talking revolution, not evolution. A
revolution in spaceships would be just
one spinoff. Back here on Earth, the
internal combustion engine could become
an endangered species, replaced by
gravity-powered cars, planes and

The dream of defying gravity has a long
and ignoble history. From Icarus on, the
road is littered with failed attempts to
unbind our feet from the shackles of
nature's most seemingly inexorable
force. But the team behind the NASA
project say they are basing their
efforts on real science, and NASA has
paid almost $600,000 to have the machine
custom-built by Ohio-based
Superconductive Components, Inc. (SCI),
a company that specializes in high-tech
ceramics and superconducting materials.
Says SCI Vice President James R. Gaines
Jr.: "If it works, what a hoot!"
Revolutions are usually bloody affairs,
and this one is no exception. Many
physicists believe the whole project is
a waste of time based on unsubstantiated
research of dubious origin. Gravity,
they contend, is in no danger of
diminution--the only thing they see at
stake is NASA's credibility.

The story begins soberly enough, in the
pages of the respected science journal
Physica C. There, in 1992, Russian
physicist Evgeny Podkletnov published
the results of an experiment in which he
claimed to have discovered a
"gravity-shielding" effect. According to
the article, Podkletnov had managed to
reduce the force of gravity on a small
object by up to 2%--in effect, he had
reduced its weight. Now 2% may not sound
like much, but to the physics community,
it was like a bomb blast. The law of
gravity is one of science's most
sacrosanct principles; any breaching of
its walls would represent a major threat
to the current theoretical framework. If
verified, such a finding would bag its
discoverer a Nobel Prize.

But here's the rub: Podkletnov's paper
was hazy on the details. He worried that
his ideas would be taken by others, that
he would not be given proper credit, and
he refused to allow anyone into his lab
to see his apparatus. Incomplete
disclosure, coupled with the outlandish
nature of the claim itself, left most
physicists scoffing with derision. As a
result, Podkletnov was thrown out of his
job at the Tampere University of
Technology in Finland.

Since his paper appeared a decade ago,
Podkletnov says, many people have
successfully replicated his results, but
if so, they have yet to report them in a
peer-reviewed journal. All those who
have published have failed to detect any
clear results. One of them is Marshall
Space Flight Center researcher Ron
Koczor, who spent two years
investigating various aspects of
Podkletnov's experiments, and eventually
gave up. But Podkletnov insists the
gravity-shielding effect only occurs
when all the experimental conditions are
precisely right. Koczor decided it was a
job for the professionals, and in 1999
he persuaded NASA to commission SCI to
build a facsimile of Podkletnov's
original apparatus.

The details might be sketchy, but the
basic idea behind the device is fairly
simple. It begins with a disc, about six
inches in diameter and a quarter of an
inch thick, made out of a
superconducting material whose recipe
Podkletnov has carefully kept secret.
The disc is cooled to below -233 degrees
centigrade and levitated using a
magnetic field. Then an electric field
is applied to make the disc spin. So
far, all we have is a variation on an
electric motor, but Podkletnov claims
that when the disc rotates at more than
5,000 revolutions per minute, an object
placed above it begins to lose weight.
Somehow, he says, the force of gravity
is being counteracted--the trick is, you
have to get the setup exactly right.

"I wish it was as simple as baking a
cake," says SCI's Gaines. Even with the
company's expertise it has not been
easy. Indeed, the project is a year
behind schedule. But Gaines says his
team are almost there, and they should
be handing over the device to NASA soon.

Will it work? Gaines' technicians are
not gravity experts; their field is
materials science. They have simply
built the machine to agreed
specifications. But, of course, they
would be thrilled if it did work;
success would ensure an enormous boost
to superconducting research. Testing of
the device will be NASA's
responsibility, and he awaits their
results with great expectation.

Personally, I am thrilled to hear my tax
dollars are hard at work subverting the
laws of nature. Or attempting to, at any
rate. Who knows what conceptual
mountains we might demolish if our
imaginations aim high enough? Johannes
Kepler, the founding father of modern
astrophysics, saw science as a form of
play--empirical data set an irrevocable
boundary to this play, but within its
arena the imagination must be free to

This is not NASA's first attempt to look
for the Podkletnov effect. Last year,
Marshall Space Flight Center funded a
different experiment in which a very
sensitive Cavendish balance was used to
try and detect a change of weight in a
superconducting apparatus. Results of
that study were "inconclusive."

Randall Peters, a physicist at Mercer
University in Macon, Ga., was a
consultant to that project--he helped to
customize the balance for this
unorthodox use. "My own position,"
Peters says, "is that I'd be greatly
surprised if the effect being sought was
actually found." Like most physicists,
he feels confident that gravity will
withstand the Podkletnov test.
Nonetheless, he adds that "physics is
full of surprises," and he believes that
scientists need to maintain an open
mind. Gaines agrees, defending NASA's
willingness to go out on such a
speculative limb: "The upside potential
is so huge, they really couldn't afford
to miss out if it is true."

NASA's interest in circumventing gravity
is not theoretical. The agency is
reaching for the stars. Literally. Even
in the zero-gravity environment of outer
space, you still need to accelerate a
ship to extremely high speeds to get to
the stars in any viable framework,
something that cannot be done with
conventional rocket technology. The
Podkletnov effect suggests it may be
possible to effectively reduce the mass
of the ship, thereby reducing the
overall energy needed for acceleration.

The authors of the July paper introduced
their experimental analysis with a
wistful discussion on the limitations of
rocket propulsion. "Using current rocket
technology," they note, "a trip to the
next star would easily consume the
mass-energy equivalent of a planet in
order to arrive within a reasonable
lifetime." Technologies like nuclear
fission and fusion offer some hope, "but
still will not support the 'Star Trek'
vision of space exploration." In short,
if we are serious about space travel, we
need a quantum leap forward in
propulsive power.

Investigating potential options is the
task of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion
Physics Project, which funded last
year's Cavendish balance experiment.
Then headed by aerospace engineer Marc
G. Millis, the BPP group has license to
boldly go where no man has gone
before--to the outermost limits of
current scientific understanding.
Speaking by phone from his office at the
John H. Glenn Research Center in Ohio,
Millis insists that "we're not asking
anyone to develop a warp drive." NASA
understands, he says, that this is going
to take time, and he stresses that they
are "interested in developments of short
increments." Giant spikes of speculation
are to be sheathed in favor of careful
step-by-step progress.

Specifically, the BPP is seeking
projects that can be feasibly achieved
in two to three years. Already, the
office has funded five projects that
investigate anomalous physical effects.
Most do not deal with gravity per se; as
Millis notes, "modifying gravity" is
just one possible direction from which
to approach the propulsion problem. The
group has also funded work on reducing
the effect of inertial mass, on quantum
tunneling and on the relationship
between electromagnetism and space-time.
Well aware of the threat to NASA's
reputation, he is determined to
encourage only the most clean-cut
suitors, people with university
affiliations and the like.

But lightness of being is a dream that
transcends institutional boundaries and
beyond the ivory towers of academe an
unheralded army of amateurs are
beavering away in their basements
against the unbearable restraints of
Isaac Newton's laws. Go online and the
virtual ether fizzes with a thousand
competing propulsion systems. James Cox,
editor of AntiGravity News, lists no
less than seven major classifications of
anti-gravity devices, from those based
on superconductivity, to those that
exploit properties of gyroscopes and
purported anomalies in nuclear physics
or quantum mechanics. Cox himself is
working on an anti-gravity backpack that
he claims is nearing the patent stage.
He is currently seeking funding to
develop a commercially viable prototype.

When the BPP's next casting call goes
out in the fall, Millis says the agency
will keep an open mind. The message of
history, he says, is that new insights
can come from the most seemingly
unlikely directions. By definition, no
one can predict from whence the next
revolution will arise. Gentleman, start
your engines.

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