Monday, 18 March 2013

Not so heavy after all

Professor Bullfinch, with his constant companion, Dr Grimes, spent more and more time in the laboratory testing and analyzing the anti-gravity liquid. It became clear that whatever was painted with the liquid resisted gravity and would fly out away from earth.

From Danny Dunn and the anti-gravity paint

A while ago I tried to figure out how one would best control a small black hole. It was a thought experiment, of course, but thinking about it was quite interesting. I decided that what was required was a bit of antigravity, something that made gravity push instead of pull. Should be easy, right? At the end of the day, I figured that antigravity paint would be the perfect solution to my problem.
         At first, this seemed quite far-fetched. Crazy enough that no one would have thought about it before? Not at all! In fact, the exact same idea formed the basis for the first in the series of Danny Dunn books I mentioned in an earlier post. This irked me a bit, because I (obviously) would have liked to claim the idea for myself. But, instead of writing to the patent office, I ended up ordering the out of print Danny Dunn book from 1959. Read it, enjoyed it and generally felt less grumpy about the whole thing.
         The idea of a material that repels gravity, and which can be used to propel space rockets, is obviously much older. It famously goes back to the Victorian days and H.G. Wells’ 1901 masterpiece The first men in the moon. The key to that story is a gravity blocking substance called "Cavorite” after its inventor. A similar idea was exploited even earlier, in 1894, by J.J. Astor in his book A journey in other worlds. Astor was an interesting character. Extremely rich he died on the Titanic and his book (even though it is set in outer space) provides an interesting perspective on how people in that era viewed other civilizations and cultures.
         So what exactly is antigravity? It's obviously just gravity with the sign wrong! The basic idea is to create an object that does not experience gravity. This might not seem too difficult, but gravity is quite special in that it always attracts. The basic reason is clear once you compare to electromagnetism. Electric charges come with different signs. Like signs repel, but opposites attract. In contrast, gravity only has one "charge", the mass of the object, and it is always positive. So... no repulsion. Unless you think creatively.
         The scientific quest for antigravity has had intriguing twists and turns. An entertaining angle relates to the successful businessman Roger Babson who formed the so-called Gravity Research Foundation in 1948. The aim was to study ways to reduce the effects of gravity. From the view of mainstream science the efforts were initially on the cranky side of respectable, but at the same time the Foundation arranged various conferences that were attended by quite "reasonable" people. As time passed, the Foundation turned its attention to trying to understand gravity better rather than controlling it. The main activities stopped when Babson died in 1967, but the organization is still running an annual gravity essay contest. The stated aim remains to figure out antigravity, but most of the submitted "stories" negotiate a safer territory. The prize-winning essays are often entertaining and serious in equal measure. The aim is obviously not fiction, but the essay format (and perhaps the lack of peer review) suggests a looser reign than usual. In recent years the contributions have tended to present quite serious science and you will find top quality scientists (including a Nobel laureate) among the past winners.
         I have mixed feeling about this gradual change. On the one hand, it is a positive sign that the serious side of science conquers the territory of wild speculation. At the same time, one has to be wary of group-think and the risk that everyone starts running in the same direction. Without creative thinking how do we discover the future? We had better not forget that the best ideas often seem just a bit absurd at first. I mean, think about the curved space and wonky time of Einstein's relativity. Weird and wonderful at the same time.
         In that spirit, how about this?
         Anti-gravity yoga!
         At least it would be relaxing.

1 comment:

  1. The reason why the Professor needed anti-gravity paint is explained in a free short story that can be downloaded from