Friday, May 05, 2006

Myths in the making

Or the unmaking, perhaps. It was such a lovely story: a mysterious but very real force of attraction between objects caused by the peculiar tendency of empty space to spawn short-lived quantum particles has a maritime analogue in which ships are attracted because of the suppression of long-wavelength waves between them. That’s what was claimed ten years ago, and it became such a popular component of physics popularization that, when he failed to mention it in his book ‘Zero’ (Viking, 2000; which explored this aspect of the quantum physics of emptiness), Charles Seife was taken to task. But it seems that no such analogy really exists – or at least, that there is no evidence for it. The myth is unpicked here.

This vacuum force is called the Casimir effect, and was identified by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir in 1948 – though, being so weak and operating at such short distances, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was measured directly. It provides fertile hunting ground for speculative and sometimes plain cranky ideas about propulsion systems or energy sources that tap into this energy of the vacuum. (And it certainly seems that there is a lot of energy there – or at least, there ought to be, but something seems to cancel it out almost perfectly, which is why our universe can exist in its present form at all. Here’s a new idea for where all this vacuum energy has gone.)

So how did the false story of a naval analogy start? It was suggested in a paper in the American Journal of Physics by Sipko Boersma. Just as two closely spaced plates suppress the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum at wavelengths longer than the spacing between them, so Boersma proposed that two ships side by side suppress sea waves in a heavy swell. By the same token, Boersma suggests that a ship next to a steep cliff or wall is repelled, because the reflection of the ocean waves at the wall (without a phase shift, as occurs for electromagnetic waves) creates a kind of ‘virtual image’ of the ship within the wall, rolling perfectly out of phase – which reverses the sign of the force.

It sounds persuasive. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for such a force between real ships. The only real evidence that Boersma offered in his paper came from a nineteenth-century French naval manual by P. C. Caussée, where indeed a ‘certain attractive force’ was said to exist between ships moored close together. But Fabrizio Pinto has unearthed the old book, and he finds that the force was in fact said to operate only in perfectly calm (‘plat calme’, or flat calm) seas, not in wavy conditions. The engraving that Boersma showed from this manual was for a different set of circumstances, in a heavy swell (where the recommendation was simply to keep the ships apart so that their rigging doesn’t become entangled as they roll).

Regarding this discrepancy, Boersma says the following: “Caussée is not very exact. His mariners told him about ‘une certaine force attractive’ in calm weather and he made out of it an attraction on a flat sea… The reference to ‘Flat Calm’ is clearly an editing error; Caussée’s Album is not a scientific document. He should have referred his attraction to the drawing 14 ‘Calm with heavy swell’, or better still to the drawing 15 ‘Flat Calm’ but then modified with a long swell running. Having read my 1996 paper, one sees immediately what Caussée should have written.”

I’m not sure I follow this: it seems to mean not that Caussée made an ‘editing error’ but that he simply didn’t understand what he had been told about the circumstances in which the force operates. That might be so, but it requires that we take a lot on trust, and rewrite Caussée’s manual to suit a different conclusion. If Caussée was mistaken about this, should we trust him at all? And there doesn’t seem to be any other strong, independent evidence of such a force between ships.

But perhaps getting to the root of the confusion isn’t the point. The moral, I guess, is that it’s never a good idea to take such stories on trust – always check the source. Fabrizio says that scientists rarely do this; on the contrary, they embrace such stories as a part of the lore of their subject, and then react indignantly when they are challenged. “Because of the lamentable utter lack of philosophical knowledge background that afflicts many graduating students especially in the United States, sometimes these behaviors are closer to the tantrums of children who have learned too early of possible disturbing truths about Santa Claus”, he says. Well, that’s possible. Certainly, we would do well to place less trust in histories of science written by scientists, some of whom do not seem terribly interested in history as such but are more concerned simply to show how people stopped believing silly things and started believing good things (i.e. what we believe today). This Whiggish approach to history was abandoned by historians over half a century ago – strange that it still persists unchallenged among scientists. The ‘Copernican revolution’ is a favourite of physicists (it’s commonly believed that Copernicus got rid of epicycles, for instance), and popular retellings of the Galileo story are absurdly simplistic. (And while we’re at it, can we put an end to the notion that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake because he believed in the heliocentric model? Or would that damage scientists’ martyr complex?) It may not matter so much that a popular idea about the Casimir effect seems after all to be groundless; it might be more important that this episode serves as a wake-up call not to be complacent about history.

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