Monday, June 29, 2009

Warp Drive Research Qualifications

I recently reviewed a paper by Stefano Finazzi, Stefano Liberati, and Carlos Barceló entitled "Semiclassical instability of dynamical warp drives". It describes an Alcubierre-compatible faster than light (FTL) or 'supraliminal' transportation system, using a distortion of space time to theoretically propel a spacecraft FTL. The authors' knowledge of relevant physics is impressive as is their command of one of the key languages of science: mathematics with which they describe why the Alcubierre drive is not feasible. The speculative research of Michio Kaku is most famous in this arena and similarly based on string theory employed by the authors of this work. Kaku has worked on Alcubierre-compatible FTL ideas in books such as "Physics of the Impossible" and pursues creation of a theory of everything, yet the available evidence suggests that the maturity level of the standard model is insufficient for such efforts to be productive. As acknowledged in the "Quantum Universe Committee Report", a revolution in our understanding of tools and techniques available to physics researchers do not support reliable investigations of topics far beyond conceptual foundations (general relativity, standard model) which are known to have profound problems described as "crisis", based on Thomas Kuhn's description of the state reached by science "as anomalous results build up." In such crises, extending paradigms with known flaws into highly speculative work produces results which are uncertain in the extreme.

A more productive investment is to direct our attention to the key components of successful, transformative paradigms that lead to scientific revolutions of the kind needed. In part, cosmologists ought to be concerned with mechanisms that produce the fundamentals under analysis. Yet as is typical of experiments measurements and calculations relating to fundamental units, the physical existence of units like time, space, and mass remain unquestioningly assumed. This is the type of assumption presenting a primary source of risk to the success of information systems development projects, and both the lack of documentation for the assumption and the failure of progress over the past century indicate it is a likely contributing source. While we may focus on the past 100 years spent trying to resolve the problems of GR and QM, Newton's related objection to "action at a distance" has never been fully addressed in 400 years.

If the Quantum Universe Committee and general consensus in the physics community is correct, the field of project management offers a robust framework for successfully accomplishing this change. We begin by identifying our goal of revolutionary paradigm change. What are these changes exactly? Historical examples help.

In the western tradition, records of argumentation and debate from Greece show rules were being applied without apparently being understood. Two arguments could be presented for opposing positions, but evaluating relative merits was hugely problematic, creating a great deal of unproductive effort characteristic of crises. The key to using language productively for discovery and avoiding errors in the process was Aristotle's model of language use that we now call "logic". What were the steps in creating this model?

  1. Formalization is the first step. This consists of establishing rules for substituting symbols in place of specific language so that we may assess its form of a proposition without necessarily knowing its content.
  2. Process Definition follows, and is the step where Laws of Thought are documented.
  3. Testing propositions against formalized rules and processes with reference to the Laws of Thought.

Without this model, weaknesses in statements conjectures that appear valid often remain hidden. Using the model, one can form syntactically correct language and test it, deduce valid conclusions, and draw inferences. A critically important component of the idea of logic is the degree to which it addresses the relationship between fallible human participants and the object of study.

We may take it as a given that the number of false, misleading, and inaccurate statements for a domain is infinite, while only one statement of a certain type may be accurate. For example, if I have a bowl with a goldfish, the single statement "This bowl contains one goldfish" is true, while statements with any other number of goldfish would be false. Without reliable means to avoid the infinite ways of going astray, the odds against successfully postulating non-trivial propositions are overwhelming and we are left to trial and error for progress.

The combination of logic and observation establishes rationalism. Incorporating experiments as a shortcut to random trial & error to confirm theory predictions and falsify inaccurate ones, rationalism with experimental testing provides the core of modern science. The scientific process enables us to discard poorly formed or expressed concepts early, avoiding years or even centuries of poorly supported effort. Outside the scientific tradition, when great truths were documented, only with luck might one document them well, in a recognizably-formed structure, and perhaps get lucky enough to sort that truth from the piles of scrolls filled with material that is often more attention getting or emotionally appealing. How could we know this particular idea on that particular scroll was significant? The logic model led to a new paradigm for reasoning later called "The Enlightenment" with a paradigm that gave adopters what James Burke called "a mind like a knife", and the scientific revolution.

In trying to understand the representation of concepts and human communications, linguists proposed a dizzying array of grammatical theories across hundreds of different languages and perhaps even more arguments between competing proposals without consistent, clear criteria for objective assessment. Formalization with substituting symbols for specific expressions, definition of processes, and testing whether a proposed grammar is well formed was what Chomsky's Syntactic Structures formalized the rules for substituting symbols for language, defined processes of construction, and developed testing criteria for the abstracted representation of a grammar model. This produced the Chomskyan Revolution. It also focused on the relationship between the linguist and the object of study, perhaps most importantly by addressing what it is possible to know.

In cosmology, the standard model has a number of problems and inconsistencies that have remained since before Einstein, and as Karl Popper described, consistency is one defining feature of stable conceptual structures.

Paradoxically, research to resolve the inconsistencies and establish a revolutionary new paradigm will ultimately recategorize many of the current results and convert members of the community in a shift that parallels religious conversion according to J. Bernard Cohen, and documented for revolutions associated with Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Freud, Wegener, and Einstein.

Unfortunately, productive but speculative research to resolve the current crisis in physics in a manner similar to these historical examples is unlikely to be funded for reasons in explained by an article in today's New York Times: that the grants system is a kind of jobs program for established research and that "game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too unlikely to succeed and were therefore denied federal grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue." The Dark Energy Task Force Report seems to internalize this view by stating "In the absence of useful theoretical guidance, observational exploration must be the focus of our efforts to understand what the Universe is made of." In the first place, my grammar teacher would say: "ending sentences with prepositions is something up with which we will not put!" In the second place, I would argue that "In the absence of useful theoretical guidance, establishing the goal of developing viable theories must be the primary focus of our efforts to understand the Universe."

A serious, well-managed effort to successfully create FTL technology shows the greatest promise for delivering such a theoretical framework by facilitating the aligned coordination of diverse specialties which would likely prove impossible absent such a goal. A well managed effort would alert researchers such as Finazzi, Liberati, and Barceló to the opportunities of reinterpreting 4D space time as an observational consequence, perhaps within an abstracted quaternion fractal structure. Our goal ought not to extend unstable, high risk conceptual models into unjustifiably tentative calculation, but rather to work on understanding the characteristics of the inevitable revolution which can guide our thinking and planning now.

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