On the EM-drive – and scientific publications

Have you heard about the «EM-drive»? If you have not, do yourself the favour and type the above expression into The Search Engine of Your Choice.

There are a few things to choose from on the menu, yet I bet that as of now (2017) what will catch your eye is a version of «Finally, finally, the EM-drive has been published. So it must work! The future is here! We’ll soon live like in Star Trek!»

Not so fast.

What does it mean to have published a scientific paper?

The answer to that question may vary depending on the case at hand, of course. Here, it means that you have convinced a committee of two, sometimes three colleagues, that what you have experimented with is worth considering further. A research paper like this is an invitation to the whole community of science to test and redo the idea, since a committee of peers has decided that it may be worth to do so. You may forgive my style-breaking hyphenation but simply put: That’s it.

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So, where does the opinion of this being big news come from? Because it is big news, relatively. If public discussion of science, like nowadays, takes place on the level of «alternative facts», then yes, having a scientific article published in a peer-reviewed journal is big news. Very big news.

For the researchers involved and their careers it most certainly is, given the practicalities of academia and the topic of the paper, big news, too. Very big news.

Yet, let us make no mistake: The way science is discussed in public is horrific. You do not need to delve into the debate about human-induced climate change (it exists), fake news (sadly, they exist, too), vaccines (they help), or organic food (doesn’t do anything extra for you) in order to see this.

Take the EM-drive. The idea of it has been around for many years. People have always hoped to make it work, and that is fine. Yet the EM-drive paper isn’t really a big deal yet. It is the first step, something that gives other engineers the opportunity to check what the NASA guys have done. «Reproducibility» is the key word here.

Wait, isn’t that what that publication was, a sort of confirmation that things do work and do not need to be checked anymore? Let the development start! Well, the public perception is most certainly that that is the case. The way academia is set up, a whole book in itself, supports that notion. What is the point in publishing a different kind of article, something that says «Yep, those guys were right»?

On a side-note: The answer to that question is how you will be able to tell a scientist apart from a person with a science degree trying to make a living.

You see, science does not work that way in the long run, no matter what is written or published. At the end, if you read the actual article, not some blog post like this about it, you will find the language to be rather careful. So, what does the article in fact claim? Here is the paper.

As far as I understand it, it reports from experiments where a little thrust might have been produced without exhaust.

Exciting? You bet. That something which is so inherently a-physical as the EM-drive can get into a peer-reviewed scientific journal like the Journal of Propulsion and Power is big news. Yet, there is no significance attached to this publication as of right now (2017). Don’t let the results on The Search Engine of Your Choice and your own selection of what to read fool you.

Scientists are human. So, they (we) hope. But, since it is an important part of a proper scientist’s job description to know the distinction between the feels and the thoughts, they (we) hope with the brain, not with our hearts.

If you try it, you will find something strange. You can thoroughly enjoy the idea of a Warp Drive come real and get as excited as the next guy, despite knowing that as of 2017 we are not there yet at all. In fact, we have not even found out whether «there» exists or not.

Alexander Biebricher, Ph.D. is a scientist who now holds the position of Physicist and Chief Science Officer at the Spaceship Aurora Visitor’s Center at Andøya Space Center in Northern Norway. You can follow Alexander on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google +.

Meet a Scientist – While visiting Spaceship Aurora, there is also the opportunity to have a chat with a scientist to take a deep dive into the amazing science behind aurora. Read more.

2D visualisation of spacetime distortion induced by the Alcubierre metric

Screenshot from Business Insider