Falsifiability and BS Navy Patents

I understand that the Navy has filed for patents on ridiculous magic apparently on the grounds that if they don’t, then we will have to pay the Chinese to license their ridiculous magic technology.  These idiots make beanstalks look like Newton.

This has been covered here before, but I just wanted to make explicit my favorite argument against woo-woo.  Chase its inescapable, inseparable implications to their impossible conclusions.

So there’s an easy way to tell if your topic is nonsense.  Will it allow you to build a perpetual motion machine?  Because if it will, then it’s nonsense.  Some will attempt to dodge this with warp-drive, subspace, stargate extra-dimensional woo-woo.  We’re not modifying the path of the object, which would take energy — we’re modifying its geodesic in n-d spacetime and allowing it to fall whither it may.”  This is word salad.

If I have a machine that allows me to move a household object from one place in the universe to another, then I say let’s put it at the top of a gravity-driven electrical generator.  Every time the weight of the object reaches the bottom, we’ll re-locate it once more to the top.  Actually, we’ll target points about about 60 and 120 degrees past the top, but I need not chase efficiency because I now have an “over-unity device”, that is, a machine which puts out more energy than it takes in.  Note that the power in the illustration below is flowing AWAY from the generator.

“It should take at least as much energy to change the geodesic of an object as it would to change the trajectory of an object with no modification of spacetime.  If it does not, then we can exploit the difference to create an “over unity” perpetual motion machine, which I am comfortable that we cannot do.  Claims which cannot be falsified even conceptually are not improperly discarded.  They’re just turtles.”

Well said.  If we allow a hypnosis with the other-worldliness of a proposed mechanism to hide from our eyes the export or import of energy from the local context, then we should allow that same latitude to any equivalent claim.  But if we do so, then any perpetual motion machine becomes possible.  Monkey turning the handle?  Dammit Jim, I’m a theoretical physicist, not a primatologist!

Clarke’s third law states that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,”  which has a sting in the tail.  The statement is not intended as, and should not be  accepted as, a get-out-of-jail-free card for any sort of ridiculous woo-woo.  Clarke most definitely did not say that claims of magic are unassailable because they might turn out to be science after all.  We have other laws which help filter the nonsense from the good sense, and the laws of thermodynamics are the fiercest.

Theoreticians and patent trolls may wish from time to time to hide out from the long arm of these laws, perhaps with a cushy Navy job submitting preposterously-justified patent applications for ridiculous magic, but there is nowhere to run.


9 thoughts on “Falsifiability and BS Navy Patents”

  1. Haakon Dahl:
    We have other laws which help filter the nonsense from the good sense, and the laws of thermodynamics are the fiercest.

    I have long counselled, “Never invest in something that violates a conservation law”, but there are many potentially “indistinguishable from magic” technologies which do not violate conservation laws or statistical laws such as the second law of thermodynamics.

    For example, consider launching a kilogram of payload into low Earth orbit.  This remained stuck at around US$10,000 from around 1960 through 2010.  Incremental improvements such as SpaceX’s manufacturing technology and partial reusability may reduce this to around US$ 3000/kg, but that isn’t magical.  You want magical?  The energy imparted to that kilogram to lift it out of Earth’s gravity well and accelerate it to orbital velocity would cost, at a typical U.S. electricity price of 8 cents per kw-hour, around 90 cents.  This is the constraint on orbital launch cost imposed by Newtonian gravitation and conservation of energy.  How far you can get from where we are to there depends on how clever you are are how many dirty tricks you can think of, many of which might be patentable.  Alternative launch concepts which try to get launch cost down to the cost of electricity (plus the amortised capital cost of the infrastructure, of course) include space elevators, launch loops, StarTram, linear mass drivers, and microwave and laser beamed energy to ships which use it to heat reaction mass without an on-board energy source.

    Yes, hypothetical propulsion cannot reduce energy requirements below those imposed by conservation of mass-energy and momentum, but the gap between the cost of that energy and what it takes to achieve the delta-v with a chemical or even nuclear rocket is enormous.  Metric engineering appears to be impossible due to the enormous stiffness of spacetime, but there is nothing in the fundamental laws which says that there may not be a way to alter that stiffness.

    Similarly, one of my earliest (1999) speculations about advanced propulsion, “Vacuum Propellers”, violates no conservation law and would enable flying saucer-like performance (but without the instantaneous turns that don’t liquefy the crew) by coupling to the quantum vacuum precisely like a submarine’s propeller couples to the ocean.  If a submarine had to carry all of the water that passes through the propeller, it would be subject to the same constraints as a rocket and be completely useless.  But since its propeller can couple to the ocean and Earth, it can move with modest energy consumption.  A vacuum propeller would couple to the quantum vacuum and push against the Machian inertial frame defined by distant masses.  I don’t know how to build one, but if one were discovered it wouldn’t break any law you learn in high school physics.

    People are always discovering things nobody expected, for example the fractional quantum Hall effect and giant magnetoresistance, both of which won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1998 and 2007, respectively).  The latter phenomenon is already in use in read heads of hard disc drives.

    It seems to me that the fundamental corruption in the patent process is not that they’re granting patents for things which are indistinguishable from magic, but rather that they’re doing so without the inventor’s providing a model or independently-verifiable experimental evidence that it works.  You have an over-unity energy generator?  Fine: here’s an LED; light it up and let the NIST look at the device to make sure you aren’t cheating.  Propellantless propulsion?  Sure: hang it from a string in a NASA vacuum chamber, switch it on, and show that that it hangs at an angle different from the vertical.

  2. John, I agree with everything you’ve said, and I even have my pet science fiction drive, which is analogous to a sail rattled proudly into the luminiferous aether, the quantum vacuum, the froth, or whatever else it takes.

    And just like a machine which alters the stiffness of something outside the cranium, it requires an ENORMOUS amount of energy to crack open eldritch barriers not even visible from our typical experience, much less assailable.  Likewise, a machine which purports to soften something outside the cranium in order that ordinary matter (that is, otherwise subject to our familiar laws) may simply fall or be shoved from one point to another, or even wink out here and wink again over there — such a machine must require an ENORMOUS amount of energy to be input somewhere.  And it must be expressed somewhere.  And if those locations are not the same, then it must be transmitted, and energy in motion is visible — the more per unit [sic] of time, the moreso it is visible.

    The problems with woo-woo is that the machinery softens some of the material inside the crania of the susceptible, no matter how fine the rest of the contents may be.

    Your vacuum propeller is a winner, and can even be made amenable to the survival of the crew by using a bigger, longer, deeper, slower design.  One presumes.  This I hazard in ignorance of other details, because so long as we are constrained by physics, then we may take advantage of trade-offs within physics.  It is only once we accept the mush-headed woo-woo that we may no longer operate to any advantage: nothing from nothing leaves nothing.

    I can say that an object shall disappear from here and re-appear at a greater distance from the sun, and it will be very cold due to the setting of accounts regarding gravitic potential, or perhaps it disintegrates in a spray of Cerenkov radiation.  Regardless, I can say it, and I can even point out that “the math works” because I have accounted for the conservation of this and that.  Yet, I cannot propose a mechanism, a framework in which this math works, and so the math is merely abstract.

    2+2=4 does not move the bricks, unless hollered at a volume greater than I can manage.


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