Sunday, December 2, 2012

Is there a Warp Drive in your Future?

We regularly hear UFOlogists claiming that, while reported UFO encounters cannot be accepted as consistent with present-day science, future science will be able to accomodate them, and so therefore we should not reject the claims. As astronomer and Project Blue Book consultant Dr. J. Allen Hynek famously said to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in 1968,
I cannot dismiss the UFO phenomenon with a shrug. The "hard data" cases contain frequent allusions to recurrent kinematic, geometric, and luminescent characteristics. I have begun to feel that there is a tendency in 20th-century science to forget that there will be a 21st-century science, and indeed, a 30th-century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different. We suffer perhaps, from temporal provincialism, a form of arrogance that has always irritated posterity.
Dr. J. Allen Hynek makes a cameo appearance in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind
And echoes of this statement are commonplace among UFO proponents. The situation is further confused by Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," which people interpret to mean "reports of something that seems to be magic must be an example of an advanced technology." (Sometime I need to write an entry about some of Clarke's really loopy predictions for future breakthroughs, like how wheels and roads will soon be obsolete because we'll all be riding in hover cars.)

A landed UFO is alleged to simply take off from the ground and zoom away, without expelling anything in the opposite direction. Momentum has been created - how? The UFO has acquired kinetic energy as it speeds away. Where did that energy come from?  Magic, perhaps? So it would appear that "future science" will no longer be limited by simplistic concepts such as conservation of energy or momentum. Even many skeptics fall into this trap. Once I was being interviewed by a well-known skeptic for a podcast, who suggested that 'before long, our technology will be able to do the things that these UFOs are reportedly doing.' And I replied that's not true, unless you are willing to cavalierly toss out fundamental physical laws.

I was very interested to read in the San Diego Union Tribune a December 2 story by science reporter Gary Robbins titled "Flying cars and teleporters aren't in your future,"  based upon an interview with UCSD physics professor Tom Murphy. Murphy relates how one day when he was talking with a group of physics students, one of them said, "If it can be imagined, it can be done." Other students nodded their heads in agreement. Said Murphy, "It took me all of two seconds to violate this dictum as I imagined myself jumping straight up to the Moon... I wondered how pervasive this attitude was among physics students and faculty. So I put together a survey. The overriding theme: experts say don't count on a Star Trek future."

Prof. Tom Murphy
Murphy designed a survey on Futuristic Physics to determine physicists' expectations of the likelihood of hypothetical future breakthroughs. The details are in his Blog Do The Math. One, "autopilot cars," already exists today: Google has built one, and it seems to work well. But the survey asks about a lot of other things: practical personal jetpacks; a flying car; teleportation; warp drive; wormhole travel; visiting a black hole; artificial gravity; time travel, etc. Estimates were solicited from physics undergrads, physics grad students, and physics professors. For each "breakthrough," survey participants were asked to choose one of six answers, from "likely within 50 years" to "<1% likely to ever happen, or impossible."

As might be expected, undergrads are the most optimistic about future "breakthroughs," grad students less so, and physics professors the most pessimistic of all. It seems that the more you know about physics, the less likely you are to accept the far-out stuff. However there was one dissenting faculty member:
Note the optimistic outlier in the faculty ranks. We saw this individual stand out on the wormhole question. Examining this person’s responses, it’s all 1, 2, and 3 responses, save one 4 for time travel. Nothing is off limits to this professor, and most things deserve a timescale. This individual is clearly out of step with the cohort, and tying the most optimistic undergrad: forever young.
Participation in the survey was anonymous for invited persons, but if I had to take a wild guess, I'd say that Prof. Michio Kaku probably participated. (He praised Leslie Kean's problem-ridden UFO book as the "gold standard" of UFO research.) Murphy notes,
The biggest differences between faculty and grad students crop up on questions pertaining to flying cars, cloaking, and studying astrophysical objects up close. The largest graduate-undergraduate discrepancy appears for the question about artificial gravity. The largest end-to-end discrepancies (faculty to undergraduate) relate to flying cars, artificial gravity, and warp drive.
The physics faculty members' expectations of the likelihood of certain developments, from most to least probable, is as follows:
Autopilot Cars likely within 50 years
Real Robots likely within 500 years
Fusion Power likely within 500 years
Lunar Colony likely within 5000 years
Cloaking Devices likely within 5000 years
200 Year Lifetime maybe within 5000 years
Martian Colony probably eventually (>5000 yr)
Terraforming        probably eventually (> 5000 yr)
Alien Dialog probably eventually (> 5000 yr)
Alien Visit                 on the fence
Jetpack         unlikely ever
Synthesized Food unlikely ever
Roving Astrophysics unlikely ever
Flying “Cars”        unlikely ever
Visit Black Hole       forget about it
Artificial Gravity       forget about it
Teleportation        forget about it
Warp Drive             forget about it
Wormhole Travel     forget about it
Time Travel forget about it
So to those who are proclaiming that UFOs are real, and that 'future physics' will explain how they operate via wormholes, warp drives, teleportation, or time travel, the message from physics professors is: forget about it.


  1. Don't we already have jetpacks and flying cars? They aren't practical in any way, but not beyond science at least right?

    Anyway, I love this part of the quote, "I have begun to feel that there is a tendency in 20th-century science to forget that there will be a 21st-century science, and indeed, a 30th-century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different. We suffer perhaps, from temporal provincialism, a form of arrogance that has always irritated posterity."

    I think that's a good attitude, but no reason to think the basic laws of physics should be broken.

  2. I find it very hard to believe that a lunar colony is only "likely within 5000 years". And that a Martian colony is over 5000 years away. Personally I would reduce both by a factor of ten. Alien visit? Let's not forget that there may already have been alien visits, but that they took place before recorded history.

    Didn't Dr Edward Condon predict that "It is safe to assume that no ILE [Intelligent Life Elsewhere] outside of our solar system has any possibility of visiting Earth in the next 10,000 years" ("Scientific Study of UFOs", Univ of Colorado, p.28). An amazing prediction indeed.

  3. I think that Dr. Hynek's view on this matter is quite reasonable, and that your disparaging of great men like him and Dr. Clarke is inappropriate.
    It is logical to assume that future science will be more capable than that of the present day, just as present day science is more capable than that of past science.
    Many physical "laws" have been seen to be special cases of more general theories, and this process of expanding our knowledge base is almost certain to continue.
    So-called antigravity has also been demonstrated to exist, can be brought about by intense electric and magnetic fields (see the experiments of John Hutchison, Dr. Robert Koontz, and has been quietly verified by govt. I have also been told by insiders that govt has been working with gravity manipulation for years. It does not violate conservation of momentum, but relies on the fact that space itself has momentum and inertia.
    This prediction you attribute to physicists is demonstrably incorrect, as colonies, or at least bases, on the Moon and Mars have been possible for years; it is just a matter of people having the political will to do it. The Army had a project proposal for a Lunar base in 1959 (Project Horizon); they evidently thought it was possible.
    Many other things for example, wormhole-based faster-than-light travel, cloaking, and teleportation are also theoretically possible, and I have no doubt that they will be developed without it taking 5000 years to do so.
    History has demonstrated that there is tremendous power inherent in science and technolgy, when all the political stops are pulled out, and people suspend their disbelief.
    The US govt got an atomic bomb in 6 years, and landed humans on the Moon in 10 years. The technology to bring these things about simply did not exist when they were proposed; this is the power of science, combined with the human will to accomplish something!

    1. > antigravity has also been demonstrated to exist (see the experiments of John Hutchison)

      The guy who admitted faking tapes of levitating objects? You think hanging objects from strings demonstrates antigravity?

      > The US govt...landed humans on the Moon in 10 years

      And no one has been on the moon in 40 years. What does that tell you?

    2. If John Hutchison ever admitted faking anything, it is certainly news to me. Why don't you provide a source for this revelation.
      As far as govt not going back to the Moon in the last 40 years is concerned, it tells me that they had some pressing reason not to go back. You aren't one of these "we never went to the Moon" people, are you?

    3. > If John Hutchison ever admitted faking anything, it is certainly news to me.

      When someone pointed out one of his objects was held up by a string, Hutchison responded that it was a wire!

  4. "So to those who are proclaiming that UFOs are real, and that 'future physics' will explain how they operate... the message from physics professors is: forget about it."

    Wow, so we know everything there is to know about physics? The quantum world is completely understood and nothing new or surprising can be discovered that challenges previous notions? I'd be convinced if I wasn't a skeptic.

  5. Dusty, the survey specifically asks "See jet-packs as practical transportation devices on a daily basis?" or "Carry out the bulk of transportation in personal flying machines, rather than being tied to the ground in cars (what are wheels, daddy?)?" So not toys or oddities, but practical, everyday devices. By the way, after 50 years of research and initial great optimism, the longest jetpack flight time is still about 18 seconds. So if you're high in the sky after 17 seconds - oops!

    cda, I agree that the estimates for Lunar and Martian colonies sound too long. If the major space-venturing nations were to cooperate on a Lunar Colony, it could be built within 25 years. But it would be extremely expensive, and so it won't happen. A Martian colony would take at least 100 years, probably more.

    Steve, there have indeed been many claims of antigravity devices, but no unambiguous demonstration of them. Claims made on Coast-to_Coast AM do not exactly constitute reliable sources of information. Also videos that seem to show "levitation" can easily be faked. I agree that scientific goals can be accomplished much more quickly when the "motivation" is there, like a war or an arms race.

    AaronV, nobody says that we know everything. It's just a question of, "does such-and-such a claim violate what we know of physical laws?"

    1. "...nobody says that we know everything. It's just a question of, "does such-and-such a claim violate what we know of physical laws?"

      Your first sentence is correct. Nobody actually said in your post that we know everything. However, you cannot deny it's implied when you say that "future physics" cannot violate current understandings in this area or that. I agree that the sophmoric statement, "If it can be imagined, it can be done" is absurd. Current science shows that teleportation and UFO-like propulsion is not possible. But to make such broad claims about what won't be possible from science in the future is to make the same baseless assumptions UFO believers make, no?

      Don't let your disdain for the intellectually dishonest cloud your objectivity and imagination. The universe is a far stranger place that any of us can possibly imagine.

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  7. Robert,
    As I said, John Hutchison's "claims" have been verified by the US and Canadian govts, and the military-industrial complex has always been intensely interested in his experiments.
    Dr. Koontz has also demonstrated a gravitational thrust from high-voltage capacitors, repeating the work of T. Townsend Brown. Dr. Koontz is a PhD nuclear physicist, and was a govt scientist for many years.
    The aerospace industry has also been investigating "antigravity", or "electric propulsion" since the 1950's; it became classified when they began to have some successes. Most of the videos you refer to are not fake, IMHO; you seem to be a bit behind the times here, and may well be setting yourself up to look foolish later on by denying the existence of these phenomena.

    1. Brown, Koontz, and Hutchison in that order are cranky, crankier, and crankiest--even illucid. We've heard these fairy-tale antigravity claims for decades; they don't mean anything to anyone outside of the "UFO" subculture. Yes, one can be a physics PhD and still be a crackpot whose ideas are worthless: Fred Wolf, Jack Sarfatti, etc. As with "UFOs" generally, if there was any reality to any of their claims, we'd all know it already--it would be a fact in the world--not the fossilized fairy-tale talking points of "UFO" nuts, the darkside of the Internet and of antigravity crackpots on overnight radio. As with "UFOs," decades of claims utterly without consequence!

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Let's not foget another pioneer of antigravity research - Willie Wonka
      and his Wonkavator, an elevator that travels up, down, sideways,
      and flies! Willie Wonka was a bit cranky, too.

  8. "Participation in the survey was anonymous for invited persons, but if I had to take a wild guess, I'd say that Prof. Michio Kaku probably participated"

    That's hilarious because that's EXACTLY what I was thinking while reading the previous paragraph.

  9. While I am a skeptic re: UFOs, just like the author of this blog, I cannot however agree with the line of reasoning in this post. You mention how UFO believers rely on statements about what will be possible in the future to justify their belief, then you turn around and use the EXACT same reasoning as a counter argument!
    That current UFOs etc aren't aliens because interstellar travel won't be possible.
    Secondly, this is a horrid argument, as all these predictions are based on our knowledge today. I bet if someone
    in the dark ages made a survey asking about things we have today, they would say never as well. Your argument against the UFO believers uses the exact same flawed reasoning, the only difference is you are using it to state a conclusion opposite

    1. Excellent points Naval. Mr. Sheaffer's reasoning here is not very skeptical but quite biased. A truely scientific and objective approach would not make proclamations about will and will not be possible from future tech. Why Mr. Sheaffer chooses to make such proclamations I can't say. Perhaps he will respond as to why. I could assume it's because he is so "anti-UFO" that it clouds his reasoning but then I would be making baseless proclamations and assumptions too.

    2. NavalFC, you may want to re-read what Mr. Sheaffer has said. In fact, go beyond that and check out some of Carl Sagan's books. He presents concepts like space travel and the real physics behind it in an informative, yet entertaining manner.

      It's not a 'prediction' that interstellar travel is impossible, just that it is unimaginably illogical. The vast distances, fuel requirements, and travel time associated with it make it no more than a hypothetical exercise.

      What is being contested is the idea that future generations will be so advanced that the limitations of space travel will be somehow overcome. Unfortunately, the "rules" today will be the rules a millennium from now. Unless a race is willing to undertake a journey of a thousand generations, they'll never get here.

      An interesting question does arise from this sort of speculation. Let's say our hypothetical alien race sets out to find other intelligent life. How would they know it exists here? Talk about a shot in the dark.

  10. Very good point and logic, Naval.
    All I can tell you "skeptics" about this subject is to do your own investigation; "investigation by proclaimation" has never been part of the scientific method. I know that a lot of this stuff is real, because I have seen a lot of it for myself.
    Why don't you get out of your armchair and do some investigation? And, if you "skeptics" think that you are more qualified to comment on these matters than PhD Scientists and people who have done a lifetime of laboratory work, than I can say no more; I will let your illogic and arrogance speak for itself.

    1. Where have you "seen" this stuff? I'm interested in your experiences.

    2. I work with Dr. Roger Leir doing analysis of the objects he has removed from people and investigating claims of alien abduction, and have seen some very unusual things in the course of this research. Please check out the link below:

    3. Interesting stuff. I note that you are a scientist (unlike most contributors to this site): a materials scientist and chemist. It must irk you to be abused by scientist-wannabes.

  11. || And echoes of [Hynek's] statement are commonplace among UFO proponents. The situation is further confused by Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," which people interpret to mean "reports of something that seems to be magic must be an example of an advanced technology."||

    As is, covered here recently, STF, Kaku and others' rationalization of hypothetical ET civilizations visiting Earth as a plausible explanation for some reports, when nearly every other astronomer and astrophysicist guffaws at the suggestion. It's not only because the idea is NOT plausible, being barely possible only by suggestion and simply a disguised appeal to ignorance and is the "least likely" explanation, it doesn't even follow that since they might exist, they must be visiting Earth. And the suggestion is completely unnecessary to explain the origin of the flying-saucer myth, why people make "UFO" reports, and the entire history of the "UFO" collective delusion as shown by the Null and Psychosocial hypotheses.

    ufoolery is history already; make popular belief in the myth and delusion history as well.

  12. What's not rational is: Ignoring the opinions of experts and appealing to known crackpots and frauds; and ignoring the point that simply because some physical-science fiction can be imagined, it might one day be possible when experts believe or know as fact it will not--time or space travel through worm holes for example. Repeating the same fallacious appeal to ignorance and non sequitur, "We don't know our future science so anything could be true and some 'UFO' reports could be presumed highly advanced visiting ET." Criticizing the incompleteness of knowledge and the people who help create what we do know sounds more like juvenile antiscientific contrarian blathering than a real argument.

    So though it may be difficult for those who'd fall for free-energy and antigravity baloney to grasp, debunking the related lofty-sounding reveries of Hynek, Clarke, and Kaku as disguised appeals to ignorance and non sequitur is in no way the same as their fallacious handwaving appeals to fantasy. Scientific realists are addressing limits in the real world.

    1. Who is "criticizing the incompleteness of knowledge and the people who help create what we know?"

      My point was that Mr. Sheaffer's central argument was faulty. To suggest that "future physics" cannot challenge current understandings of science is just flat-out wrong and a suggestion I find dangerously closed-minded. I am sure Newton would have scoffed at someone suggesting the ideas found in general relativity before Einstein proved their veracity...hell people still find GR shocking. The only reason why I can imagine Mr. Sheaffer would make such an argument would be if it served his biases which I read to be - people who believe some UFOs could represent something scientifically important are so far beyond being coherent and rational that we must build up an impervious wall of reason against them...even if that wall of reason is less than objective sometimes.

      Anyway Zoam, I would encourage you to not let your disdain for the intellectually dishonest cloud your objectivity and imagination. The universe is a far stranger place than we can even imagine. Make room for it and those who may not think exactly as you do.

    2. And I think the unintentional hilarity, wishful blindness even stupidity, irrationality, and just plain nuttiness of using phony science-fiction appeals (of Hynek, Clarke and Kaku) to justify belief in the flying-saucer myth and "UFO" collective delusion--instead of realizing its very obvious and much more relevant earthly science-fiction origin and nothing more--must be lost on you.

      Robert's point is rock solid. Simply because some physical-science fictions are imaginable in some nebulous way doesn't mean they will ever be true in any world in any time. Some things will never be true. And such wishful fantasy appeals to future physical-science fiction or the would-be magical technology of hypothetical ETs to rationalize belief in the present "UFO" delusion is just nonsense. It doesn't follow logically; it's a disguised appeal to ignorance; and it's unnecessary to explain the origin and history of the "UFO" delusion and why people make "UFO" reports.

      Get it now? The world is composed of facts--not wishful thinking fantasies. And argument by dubious anecdote, false comparison and ad hominem is worthless.

  13. Hey Zoam,
    Must be nice to believe that you know everything. Experts are wrong all the time when they state that things are impossible. The experts at the time did not even believe that the Wright brothers had invented a heavier-than-air flying machine until they demonstrated it in Europe, years after their first flights! Scientific American magazine even featured articles by noted academics which purported to "prove" that heavier-than-air flight was impossible, and this is far from, the only case of this type of academic prejudice and closed-mindedness that comes to mind.
    These "experts" even went so far as to refuse invitations to witness the Wright brother's flights; it seems to me that guys like you have the same mentality. We would still be living in caves, if the mentality that you and Mr. Schaeffer exhibit were commonplace.

    1. Yes, the old "experts are wrong constantly!" trope, always a favorite in discussions such as this. Which experts were these, by the way? I'm curious how you label someone an expert in a field that was still in its infancy, and differentiate them from the omnipresent quacks that perpetually blather about subjects in which they have no experience. So, care to name these experts, and give their background? I'd really love to know, because I'm more than a little familiar with the development of human flight, and know that many people in multiple countries had all developed facets of aircraft, and that the overriding attitude of the time was wondering who was going to be first to master it. The Wrights put it all together, not with some remarkable discovery, but by increasing efficiency and control.

      While it might be quite satisfying to place faith in the magical future, there is nothing to support the idea that what we know now will be rendered obsolete, or completely mistaken - since we're using physics to a stunning degree on a daily basis, it's kind of hard to say that it's all wrong, you know? And the nature of binding atomic energy and the interaction of mass and inertial space/time (or relativistic gravity if you like) isn't just guesswork - not when we're confirming theories with experiments like those at CERN. Physicists predicted such things as stellar fusion, black holes, and the Cosmic Microwave Background precisely because they did know what the hell they were talking about, and understood how matter and energy work.

      What's amusing is, the knowledge that permits understanding why physicists consider wormholes and artificial gravity to be ridiculously implausible is not forbidden - anyone at all can check it out themselves, though it may take more than an afternoon. Somehow, few ever seem to make the effort, instead trying to save their fantasies by denigrating science and putting faith in future magic.

      And noticeably, they never get around to saying just how scientists are wrong - they just say, "Nuh uh!" like a bratty child and think that this covers it. So consider this a challenge: let's hear your theories, not your attempts at selective history. Tell us what you know, not just that you think someone else doesn't. Don't be shy.

    2. Ernest Archdeacon from France was a Wright brother’s naysayer. This guy could be considered a legitimate pioneer aviation "expert". But I think his skepticism to the Wright's aviation breakthrough was based more on ego and jealousy than thinking the Wright's claim of successfully controlling an airplane was bogus and could not be done. (info from wikipedia)

  14. Wormholes ARE theoretically possible, according to General Relativity; read Dr. Robert Forward's material. Also what we know now about Physics is very seldom totally wrong, but usually turns out to be a special case of a more general theory, as I stated before.
    That being said, there ARE a few things in Physics which have not been proven to everyone's satisfaction, such as the existence of quarks, gluons, etc. In these cases, again, the data almost never turn out to be totally wrong, but may have several interpretations. Physics has a history of sometimes taking the wrong turn in these cases until new evidence comes to light which reveals the parameter space more fully.
    In the case of antigravity, there IS evidence in the Physics literature that the gravitational and inertial mass of a body depend on the electric and magnetic field strength around it. Have any of you done any experiments along these lines? Isn't it logical that if this were true, govt would probably try and keep it classified? This is common sense, based on their past behavior.
    There are many inventions that govt has kept under wraps for years, a case in point being Nikola Tesla's apparatus for the wireless transmission of electricity with little or no loss; a version of it has been used since the 1960's to communicate with submerged ballistic missile submarines, but I seriously doubt that civilians will ever get to use anything like it.

  15. Hi, I just wanted to give you a major example of something that would be dismissed as a fantasy by physics professors a 100 years ago when quantum theory was in its infancy, and today it is one of the most applied technology of modern physics: LASERs. The classical wave picture of light tells us we should forget about the concept of a LASER as it is nothing more than a delusion.

    See the analogy? Much like how the difference of light's behavior in quantum theory vs classical theory has led to the LASER, quantum gravity may be just as different than Relativistic gravity. This may or may not lead to fantastic applications that were previously dismissed as impossible, such as practical flying cars and perhaps even warpdrives.

    Also, I hope you know that Dr Tom Murphy is an environmentalist nutjob who may be distorting the "survey" to suit his agenda. If he can do this survey and this time publish the names of the professors and their specialty (are these particle physicists or some atmospheric physicist who can't remember any quantum mechanics?) I'd gladly withdraw my skepticism. For a better understanding of what I'm talking about, read his blogs and rants against "escapism".

    Also, the fact that these physics profs would pontificate on subjects outside their expertise is quite telling, especially on the subject of robots and 200 year lifespans. As for Lunar and Martian colonies, that's not a physics problem and so a physicist's opinion is moot. If we want to talk about Anomalous Cancellation or ADS/CFT duality, then it would matter, otherwise this is as ridiculous as consulting my dentist's expert opinion on Middle-Eastern cuisine.


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