Friday, August 15, 2014

"Measurements" of Anomalous Thrust: Using a conference paper as a way to cheat peer-review?

Anyone who follows tech news has undoubtedly heard some headline isomorphic to "NASA has validated a new space drive that defies the laws of physics!!!" by now. This came about shortly after the self-proclaimed "Eagleworks Laboratories" at NASA's Johnson Space Center presented a paper at the Joint Propulsion Conference this year, where they claimed to have measured microthrust coming from two devices similar to the infamous EmDrive of Roger Shawyer. Anyone who understands basic physics can clearly see the device is non-thrusting, or otherwise would violate the conservation of momentum, and both Eagleworks' "results" and 2013 "results" from a Chinese team also violate the conservation of energy (you can calculate this by looking at the equivalent thrust to power ratio produced by a photon rocket and compare the numbers to those Eagleworks and the Chinese reported). Yet Eagleworks, whose "research"--all of it-- is questionable at best, was able to present at a major conference a paper so bad it would make even the most dour reviewer laugh out loud. 

Despite the overwhelming credulity from the blogosphere and social media that inexorably comes with the mention of "NASA" there is now a number of good posts explaining issues with Eagleworks' experiment. A good one with a quote by my favorite physicist Sean Carroll is here. Carroll's response to the weird and nonsensical claim by Eagleworks, that their device is potentially producing thrust by interacting with a semi-mystical "quantum vacuum virtual plasma", is simply too well put not to reproduce:

“There is no such thing as a ‘quantum vacuum virtual plasma,’ so that should be a tip-off right there. There is a quantum vacuum, but it is nothing like a plasma. In particular, it does not have a rest frame, so there is nothing to push against, so you can’t use it for propulsion. The whole thing is just nonsense. They claim to measure an incredibly tiny effect that could very easily be just noise.”

The physicist John Baez, author of the hilarious and all too true Crackpot Index, has two posts explaining the flaws of the design and experiment (firstsecond). Sadly no space engineers, besides myself, have yet challenged Eagleworks' claim, despite the fact that it makes a mockery of our field.

After reading some of the credulous (and skeptical) pieces and becoming incensed, I wrote to the AIAA, who lead the JPC and therefore would have been responsible for allowing Eagleworks' nonsense to be presented without review. I asked them if I could submit a technical comment for a conference proceeding, challenging the claims of Eagleworks and explicating the flaws of their nonsense experiment in full. This is routine for a normal, peer-reviewed paper in a journal, but is not typically done for conferences. After a few days the answer was clearly 'no' which made me even more incensed. This was not helped by their associate's claim that the paper was "unpublished" by the AIAA, despite the fact that an e-copy is hosted on an AIAA server! 

How is our field supposed to maintain its credibility when the lines can be blurred so easily? In these days of high publication demands by employers--even some in industry--many respectable engineers use conference proceedings as publications on their CVs. But crackpots, such as Eagleworks, can also submit and present their drivel, all apparently with impunity from peer-review. How can fringe work be filtered out from real, valid research if the submissions to conferences which we increasingly rely upon for results are not reviewed? Although the anomalous thrust incident appears to most skeptics as a small skirmish in a larger war against the public misunderstanding of science, I see it as revealing a gapping hole in astronautics' wall of separation between legitimate research and crackpot ideas. To me this incident, the amount of media attention it got, and the AIAA's refusal to retract or allow rebuttal to the paper indicates that anyone can now use the JPC (and possibly other conferences) as a way to cheat peer-review and also be shielded from any formal criticism within the publications of the same professional organization. 

This is a sad perversion of the noble goals for which these conferences were first started and we as a community ought to think of a way to end this abuse of the conference system and the peer-review process. I am confident Eagleworks will eventually try to present more and more of their garbage as legitimate science and will exploit this conference paper loop-hole to do it. The bigger and bigger the claims get, the more and more people will begin to expect science-fiction style technology which has no way of being delivered in reality. When it isn't they'll blame NASA and the whole field will suffer for it. Meanwhile we will have opened the floodgates to every crackpot propulsion idea in the world. Is this really what propulsion engineers want? Probably not. It's time we started reviewing conference submissions.