written for Forbes
The Power Of The Force; The Curious Case Of The EmDrive
We talk a good game when it comes to disruptive. Go to LinkedIn and enter the word “disruptive” in the search box and you will get a long list of Disruptive references. It is a hot word, especially when it comes to technology. We love claims of disruption. But when we get right down to it, we’re not really comfortable with the disruptive.
We like conventional wisdom, commonly accepted facts. In pop culture, a good example can be found in the movie, Spotlight. The movie is the story about the revelation of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Other journalists, in the same newsroom, didn’t like the story. They were uncomfortable with it and thought there was simply no way that priests could or would sexually abuse children We now know better.
This happens in science as well. The earth was flat until it wasn’t anymore but for the few who argued the earth was round it was a very uncomfortable time. When nobody sailed off an edge, opinions changed. The earth for centuries was presumed to be the center of the universe. Those who dared to suggest otherwise were mocked or cast out of their church. Empirical, verifiable evidence changed all of that.
Skepticism in the face of claims of disruptive claims is not surprising, the word disruptive means to cause difficulty or annoyance. Synonyms include; annoying, irritating, exasperating, maddening, infuriating, irksome, pesky, vexatious, vexing, bothersome, nettlesome, tiresome, worrying, worrisome, disturbing, and upsetting.
Not exactly something you might readily embrace unless you are the one doing the disrupting. And as much as we’d like to think otherwise, sometimes disruption is just what we need.
But, sometimes it’s a con.
And that is the question when it comes to a fascinating technology called the EmDrive, a radically new theoretical jet propulsion technology. (EmDrive is short for Electromagnetic Drive.)
Now, I admit that I have a weakness when it comes to new shiny things. I am especially vulnerable to shiny new things that are potentially revolutionary. EmDrive is the brainchild of Roger Shawyer a British engineer and physicist. His UK-based company is SPR Ltd (Space Propulsion Research). Here is a link to his original research that The New Scientist made available in 2006.
For the uninitiated, the theory of EmDrive has a fundamental problem in that it appears to violate a basic law of physics as we currently understand it known as the conservation of momentum.
There are a million places on the internet where you find discussions about this.
One of my favorite science websites, IFLScience. The write debunks EmDrive and explains very clearly why. Simple, right? It’s all just BS.
Ah, but this is where it gets interesting and entertaining; NASA has a lab, Eagleworks, where all sorts of advanced, theoretical, crazy ideas get their tires kicked. Well, this autumn notes began appearing on blogs that Eagleworks scientists appeared to have validated the theories of EmDrive.
One well-written story appeared in the International Business Times. You can also find a discussion on the nasaspaceflight forum. None of which as deterred lots of very smart people, who steadfast in their skepticism. Discover says, no.
A lot of criticism has been focused on the fact that Shawyer and SPR (Space Propulsion Research) have never published a peer-reviewed paper, a very valid criticism. That changed this past summer when the International Academy of Astronautics published this paper on Shawyer’s work.
Roger Shawyer is an interesting man. In email exchanges, he has remained adamant that his theory is valid and that all any “real scientist” has to do is “do the math”. He says that he and his lab already on the second generation of research on the technology, which holds the promise of better, stronger results. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t go so far as to share those new results with me.
Shawyer is plain-spoken in his urgency in prodding the U.S. to exploit his technology. He claims that scientists in China are already making headway. And, indeed, in 2013 Wired UK filed a story on Chinese scientists who had successfully built an EmDrive engine but I haven’t found furthering reporting on what, if any, progress has been made in China.
I reached out to the US Air Force as Shawyer claims a legal relationship with that branch of our military services. According to Ed Gulick in the Public Affairs Office.
“The Air Force is aware of EmDrive and the ongoing research but is simply watching to see if and when the technology becomes viable. We could not find any evidence that the AF has an investment in or a licensing agreement for the technology.”
NASA was equally intriguing. While there has been a number of reports referencing some confirmation of EmDrive by scientists at NASA’s Eagleworks Lab, NASA spokesman Jay Bolden didn’t respond to questions about the labs work or even directly about EmDrive. His response:
“While research into theoretical faster-than-light travel from a team at the Johnson Space Center has created headlines, this is a conceptual investigation. The agency is committed to the priorities and investments identified by the NASA Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan. Through these investments, NASA will develop the capabilities necessary to send humans further into space than ever before, including missions in the proving ground of space, like the asteroid redirect mission, and eventually Mars.”
Boeing, which once allegedly had a Non-Disclosure Agreement with SPR via its Phantom Works division has even less to say about SPR, Shawyer or EmDrive. A spokeswoman for Phantom Works would only comment to say that Boeing is not working with Shawyer now but would not say whether the company has worked with the EmDrive technology or what its assessment of the technology is.
If you are curious about what that plan looks like, you can check it out here.