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Breakthrough as scientists beat gravity

by ROBERT MATTHEWS and IAN SAMPLE

SCIENTISTS in Finland are about to reveal details of the world's first anti-gravity device. Measuring about 12in across, the device is said to reduce significantly the weight of anything suspended over it.
The claim - which has been rigorously examined by scientists, and is due to appear in a physics journal next month - could spark a technological revolution. By combating gravity, the most ubiquitous force in the universe, everything from transport to power generation could be transformed.
The Sunday Telegraph has learned that Nasa, the American space agency, is taking the claims seriously, and is funding research into how the anti-gravity effect could be turned into a means of flight.
The researchers at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland, who discovered the effect, say it could form the heart of a new power source, in which it is used to drive fluids past electricity-generating turbines. Other uses seem limited only by the imagination:

  • Lifts in buildings could be replaced by devices built into the ground. People wanting to go up would simply activate the anti-gravity device - making themselves weightless - and with a gentle push ascend to the floor they want.
  • Space-travel would become routine, as all the expense and danger of rocket technology is geared towards combating the Earth's gravitation pull.
  • By using the devices to raise fluids against gravity, and then conventional gravity to push them back to earth against electricity-generating turbines, the devices could also revolutionise power generation.

According to Dr Eugene Podkletnov, who led the research, the discovery was accidental. It emerged during routine work on so-called "superconductivity", the ability of some materials to lose their electrical resistance at very low temperatures.
The team was carrying out tests on a rapidly spinning disc of superconducting ceramic suspended in the magnetic field of three electric coils, all enclosed in a low-temperature vessel called a cryostat.
"One of my friends came in and he was smoking his pipe," Dr Podkletnov said."He put some smoke over the cryostat and we saw that the smoke was going to the celing all the time. It was amazing - we couldn't explain it."
Tests showed a small drop in the weight of objects placed over the device, as if it were shielding the object from the effects of gravity - an effect deemed impossible by most scientists.
"We thought it might be a mistake," Dr Podkletnov said; "but we have taken every precaution." Yet the bizarre effects persisted. The team found that even the air pressure vertically above the device dropped slightly, with the effect detectable directly above the device on every floor of the laboratory. In. recent years, many so-called "anti-gravity" devices have been put forward by both amateur and professional scientists, and all have been scorned by the establishment. What makes this latest claim different is that it has survived intense scrutiny by sceptical, independent experts, and has been the Journal of Physics-D: Applied Physics, published by Britain's Institute of Physics.
Even so, most scientists will not feel comfortable with the idea of anti-gravity until other teams repeat the experiments.
Some scientists suspect the anti-gravity effect is a long-sought side-effect of Einstein's general theory of relativity, by which spinning objects can distort gravity. Until now it was thought the effect would be far too small to measure in the laboratory.
However, Dr Ning Li, a senior research scientist at the University of Alabama, said that the atoms inside superconductors may magnify the effect enormously. Her research is funded by Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre at Huntsville, Alabama, and Whitt Brantley, the chief of Advanced Concepts Office there, said: "We're taking a look at it, because if we don't, we'll never know."
The Finnish team is already expanding its programme, to see if it can amplify the anti-gravity effect. In its latest experiments, the team has measured a two per cent drop in the weight of objects suspended over the device - and double that if one device is suspended over another. If the team can increase the effect substantially, the commercial implications are enormous.


Putting spin on it


I believe that any gravitational effect of Evgeny Podkletnov's spinning superconducting disc will be swamped by another effect (12 January, p 24). Einstein's special theory of relativity predicts that the disc will produce an "electrostatic" force on any nearby static charges. The effect is directly proportional to how fast the disc is spinning, the current in the loop, and the square of the disc's diameter.
I calculate that the 145-millimetre disc, spinning at 5000 revolutions per minute and carrying 1000 amps, will act like a static charge of 4.3 millicoulombs, equivalent to a 20-centimetre sphere carrying 380 kilovolts. That could exert a significant force on any test mass or balance carrying a stray static charge, and ions present in cold dry air would drive the reported air currents. Normal electrostatic shielding will not work as expected.
Even if this is the only effect that Podkletnov has seen, it is still valuable new science-it would verify a core element of special relativity, and could perhaps be scaled up and exploited to create an ion drive.
Jock Hall Ben fleet, Essex

Did anyone report a small tornado appearing above Podkletnov's laboratory? I would have expected that, with the column of air above the antigravity wheel being 2 per cent lighter than the surrounding air, it would have started to rise, been replaced by heavier air, which would have also started to rise, resulting in a minor tornado or at least a dust devil without the benefit of dust. No?
On the other hand, I wonder why the device wasn't peddled as a perpetual motion machine. Simply place a heavy wheel with its axis horizontal and part of its rim above the device. That part of the rim would get lighter and the wheel would start to rotate. Perpetual motion! Perhaps even NASA would have bridled at spending $600,000 of the taxpayer's money for a perpetual motion machine. Antigravity sounds more scientific, perhaps.
Paul White Portsmouth, Rhode Island

The anti-gravity machine described in Podkletnov's 1992 paper seems to be almost identical to the gravity generators used on the starship Enterprise, as described on page 144 of Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, by Rick Steinbach and Michael Okuda, copyright Paramount Pictures 1991-except that the Star Trek devices have larger superconducting discs and spin a lot faster. Of course, that can only be a coincidence, can't it?
Howard Medhurst Crawley, West Sussex
[New Scientist 9 Feb 2002]


PLATONIC SOLIDS The six mathematicians were not scattered throughout the Greek world, as had been those in the fifth century B.C.; they were associated more or less closely with the Academy of Plato at Athens. Although Plato himself made no outstanding specific contribution to technical mathematical results, he was the center of the mathematical activity of the time and guided and inspired its development. Over the doors of his school was inscribed the motto, "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here"; his enthusiasm for the subject led him to become known not as a mathematician, but as "the maker of mathematicians." It is clear that Plato's high regard for mathematics did not come from Socrates; in fact, the earlier Platonic dialogues seldom refer to mathematics. The one who converted Plato to a mathematical outlook undoubtedly was Archytas, a friend whom he visited in Sicily in 388 B.C. Perhaps it was there that he learned of the five regular solids, which were associated with the four Elements of Empedocles in a cosmic scheme that fascinated men for centuries. Possibly it was the Pythagorean regard for the dodecahedron that led Plato to look on this, the fifth and last, regular solid as a symbol of the universe. Plato put his ideas on the regular solids into a dialogue entitled the Timaeus, presumably named for a Pythagorean who serves as the chief interlocutor. It is not known whether Timaeus of Locri really existed or whether Plato invented him as a character through whom to express the Pythagorean views that still were strong in what is now Southern Italy. The regular polyhedra have often been called "cosmic bodies" or 'Platonic solids" because of the way in which Plato in the Timaeus applied them to the explanation of scientific phenomena. Although this dialogue, probably written when Plato wia near seventy, provides the earliest definite evidence for the association of the four Elements with the regular solids, much of this fantasy may be due to the Pythagoreans. Proclus attributes the construction of the cosmic figures to Pythagoras; but the scholiast Suidas reported that Plato's friend Theaetetus, born about 414 B.C. and the son of one of the richest patricians in Attica, first wrote on them. A scholium (of uncertain date) to Book XIII of Euclid's Elements reports that only three of the five solids were due to the Pythagoreans, and that it was through Theaetetus that the octahedron and icosahedron became known. It seems likely that in any case Theaetetus made one of the most extensive studies of the five regular solids, and to him probably is due the theorem that there are five and only five regular polyhedra. Perhaps he is responsible also for the calculations in the Elements of the ratios of the edges of the regular solids to the radius of the circumscribed sphere. Theaetetus was a young Athenian who died in 369 B.C. from a combination of wounds received in battle and of dysentery, and the Platonic dialogue bearing his name was a commemorative tribute by Plato to his friend. In the dialogue, purporting to take place some thirty years earlier, Theaetetus discusses with Socrates and Theodorus the nature of incommensurable magnitudes. It has been assumed that this discussion took somewhat the form that we find in the opening of Book X of the Elements. Here distinctions are made not only between commensurable and incommensurable magnitudes, but also between those that while incommensurable in length are, or are not, commensurable in square. Surds such as Ö3 and Ö5 are incommensurable in length, but they are commensurable in square, for their squares have the ratio 3 to 5. The magnitudes  Ö(1+ Ö 3)  and Ö(1+ Ö 3) on the other hand, are incommensurable both in length and in square.
[Carl C Boyer "A History of Mathematics"]

And then there were five
A hidden force could be changing the face of the Universe

THE ground is shifting under our feet. Fundamental properties of the Universe are changing, and physicists can't explain how or why. Now researchers say an as yet undiscovered fifth force could be behind these mysterious changes.
Physicists combine supposedly unchanging physical properties, such as the speed of light and an electron's charge, into a number called the "fine structure constant" that describes how our Universe hangs together. But in 1999, astronomers analysing 10-billion-year-old light from distant quasars got a shock when they found that it was different from what we'd expect to see today.
They concluded that the fine structure constant, or alpha, must have been different 10 billion years ago. If so, the host of fundamental values tied to alpha could be changing too: light may be slowing down, the electron's charge growing, and atomic nuclei losing mass.
If the Universe is four dimensional, then a fifth force is the only thing capable of triggering these changes, say Gia Dvali and Matias Zaldarriaga of New York University. The four fundamental forces known so far are gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. But the new force would have a repelling effect, showing itself via tiny particles called "alpha ions" slowly emitted from protons and neutrons. As the repelling alpha ions were lost, atomic nuclei would lose mass, but atoms would become more strongly bound together.
The force would be incredibly weak,100,000 times fainter than gravity. But it would work over long ranges, meaning it could serve as the mysterious repulsive energy called quintessence, Latin for "fifth element", that some scientists say explains why the Universe is flying apart faster and faster.
"The possibility that you could find a [force] that is both making the fine structure constant vary and causing the Universe to accelerate is extraordinarily exciting. It'd be a fantastic discovery," says theoretical physicist Sean Carroll of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago.
There are several theories to explain the variation in alpha, but they all require some kind of fifth force, says John Barrow of the University of Cambridge. "They would each have different consequences for observations very close to the surface of neutron stars." But Dvali and Zaldarriaga say there's an easier way to detect traces of alpha ions. They would be shed at different energies depending on a particle's mass, and that would make protons and neutrons fall at very slightly different speeds.
A satellite programme called STEP is already being planned to test the theory. Free-floating masses will be isolated in an ultra-high vacuum. If they fall at different rates, it would support the existence of alpha ions. Otherwise, we may have to look to higher dimensions for an answer. Dvali and Zaldarriaga say that without a fifth force, that's the only thing that could explain why alpha is changing. Charles Choi, New York More at: Physical Review Letters (vol 88, p 091303)
[New Scientist 2 March 2002]

In a speech delivered at the turn of the century, the Irish scientist William Thomson congratulated science on having achieved such a marvelous understanding of the natural world. All that remained was a kind of mopping-up operation, he boasted, requiring little more than "adding a few decimal places to results already obtained." Thomson, however, had neglected to mention the still-unresolved mystery surrounding the ancient Greeks' fifth element, the ether, a quintessential substance from which the heavens supposedly had been made. Moreover, he had no idea that looming on the horizon of science was a small dark cloud whose name was Albert Einstein; in just five more years, he would rain all over Thomson's cheery forecast and take by storm science's tidy little description of the cosmos.(p232)


Perhaps, scientists speculated, light waves traveled through a material agency that was not easily detectable, some kind of invisible, all-pervasive ether, they called it. This ether would be odorless, colorless, and densenessless; and yet, it would enable light waves to convey themselves from one place to another. How convenient! In 1881, American physicist Albert Michelson and British physicist Edward Morley began a series of extraordinary experiments they hoped would detect the seemingly undetectable ether. It hinged on one idea: Since the earth whirled around the sun at 30,000 meters per second (about 67,500 mph), it would be expected to create quite a measurable wake in the ether, if indeed the invisible stuff really did exist. Michelson and Morley proposed to compare the speed of light in two different directions-along the wake and across it. In other words, they would compare a beam of light moving along the direction of the earth's orbit with a second beam moving across it. (p240)
It was no wonder, therefore, that light always had struck philosophers as being so supernatural. Every time one looked at the light from a star, a flame, or even Edison's incandescent bulbs, one was seeing pure, incorporeal energy-as fantastic, in its own way, as beholding a disembodied soul. For 2,000 years, in one form or another, ether had obfuscated the true cosmos from science 5 probing senses, but no longer. With his theory of relativity, Einstein had seen the universe through eyes unclouded by the ancient ethereal haze; consequently, that hoary quintessential element was about to become as obsolete as the concept of absolute space and time. (p249)
[Michael Guillen "5 Equations that Changed the World"]

This Gravity is killing me - Def Leppard

Those who interview famous people always hope to extract some embarrassing admission from their subjects. In the current issue of Physics World, the editor Peter Rodgers persuades Prof Paul Davies the distinguished physicist and science writer, to admit to the scientific equivalent of having once belonged to a weird cult back when he was a PhD student, Prof Davies confessed, he had had an urge to explain why Alpha equals 1/137.'
This sounds perilously like one of those crackpot attempts to unravel the significance of the number 666 in the book of Revelations. To be fair, it's not quite as bad as that: Alpha is the number that sums up the strength of the electromagnetic force in our universe.
Even so, many physicists regard attempts to explain its value as misguided; for them, Alpha equals 1/137, because it just does - just as Pi equals 22/7 or thereabouts. That's the way our universe is.
Yet Prof Davies is not the only distinguished physicist to have fallen under the spell of Alpha and other fundamental constants". The Nobel Prize-winners Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli both spent years pondering the values of these constants - with Pauli reputedly being very disturbed to find himself spending his last hours in a hospital room numbered 137.
As Prof Davies points out however, Alpha is no longer regarded as fundamental or even constant. Along with the numbers capturing the strengh of the other three fundamental forces - gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces -Alpha is now considered to be just the deceptively simple upshot of a Theory of Everything, which will (physicists hope) eventually show that all four forces are merely different facets of one "superforce".
Put (very) simply, this super-force is thought to have existed only in the first moments after the Big Bang. Soon afterwards, the rapid expansion and cooling of the universe caused it to separate into the four different fundamental forces that control events today.
As with talk of Alpha, such an account of events in the early universe has a decidedly biblical tone to it. Not that creationists are very keen on it: they tend to dismiss it as "just a theory" - apparently in the belief that a theory is the basest form of knowledge.
While it does not aspire to the certainty of a dogma, as a scientific theory it can actually make at least one claim for being taken seriously: it can be put to the test - at least, in theory.
If some way could be found to recreate the temperatures of the early universe, it should be possible to witness today's four forces merging back into the one primordial "superforce".
Remarkably, such a re-run of history can be performed using a particle accelerator. Temperature is just a measure of how well heat can flow from one place to another. As such, it is really just another way of stating the speed of particles: the higher the temperature, the higher their speed.
Large particle accelerators, such as the five-mile wide LEP machine in Geneva, can accelerate electrons to colossal speeds - and thus mimic extremely high temperatures, more than one rnillion billion degrees C. According to astronomers, such temperatures prevailed about one hundred-billionth of a second after the Big Bang.
If the superforce theory is right, the electromagnetic force should have been stronger in the early stages of the Big Bang. Thus physicists using particle accelerators should notice the value of Alpha increase as they crank up the speed of the particles.
Amazingly, this is precisely what physicists have found using the LEP machine. By the time they hit temperatures of one million billion degrees, the value of Alpha had increased from its "room temperature" value of 1/137 to 1/128. In other words, these experiments show that about one hundred-millionth of a second after the Big Bang, electromagnetism was seven per cent stronger than it is today. After extrapolating the results from this and other experiments, physicists now claim hard evidence to show at least three of the four forces merging into each other at sufficiently high temperatures.
In the face of such evidence, those past attempts to explain why Alpha "must" equal 1/137 now look a bit naive. Certainly Pauli needn't have fretted so much about the significance of his room number.Ultimately, these failed attempts highlight the dangers - that even Nobel Prize-winners face - of believing that because something looks simple, it must have a simple explanation.
Einstein himself recognised the dangers, and his words of advice still ring in the ears of theoreticians to this day: "A theory should be as simple as possible - but no simpler."
[The Sunday Telegraph 9/9/2002]

Strange forces at work in the quantum world

With the start of a new academic year, lecturers and students are about to enter into the age old academic contract: that the lecturers have an understanding of their subject and will try to convey it to any student who can be bothered to turn up.
There is one subject in which this contract has been broken for years, with lecturers not really understanding their subject at all, and cheerfully admitting as much to their students. It is quantum mechanics, the impressive-sounding name given to the grab-bag of tricks, fudges and lash-ups that constitutes our understanding of the sub-atomic world. Over the months ahead, another generation of physics students will be introduced to the wonders of Schrödinger's equation, wave-particle duality and the like, while the lecturers pray that no one asks too many questions about where it all comes from.
Even Richard Feynman, the American physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum theory, once declared: "I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics."
Sometimes it is fine to think of sub-atomic particles as tiny ball-bearings, while other times they are best thought of as waves.
Sometimes they can be considered tiny spinning tops, but ones that spin only at certain prescribed values.
One of the biggest challenges in understanding the subject is the sheer strangeness of it all, the lack of contact with familiar things. Feynman's advice on how best to understand quantum mechanics is reminiscent of that adopted by Buddhists contemplating the nature of reality: do not waste time with metaphysical questions - just accept it,and work with the consequences. Those who do are rewarded with some spectacular insights, from the links between magnetism and subatomic spin to the existence of "vacuum fluctuations'', in which particles are constantly created and destroyed all around us.
Even so, the human mind still feels comforted by the familiar which makes an article on quantum mechanics in last week's issue of the journal Nature doubly surprising. It describes one of the most mind-boggling sub-atomic effects predicted by quantum mechanics, and draws parallels to a phenomenon first seen by the captains of galleons.
In 1948, Hendrik Casimir, the Dutch physicist, made the startling discovery that if two metal plates are brought close enough together, a force magically appears between them, pushing them together. More startling still, the origin of the force is, quite literally, nothing - pure empty space. The force is very feeble, and it was measured convincingly only within the past five years using quartz crystals placed less than a thousandth of a millimetre apart: its strength amounted to about one-tenth the weight of this full-stop. Not a lot as Paul Daniels, the conjurer, might say, but still significant. As Eyal Buks, a physicist at Technion in Israel, points out in Nature, engineers have found that this "force from nowhere" can jam up tiny devices built with sub-millimetre components.
As so often with quantum mechanics, the origins of the Casimir Force are hardly intuitive. Roughly speaking, it emerges from the fact that even empty space is permeated by waves of energy that emerge from nowhere. Putting two plates into this sea of energy creates a region in which only waves of a certain size can fit.The two plates are then pushed together by the waves left outside the plates, hammering to be let in.
All of this might be obvious to those who routinely deal with the wave equations of quantum theory. It might, however, also come as little surprise to those who spend their time dealing with a more familiar form of wave. As Dr Buks points out, there have been reports since the early 19th century of a mysterious "force from nowhere" that emerges when two tallmasted ships come alongside one another in a swell. According to sea lore, unless evasive action is taken the two ships will be pushed together with disastrous consequences.
Remarkably, Sipko Boersma, the Dutch physicist, has recently shown that this maritime force can be explained by analogy to its esoteric quantum counterpart. In a swell, ships roll from side to side, creating waves themselves. If two ships come alongside each other, the waves they create cancel each other out in the gap between the two vessels - allowing the waves in the water on the other side to force them together.
As with the Casimir Force, is not an enormous force, but still enough to cause trouble. Yet its greatest significance could well be its value as an everyday analogy for an atomic effect that is anything but run of the mill.[See also Symmetry,Maths]
Robert Matthews
[The Sunday Telegraph Sep 22 2002]


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