What’s in this Black Box?


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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40 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Reminds me of the Heim Drive, only testable.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      This is how we get the Event Horizon.Report

    • The Dean Drive is another one. That was highly touted in SF circles (especially in Analog) in the 1950s and, along with Dianetics and the Hieronymus machine were pretty clear evidence that John Campbell had lost his mind.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        That link has some great pot-kettle Othering.

        Campbell believed one could create an eloptic receiver or similar device with the prisms and amplifiers represented by their cardboard or even schematic representations. Through the use of mental powers, such a machine would function as well as its “real” equivalent.[6] While Campbell claimed that Hieronymus machines actually did perform this way, the concept was never fully accepted by Hieronymus or pursued by him in later years.[7] In his autobiography, he wrote, “I appreciated Mr. Campbell’s interest in my work, but over the years since then, I have concluded that he set back the acceptance of my work at least a hundred years by his continual emphasis on what he termed the supernatural or ‘magic’ aspects of a mind-controlled device he built by drawing the schematic of my patented instrument with India ink. The energy flowed over the lines of this drawing because India ink is conducting, but it isn’t worth a tinker’s damn for serious research or actual treating.”

        “I may be a total quack, but that Campbell dude is NUTS.”Report

  2. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    The phrase “uses no fuel” in the article is misleading. What they mean is “uses no reaction mass”. The generated force requires rather prodigious amounts of electricity — the current claimed force can be conveniently measured in micro-Newtons per kilowatt. Electricity generation in the kind of form that would make this interesting for getting mass to LEO very definitely requires fuel. Probably also tens or hundreds of Newtons per kilowatt to be really interesting. Call it eight orders of magnitude. We’ve spent decades trying to make that kind of jump with controlled nuclear fusion, and that was starting from a point where there was no question but what fusion was occurring in the experiments.

    Although these days, when I want to be depressed about space possibilities, I read pieces about Kessler cascades.Report

    • Well, whatever it is and however it works… it will power the most exquisitely designed spaceship ever.

      I approve.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain says:

      If you want to be depressed about space possibilities, just look at quantum mechanics… and apply Occam’s Razor. Because there really is a headspace where quantum mechanics becomes a neat and elegant and simple solution…Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

      RTG is pretty cheap and well known, and solar panels are good anywhere inside the asteroid belt. The thing about this is, while the thrust is low, if it’s real you’re basically thinking “ion drive”. It doesn’t need to be powerful. It just needs to be steady, because there’s no drag in space (aside from hitting the occasional atom). Like compound interest, it’s pennies at first but after awhile it hits a fun point and things get….interesting.

      Reaction mass, not energy generation, is the problem for getting around — because if you add a pound of reaction mass or fuel, that’s another pound you’ve got to move around — increasing how much reaction mass/fuel you need. And you need it for getting going AND stopping.

      There’s a reason some of the Mars plans involve stuff like setting up a big vehicle that orbits between Earth and Mars and you use spaceships to get to and from that, rather than zipping along directly. And that if you want to go out to the outer solar system (or god forbid, beyond) you end up with vehicles that are mostly fuel. Or take decades of looping, gravity assisted orbits, to get anywhere.

      You want to get a pound of equipment (that’s everything — rocket, reactor/generator, equipment, everything but the stuff shoved out the back end of the rocket) to Pluto? Be prepared to need 10 times that in fuel whose only purpose is to get shoved out the back end of the rocket. Or only 5 times as much in fuel, but it’ll take you 20 years and you’ll go around Earth, the Sun, and Jupiter, back to the Sun, and finally to Pluto to get there. You have a launch window of 3 days every 16 months).Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20 says:

        Also, if the can figure out how this thrust is being produced, the theory with supporting equations, then it is possible they can devise a means of scaling it up & vastly improving the efficiency.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Morat20 says:

        All true. Laser photon thrusters producing a milli-Newton of force and accelerating actual macro masses can be demonstrated on a repeatable basis. No reaction mass involved, they don’t require any new physics, and they’re already three orders of magnitude more efficient than these microwave gadgets (in terms of Newtons-per-megawatt). I think it will be amusing if these new devices turn out to work because of some incidental maser effect doing the same thing.

        Over the last 25 years, there have been a whole series of instances where the popular press has grabbed onto something that violates our current understanding of physics. Cold fusion. Powerful space drives that don’t require reaction mass. Even Lockheed’s announcement that the Skunk Works could produce a working hot fission generator in five years if someone would just give them enough money. My own belief about this trend is that it reflects the growing realization that the two biggies that speculative fiction has been promising for decades — dirt-cheap energy and easy access to outer space — appear to be receding out of reach.Report

        • The Lockheed remark should say “hot fusion”. My fingers seem to be particularly stupid this morning.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

            The Lockheed thing is weird. They gotta have a handle on something interesting (which does not mean “fusion tomorrow”), or they wouldn’t have press released it. Unless it’s some weird internal political fight over funding or something.

            Reactionless thrust — and this is nicer than, say, solar sails or beam-riders (easier to decelerate, although you can do it with sails and beamriders too, it’s just trickier and more complex) — is just….really darn useful, in a space sense. It opens up a lot of possibilities, and isn’t flat-out impossible (or close to it) like FTL nor has it suffered under ‘just around the corner’ syndrome like fusion.

            In fact, the mere idea has always been a pretty good crank detector. Nobody takes it terribly seriously despite the total usefulness of it (and it really is just behind FTL and gravity generation in terms of ‘useful’), because there’s been two types of proposals — ridiculously bad science and ‘thought experiment with magic technology’.

            That this thing is still being tested without someone having figured out how it’s working is a rather interesting sign. Normally these things get figured out pretty quick as soon as someone’s allowed to test it independently.Report

            • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Morat20 says:

              The Lockheed thing is weird. They gotta have a handle on something interesting (which does not mean “fusion tomorrow”), or they wouldn’t have press released it. Unless it’s some weird internal political fight over funding or something.

              If Lockheed had more than the Powerpoint slides they’ve shown, they should be able to do a reveal under non-disclosure and get the money, or at least the first piece of it, without any trouble.

              I figure they’re at the point where they’re thinking, “We need a few billion coming in for something else, because one of these days Congress is going to wake up to the F-35 scam.” Myself, if I were a Congress critter, the day after Lockheed announced that it would be almost four years after the plane passed initial operational capability before the software to actually fire the cannon in flight would be available, I’d have introduced a bill to close the whole project down.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Well yes but you and I both know the F-35 program was successfully designed to be absolutely impenetrable against its intended target: the United States Congress. The damn thing is garbage as a weapon but as a public pork collecting program it’s a shining triumph of modern political lobbying engineering.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

                Re: F-35

                I honestly can’t decide who is more at fault, the Pentagon for creating an RFP that was patently nonsense, or the American aerospace sector for not laughing them out the door (I can’t blame Lockheed alone, Boeing & others went along with the nonsense).Report

              • Why would the aerospace sector dislike something so potentially lucrative just because it’s stupid and undoable? If there’s billions of money in time and materials being thrown at solving the halting problem, I’m getting my bid in early.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                You’re right, this is on the Pentagon for not exercising the sense inherent is an earthworm.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Yeah, but if they were going for the commercial version of kickstarter, um…why wouldn’t that be done quietly? With more than press releases?

                It’s entirely too sketchy to get investment money. And it’s not like Lockheed doesn’t have the money to do it internally, although power generation is a surprisingly tough field to get into. (Although the subsidies they could beg for fusion would be pretty sweet, enough to get over any barrier to entry I would suspect).

                My best guess is they have something good, but not a solution. Maybe a really clever piece of hardware, some part of a solution — and are stuck. They’re looking not for monetary injections, but for a partner that might have the know-how to take what they’ve got and use it to get to the end.

                It’s not like the Skunk Works are fusion experts.

                So that’s what I’ve got. they’ve done something clever, got some piece of hardware they think can lick the fusion problem, make it commercially viable. But that’s as far as it goes, and it’s too much potential money to just license it or let the research labs play with it.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Go back to about 1993 and people were saying the exact things about the F-22 that they are saying now about the F-35.

                In fact, remember when it was utterly and completely obvious that the F-22 production line should be shut down and the cheap, less-sophisticated F-35 should be mass-produced instead?Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    One of the concerns I’ve read of regarding this drive (aside from its very low prior probability due to it violating Newton’s 3rd) is that the measured thrust could be an artefact of the drive heating up. Apparently the measured thrust takes time to build up and persists for a short while after the drive is switched off.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James K says:

      That’s because it’s also a time machine.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to James K says:

      Thermal issues like that would produce thrust considerably smaller than that AND I would bet money was checked out pretty early — it’s a famous issue, given that it puzzled scientists for years because thermal thrust like that was subtly skewing Voyager’s path.

      In short, anyone messing around testing drives for NASA is going to be aware of it.

      And again, the forces measured are something like 100x too high for that. (Which says something about how small an additional force it really would be).Report

  4. Avatar Damon says:

    I prefer the UFO explanation provided in “Repo Man”.Report

  5. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    FYI There could actually be something to this. There is nothing to say it can’t actually be producing thrust. Our understanding of physics is still pretty limited and living in a gravity well does limit some of what we can learn. Still, until the mechanism by which this thrust is being produced is understood, i.e. there is a working theory and some equations that demonstrate predictive value, everyone is quite correct to be skeptical. History is littered with examples of similar shenanigans. IMHO, the thing that makes this hopeful is that no one is claiming anything that violates the conservation of energy, which is always the mark of shenanigans.Report

  6. Avatar Glyph says:

    OK, I finally got through both of the linked Alan Moore videos, and I don’t know what it says about me that I find that he often makes a frightening amount of sense.

    Like, I think he’s a LITTLE off to say that monotheism and a priest caste interceding between man and God is solely (or primarily) the fault of Christianity – the other Abrahamic religions bear similar marks, and in fact Christianity has, at its heart, an effort to disintermediate the priest caste and give humans a direct line to God once more – but other than that, I find many of his ideas, if not always 100% convincing, then 100% very thought-provoking.

    What I’m trying to say is, I think the guy’s pretty much a mad genius, and if he starts a cult I might join.

    Also, he (unsurprisingly, given that ‘magick’ figures into it) wrote a blurb for this book, which I want to read.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

      There were Jewish priests associated with the Temple, but they’ve been mostly out of work since it was destroyed in 70 AD, [1] Since then we’ve had rabbis, who are teachers, not intercessors. Hasidic leaders have taken on some of the character of intercessors again, which is the main thing that gets them made fun of, e.g.

      My Rabbi often performs miracles!

      What do you consider a miracle?

      When God acts according to my Rabbi’s will.

      Oh. See, I consider it a miracle when my Rabbi acts according to God’s will.

      1. Their descendants are still around.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Yeah, I am aware that Judaism shifted (and Moore also talks about the Kabbalist/mystical tradition) – but more broadly, Moore’s beef is with monotheism*, and to paint that development as solely Christianity’s idea seems unfair; and like I said, Christ’s words and actions as reported to us were pretty-explicitly about disintermediating between God and Man.

        *interestingly, at least at the beginning, the Abrahamic religions need not be strictly monotheistic – YHWH said, “no other gods BEFORE ME”, not “no other gods”.Report

        • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Glyph says:

          Yup the technical word for that is (I believe) henotheism. The existence of multiple gods but one chief one who rules them or is deserving of worship. It arguably has biblical support. And that’s where Mormonism’s non-monotheism can justify itself biblically.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Glyph says:

          “no other gods BEFORE ME”,

          That was a trick. At the time, here weren’t any gods whose names began with a Z.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Glyph says:

      Moore is amazing. I know Allan Blooms’ book “The Closing of the American Mind” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I got a lot out of it. I got just as much out of “Watchmen” which came out around the same time. They both posited parallel insights on Nietzsche and modern psychology/psychiatry.

      I’m no expert on Nietzsche; they both may have been misrepresenting him. But Moore did it without being a PhD and accomplished scholar at The University of Chicago.


      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Jon Rowe says:

        Thanks for the link, that is an excellent piece. I think it’s interesting how many people (including Moore himself, weirdly – somehow he managed to create a work so morally-murky, that he himself can’t see it totally clearly) point to Rorschach as profoundly un-heroic – I mean, he pretty much IS Travis Bickle, crossed with a serial killer – racist, misogynist, homophobic, ultra-right-wing – and yet, in the face of the World’s Smartest Man (Ozymandias), and Everyman (Nite Owl), and God Himself (Dr. Manhattan) all telling him that it’s right and it’s reasonable that millions must die, Rorschach still…says…no.

        And that tenacious stubbornness – that absolute refusal to ever go along to get along or give up, no matter what – is sort of the essence of the hero.

        I put off reading Watchmen for many years despite its reputation because I didn’t care for the art style (I wasn’t really aware that it was paying tribute to a particular comics era, and it just seemed sort of old-fashioned). When I finally read it I was blown away, and mad at myself for avoiding it for so long. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but I still haven’t read From Hell, for similar art-related reasons.

        I have Voice of the Fire on my shelf, but haven’t gotten to it yet, and will probably at least attempt Jerusalem.Report