The past two weeks have been turbulent for mainstream science journalism. On July 28th, NASA released the results of a study testing a new form of rocket motor that purports to use “quantum vacuum plasmas” to produce thrust without propellant, an apparent violation of the law of conservation of momentum. According to the mainstream media, the tests were a resounding success. “NASA: New “impossible” engine works, could change space travel forever” crowed Gizmodo. “Nasa validates ‘impossible’ space drive” screamed Wired. “‘Impossible’ Space Engine May Actually Work, NASA Test Suggests” proclaimed Space.com. For those of us–like me–who spend lots of time surfing the interwebs and love physics, the past two weeks have been an exciting time of thrills and new possibilities. I myself jumped on the bandwagon on Twitter, tweeting “RIP Conservation of Momentum 1670-2014”. In conversations with my friends, I referred to these results to a 21st century Young’s Experiment that could lead to huge new discoveries unlike anything previously predicted. Maybe this was evidence of the multiverse and momentum is conserved across parallel universes (an imaginative idea to say the least). I walked around feeling like a revolution was coming in physics, high off of the thrill of new ideas.
And then on August 1st, the other shoe, the skeptical shoe, the shoe that holds a PhD from Harvard University in Astrophysics and teaches at Caltech, finally made contact with the ground.
After Professor Carroll’s tweet, the opposition has only continued to grow and grow. “Don’t Get Too Excited About NASA’s New Miracle Engine” cautioned io9; “Did NASA Validate an “Impossible” Space Drive? In a Word, No.” rejoined Discover Magazine. Ars Technica warned its readers “Don’t buy stock in impossible space drives just yet”. Once you actually can find a physicist to help you cut through the technobable, you realize this study is like a full-scale replica of the Hoover Dam made of swiss cheese—interesting, but not exactly demonstrating anything just yet.
You see, the first problem is the amount of thrust they generated—50 micronewtons—is fully within the range of error for the trial. It’s about the weight of one grain of sand, and when you spend hours moving a device around a sensor trying to get it to work as the report describes, it’s not shocking to get that much error. Even more concerning, the control thruster which did not have the special “engine” in it produced just as much thrust. That’s a sign that something is wrong with your equipment, not a sign that you’ve violated one of the oldest rues in all of physics. To once again quote Sean Carroll,
The business about “quantum vacuum virtual plasma” (the physics of which they “won’t address” in this paper) is complete bullshit. There is a quantum vacuum, but it’s nothing like a plasma. [The researchers] hook up a gizmo with all sorts of electromagnetic fields fluctuating around, then claim to measure an extremely tiny thrust (about the weight of a single grain of sand), which occurs even for the test article that wasn’t supposed to produce any thrust at all.
On top of these errors, the NASA study wasn’t even a NASA study! It was a conference paper—a form of first draft that is not meant to be at all conclusive—written by a group of NASA scientists, unendorsed by the agency at large. Once you take all this into account, the story becomes so ridiculous that even xkcd, the webcomic of romance,sarcasm, math, and language, skewered it last Wednesday.
Perhaps the lesson we can learn from this whole affair isn’t actually one about physics at all. The lesson I’ve learned is to never trust the pop press about a science story. I’ve been told this so many times by so many people, but they took me for a ride. They punked me.
What’s sad about this whole story is that the mainstream media completely misinterpreting a science story is not at all surprising. Actually, it happens fairly frequently. Remember the “faster than light” neutrinos from a few years back? If not, here’s a quick rundown. In 2011, the OPERA experiment, which shoots neutrinos from Switzerland to Italy (God I love physics) measured several neutrinos arriving in Italy in such a short time that they would have violated the speed of light to do it. The media was rampant with speculation that maybe our most basic assumptions about the universe were totally false. Several cable news networks that I will not name (FOX News) claimed that this proved Einstein’s theory of special relativity was wrong, willfully ignoring the fact that GPS devices account for special relativity in their calculations, calculations which get millions of people around every day. Despite the willingness of the media to discount 100 years of modern physics, many in the science community were skeptical to say the least. At risk of seeming like a total Randall Munroe groupie (which I actually am), I will once again drop in an xkcd comic.
The end result? Cueball made his $200. It turned out that there was a loose wire that threw off OPERA’s clock by 60 nanoseconds—that’s 60 billionths of a second, less than one TEN MILLIONTH the blink of an eye. (Where else would an error of 60 nanoseconds cause so much chaos? God I love physics!) Other examples of the news moving too fast include the arsenic-eating bacteria fiasco, the Earth-clone that doesn’t actually exist, and the fascinating ongoing saga of NPR and the lionfish.
The fact is the way the mainstream media covers science stories is fundamentally flawed, and the cause of this flaw is my beloved internet. In a digital world, the news cycle is a 24 hour game. No longer bound to the physical newspaper and liberated from delivery schedules, articles are written and published all day. Further, with fewer and fewer pay subscribers and more and more money coming from ad revenue, news organizations are under greater and greater pressure to generate “click bait”, “news” stories that, while often devoid of content or real journalism, get people to click through to read, refreshing the news source with much-needed advertising revenue. Now, I’m all for trying to find a way to monetize the newspaper industry in the 21st century. My family reads gets the Washington Post delivered every morning and I enjoy reading it. I think that the news media fulfills a hugely important role in society. But the issue with the click bait business model, which is growing fast due to the success of websites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy, is that the model doesn’t work for science journalism. The lifeblood of click bait is speed—you need to always write the story first and crank out tons of stories. Science, however, cannot exist at that speed. Science is slow. Discoveries take months to years of retrials and peer review, and one experiment means very little until it is replicated. Science cannot be Upworthified because it isn’t broken into little bite-sized pieces. No experiment can ever stand alone, and no story is complete without experts from the field. The fact is, anomalies happen and it often takes months to sort out the wheat from the chaff.
About a year ago, the NPR show On The Media created a “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook”, outlining how to cut through the noise that follows a major news event. I’d like to present my Breaking Science News Consumer’s Handbook, which you can view here. In the words of my physics teacher Mr. Jacobs, “Learning to be skeptical about mass media is just as valuable as learning something new about quantum physics.” So stay skeptical my friends, and keep wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.