Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Physics of UFOs --Skeptic Magazine

Dar Skeptic Society people,

Greetings! Back in the 1990s, I was very involved in skepticism as an officer in a local group, an author of a couple books, and a minor contributor to your publication and others. Then, for many reasons, burn-out set in and I left to do other things.
Recently I went down to  a bookstore and, after ten years away, decided to pick up a copy of Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer and Fortean Times to see how I’d respond and what was the state of skepticism these days.  Although overall Skeptic looked quite good and interesting, my attention somehow focused on the article, “The Physics of UFOs,” by Michael K. Gainer, on page 46.
After reading the article I had some concerns as to the accuracy of its conclusions, which I found over-reaching, and to the role and dangers that such over-reaching conclusions have in the field of skepticism.
First, let me summarize the article. The author, a physicist, is seeking to determine if it is possible to construct an interstellar spacecraft that fits the description of reported UFOs.
Although I have several problems with some of the minor assumptions he makes in the article, for the moment let’s focus on his key arguments.
He assumes such a craft should be capable of making a 10 light year round trip to a new destination and back to its home system in approximately 20 (Earth) years time each way. Although he never explicitly states it, he also assumes that the laws of physics as currently understood will not be violated. (i.e. no “hyper-warp-jump-faster-than-light-drives”). Fair enough. He states that the spacecraft should be accelerated at a rate of 10 meters per second squared and that, at this rate of acceleration, it will require 174 (Earth) days to achieve a speed of half the speed of light. This would take a great deal of power, therefore he states  that “the only source that can supply energy of this magnitude is thermonuclear nuclear fusion.”
He then explains that the energy from the thermonuclear fusion would have to be directed rearward as “a constrained unidirectional particle beam.”
He then concludes that “There is no possible material construction that can constrain and direct the thermal and blast energy of the nuclear fusion rate required for interstellar travel. Consequently, I conclude that alien spacecraft cannot exist.”
In otherwards, if I understand correctly, what he is saying is that an interstellar spacecraft must use thermonuclear power as its power source and because there is no possible material that could contain and direct thermonuclear power into a propulsion beam, spaceflight is impossible.  (Actually this key idea could and probably really should have been the focus of the article itself. It begs a fuller explanation. )
To a non-physicist such as myself, the obvious questions are “Why is such a material impossible?” and “Why is thermonuclear power the only feasible power source?”  I cannot imagine that many people will be swayed by the article as written. In fact, arguably, it comes across almost as a “claim to authority” i.e. perhaps much of the premise of the article is “Listen to me. I’m a physicist.”
Obviously, the problem with this style of argument to settle the issue is that not all physicists agree with the premises.
To check this, I consulted with Carl Frederick, a retired physics professor and hard science fiction writer who regularly contributes to “Analog Science Fiction /Science Fact.” (A publication that, until recently, was edited by Stanley Schmidt,  a third PhD physicist. For the record, no one claims that all stories in Analog are scientifically sound in all ways, (i.e. time travel stories), but part of the “game” of being an Analog contributor is to know exactly when, how and why one is breaking scientific laws and to only do it with a good reason. I.e. you have an idea for illustrating a point about human evolution and the best way to do it is to do so in a time travel story.)
For the record, Carl Frederick did not read the article in its entirety but he did ask me to read portions to him and clarify premises and details.
A few of his criticisms and comments were as follows. First, to assume that something is impossible because current technology, as opposed to the known laws of physics,  doesn’t allow it is “silly.” Other points were that there is a great deal of research being done into controlled fusion and that might considerably change the way in which a thermonuclear spacecraft engine might work. Furthermore, as there are now indications that quantum physics might allow a spacecraft to draw energy from the vacuum as it travels, the thermonuclear engines might not be the only source of fuel.  Additionally, Frederick said that the author assumed that nuclear fusion is the best form of energy. He disagreed saying that particle / anti-particle annihilation was a better alternative.  
Finally, he said, there’s no reason one couldn’t go slower and use less fuel, if you, for instance, freeze the crew.
Finally, for the record, although we’ve never discussed it, I am quite certain that Carl Frederick does not believe that anything in UFOlogy indicates alien visitation. If he thought ufologists had such real evidence, I’m quite certain he’d take more of an interest in their activities, and, to the best of my knowledge, these claims have never interested him and most certainly are not something he currently follows.    
As for me, the non-physicist, although I really could not address the main points of the article, I had many quibbles about the minor assumptions in the article. i.e. he assumes that a spacecraft would require energy in equal amounts to accelerate to its destination, decelerate when  arriving, accelerate on its way home, and decelerate as it approaches home. Why? Couldn’t it use solar sails catching photons and the gravitational forces of planets and other astronomical objects to help slow itself? And, why do so many people assume that a spacecraft would need to make a return trip? Seriously, if one were, for instance, to survey Skeptics readers, just to take a sample population, and ask if they’d be willing to take a one way trip to another star system never to return home again, I suspect you’d get more than enough volunteers to man a small six-person spacecraft of the type described. (Of course, that “crew of six” was a very arbitrary assumption that seemed to come out of nowhere.)

There are other points I question, many of which hint that Gainer is assuming we only can use modern technology. (i.e. he states his UFO would be built in orbit by shuttles.) At least one other point ignores the modern UFO mythology entirely. ( i.e. Gainer assumes his ship needs a shuttle to land and return to the ship. Why?  Particularly since UFOs are reported to land and then float away gently into the sky.)                  
Personally, I sort of like the idea of taking the small UFO Gainer describes and putting it inside a giant “mother ship” that contains a crew of thousands or more and is a permanent home to generations of beings all living a more or less urban life style as they float between systems. (Whatever happened to those large “cigar-shaped” UFOs of the 1950s and ‘60s anway?) It’s just one of dozens or more of alternatives to the scenario he, first, envisions, and then, secondly, uses to claim interstellar spacecraft  are impossible. Perhaps such a race could even have “seeded” space using robotic craft to cache fuel here and there. (Note: I’m speculating. I do not believe anything in UFOlogy seriously indicates alien visitation.)    
Returning, however, to the here and now, I’m afraid that Gainer’s article is the sort that often led to my burn out from skepticism. It contains questionable assumptions at several points and then over-reaches from the logical conclusions to make the point the author wishes. i.e. “When UFOs are reported they should be evaluated with the attitude that alien spacecraft cannot exist.” This may be the author’s belief, but, based on what I saw, it is a faith-based belief, not grounded in proven fact. And, as skeptics, isn’t it simply enough to say “When UFOs are reported they should be evaluated with the attitude that none have ever been proven to be alien spacecraft”?  We are supposed to be the people who read, question and think. –not the one’s who blindly repeat assertions that fit our pre-conceived notions.
It most certainly will not convert the uncoverted or even sway most neutral parties. In fact, it’s the sort of article that UFOlogist love to pass around to show how “closed minded” their critics are.
I think we, as skeptics, need to be more careful of such statements and false conclusions. They only hurt us in the end.
In the meantime, I look forward to reading the rest of the magazine. All the best,

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree. Great points. I've noticed this debate around interstellar travel gets thrown together with Fermi's paradox even though they contradict each other when it comes to the subject of UFOs being aliens or not. Usually they are used to argue that UFOs "shouldn't be" extra terrestrial visitors, not whether they are or are not in fact so.